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Archive for August 2013

The spirit of Mardi Gras in Shan State

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Ethnic Eng residents of Banglue village, Shan State

My wife and I arrived at the ethnic Eng village of Banglue on a special day: The entire adult population had taken the day off work to get rip-roaring drunk on locally brewed rice wine.

The occasion was an annual festival during which all labor is suspended so the men can travel in a group from house to house, eating and drinking at each one, behind which the women follow in their own group.

The idea, explained our guide Francis – a Catholic of mixed Akha/Lahu parentage – was to indulge in copious amounts of food and alcohol consumption before the arrival of the rainy season and the three-month Buddhist Lent period. It was Banglue’s own version of Mardi Gras.

Upon entering the village, we were invited into a house where about 20 men were gathered, most of them sipping rice wine from small cups, while others drank from a communal pot using thin bamboo straws.

The group welcomed us with smiles. They were happy to share their throat-searing brew. We drank despite the flecks of black debris floating in our cups – the astronomical alcohol levels must surely obliterate any harmful organisms, I assured myself. We politely declined sampling from the plate of rancid fish displayed on the host’s dining room table.


Sipping rice wine in Banglue village

The trek to Banglue, located near Kengtung in eastern Shan State, had not been particularly grueling. Sure, it was mostly uphill, and yes, my wife Thandar Khine and I had tackled the hike in mid-May, with temperatures exceeding 35 degrees Celsius.

But the walking distance from where we parked the car was only 2 miles, which we covered in 40 minutes of casual ambling – including a pause to toss twigs at a small cobra we saw hiding along the trail, in a fruitless effort to elicit some movement from the poorly concealed serpent.

The relative ease of access is one reason Banglue is among the most popular day-treks in the Kengtung area. Another reason is the appeal of the village itself, a picturesque collection of 26 wooden houses built on the side of a steep hill.


Banglue village

The 100 or so Eng who live in Banglue still wear traditional black costumes on a day-to-day basis, and many continue the habit of chewing a local variety of betel nut that turns their lips and mouths black. The practice has earned the Eng the nickname “black-teeth people” among other ethnic groups in the area.

I had first visited the village in 2004, at which time the residents seemed unprepared to welcome tourists. Back then, the dogs were angry and hostile, the children either frowned or ran in terror when they spotted me entering the village, and no one rushed out of their homes to sell me handicrafts.

Things were different during this year’s visit. By the time we left the drinking hut, word had spread that tourists were in the vicinity, and the women temporarily abandoned their house-to-house wine-tasting tour to ambush us with a heap of handmade hats, necklaces and bracelets. As the inebriated men staggered their way to the next pit stop, Thandar Khine and I found ourselves enveloped in a flurry of fluttering fabric and clinking jewellery.


Eng women selling handicrafts

After much haggling and few unnecessary purchases, we broke free from the mobile souvenir market and caught up with the men’s group at their last stop of the day, the village shaman’s house. We were invited inside for another bout of drinking, but we were told that if we touched any of the religious objects, we would have to pay an unspecified fine.

The Eng are animists, and the relics inside the shaman’s house included a hanging alter crafted from animal skulls bound together with twine – where offerings were made to ensure a successful hunt – and a huge drum that was only played two or three times a year on special religious holidays.

Francis was able to supply only the vaguest explanations about the Eng’s religious beliefs, which clearly existed somewhere beyond the confines of the minutely documented, recorded and dissected cult of the 37 nats (spirits). This was a more rustic, pastoral animism whose adherents see spirits in every rock, tree and trickling stream.

It wasn’t clear whether our guide’s oblique answers were based on his inability (or unwillingness) to answer questions about Eng religion, or whether the beliefs themselves were hazy and poorly defined.

I’ve encountered both circumstances in my travels, and not just in Myanmar. In Battambang, Cambodia, I once had the misfortune of hiring a Buddhist guide who responded to my questions about spirit worship by saying that animists were “ignorant” and “superstitious”, and that their beliefs weren’t worth discussing.

On a separate trip, I had a more positive experience. In 2010 I traveled to Ratanakiri province in northeastern Cambodia with a Khmer guide who took great pains to accommodate my questions about the religious beliefs of the animists there.

In the remote, ethnic Kruy village of Preung Lok, we sat under a shady tree talking to a group of local elders, with my guide acting as translator. Concerning my first question about the worship and appeasement of nature spirits, the group’s leader explained that trees can have “good or bad” spirits.

