The first heads up we got of just how important the New Year’s first new moon to full moon cycle is actually came from our super-capable hotel manager in Bagan who was delivered a special sweet rice dish from which he offered us tastes. It was ritual food that had something to do with the lunar calendar and his Bamar ethnic traditions, but he felt unable to explain more, though his English was in no way lacking.
A few days later, that same sweetened rice dish was on the pharmacist’s counter in Nyaungshwe where we had stopped to buy American style sunscreen. She too offered us tastes and smiles, but little explanation.
Perhaps it is an experience not unlike a Tibetan or Burmese would have arriving in the US on Thanksgiving and seeing everyone eating turkey. For Americans every bite of that most classically American meal is steeped in Pilgrim lore. Would those foreigners be able to see anything deeper than the Americans’ idiosyncratic love of eating a distinct tasting bird?
It was our non-boat day in Nyaungshwe, and we decided to devote it to bicycle explorations of the countryside and a scenic ride in between rice paddies that the guidebook had recommended.
That the hand drawn maps were not to scale turned out to be a boon
The best wrong turns put us quickly into a hamlet where we could soak up the scenes of everyday life—schoolyard games, houses by the river with their little boats, and the precarious bridges that connected neighbors and the dirt paths that were the hamlet’s streets.
Here too there were signs of a special day, as families streamed by that were carrying what looked like the makings of fancy offerings at the local temple.
Back on course our scenic bike path under a canopy of trading trees with views of lovely farms poking through the branches had a huge annoyance factor that, surprisingly, the guidebooks had failed to mention.
So many trucks and so many motorbikes! Cars swerving and at times making us jump off the bikes to keep balance in a sometimes 3-inch wide berm, made it a most unpleasant ride. It was so unpleasant in fact, that we thought of turning back.
It was only when we got to the hill for the waterfalls climb that we understood there was something important going on. In every direction—on the steps, on the road, at the summit temple landing, down another hill, near the waterfall-fed mineral baths, in makeshift restaurants that had a pop-up feel, everywhere!--- we saw hundreds of people coming and going in what was apparently a main festival of the year.
People watching couldn’t get any better. The colorful sarongs that Burmese women wear made each vista explode into rainbows. Families seemed to be streaming in – perhaps from great distances—on truck taxis and motorbike parades.
Of greatest interest to us were the groups of teens, perhaps in courtship mode, and how they differed from their peers in the West. This is not an over-sexed culture. We hear that young people tend to marry the first person they date and that divorce is relatively rare. Demure and seeming to always be speaking softly to each other, groups of girls wearing their traditional ethnic costumes and headdresses were particularly colorful. So too were the teen boys, many of whom sport orange-red hair and generally speaking seem to spend a lot of time cultivating Burmese-trendy hairstyling. While many of the girls seemed to have quickly thrown together looks, the boys seemed to have logged a lot of mirror time to create their hipness and cool. The physical closeness of the male teens to each other stands out, making you wonder if this culture that also has such a strong “lady-boy” contingent somehow doesn’t have the homophobia hang-ups of American culture. Interact with these Burmese teens up close –smiling as you both move at once for restaurant seats or when you rest together in the shade-- and the biggest difference jumps out at you. Their style may be very peer-focused and reaching for “hip”, just as it is in the West, but their deference and respect of elders would be a lovely export.
Odd that in the tourist enclave of Nyaungshwe there was no mention of this nearby First Full Moon festival drawing thousands to attend.
Tip to the Myanmar tourist--- Mark you LUNAR calendar to chart your journey first.