PONNAGYUN, MYANMAR (AFP) – In pre-dawn darkness in western Myanmar, thousands of devotees scramble 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 colour, with fireworks, lanterns and hot air balloons.
Celebrations have been muted this year, with much of the country in uprising against the February coup and escalating violence between junta troops and dissidents.
But 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 start under the stars, lighting their way with their phones, gripping the trunks or roots of trees as they scramble up the hillside, friends pulling each other up at difficult stretches.
“Although it is tiring, I am happy because there are a lot of people here,” Mr Tun Shwe Tha, who started his ascent at midnight, tells AFP.
“And it helps me eat well,” he says, laughing.
The 66-year-old says 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,” says Mr Wai Yan Aung.
“I was told to be very careful of speaking and to not insult.”
Thursday (Nov 18) 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 theatre, 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 now battle the local “self-defence forces” that have sprung up elsewhere.
But last week, junta troops clashed with fighters from the Arakan Army, sparking fears of a return to clashes which in 2019 displaced over 200,000 people across the state, one of Myanmar’s poorest.
Climbers don’t want a return to the violence.
“We want to be peaceful without the sound of gunshots,” said one visitor.