Myanmar’s year is divided into three distinct periods: cool from November to February; hot from March to May; and wet from late May to October. Many festivals mark the transition from one to another, coinciding with phases in the rice-growing calendar. Fields are plowed at the height of the hot season, and paddy planted in the floods after the onset of the annual monsoons. The cool period, beginning in November when the harvest is finished, is the main tourist season and is also when the majority of temple festivals are held. Whether Buddhist or based around the indigenous traditions of nat (nature spirit) worship, they are nearly all determined by the lunar calendar. Marking the start of the Buddhist New Year in April, the most widely celebrated is the water festival of Thingyan, for which the country grinds to a standstill for a week or more.
Although the period from November to February has the coolest weather compared to the rest of the year, average highs in the central river valleys and coastal areas of the country still hover around 30° C (86° F). With the end of the rains, the skies are reliably blue and at their clearest. This is also the best season for visiting the beaches, where the water is a radiant turquoise under cloud- less skies. Up in the mountains around Inle Lake, though, trav- elers can expect chilly nights.
Balloon Festival (Nov), Taunggyi. Thousands gather on the outskirts of town to watch huge paper balloons – extravagantly decorated and filled with fireworks – being lit and released. Great cheers accompany the ensuing explo- sions, and prizes are given to the most impressive creations. Shwezigon Festival (Oct/Nov), Bagan. Candles and fireworks are carried in procession around the famous pagoda on the 14th waxing day of the moon. Alms are offered to Buddhist monks on the full moon, and a fairground springs up with colorful market stalls. Shwesandaw Festival (Nov), Pyay. On the full moon day of Tazaungmon month, pilgrims attend the town’s large pagoda festival, when a venerated tooth relic is shown to the public.
Akha New Year (late Dec), Kengtung. The Akha have two New Year celebrations – the Men’s New Year (December) and the Swing Festival or Women’s New Year (August). Offerings are made to ancestor spirits, women wear traditional dress and ornaments, and Akha songs and dances are performed.
Manau (early Jan), Myitkyina. Recalling a preChristian past, the year’s main Kachin festival sees thousands don traditional dress and celebrate beneath manautaing (decorated poles). Naga New Year (mid-Jan), Leshi. Nagas gather in Leshi village dressed in traditional finery to celebrate the Naga New Year. Ananda Temple Festival (Jan), Bagan. In the Buddhist month of Pyatho, pilgrims travel for days to camp around the temple for its annual festival. Monks conduct a threeday nonstop recitation of the scrip- tures, and on the morning of the full moon, they are offered bowls of flowers, fruit, incense, and money by laypeople.
Daytime temperatures build from February onward and by the end of March they regularly exceed 40° C (104° F) in Bagan and Mandalay. By midMay, humidity levels also rise and outdoor activity can be uncom- fortable until the south west monsoon brings relief in May– June. Exploring archeolo gical sites, such as Bagan and Mrauk U, where shade is in very short supply, can be challenging at this time, when the hottest part of the day is best spent indoors.
Shin Pyu Ceremonies, nationwide. Throughout the Buddhist months of Tabodwe and Tabaung, families take their sons, dressed as princes, in col- orful shinlaung hlè pwe proces- sions to local monasteries to begin their shin pyu, when they will live and study with monks for a few weeks or longer. Shwe Myintzu Pagoda Festival (Feb/Mar), Indawgyi Lake. Pilgrims travel to this remote shrine in the middle of the lake, reaching the temple by walking across a narrow causeway that mysteriously appears at this time each year. Festival of 9,000 Lamps (Mar), Kyaiktiyo. The Golden Rock Pagoda hosts its annual festival in March, when thousands of candles are lit around the hilltop shrine in thanksgiving for the teachings of the Buddha. Kakku Pagoda Festival (Mar), Kakku. Performances of tradi- tional PaO song and dance are held along side a large fair to celebrate this Buddhist site’s festival. Candles are lit below the stupas on the final day – one of Shan State’s great sights. Pindaya Pagoda Festival (Mar), Pindaya. Minority people from the surrounding hills flock to 90 80 70 60 50 40 30 Jan Mar Feb Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec 30 25 20 15 10 5 0 Temperature Chart The ideal time to visit is between November and February, when tempera- tures rarely rise above 32° C (89.6° F). From March, temperatures of 40° C (104° F) and up are the norm for the central valleys, with Yangon only a few degrees below that. The Shan Plateau is the coolest region. Average monthly temperature °C °F the cave temple to worship, cooking and camping inside circles of ox carts – one of the region’s most fascinating sights. Shwedagon Pagoda Festival (Mar), Yangon. Flowers, incense, and water are offered to hun- dreds of Buddha statues on the pagoda’s terrace, and candles are lit around the zedi’s base. Shwemawdaw Pagoda Festival (Mar/Apr), Bago. Performances of tradi tional Mon theater form the centerpiece of Bago’s main pagoda festival.
