Published: May 2006
Steve Winter

What was your best experience in the field covering this story?

On my second trip to Myanmar, I wanted to cover a nat-pwe, or spirit festival. Followers of Myanmar's traditional religion believe in 37 spirits in nature, or nats, that affect everything from health and education to marriage and money. Small villages often hold these festivals as a way to commune with the spirits and make offerings for good luck, but they're not easy to find. Information about the festivals gets out by word of mouth. So wherever we went, I had my guide and good friend U San Hlaing ask people if they knew where a nat-pwe was taking place. I was starting to get nervous, though, because by the time we'd gone down two-thirds of the river, we still hadn't found one.

We eventually reached the town of Pyay, where there's a temple for the spirits. But there wasn't going to be any festivals until after we were gone. I needed to move on to the Irrawaddy Delta. But when I was in Yangon getting permission, the government delayed the process. That ended up being a good thing because I got to head back to Pyay and photograph the spirit festival. There was a lot of dancing and music, and the spirits possessed a nat-kadaw, a performer that's part psychic, part shaman. It was an incredible opportunity to see how the local people revere the spirits and one of the best parts of my assignment.

What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?

One thing that always stuck in my mind about George Orwell, Rudyard Kipling, and William Somerset Maugham's writings about the Irrawaddy River was their descriptions of the oppressive heat before the onslaught of the monsoon. They would lie on their verandas in a pool of sweat, fanning themselves and sipping on gin and tonic. There was quinine in the tonic, so that's how they justified the drinking.

I got to experience that heat firsthand while I was on the river in April, May, and June. One time I put out my little digital thermometer, and it got to 116�F (47�C) before it broke. Then I pulled out my watch, and the reading was still climbing up to 120�F (49�C) before I put it back on my wrist. I ended up buying the biggest straw hat I could find. I looked like I was wearing an umbrella on my head, but at least I always had the river to cool off in when the heat became too much.

What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?

I visited the site of the oldest civilization, Tagaung, in Myanmar, and my guide found a monk there named Pa Dita Nada who also happened to be the head archaeologist for the site. They talked in Burmese for a while. I didn't understand a word they were saying until the monk suddenly looked directly at me and said in perfect English, "Oh, National Geographic? That's the best magazine in the world." So the next day I brought him a magazine, and he had me sign it. Over the next couple days he showed me funerary vessels from 200 B.C. and all kinds of different figures of the Buddha. He was incredibly helpful, and we had a great time together.