I wasn’t quite sure I was fully over Thingyan and yet last weekend I found myself in the throes of another festival – the next on Myanmar’s extensive calendar of festivals. The official name for it is the Kasone Full moon festival, and it is a celebration of Buddha’s birthday, enlightenment and entering into Nirvana. Each year it takes place on the first full moon of May, (or maybe the first full moon after Thingyan – I’m not entirely sure). This year the moon was full on Saturday, and so that was when things kicked off.
My first experience of the day was a special breakfast at Ko Myo’s family home. I arrived there around 8am to find one of their small round tables set out with two bowls of different noodles, a large bowl of a brownish bean soup, a dish of chopped onions, one of halved lemons, and one of deep-fried titbits. Apparently I was one of the last to attend this open invitation to breakfast, with hundreds going before me. Nobody knows exactly how many, but there were four of these tables set up, each being able to fit about six or seven small people around it at a time, and (as is the custom here) people sit down, eat, then leave when they’ve had their fill, only to be replaced by someone else. Dining started around 5am so I’d say they fed a few! Oh, and it was super tasty.
After this some of my class joined Lae Lae and I and we headed down the road to the home of another student, Oakar. He had invited us to his “donation”. Oakar was becoming a monk for a few days and this required a special ceremony. My part in the event began with a visit to somebody’s house where already there was a gathering of close to 60 people sitting on the floor, drinking green tea and snacking on tea leaf salad and a coconut jelly-like snack. I was undeservedly led to the front of the room to sit with the grandparents and other respected guests.
A little while later, the women headed out to the road where we all lined up to await the monks. A small procession of the eleven aspiring monks set out from the monastery to the house where we had just been sitting, which also turned out to be the location of the vows/prayers. They were already wearing the crimson gowns of a Burmese monk (worn to restrain the monks arms as they believe there are many spirits around us in everyday life and we hit them as we walk about flailing our arms in our sweaters and t-shirts), they had freshly shaven heads and were each accompanied by another male carrying a goody bag. As they passed by the women, we each put our donation in the goody bag. I gave soap for them to use for the week, others gave washing powder, candles, incense, soft drinks, snacks, toothbrushes etc. The monks, along with the head of the monastery, entered the house and proceeded to pray for quite a while with many family members and supports praying alongside them. Apparently you can become a monk on any day, but the full moon day is a particularly good day to do so, so it’s kind of related to the festival. We waited outside for a while and then went across the road to the primary school where another giant feast was set out … rice, pork, chicken, mango salad, soup. After a quick photoshoot with the new monks we headed off.
10am and I’ve already had two full meals. Good-o.
After a bit of a wander and a rest at home, we headed back out. This time to a great tea shop down by the river. On arrival we headed down a path to a very large, sacred banyan tree where a small group of musicians and dancers were performing. The costume and style of dance were … interesting. As usual, I was a spectacle and had to join in the music group with some giant bamboo clappers. We were fed some of the festive white balls made from sticky rice, with a lump of palm sugar inside and grated coconut over the top, accompanied by a glass of wine(!) Well, very sweet “wine cooler”.
After this several groups of children and women, some of whom were staying at a monastery for meditation (I think) also joined the crowds around the banyan tree, but not before getting soaked by people with containers of water – they call this an “unofficial water festival”. A monk leader then prayed and chanted under the banyan tree while everyone joined in. I’m not sure what was being said, except a lot of it was about sharing what you have and then you’ll receive in return. Nice. After the monk had finished everybody lined up to throw water on the side of the tree that represented their birth day (Wednesday for me). Traditionally people threw scented water but most people just seemed to get some out of a big barrel of river water.
Then I finally got to go for a swim in the water. We all did, even my students who never go swimming because “the water makes their skin go darker”. It was lovely, even though the water was the temperature of a bath.
On the walk home we arrived at an unexpected traffic jam just before the bridge. I was told that five hundred monks were walking around the town collecting food (alms) from various houses. Normally this happens in the morning as monks are not allowed to eat after 12pm.
The next part of this festival happened over the following five nights. A large statue of Buddha had been removed from a monastery and put in the centre of town. Every night this statue was put on the back of a truck and taken from house to house (accompanied by VERY loud music) until every house in town had been visited. Proceedings for this started in the evening and went all night long. Who needs sleep?
And that’s about all I know and observed of the Full Moon festival.