Late for Nowhere

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Trekking into the future in eastern Shan State

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Ethnic Loi children.

Kengtung in eastern Shan State is one of the more remote regions in Myanmar, but like popular destinations such as Bagan and Inle, the town has seen an increase in tourism in recent years as more foreigners visit the country.

Just 10 years ago, trekking around Pintauk 15 kilometers (9 miles) north of Kengtung was like stepping off the grid and into a different world: Strangers were greeted at the entrance to the nearby ethnic Eng village by growling dogs and frowning children, and wary residents regarded cameras with great suspicion. The general dress code for kids was clothing-optional, and the villagers had no idea about selling crafts to the tourists who had come so far to see how they lived.

During high season, the residents of Pintauk and adjacent villages now see foreigners on a daily basis, and the Eng are much more welcoming: A squadron of entrepreneurial women springs into action at the approach of trekkers, surrounding and persistently following visitors with armloads of hats and bracelets whose designs they have largely borrowed from the Akha. The men, meanwhile, are not shy about offering powerful rice wine to weary walkers.

Of course it should be considered a positive development that the residents of this region have found a means of benefitting financially from tourism, but the atmosphere in this particular village now seems more circus-like than a decade ago, when my guide and I had to seek out the local headman and ask how we could help: He suggested that I contribute to their fund for buying the village’s first generator, and when I did so he celebrated by calling the residents together, performing traditional music on a handmade, two-stringed banjo called a song, and inviting me to attend a full-moon ceremony to appease the local spirits.

During a more recent visit to this same village, we walked around in the midst of our escort of handicraft sellers – yes, we did buy a few trinkets – and dropped by a couple of houses, but we did not feel as if we were being granted any great insight into how the locals really lived behind the spectacle. We had a similar experience at Wansai, another easily accessible tourist magnet where it was difficult to glimpse the actual village beyond the tight circle of traditional products offered by the ethnic Akhe handicraft mafia – a sea of women who wagged their fingers in warning against taking photos unless we bought their beads and bamboo pipes.

We had a better experience at some of the less-visited towns farther afield from Kengtung. Akha handicrafts were available for purchase in the homes of a few residents of the Hokyin village cluster, but there were no hard-sell tactics and the women continued going about their daily business when we arrived; when they did take notice of us, they were more concerned about explaining their culture and offering us green tea than pushing us to buy their beaded hats. In one of these villages, we spent some time talking to a woman who was weaving cotton fabric on a back-strap loom. She taught us a great deal about Akha weaving and dyeing techniques, but she insisted that she had nothing to sell when my wife asked how much she would charge us for a length of white fabric.

My favourite trek on this trip was the walk to the ethnic Loi villages of Wan Nyet and Wan Seng, during which we encountered no merchants or performers awaiting our arrival. Getting there involved a two-hour drive toward the Chinese border on a narrow road that wound through high, misty mountains. About 30 kilometers short of the border town of Mongla, we turned onto a rough dirt lane and climbed for about 2 kilometers before the driver parked under a shady tree, and then we started walking just as the sun broke through the fog. The appearance of clear skies didn’t matter much: The mountain air remained cool, and the wild, unlogged jungle provided adequate shade along the trail.

Our first stop was Wan Nyet Monastery, a group of atmospheric, 300-year-old structures that displayed a unique combination of Thai, Chinese and Himalayan architecture and artwork. It was unlike anything I had ever seen in Myanmar, and the more we looked, the more we discovered: gold-painted doorways, colorful murals of scenes from the life of the Buddha, Tibetan-style mandalas, fluttering prayer flags, mirrored mosaics and hand-painted wooden cutouts set into the ceiling, huge drums and gongs, and of course Buddha images of all sizes. Every surface was covered with some kind of artwork. We must have spent an hour looking around, and as we were preparing to leave, the head monk pointed out something else we had not noticed: ancient wooden Buddha statues stored up in the rafters for safe-keeping.

Wan Nyet village is home to the ethnic Loi, whom my guide explained were actually Wa people who had converted from animism to Buddhism and established their own settlements. This begs the question: If this particular group was able to distinguish itself as a discrete ethnicity merely by changing religion and moving to a different location, why is Myanmar so reluctant to accept that ethnogenesis might similarly apply to other groups, such as the Muslims living in northern Rakhine State? As the Loi example shows, ethnicity has never been the monolithic concept that many politicians in Nay Pyi Taw like to pretend. Indeed, the Buddha’s teachings are based on the idea that nothing in this world remains forever unchanged.

In any case, the Wa-speaking Loi are known for living in longhouses that support eight or nine families. These buildings are structured around a large, dimly lit central hall where each family has its own space and kitchen, with the bedrooms in separate areas off to the side. According to our guide, the families don’t share their meat with other families, even though their kitchens might be only a couple of feet apart. This could be due to the dearth of protein sources: When we visited one of the longhouses, we sat and talked to a man who was cooking a tiny wild bird that he had, with no small amount of difficulty, caught in a homemade snare.

We continued walking, enjoying a series of increasingly impressive mountain vistas as we gained elevation. About 5km from where we had parked, we reached Wan Seng, another Loi village consisting of longhouses and a monastery similar in basic design to the one in Wan Nyet, but newer, less elaborately decorated, and less singular.

Like Wan Nyet, few residents took notice of our arrival. We ducked into the dark interior of a longhouse and had tea with one of the families, and then toured the monastery under the watchful eyes of a cluster of curious children. Outside the monastery, two monks struggled to change the tire on their motorcycle, while inside we saw no signs of life aside from two or three sleepy kittens.

During our walk back down the mountain, we met a hunter carrying a long, front-loading musket; he was on his way into the jungle for a few days of hunting. Later, we saw a riderless horse trotting toward us up the path; upon spotting us, she ducked into a tea plantation and tried to hide until we passed, and then she continued on her way. Near Wan Nyet, I spotted a snake on the trail and asked our guide whether it was poisonous. “You’re lucky you saw it before you stepped on it,” he said.

When we passed Wan Nyet Monastery again, we couldn’t help but pause to take a few more photos, even though our SD cards were already overloaded with images we had taken on the way up. As we enjoyed one last look at the exceptional artistic details, I remembered something else the elderly monk had happily informed us about during our earlier visit: He was planning to use donations collected from the growing number of visitors to renovate the monastery, a plan that would include replacing the attractive but fragile traditional clay tiles with new roofing.

The repairs will surely make the place more comfortable for those who live there, but when our guide translated the monk’s news about the project, he added, “The monastery will soon look very different.” I confess to feeling more than a little sad about the prospect of something unique and beautiful disappearing from this world, but then who are any of us to begrudge the sort of change that will improve the lives of others?

This article was published in the April 2015 edition of My Magical Myanmar magazine. For images from the trek, see my blog posts here and here.

Written by latefornowhere

April 29, 2015 at 5:35 am

Posted in Travel

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