“When there’s a bad spirit, we cut the tree down and have a ceremony to banish the spirit. We make offerings to trees with good spirits and pray for protection for the village,” he said.

Attempts at deeper scrutiny of local spiritual beliefs met resistance, and the rest of my questions elicited either confusion or mild amusement. On the subject of life after death, the Kruy elder said there was no such thing as reincarnation. “When people die, they are gone from the earth,” he said. But where they went he had no idea, and he didn’t care to speculate.

And how did he think the human race, the earth and the universe were created? By gods? By a cosmic explosion? Did the Kruy have any creation stories? “We don’t know about those things,” the elderly man laughed. “All we care about is praying to our village spirits.”

Coincidentally, like those in Banglue, the animists of northeastern Cambodia proved themselves quite fond of sipping cheap, noxious rice wine through bamboo straws. With the religious conversation having run its course, we abandoned the unseen nature spirits in favor of those that were more palpable – the type whose presence can be detected by the way they burn the throat on the way down.


Sipping rice wine in Ratanakiri province, Cambodia

Back in Banglue, Eng Mardi Gras started petering out around noon. The drinking group broke up, each man heading home to sleep off his rice-wine-and-sour-fish daze so he would be ready to head back into the fields early the next morning.

Among the questions that our guide was unable to answer satisfactorily: Why did a village of animists hold a once-a-year “Mardi Gras” to mark the approach of Buddhist Lent? And why did it occur more than two months ahead of this year’s July 22 start of the Lent period?

“The villagers are 90 percent animist and 10 percent Buddhist,” Francis explained, without really explaining. Perhaps he was suggesting that the Eng were Buddhist enough to mark the coming of Lent, but animist enough to do so according to their own esoteric calendar.

Obstructed once again by a veil of vagueness, I didn’t press very hard for more information. The summer sun was raining hot spears onto the Shan hills, and we still had a few more ethnic villages to visit before circling back to our parked car. Already firmly in the grip of my own rice-wine stupor, I could only hope there were no more localized pre-Lenten festivals to enjoy along the way.

Mountain biking adventures made easy

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My story on mountain biking on the outskirts of Yangon, published in the August 5-11 issue of The Myanmar Times:

Neither of us paid much attention to the bullock cart parked in the middle of the trail. It sat as if abandoned, with neither driver nor cows anywhere to be seen, so we simply pedaled past and continued down the narrow dirt path on our mountain bikes.

A few minutes later our two-way radio crackled to life. My cycling companion – Australian Jeff Parry, a longtime resident of Yangon – was carrying the device in the back pocket of his cycling jersey. The other radio was in the hands of a group of Myanmar cyclists with whom we were exploring the hilly terrain around Nga Su Taung village, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Yangon.

We pulled over to answer the call. The other riders were somewhere behind us, and their shouted message wasn’t entirely clear through the radio static. We could only make out a few disjointed words – “elephant”, “hunting” and “come back” among them – which were enough to prompt us to turn around and hightail it out of there.

Turns out the cart had been parked on the path for a reason: It had been intended as a warning against proceeding farther down the trail. A farmer had seen me and Parry fly past on our bikes and had flagged down the following riders to tell them that heavily armed soldiers were tramping through the brush up ahead, hunting a wild elephant that had, over the course of the past few weeks, trampled several villagers to death.

Needless to say, we spent the rest of the day exploring in other directions.

The elephant incident occurred in 2006, when local cyclists had just discovered Nga Su Taung and its environs. Since then, the area’s dirt roads and pathways have been thoroughly explored by mountain bikers, and a handful of safe but challenging routes have been mapped out for riders to follow.

Nga Su Taung might sound like a remote destination, but it can be easily reached by joining the cyclists who visit the area every Sunday morning. The excursions start at 6:30am, when a light truck loaded with riders and their bikes departs from the headquarters of local travel company Bike World Explores Myanmar (BWEM).


The drive takes a bit more than an hour, and the cyclists usually eat a light breakfast (fried rice or mohinga) in the village. The riding start around 8:30am and lasts for about three hours, followed by some casual time back in the village, which usually involves drinking local beer and trading stories about the ride. Arrival time back in Yangon is 2pm to 3pm.

