Late for Nowhere

From life in Southeast Asia to backyard adventures in Kodiak, Alaska

Around Inle Lake in 18 days

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Leg-rowers rule Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival

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Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, located on the western end of Myanmar’s Inle Lake, is considered the holiest Buddhist site in southern Shan State. The ornate, two-story structure sits on the water like a sacred island, and each day, a steady stream of boats loaded with pilgrims arrives and departs from the dock near the stairs that lead up to the inner sanctum.

The focus of devotion at the pagoda is a group of five oddly shaped relics displayed on a pedestal in the middle of the main room. Upon close inspection, the objects look like roughly textured lumps of gold, one of them vaguely spherical, three of them taking the form of a pair of misshapen eggs – one sitting on top of the other – and the fifth like two stacked eggs with a small spire protruding from the top.

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Studying these objects, few who did not know the story behind them would guess that they were originally statues with human form, but that have lost their shapes as the result of many, many years of gold leaf application.

While the statues are, as a group, often referred to as Buddha images, some say that only three represent the Buddha while the other two are arahats, or disciples of the Buddha who have reached the highest level of spiritual achievement before entering nibbana. The statues are commonly believed to have been cast during the reign of Bagan King Alaungsithu (1112-1167 CE), and one can easily imagine that in another 900 years of gold leaf application, they will take on the appearance of perfectly spherical, golden bowling balls.

The pilgrims who flock to the pagoda often rub strips of red cloth against the figures. These bits of cloth are then tied to cars, trucks or motorcycles in the belief that the drivers and passengers will be protected from accidents and other forms of bad luck.

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The golden statues are also the focal point of the annual Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival, which occurs from the first waxing day to the third waning day of the lunar month of Thadingyut – this year from September 21 to October 8.

The festival is the biggest event of the year at Inle Lake, a shallow body of water located at an altitude of 880 meters (2900 feet) above sea level and surrounded by low mountains. Home to numerous ethnic Intha and Shan villages – some of which lie along the shore, while others rise out of the water on wooden stilts – the lake is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Myanmar.

During the festival, four of the five statues are placed on a decorative barge shaped like a karaweik (mythical bird) and taken on an 18-day tour around the lake, stopping at each village for a night or longer so residents can pay homage.

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According to legend, the tour originally included all five statues, but one year a storm capsized the barge, dumping the relics into the lake. Divers recovered four of them but were unable to locate the fifth. Upon returning to the pagoda, however, pilgrims found the last statue mysteriously restored to its proper place on the pedestal, dripping wet and covered with algae from the lake. That image has remained there ever since, standing guard over the pagoda while the other four statues embark on the annual festival tour.

The slow-moving procession around the lake is one of the more spectacular annual rites in Myanmar. The karaweik barge is propelled from village to village by Inle Lake’s famous leg rowers, who stand on one leg while using the other to push their oar through the water. Dressed in traditional costumes, they row in unison to the beat of a huge drum.

The barge is escorted by dozens of boats, which are also steered by costumed leg rowers. Some ceremonial boats also carry dancers and martial artists who showcase their skills to the thousands of people who gather by the lakeshore to celebrate the event.

The scene at each village is a combination of devotion and carnival-like revelry, and visiting Inle Lake during the festival provides a great opportunity to see gatherings of different ethnic groups, including Shan, Intha, Danu, Palaung, Pa-O and Taung-Yo.

Devout Buddhists eagerly await the arrival of the procession in their villages, offering food and fresh flowers when it appears. Meanwhile, the villages take on the atmosphere of a country fair, with vendors selling food, drinks, toys, clothing and other consumer goods, and entertainers offering magic shows, marionette performances and dance dramas.

Among the highlights of the festival are the boat races, in which teams of leg rowers wearing traditional costumes compete against groups representing villages around the lake. The races normally occur on two specific dates during the festival period – this year on September 27 at Nyaung Shwe, and on October 8 at Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda – and these are the best times for visitors to take part in the celebration in all its dynamic and colorful grandeur.

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2 Responses

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  1. Lovely piece of repotage. I was at Inle Lake in 1986 but only for 2 days. A lovely place. I would have liked to visit Kalaw but no time. Went to Maymyo which I loved. I really want to go back there
    Regards
    Steve

    timadangmerantau

    February 27, 2018 at 8:18 am

    • If my wife and I ever return to Myanmar to settle, we’ve talked about getting a place in Kalaw. It’s one of the most beautiful areas in the country.

      latefornowhere

      February 27, 2018 at 1:18 pm


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