Late for Nowhere

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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.

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