11 July 2024

Nyaungshwe, Myanmar – Thousands of Buddhists took to boats on Myanmar’s famed Inle Lake on Thursday to celebrate the return of one of the nation’s biggest festivals, but the devotees’ joy was laced with the sorrow of war.

The seventeen-day Phaung Daw Oo pagoda festival sees four sacred Buddha images placed on a golden barge and rowed through villages that dot the shores of the tourist hotspot in eastern Shan state.

The coronavirus pandemic and then the military’s 2021 coup cancelled the three previous editions of the festival, denying locals the chance to worship the images and gain merit.

This photo taken on October 17 shows a monk and devotees walking in the temple of four sacred Buddha images during the festival of Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda in Inle Lake, Myanmar’s Shan State.//AFP

On Thursday morning, the golden barge zipped through the cool water, towed by sleek wooden longboats crewed by men rowing in the local fashion — a leg wrapped around their oar to gain more push.

Dozens of boats filled with worshippers followed as the sun rose, the sounds of drums and cymbals accompanying the flotilla.

“We are enjoying here but on the other side (outside of Inle Lake) the situation is not good,” student Phuu Pyae Thwe told AFP on the water.

“We feel sad because of their situation… We are also worrying what could happen on the way,” the student added, such as possible armed clashes.

“We want to apologise to you all. We haven’t held [the festival] for three years already. We are sorry about the fighting in other places.”

As they drew alongside the golden barge decked out with Buddhist flags, devotees prayed to the four images inside.

A fifth Buddha image remains in the Phaung Daw Oo pagoda during the festivities — the legacy of an accident several decades ago when it was dropped into the lake from the boat carrying it.

Devotees prepare to follow the four sacred Buddha images placed on a golden barge during the festival of Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda in Inle Lake, Myanmar’s Shan State, on October 19.//AFP

– Tourist no-go –

Foreign travellers flocked to Inle’s waters and brooding hills after the then-junta transitioned to semi-civilian rule in 2011 and opened up the Southeast Asian nation.

But arrivals have dried up since the 2021 coup, which has battered the economy and put many areas of the country off-limits.

One worker in the nearby town of Nyaungshwe told AFP his hotel had shed 80 percent of its staff.

“Many hotels are closed because there are no local or foreign guests,” they said, asking for anonymity.

Shan state has been spared the worst of the military’s crackdown that a local monitoring group says has killed more than 4,100 people and seen tens of thousands arrested.

But in March around 30 people sheltering from fighting at a monastery just hours from Inle were killed, with the junta and anti-coup fighters trading blame over the massacre.

The military says more than 6,000 people have been killed by anti-coup fighters.

“We’ve been preparing since we heard the festival was going to happen,” Than Nyunt, 75, told AFP. “We are also doing good deeds for those people in Myanmar who are suffering as well. We are praying for them. We are wishing for them to be happy and peaceful again quickly like here.”

On the shore, Htway Yi said she was “very happy” for the festival’s return. “We were sad as we hadn’t seen (the Buddha statues) for three years,” she told AFP. “We are happy now… I want the lake to be crowded like before.”

Agence France-Presse