Myanmar spirit festival offers rare space for gay community

Waving their floral offerings in the air, devotees danced through a temple yesterday to celebrate Myanmar’s biggest spirit festival which has also become a rare host for the country’s marginalised gay community.

The six-day spirit or “nat” celebration in Taungbyone village, around 20 kilometres from the central city of Mandalay, draws thousands of revellers each year in search of karmic reward as well as all-night parties.

A belief in the power of spirits has long co-existed with religion in Buddhist-majority Myanmar with their influence thought to stretch over everything from business deals to car engines.

“I have to sell flowers here because it is a tradition I inherited from my ancestors. Something bad happens if I do not come here,” said make-up artist Nyi Nyi, 29, from Mandalay, who puts his job on hold each year to sell flowers during the festivities.

Like the thousands of others who annually throng the narrow network of alleys and market stalls in Taungbyone, he is here to appease the spirits of two brothers who are worshipped in the small village.

But he is also drawn to the festival as a gay man in conservative Myanmar where the vibrant festival has become a mecca for the minority community.

Gay people in the former junta-run nation still routinely suffer discrimination despite sweeping modernisation in recent years that has started to create more openness.

“I have been discriminated against at hospital and the police station. The hospital keeps us in (a) separate place because they think gay people are diseased. Police arrest us if we go out on the street after 8 pm,” Nyi Nyi told AFP.

Changing attitudes towards homosexuality

At Taungbyone, however, there is a warm welcome and many of the most well-regarded mediums are gay or transvestite, providing advice and a direct line to the spirits by day and spending evenings dancing in elaborate costumes as part of the celebrations.

Spirit medium Noe Noe’s flower-filled pop-up shrine behind the main temple was a hive of activity as a steady stream of devotees sought his blessing.

“I am still going strong. I am 66-years-old, but I danced the whole night yesterday and I am going to dance tonight as well,” he said, throwing his arms out to indicate his prowess.

Ancient cultures in Myanmar worshipped a multitude of spirits, but the belief system was streamlined in the 11th century by King Anawrahta, who decreed Buddhism the national religion.

At the teaming train station in Taungbyone, housewife San Win explained the profusion of sparkling plastic gold-colored medallions strung around her neck.

“We believe that the spirits will make these real, so I will give them to my family and friends,” said the 50-year-old, who has visited the festival every year since she was 16.

Same-sex relations are criminalised under Myanmar’s colonial-era penal code, and although the law is not strictly enforced, activists say it is still used by authorities to discriminate and extort.

But taboos around homosexuality have begun to be relaxed after a quasi-civilian government replaced military rule in 2011.

Myanmar held its first gay pride celebrations in May 2012 and last year in March a couple braved conservative mores to hold what they said was the country’s first public gay wedding ceremony in Yangon.

Text / AFP

Photo / Watsamon Tri-yasakda

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