Thingyan (mid-Apr), nationwide. A carnival atmosphere prevails for a week at the height of the hot season, when crowds of youngsters douse each other with water at specially erected pandals, or pavilions. In liber- ated Yangon, scanty dress has become the norm.
Myanmar New Year (mid-Apr), nationwide. At the end of Thingyan, Buddhists perform meritorious deeds such as feeding monks, releasing birds from cages, and paying homage to their elders.
Sittaung Temple Festival (Apr/ May), Mrauk U. The ruined city is the venue for a major temple festival involving canalboat races and wrestling contests. Kason (Apr/May), nationwide. The Buddha’s birthday is marked by the carrying of scented water pots, chanting of Pali scripts, and pouring of water at the foot of bodhi trees, symbolizing the Great Teacher’s enlightenment and attainment of nirvana.
Pa-O Rocket Festival (May), Taunggyi. Locally made rockets stuffed with gunpowder are launched, an event originally staged to pre dict the weather before the coming monsoon. Wat Jong Kham Festival (late May), Kengtung. Youngsters from the region’s ethnic minor- ities hurl roasted lablab beans at each other as love tokens. Popa Nat Pwe (May/Jun), Popa Taung Kalat. Pilgrims pay their respects at Popa’s nat shrines by climbing the 777 steps to the summit of the famous hilltop near Bagan. Strikingly dressed transvestite oracles perform ribald spirit possession dances.
Kaba Aye Recitation (mid-Jun), Yangon. Thousands of monks gather at Kaba Aye Pagoda to intone verses from the Nikaya scriptures, part of the Tipitaka canon; similar events are staged throughout the country. Pakokku Thiho Shin Pagoda Festival (mid-Jun), Pakokku. This is an important religious event and country fair for residents of the Ayeyarwady’s west bank, where the country’s best thanaka trees are grown.
The incidence of showers increases through May, but by June it is time to prepare for the huge monsoon storms that sweep into the country from the south west. Beach resorts close and travel through- out Myanmar can be difficult from July through September. October sees a second, shorter inten sification of rainfall with the northwest monsoon. At times of heavy downpours, roads are frequently blocked by flooding, and by landslides in the hills; flights are also often diverted, causing long delays.
Dhammasetkya (mid-Jul), nationwide. Coinciding with the onset of the heaviest monsoons, the three-month period of Buddhist Lent starts with the full moon of Waso. Laypeople travel to local monasteries to offer new robes, alms, and other essentials to monks.
Waso Chinlone Festival (Jul/ Aug), Mandalay. Myanmar’s most accomplished chinlone players come to the Mahamuni Temple for the country’s top tournament. More than 1,000 teams take part, as traditional hsaing waing orches tras provide musical accompaniment.
Brother Lords Festival (Jul/Aug), Taungbyon, near Mandalay. In the most raunchy and lively of Myanmar’s numer ous nat festivals, two gilded wooden deities are processed around the village, watched by over 10,000 worshippers. Hsaing music, gambling, sing ing, and drunken spirit posses sion rituals by transvestite oracles are also among the day’s events. September Manuha Temple Festival (mid– late Sep), Myinkaba, Bagan. Larger than life papier-mâché figures of heroes, celestial creatures, and nats (nature spirits) are paraded around the village shrine. Dances and plays are staged through the night. Golden Bird Festival (Sep/Oct), Inle Lake. Enshrined inside huge hamsa bird boats, four of the Phaung Daw U Pagoda’s five Buddha statues are cere mo ni- ally paddled around the lake by leg rowers. Fairs and boat races are also held during the event.
Thadingyut Festival of Lights (Sep/Oct), nationwide. The Buddha’s return from heaven to Earth at the end of the Buddhist Lent is celebrated by all man ner of colorful illuminations, with homes brightly lit by candles and lanterns.
Dancing Elephants Festival (mid-Oct), Kyaukse, near Mandalay. Life-sized elephants made of colorful cloth and bamboo, and animated by pairs of men inside, compete in dance competitions. Tazaungdaing Weaving Festival (late Oct/early Nov), nationwide. Under the full moon, unmarried women work all night to weave new robes on traditional looms. These are presented to the local temple early the next morning.