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Around Inle Lake in 18 days

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Leg-rowers rule Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival


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.


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.


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.


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.




Arlein Nga Sint: The dream pagoda

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As a Buddhist monk living in the Ayeyarwady delta in the mid-20th century, U Thuri Ya had a dream – three dreams, in fact, of a strangely fanciful pagoda rising out of the jungle in Yangon’s northern outskirts.


With these nocturnal visions, U Thuri Ya was carrying on a family tradition of sorts: When his mother had been pregnant with him, she had dreamed that she was bearing a white elephant in her womb, a harbinger of her son’s dedication and contribution to Buddhism.

U Thuri Ya, an ethnic Karen, happily complied with this omen. At the age of six he began his monastic education, at 12 he became a novice and at 19 he entered the Sangha as a monk. After dreaming his own pagoda dreams, he moved to Yangon to make his visions reality.


Later becoming known as Maha Saywingaba Sayadaw, he found land in Insein township, about 10 miles (16 kilometres) north of downtown’s Sule Pagoda. Now dominated by the busy confluence of Pyay, Lanthit and Insein Butaryon roads, 70 years ago the area was heavily forested and home to leopards and other wildlife. He paid K25,000 for a 5-acre compound and got to work raising funds by accepting donations from well-wishers throughout the country.

Construction on the Arlein Nga Sint Pagoda compound began in 1954, with the first bricks laid by Prime Minister U Nu and Mahn Win Maung, an ethnic Karen politician who served in various ministerial positions during the decade leading up to his appointment as president of Burma in 1957.

Among the structures that were completed during U Thuri Ya’s lifetime was Aung Dhamma Yone Monastery, as well as the central Arlein Nga Sint Pagoda, a uniquely baroque seven-tiered structure symbolizing the seven levels of paradise and coated with 100 viss (360 pounds or 160 kilograms) of gold. The pagoda is surrounded by a low-walled labyrinth; an onion-domed tower with a staircase winds around the outside, completed the phantasmagorical picture. It remains one of the more unusual pagodas in Myanmar.


U Thuri Ya was aided in his project by a monk named U Agga Dhamma, who traveled to Lalti Monastery in Monywa township, where he had stayed before moving to Yangon, to hire a well-known carpenter from the region to build the pagoda.

After U Thuri Ya’s passing, U Agga Dhamma carried on with the work, and another round of visions provided further guidance: On three consecutive days, he dreamed during afternoon naps of a man dressed in white advising him to place a large green-colored Buddha inside the pagoda. The apparition helpfully added that the monk could find a small statue nearby, which he was to use as the model for the bigger image.

U Agga Dhamma was unsure whether to believe the dream, but in Myanmar Buddhism white-clad men are assumed to be good spirits, so he started searching for the model image. To his surprise he found a small green Buddha in a cupboard in the monastery. Even more astonishingly, when he returned to Monywa to consult about building the larger statue, the artisan he had hired was holding an identical small green Buddha in his possession.

The resulting 5-metre-tall (16.5-foot) green Buddha statue – with a Bamar-style body and Thai-style head – was placed in the pagoda around 1970, along with 1 viss of gold and a collection of Buddhist scriptures. The compound as a whole is now home to 108 Buddha statues, 108 shrines and a pond whose water is believed to possess healing powers.



Since its founding, Arlein Nga Sint Pagoda has played an important role in the Karen community, and continues to do so by hosting Yangon’s biggest Karen New Year festival every December and January. Construction of a new three-storey monastery, Bo Daw San Kyaung, is also under way in the compound, which will be designed to accommodate monks aged 75 years and older.


In one quiet corner of the compound is a room where U Thuri Ya’s gold-covered body is on display in a glass coffin. U Agga Dhamma, now 81 years old and still presiding over the pagoda, is quick to debunk myths about any supernatural qualities attributed to the corpse.


“Please don’t believe rumors that the hair and fingernails on the body have kept growing long after [U Thuri Ya’s] death. How can a dead body still be alive?” U Agga Dhamma told The Myanmar Times. “People respected him so much that they believe he is great and different from others, so they have invented these stories.”

U Agga Dhamma also said that Arlein Nga Sint, despite its unique appearance, does not really stand out among other pagodas.

“There’s no significant difference between one pagoda and another, just as there is no difference between a Buddha statue in your house and one at Shwedagon or any other pagoda. They all have the same power because there is only one Buddha in the world,” he said.



