Amidst the backdrop of picturesque Inle Lake in Myanmar, the faithful and devotees come together to celebrate the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda festival, marking the return of one of the nation’s grandest and most cherished traditions. This festival, spanning seventeen days, features four sacred Buddha images that embark on a journey of spirituality and devotion aboard a magnificent golden barge, rowed with grace and reverence through the villages that grace the lake’s tranquil shores.
After a painful hiatus imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the tumultuous events following Myanmar’s 2021 coup, the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda festival rekindles the spirits of the local population, eager to reconnect with their deep-rooted traditions. This celebration isn’t just an opportunity for worship; it’s a means of accumulating merit and goodwill.
As the golden barge gracefully glides through the glistening waters of Inle Lake, it is accompanied by sleek wooden longboats manned by skilled oarsmen who employ a unique local rowing technique – wrapping a leg around the oar to gain greater push and precision. The devotion and reverence are palpable in the sounds of drums and cymbals that resonate across the water as dozens of boats, filled with worshippers, follow in procession.
While the festival inspires joy and spiritual renewal, there’s also a somber undercurrent of concern for those suffering in other parts of Myanmar due to ongoing conflict. Devotees on Inle Lake express their empathy and sadness for those affected, with the weight of their country’s turmoil never far from their hearts. The festival provides a rare opportunity for them to extend their prayers and support to those less fortunate, amidst an air of uncertainty over what the future may hold.
The festival has been absent from the lives of the local population for three long years, a consequence of both the pandemic and the turmoil in their country. As they draw alongside the golden barge, adorned with colorful Buddhist flags, worshippers offer their prayers to the four sacred images contained within. A fifth Buddha image, however, remains nestled within the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, a legacy of a tragic accident that saw it sink into the lake decades ago.
For the people of Inle Lake, the return of the festival represents a glimmer of hope and normalcy amidst the challenges they’ve faced. The allure of Myanmar, once a popular destination for foreign travelers, lost some of its luster in the aftermath of the 2021 coup, which adversely affected the country’s economy and tourism industry. Many areas, once bustling with tourists, now remain devoid of visitors, leaving local businesses and communities grappling with the impact.
Yet, despite the economic hardships and challenges that have befallen Myanmar, the people of Inle Lake celebrate the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda festival with unwavering devotion and a commitment to spreading goodwill and prayers for their fellow countrymen who continue to endure suffering. As the golden barge symbolically journeys through the calm waters, the people of Inle Lake express their yearning for a return to happiness and peace across the nation.
The return of this cherished festival is a testament to Myanmar’s resilience and its enduring commitment to preserving its rich cultural and spiritual heritage, even in the face of adversity. For the people of Inle Lake, this celebration is not just a religious event; it’s a reaffirmation of their identity and a collective prayer for better days ahead.