We slowed down as we passed a group of people collecting on the streets, shaking large silver bowls at us, rattling whatever was in it already. Were they collecting alms? Sitting astride a motorcycle, I leaned forward to ask my driver and thought better of it. No, they were not monks.
People danced as they shook their bowls. Speakers were set up by the roadside – some groups seemed to be attached to specific stalls or stands. Mainly they seemed more concerned with enjoying themselves than with collecting cash; there were miles of people just enjoying the festival feeling – for that’s what it was, a huge, annual, Buddhist festival.
As we drew closer to the festival, though, people really started collecting money. Cars slowed to give money, or simply threw bills out of open windows. Cash fluttered to the ground behind moving vehicles and someone would scramble to pick the money up.
Only a few times did I see any kind of tussle; mostly between kids, but once between two grown women. They both dove for it and crashed mid-air. It was film-like; the kind of movement you’d see in a testosterone-filled sports movie. But it was not comical. The festival spirit was not the only reason so many people were out collecting money. People wrestled. Kids ran out in front of moving traffic for it.
I saw a woman sitting in the centre of the road, between two lanes of traffic, breastfeeding her baby. A man passed on a motorbike clutching a boombox between his knees as it blared music. He drove hands-free, whizzing along the little road to Taungbyone through the rice fields.
As we got closer still, I saw more beggars. Dirty, sleeping children and very elderly women tending to small babies by the roadside. I guessed that knowing the sheer number of festival attendees in a generous spirit (or should I say extra generous? The Burmese are the most generous people I have ever met) would draw people from all over.
That ‘sheer number’ was far greater than I had anticipated. I struggled through crush after crush to get to the centres of the two stupas I’d been advised to see. It took me two attempts to have my little bunch of flowers blessed (touched to the statue of Buddha) before I could follow suit and join the festivities.
I first learned about Nat Pwe in Mandalay airport. A fellow traveller disclosed that it was due to start the day after we’d both flown in. Lonely Planet was vague about a specific start date for this annual late-August spirit festival. I gradually learned that it spreads out over several weeks moving from one of several main locations (near Mandalay) to the next, and finally ending at Mount Popa near Bagan. Without entirely meaning to, I attended Nat Pwe (literally spirit festival) in three different locations. Taungbyone is the biggest, most famous and, thereby, most popular among tourists.