Asia Myanmar Southeast Asia

Quarter Festivals in Bagan, Myanmar – By Lydian Shipp

This month I’m constantly reminded of county fair season and the yearly parades that I grew up with in western Nebraska. Of course, there’s the Thadingyut candle festival that takes place during the full moon in October, but in every village across New Bagan, Old Bagan, and Nyaung-U (and beyond), each neighborhood quarter holds its own private Quarter Festival to celebrate this month in its own unique way. There are floats, animal figures parading around, and more than enough loud music for the year. 

Our neighborhood festival took place at the end of last week, and it was loud. And 4 days long. I got to see a tiny bit of the festivities in Ngwe Thaung (Naing Naing’s childhood village) and in a village outside of Old Bagan, too. From what I can tell, one of the defining features of the Quarter Festivals is the loud music and dancing that prevails throughout. Yesterday in Old Bagan, Naing Naing and I walked by a trailer truck piled high with booming speakers, (ridden by a group of young men dressed in drag who were putting on a dance performance), and I honestly thought that either my eardrums were going to pop or the thumping bass was going to knock me down. It was like going to a club or a concert (or perhaps both at the same time). 

Meanwhile, groups of older women in floral print longyis and teenage boys in baggy pants and graphic tees stood by watching the spectacle with stoic faces and crossed arms. Occasionally, I’d catch sight of a toddler dancing to the pop music coming from one of the floats, and his or her caretaker would smile and laugh and encourage the dancing. Young novice monks would run by giggling during their game of tag, their red robes flying out behind them, and I’d hear chanting coming from the adjacent temples during the moments in between each intensely loud festival song. 

From our home back in New Bagan, off in some nearby monastery in a different neighborhood, I hear Pali verses recited at every hour of every day as a part of the ongoing celebrations of this month. Last night as Naing Naing and I were walking home, I heard a bell ring out once from the monastery, and the chanting continued uninterrupted. Naing Naing told me that the bell indicated that the monks were changing who was chanting; the monks take turns reciting verses continuously for days on end during the temple celebrations. Each month (or perhaps even more frequently) a different famous temple in the Bagan area has its own temple celebration, complete with carnival rides, shops selling everything from spicy chillies and mohinga to underwear and fake toy guns, and of course, religious chanting played through large speakers all around the temple in question. 

The juxtaposition of new and old, modern and traditional, conservative and liberal absolutely baffles me every day I’m here. Sometimes I catch myself adopting the Burmese habit of shameless staring as I try to piece it all together. How could monks walk by collecting alms while a teenage girl wearing leggings passionately sings a rock ballad from on top of a trailer truck? Or why does the man living in the tiny thatched bamboo hut who drinks well water and sleeps on the ground have a smartphone and a motorcycle?

Last night we went to dinner, and before we went to eat, Naing Naing decided to take part in a soccer game taking place nearby. I sat on a platform nearby and watched. It was sunset, and I was caught up in watching the puffs of sand arise from the ground as the group of boys ran barefoot through the sandy patch of ground, kicking the ball back and forth toward one makeshift goal or the other. Some of them had elected to wear shorts, while others (like Naing Naing) simply tied up their longyis in a short-like style. They played barefoot, running off into the trash-littered grass at random intervals to gather up the ball-gone-astray. 

When we went to The Moon (1) for dinner, Naing Naing went over to a nearby pot filled with water to wash his feet. He worked at this particular restaurant for 4 years before moving to The Moon (2), and I still find it hard to believe that he slept on the tables of this basically open-air restaurant and played soccer in the sand outside. And to think that all the boys (or almost all of them) curl up on the tables nightly to sleep, without the luxury of private space or even just a simple door to the building, let alone something like a bed or even a soft mat. 

I’m not sure exactly when the crossover point was where I was “not okay” with being in a third world country for long periods of time, to where I was “okay”. I think it was probably a process though, and I assume it started when we moved to Mexico in 2017. I remember how travelling to places like Nepal and Cambodia felt before moving to Mexico, and although I rate Myanmar as generally more civilized and clean than those two countries, I’m also aware that it’s… really very similar. There are piles of trash, people riding around on motorbikes, weaving in and around lines of traffic (I’m one of the people on the motorbikes now), and there are more than enough stray dogs to go around. But… here I am, walking around in flip flops and a skirt, somehow okay with the chaos. 

And I wonder if part of the reason why I feel “okay” here in Myanmar has to do with the strange (yet comforting) blend of old and new. 

While many countries in Asia (and the world) have a culture of female oppression and an imbalance between the genders, Myanmar has a unique situation that’s reassuring. The duties are equally (and logically, in my opinion) divided between men and women, couples marry out of love and single people are allowed to find their own mates, and both baby boys and baby girls are welcomed into families. The women are allowed to take some charge and lay down the law, and in fact, it’s expected. The men are supposed to be a part of the family still, though, and I regularly see fathers out and about here happily playing with their children. The women still wear dresses though, and it’s “scandalous” to show off your shoulders. But yet… what I used to call “modern” ideologies seep into this extremely traditional and nearly untouched culture. 

So while I’m steeped in the unfamiliar and the foreign all the time, I also have some familiar and comforting things to rely on when I feel the pangs of culture shock. I’m glad to be living in a place that has a culture with beliefs and ideals that resemble my own, and I feel lucky that I get to live somewhere beautiful that reminds me of home (in the weirdest of ways). So few people get the opportunity to live somewhere that they really love, and I’m happy that I have not one, but two places in the world where I’m totally content. So even though the booming music and the staring and the practice of modesty gets on my nerves, at the end of the day I’m happy to be here. And I’m grateful I get to experience this culture now while it’s still rich and strong, relatively untouched by the rest of the modern world. 

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