Typical rides are about 25 kilometers (15 miles) on dirt roads and trails, through terrain that offers challenges but not overwhelming obstacles. There are some hills, and a few of them are quite steep, but they’re also short. Even for those who need to dismount and walk, it never takes too long to get to the top. Likewise, downhill sections aren’t too technical, so advanced mountain biking skills are not required.

Seasonal changes bring their own unique challenges: During the dry season, sections of the trail can be sandy, while the monsoon introduces mud, water crossings and rutted roads into the mix. Trail conditions are best just after the rainy season ends, in November and December.

The rides attract cyclists of widely varying abilities, from shaky first-timers to iron-thighed veterans. But there are frequent stops to regroup, so slower riders never fall too far behind. An experienced guide brings up the rear to make sure no one goes astray and to help those who might experience mechanical problems such as a flat tire.

Of course, mountain biking around Nga Su Taung brings the same health benefits as cycling anywhere: It’s a low-impact exercise that increases cardiovascular fitness, builds strength and muscle tone, boosts stamina and burns loads of calories.

According to the website of the Australian government’s Better Health Channel, cycling “is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of health problems such as stroke, heart attack, some cancers, depression, diabetes, obesity and arthritis”. Among other statistics, the website cites a Danish study conducted over 14 years with 30,000 people aged 20 to 93 years, which found that regular cycling protects people from heart disease.


In addition to the health benefits of cycling, simply getting out of Yangon for a few hours constitutes a mini adventure holiday and therefore helps relieve stress accumulated during the work week. It’s a great excuse to focus on something other than the pressures of day-to-day life, and allows participants to enjoy the weather, breathe fresh country air, commune with nature and come into close contact with traditional village life in Myanmar.

Parry, a technical consultant for BWEM and the organizer of the Sunday rides, says the latter point about observing rural lifestyle is one of the biggest attractions for cyclists who are visiting from outside of Myanmar. (About 80 percent of the riders are locals and expats living in Myanmar, while 20pc are tourists.)

“Many tourists say they saw more and learned more about the rural Myanmar lifestyle during the Sunday bike ride than by doing touristy things around the country,” he says. “They can see water buffalo at work, kids riding water buffalo, rubber production, a cashew nut plantation and more.”

This enthusiasm is reflected in the many four- and five-star ratings the rides have earned on Trip Advisor, where they are ranked second on a list of 22 things to do in Yangon. The reviews are enthusiastic. Typical examples:

“The Sunday group ride was a great opportunity to meet other bikers and view some off-the-beaten-path sites near Yangon,” writes Adam M. from Beijing.

Lorraine P. from Australia says that mountain biking is not something she would normally do, but adds she was glad she went on the ride: “Went through some great countryside; saw rubber-making from scratch; the local school supported by BWEM, and will never forget the small children running out everywhere shouting ‘Mingelabar’ [sic] as we passed by.”

Her quote refers to an added bonus of the Sunday rides: The cycling group supports a rural school run by a Buddhist monk, which teaches about 60 students from first through seventh standard. With the money raised, the school has been able to hire a full-time teacher, provide educational materials for the students and pay school fees for kids who cannot afford them.

“The funds are raised through donations from the cyclists,” says Parry. “Some tourists have given as much as $100, and one Swiss man donated 600,000 kyats ($600) just before he left Myanmar rather than changing it back to foreign currency. One rider with connections to a local shoe factory gave slippers to all the children.”

As already mentioned, following the ride, the cyclists get the chance to relax and enjoy beer or soft drinks before heading back to the city. Everyone will have a story to tell about their mountain biking experience. It might not be as dramatic as accidentally wandering into an elephant-hunting zone, but it’s guaranteed to be memorable.

Bike World Explores Myanmar is located on 10F Khabaung Road, off Pyay Road at 6-Mile, Hlaing township, or phone +95-1 527-636 or 527-109.

The fee to participate is K20,000 a person if two or three cyclists join the ride, and K10,000 if the group numbers four or more. (Rides during monsoon typically attract half a dozen riders, while the dry season sees the number increase to 10 or more.) The fee includes breakfast, transport, guide, mechanical assistance, helmets and water. Those who don’t have their own mountain bike can rent one for K20,000.



Written by latefornowhere

August 7, 2013 at 8:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Bringing the backstage to the fore

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Daniel Ehrlich’s photo book Backstage Mandalay sheds light on the dark, cramped spaces where traditional Myanmar performers ready themselves to take the stage.

