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Life Lessons: Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda festival

hayley mcdonnell life lessons lifestyle the retreat Oct 14, 2021

By Hayley McDonnell.

If you have been sitting near water in the summer months, you have more in common with this Buddhist festival than you may have realised. Perhaps you've sat under a pagoda for shade and admired its aesthetic contribution to the outside space? This Eastern cultural event is centred around reverence for the Buddha, known initially as Siddhartha Gotama, a Hindu prince who renounced his royal status and all its trappings to seek meaning and purpose in his life and share that knowledge with others. The emphasis on this vibrant spectacle is the water and Buddha images to behold.

The Phaung Daw Oo pagoda festival is held during the Burmese month of Thadingyut, the 7th month of the Burmese lunar calendar (October/November). The 18-day festival is the most important in the Shan state of Burma.

There, you will find the Phaung Daw Oo pagoda, the most highly revered monastery in the Inle Lake area. It houses five ancient images of the Buddha that are completely covered in gold leaf.

The pagoda is easily reached by boat from Inle Lake; a landing pier is in front of the building. At the centre of the monastery building is a golden stupa, and the temple's interior walls are decorated with murals depicting Buddhist stories. In the middle is an ornate shrine with a pedestal, on which five more images of the Buddha are kept, and these are believed to be 800 years old. 

So much gold leaf has been applied to the images that they have become unrecognisable and look like a solid mass of gold. Every day Buddhist devotees come to the monastery to pay their respect to the images and apply more gold leaf, which only men are allowed to do.

The golden images are believed to have been brought to the Inle Lake region by Alaungsithu, King of the Bagan empire in the 12th century. The King was a devout Buddhist who travelled extensively around his empire and had many Buddhist monuments built across his Kingdom. The most impressive one was the Thatbyinnyu temple in Bagan.

Near the pagoda is the boat shelter where the Karaweik boat is stored that carries four out of the five images in procession across the lake during the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda festival. At the front of the boat is the sizeable gilded head of a Karaweik bird; at the back is the gilded tail of the mythological bird.

The four images of the Buddha are kept in an ornate pavilion topped with three multi-tiered Burmese style Pyatthat roofs in the centre of the boat.

In a procession, four of the five images of the Buddha are removed from their shrine in the Phaung Daw Oo pagoda and placed on the Royal Karaweik barge. The barge is towed by longboats manned by up to a hundred leg rowers in colourful costumes. The Royal barge stops at 14 villages around Inle lake, where the images stay in the main monastery for one night.

Tradition teaches that until the 1960's all five images of the Buddha were carried around the lake on the Karaweik barge. In 1965 one of the images got lost when the boat capsized, and all five images fell into the lake. People dived into the water and managed to recover four of them, but the 5th remained lost. Finally, they gave up their search and returned to the Phaung Daw Oo pagoda. Back in the pagoda, they found the lost image miraculously back in its shrine. Since then, only four of the paintings have been carried around the lake, the 5th one remaining in the pagoda.

Another highlight of the festival is the longboat races, the rowers standing upright and rowing with an oar attached to one leg.

The long-term benefits of dialogue are improved relations and cooperation in the community, often enabling further development through social and political action. This greater understanding of our thoughts and the discovery of different or similar points of view enhance collaboration opportunities with all involved. Dialogue brings slow and lasting results, changes within the community and works towards finding purposeful solutions. Your collaboration and discussion prompts are found here. I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas, so please do reach out to me and share.


Social – Rowing with an oar attached to one leg sounds both fun and dangerous. What enjoyable times have you spent with others recently that you can replicate?

Moral – Should religious worship be solely devoted to reverence, or can it be fun too? Does one negate the other?

Spiritual – A vital aspect of the Buddhist belief is the four noble truths. Life is full of suffering; suffering comes from desiring and wanting more. Suffering stops when we stop wanting more, show gratitude for what we have already and appreciate what we have rather than what we don't have; this requires discipline in life over mind, body and spirit. As the fifth statue was lost in the lake, what have you lost that you yearn for again? Can you move forward and accept its loss?

Cultural - Water is a powerful force of nature. How can you embrace water in your local community? Could you take a rainy walk with the family or alone for contemplation, a boat trip, a walk around a lake or on the beach?


Hayley McDonnell is a Personal Development/SMSC consultant and author intent on bridging the gap between countries, cultures, customs and ultimately people with “Global Collaboration” Her aim is to make our world feel smaller by connecting with our similarities and embracing our differences. She loves to travel and meet new people from different backgrounds, countries and cultures. You can find out more about Hayley here.



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