The most crowed Nat (spirit) festival in Myanmar. People all over the country come and worship the Nat. the festival of Taung Byone in a very peculiar and particular festival that although Myanmar Buddhists are not actually spirits worshippers, thousands of country folks and townspeople alike flock to this yearly festival of "Nats" near Mandalay to participate in its joyous, light-hearted merrymaking. The small Taung Byone Hill and surrounding areas had been "awarded" to the "Nats" as a special province of their own by Myanmar Kings since the Bagan Dynasty in the 11th century. Once a year, festivals are held to honor these "Nats" – Taung Byone Brother Nats (Ko Daw Gyi & Ko Daw Lay).
They are flawed, having desires considered derogatory and immoral in mainstream Buddhism. During a nat pwè, which is a festival during which nats are propitiated, nat kadaw (lit.: nat lady, i.e. mediums) dance and embody the nat's spirit in a trance. Historically, the nat kadaw profession was hereditary and passed from mother to daughter. Until the 1980s, few nat gadaws were male. Since the 1980s, transgendered gay men and transvestites have increasingly performed these roles.
With thousands of spirit mediums in town, there’s a bit of a monopoly on who can get possessed here. Only recognized natkadaws, “the wives of the spirits,” can have a “real” possession.“If you are being possessed by a female nat, you dress like a female. If you are being a male nat, you dress like a male. You can change instantly,” according to Zaw Myo Naung, one of the official nat mediums. He says gay men like him tend to be better at connecting with the spirits, because they have both a male and a female side.This traditional belief helps makes Taung Byone a special place for Myanmar’s closeted gay community.“Their freedom and happiness is here,” he said, “and that’s why it is a place for gay people.”Naung’s uncle was upset when his nephew became a spirit channeler, because he says they’d never had a gay member of the family before. Later they accepted him, though. It helped that Naung’s connection to the spirits bought the family a house and a car.Transgender people find acceptance here too. Tha Ma Shein Linn says she loved Taung Byone right from the start because although she has a man’s body, she can dress as a woman here. Taung Byone was the first place she’d seen so many other transgender people – many working as natkadaws. It’s one of the few jobs transgender people can get, according to Nay Oo Lwin of Population Services International, an NGO that works with Myanmar’s gay community.“They only have three choices to earn a living: to become a natkadaw, a beautician, or a sex worker.”Nay Oo Lwin says the festival in Taung Byone doesn’t just draw spirit worshipers. It’s also a meeting place for gay Burmese.“There is a saying – if you are a gay man in Burma, you must [come] to Taung Byone.”At the main shrine, live music blasts out. People of all ages are leaping, pushing and clawing to give money to the natkadaws who dance in the center, decked out in fake eyelashes, sparkling dresses and big hair.For one week, they are the most revered people in the country – connecting the spirit world with humans. And for the gay community of Myanmar, for that one week, there is no judgement.