 The same picturesque qualities that attract visitors to Myanmar can also inspire laziness when it comes to producing photo books about the country: Snap generic pictures of golden pagodas, fishermen on Inle Lake and cute kids wearing thanaka, and you have a coffee-table book ready for publication.

There is also the “creative” approach taken by many local photographers, in which great effort is expended in setting up contrived, “picture-perfect” shots: models “harvesting” paddy while wearing immaculate ethnic costumes, monks idling in weathered monasteries with open parasols resting on their shoulders and girls making lacquerware in the dim interiors of ancient pagodas.

Such artificial images might look nice, but they suffer from a lack of genuine narrative arc: There is no story behind them, aside from the photographer’s manipulations. The result is a beautiful, yet ultimately hollow, postcard image.

Boston-based photographer Daniel Ehrlich takes an entirely different approach in his book Backstage Mandalay: The Netherworld of Burmese Performing Arts (2012), a hardcover volume featuring 290 images of the behind-the-scenes preparations that anchor nat (spirit) ceremonies and traditional Burmese stage shows such as zat pwe and anyeint pwe.

Ehrlich, who has made nearly 30 trips to Myanmar since his first visit in 1987, prefers his images to be unposed and candid, catching people in unguarded moments. Whereas the hokey, staged photographs so popular in the Myanmar tourism industry are essentially sterile and lifeless, Ehrlich’s images capture telling details that prompt speculation on the part of the viewer and conjure narratives that flow beyond the fleeting moment captured in the image.

The leading image in Chapter 1, for example, depicts the low-key atmosphere of backstreet Mandalay, with a dirt path winding past an old brick monastery, wooden houses and shady, haze-enshrouded trees.

Many photographers might be tempted to frame this shot to block out ugly reminders of the modern age that run counter to the idea of Myanmar as a timeless land of charm and beauty. Refreshingly, Ehrlich avoids this approach. Here, a light truck is visible on the right-hand edge of the photo, while on the left a street dog sniffs the ground near a pile of trash. There are monks in the picture, but rather than dawdling with dainty parasols, they are lugging modern bags and briefcases on their way to who knows where.

The second chapter focuses on the activity surrounding nat festivals, including backstage rituals by nat kadaw (spirit wives) preparing for public ceremonies. Of particular interest is a series of images spread across three pages showing a nat kadaw enduring the process of becoming possessed by a spirit who enjoys quaffing orange soft drinks and indulges in the unhealthy habit of smoking two cigarettes at once.

The centerpiece of the book is Chapter 3, which captures the dimly lit world of traditional performances, and the time and effort that goes into getting ready for the stage. Singers, dancers and actors are shown sleeping, waiting, watching, dressing and putting on makeup as show time approaches.

These are tough conditions for a photographer who is reluctant to rely on the camera’s flash, but Ehrlich does an admirable job of capturing the aura of mystery and otherworldliness that permeates these events, both onstage and behind the scenes. The performers, sporting sumptuous, glittering costumes, seem to come from another era, and many of the subjects appear to be lost in thoughts that can only be imagined by the viewer.

Anyone who has seen one of these live performances will understand their capacity for transporting audiences from the mundane world to the realm of the fantastic, and those who pay careful attention while paging through Backstage Mandalay will enjoy a similar experience.

Given Ehrlich’s devotion to documenting reality, it’s not surprising that he makes a point of breaking the spell before the end of the book. One of the last photographs captures an all-night outdoor performance winding down at daybreak. The ground is strewn with trash, and the few remaining audience members are wrapped against the cold as they wander away from the stage. One person holds her scarf against her face, as if shielding her nose from a foul smell.

But the photograph on the next page, taken in late afternoon, shows families claiming their spaces on clean bamboo mats in front of the stage, settling in to enjoy another show that will, over the next several hours, carry them away into a world of tradition, folklore and fantasy.

Ehrlich clearly hopes this cycle won’t end anytime soon – that even as the crowds disperse each morning, they will return again in the evening to witness another performance.

This desire is expressed in the book’s dedication, in which Ehrlich acknowledges that vast changes will inevitably come to Myanmar in the coming decade but pleads with the country’s people to preserve the “great ceremonies” that define them uniquely in a world where everything is becoming the same.

 This story was originally published in the July 29-August 4 issue of The Myanmar Times.

Written by latefornowhere

August 5, 2013 at 12:49 pm