Hidden looms and drunken nats

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Kyaung Dawgyi Monastery, Pakhangyi

Bagan is beautiful, but after two days of touring ancient Buddhist temples I was ready for something different. A staff member at my hotel suggested a daytrip to Pakokku, located just 26 kilometers (16 miles) north of Nyaung Oo and on the other side of the Ayeyarwady River – easily accessible in less than an hour by car since the opening of a new bridge across the river on December 31, 2011.

The name “Pakokku” might sound familiar to anyone who has been following events in Myanmar in recent years: It was here in early September 2007 that hundreds of Buddhist monks from Myoma Ahle Monastery held a peaceful march in support of activists who had been arrested the previous month protesting government cuts in fuel subsidies.

The Pakokku march was blocked by soldiers, and three monks were tied to lampposts and bludgeoned with rifle butts and bamboo sticks. The government failed to apologize for the incident, and in mid-September thousands of monks registered their discontent by organizing protests in Yangon, Mandalay and other cities.

As has long been its habit, Myanmar’s army – known as the Tatmadaw – responded with more violence. They raided monasteries and swarmed the streets of Yangon, gunning down unarmed Buddhist monks, laypeople and even a Japanese journalist. The government claimed 13 people died, while Democratic Voice of Burma reported 138 fatalities. The truth likely lay somewhere in between.

In calmer days, Pakokku is famous for its production of tobacco, the traditional cosmetic thanakha and cotton textiles. I was traveling with my wife, and we decided to seek out the latter – the local weavers who use traditional looms to create blankets, shawls and other cotton products.

This was more easily said than done, and our ensuing travails make a good argument for the advantages of hiring a guide when visiting unfamiliar territory with a specific goal in mind. As it turned out, many of the good citizens of Pakokku – or at least the dozen or so random passersby we asked – were entirely ignorant of the location of the looms.

Not that they didn’t try to be “helpful”. Many locals responded to our queries with what seemed to be definitive knowledge about the cottage-weaving industries we sought: “Go three blocks south and two blocks west,” was a typical example of the responses, with the directions leading us to yet another loomless location. After an hour-long wild-goose chase, we finally homed in on our goal when, wandering aimlessly down a nondescript backstreet, we suddenly heard the telltale “clickety-clack” of a weaver at work.

Following the sound, we were happily invited into a modest house where, out in back, a young woman was using her hands and feet to deftly manipulate a complicated weaving apparatus with lightning speed, magically transforming spools of naturally dyed cotton thread into a small, colorful blanket. While most of these blankets – which take about two hours to make – are then sold through local shops, the family who ran this particular “factory” allowed us to buy several freshly made samples straight from the source.


Having already had our fill of Pakokku proper, we headed up the road to Pakhangyi, located 28 kilometers (17 miles) northeast along the road to Monywa. This village is a virtual open-air museum, with pagodas, archaeological sites and, although it never served as a royal capital, even a well-preserved portion of a fortified wall dating back hundreds of years.


Surviving section of Pakhangyi’s fortified wall

Pakhangyi is traditionally thought to have been established as an outpost by King Anawrahta of Bagan (ruled 1044 to 1077), but some inscriptions suggest that it was not founded until the 13th century, near the end of the Bagan period. We hoped to get additional information about the history of the place at the Pakhangyi Archaeological Museum, but it turned out that the staff were there only to collect money and turn on the lights – they were woefully uninformed about the historical details of the region.


That’s not to say the museum is not worth a visit; it’s full of interesting artifacts discovered throughout the town, including Buddha images and ornate wooden reliquaries once used to store sacred texts. One example of the museum’s holdings is a Buddha “footprint” thought to date back to the Inwa period in the 16th century. It had been found broken into fragments at Sithushin Pagoda – established outside the walled city by King Aluangsithu of Bagan (ruled 1113 to 1167) – but in 1997 it was moved to the museum and restored to ensure its preservation and allow it to be studied by scholars.

The most famous site in Pakhangyi is Kyaung Dawgyi, a teak monastery on brick foundations built in 1868 by Minister Phone Tote during the reign of King Mindon, who had established Mandalay as the last royal capital. Among the largest wooden monasteries in the country, the dark-hued structure stands on 254 teak pillars. The doors and some elements of the interior are decorated with beautiful, hand-carved wooden sculptures depicting previous lives of the Buddha.



