While still teaching at Zwekabin Myay school we, the students and teachers, were invited to attend the Kyondoe Fire Festival. Kyondoe is a village that is about 65 kilometers from the school and is the hometown of the alumni that invited us. We departed late on a Thursday afternoon, picked up in someone’s car (it was the first time Michelle and I had ridden in a car in months!). There were 8 of us plus the driver; Michelle and I were sharing the front passenger seat (as we often did in grand taxis in Morocco), there were two western teachers and an alumni in the back seat, and three students in the back of the hatchback.
The 65 kilometers took us 1.5 hours driving and we arrived after sunset. We (the foreigners) had expected the festival to be pretty small, but what we saw was bigger than we imagined. There were lights spread out across a large fairground area with shops for clothes, food, produce, plastic goods. There was a stage with groups from different ethnic groups dancing (and a drone flying overhead, surprisingly enough!). There were rides, there was a gambling area (not surprisingly located in a darker section towards the back) and then there was the pile that would be turned into a bonfire at the closing ceremony.
From what we were able to understand, this festival is a Buddhist celebration where desires and good wishes are thrown onto the bonfire pile. When the pile is burned at the end of the festival these things will come true (or are more likely to come true?). We think; it was hard to get a good explanation. The bonfire pile was surrounded by small stands for placing burning incense and candles as offerings, and this whole area was next to the monastery.
Since the village is quite small, there were not really any accommodations and many people were sleeping at the monastery that night. They brought mats or blankets, laid them down on the ground, and went to sleep. As for us foreigners, we were offered a place to stay at the home of a student’s family. This, however, would not be legal in Myanmar. As the laws stand right now, tourists may only stay in an officially licensed hotel, guesthouse, or accommodation. We would have loved to take the student and her family up on their hospitality, but doing so could potentially get them in legal trouble. We do not know the likelihood of such a thing, but did not want to risk it. So we had to ask to be driven back to the school at the end of the night, about 11:30 pm.
The 4 of us westerners (2 Americans, 1 Swiss, 1 Portuguese) were definitely the only foreigners at this festival and received a lot of attention for it. Our students were fascinated that everyone else was fascinated by us; to them we’re just part of their everyday lives. They really thought it was amazing when people started lining up to take pictures with us (I can’t reiterate enough how often this occurred in Myanmar!).
We walked around to see all of the sights and sat for a while to watch the dancing, some of which was quite spectacular, though we did not know what was going on or what the significance was.
The whole night was a lot of fun; it was a great chance to spend some time with our students outside of class and to get to know Myanmar a little better!