January: Ananda Temple Festival, Bagan
On the full-moon day of the Buddhist month Pyatho, the temple town of Bagan celebrates the local Ananda Temple's festival day with a fairground on the temple's ample territory, drawing pilgrims from far and wide, many traveling in the traditional bullock-carts to make it to the venue. (The first tourists to Bagan took temple carts to make the rounds of the temples in the area, and this remains a popular Bagan transportation option even today.)
Buddhist monks spend upward of three straight days chanting scripture leading up to the full-moon day itself. As morning creeps in on the full-moon day of Pyatho, the thousands of pilgrims in attendance fill the alms bowls of the monks.
January/February: Mahamuni Pagoda Festival, Mandalay
Mandalay locals celebrate the full-moon eve of Thabodwe by converging on the Mahamuni Pagoda in Mandalay, home to a massive gold-encrusted Buddha statue. More devoted believers will stay for two full days to hear a Buddhist philosophical text read straight through by monks.
You don't have to listen to a religious text in a foreign language to enjoy the festival: the grounds outside the temple take on a festival atmosphere, with pavilions hosting traditional dances, musical performances, and local theater groups.
The full-moon eve of Thabodwe also happens to commemorate Myanmar's extensive rice-growing culture, celebrated through a feast for the glutinous-rice dish known as Htamane (outside Mandalay, this occasion is actually known as the Htamane Festival). On this occasion, villages everywhere cook up huge batches of this popular sweet snack, made of glutinous rice combined with coconut flakes, roast peanuts, fritters, and fried ginger.
April: Thingyan, the Burmese Water Festival
The Buddhist New Year festivities taking place simultaneously in Thailand (Songkran), Cambodia (Chaul Chnam Thmey) and Laos (Bun Pi Mai) also occasions a major celebration in Myanmar.
As with its fellow Buddhist countries, Myanmar celebrates the festival of Thingyan with plenty of water: revelers toss bucketfuls of water on passersby in the open, who welcome the once-a-year water battle with enthusiasm. Water symbolizes purity in the local lore, and pouring water represents cleansing the soul of the past year's evils and imperfections.
September/October: Hpaung Daw U Festival, Inle Lake
During the month of Thadingyut, four of the five Buddha images resident in Hpaung Daw U Pagoda make a grand circuit of Inle Lake's villages, taking eighteen days to complete the tour.
Loaded onto a golden barge built especially for the occasion, the four Buddha images make the slow trip, towed by boats rowed by Inle Lake's famous leg-rowers. The barge tours the lake in a clockwise direction, with the four Buddha images spending each night in a different town monastery.
October: Dancing Elephants Festival, Kyaukse
The full moon of the Thadingyut month is when Buddhists believe the Buddha descended back to earth after three months of preaching in the spiritual realm above. While the rest of Myanmar celebrates it by lighting the Buddha's way home, the town of Kyaukse near Mandalay commemorates it a little differently: with a “Dancing Elephant” festival, populated not by real elephants, but by pairs of dancers in gigantic elephant costumes.
The intricately-designed elephant costumes are made of paper, bamboo, glitter, satin, and glass. The dancers in the costumes move to the beat of drums, circumambulating the Shwe Tha Lyaung Pagoda a total of three times. Dancers are awarded prizes for their dancing skills and the beauty of their costumes; the rest of the community celebrates with feasting and entertainments throughout the temple grounds.
November: Hot Air Balloon Festival, Taunggyi
In Taunggyi, Shan State, about 160 miles southeast of Mandalay, locals celebrate the end of Buddhist Lent with a Hot-Air Balloon Festival. The Festival Grounds outside Taunggyi becomes a tourist hotspot – quite literally – at 8pm, when the organizers launch large, gaudily-decorated fire balloons made out of papier-mache.
Sedate the sight is not: as the balloons rise to a height of 60 feet in the air, fireworks on the balloons explode, sending streaks and sparks all across the sky to the delight of the viewers on the ground!