Thousands of devotees in predawn darkness in western Myanmar on Thursday scrambled to the top of a mountain said to be home to a spirit guarding 500 mythical ducks to mark the Tazaungdaing festival of light.
The full moon that marks the end of the rainy season is celebrated across Buddhist-majority Myanmar in explosions of color, with fireworks, lanterns and hot air balloons.
Celebrations have been muted this year, with much of the country in uprising against a February coup and escalating violence between junta troops and dissidents.
Western Rakhine state has remained largely calm, as a ceasefire between local insurgents and the military holds, allowing thousands of intrepid souls to climb “500-duck mountain” for the first time in years.
Devotees started under the stars, lighting their way with their phones, gripping the trunks or roots of trees as they scrambled up the hillside, with friends pulling each other up at difficult stretches.
“Although it is tiring, I am happy because there are a lot of people here,” Tun Shwe Tha, who started his ascent at midnight, said.
“And it helps me eat well,” he added, laughing.
The 66-year-old said it took him more than three hours to reach the top of the mountain — guarded, locals claim, by a female “nat” or local spirit, which watches over the area’s ducks.
The spirits have rules for those who visit their realm — climbers should not eat duck the day before or after they visit the mountain, and are forbidden from swearing while making the arduous ascent.
“I was told at home that this mountain is very sensitive in terms of spirituality, because the guardian nat is very sensitive,” Wai Yan Aung said. “I was told to be very careful of speaking and to not insult.”
It was the first time in three years that devotees were allowed to climb.
In previous years, the state was wracked by fighting between the military and Arakan Army insurgents fighting for autonomy for the ethnic Rakhine.
Ahead of the ascent, thousands gather near the foot of the mountain to watch traditional theater, stroll around and buy fruit — in contrast to much of the country’s almost-daily reports of bomb blasts and bloody clashes.
Days after the coup, the junta reaffirmed a commitment to a ceasefire that has freed up military troops to battle the local “self-defense forces” that have sprung up elsewhere.
Last week, junta troops clashed with Arakan Army fighters, sparking fears of a return to clashes that in 2019 displaced more than 200,000 people across the state, one of Myanmar’s poorest.
Climbers do not want a return to the violence.
“We want to be peaceful without the sound of gunshots,” one visitor said.
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