There are also two special pillars at the monastery, one made of sandalwood and the other of scented wood. They are believed by locals to hold the power to evoke love and affection, which has made them the target of desperate, lovelorn individuals who, feeling the need for more romance in their lives, have chipped off pieces of the wood. Such poor behavior, along with more than a century of harsh weathering, took a heavy toll on the structure, and it was restored in 1992, with additional work done within the past year. In 1996 Myanmar applied for UNESCO World Heritage Site status for the monastery, but the honor has not yet been granted.

Despite its beauty, Kyaung Dawgyi is rarely visited by tourists, and my wife and I had the site entirely to ourselves. It was a nice experience to walk the dim hallways, lit only by shafts of sunlight filtering through the narrow windows and doorways, without jostling with other tourists or souvenir sellers. We stayed for quite a long time, enjoying the silence, tranquility and sacredness of the space.


Our next stop was another monastery named Pakhanngeh Kyaung, this one in complete ruins except for its 332 teak pillars. Most of the posts are still standing, but some lie on the ground and others lean precariously. The floor, roof and walls of the structure, built in 1864, are almost completely gone. The government is considering whether to restore the monastery, but it would be a massive undertaking. Pakhanngeh Kyaung is located about 5 kilometers (3 miles) east of Pakhangyi and just a few hundred meters from the west bank of the Ayeyarwady River. The journey there passes through some lovely wetland scenery on a narrow, raised road.


Pakhanngeh Kyaung


A bicycle path passes through the center of Pakhanngeh Kyaung

Pakhangyi has one more claim to fame: It is the legendary home of U Min Kyaw (also known as Ko Gyi Kyaw and Min Kyawzwa), a powerful nat (spirit) who is the patron saint of drunkards and gamblers. Nats are the spirits of humans who died violently and who remain caught in limbo between one incarnation and the next, and they can grant favors to those who show the proper respect, or make life difficult for those who do not.

There are several versions of U Min Kyaw’s life and death as a human, but according to one of the more popular he was a drunkard, a cock fighter and an excellent horseman who was killed by the spirits of two men he murdered, Khun Cho and Khun Thar. As such, shrines to U Min Kyaw normally depict him riding a dark horse, which is festooned by devotees with offerings of rum and whiskey.

The main festival for U Min Kyaw is held in Pakhangyi every March, but smaller ceremonies are held throughout the year. These are normally organized by worshiper who consult mediums to ask the powerful spirit for favors with the promise that an offering ceremony will be held if the wish is granted. These usually last for three to seven days and are open to the public.

One of these happened to be occurring on the afternoon of our visit to Pakhangyi. A temporary red pavilion had been erected alongside the main road, and the chaotic clanging of live traditional Myanmar orchestral music could be heard from across town. Drawing nearer, we saw a crowd gathered around a nat kadaw (spirit medium) who, as is usually the case, was a transvestite who was dancing wildly to the music, pausing occasionally to spend 30 seconds or so telling the fortune of a lucky bystander before spinning into motion once again. Appreciative devotees pinned money to the medium’s clothing, while the ceremony’s patrons made sure everyone was well-supplied with food and drink – sustenance for the body, even as U Min Kyaw’s worshipers sought salve for their souls.


The road to Pakhanngeh Kyaung ends at the Ayeyarwady River



Thadingyut Festival of Lights

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The Myanmar lunar month of Waso, which usually falls in July, marks the beginning of the three-month Vassa period, also known as Buddhist Lent or the Rains Retreat. During this time, monks are not allowed to travel overnight from their monasteries, and therefore they dedicate these months to intensive meditation and the study of scripture.

Many laypeople also adhere more closely to the Buddhist precepts by giving up meat or alcohol. Weddings are not allowed during this period, and music concerts and other public performances are frowned upon. As Myanmar author Khin Myo Chit writes in her book Flowers and Festivals Round the Myanmar Year, “It is a time for sobriety, self-denial and religious contemplation.”

Monsoon starts loosening its grip during the lunar month of Tawthalin (September). The rain still falls, but sunshine increasingly finds its way through the cloud-cover. The rivers are brimming with water, and in some places the Ayeyarwady appears more like a lake than a flowing waterway.

The buildup to Thadingyut, which marks the end of Buddhist Lent and fell on October 28 this year, is characterized by a gradual change in weather. With the skies now clearing, it is the season of pagoda festivals, music concerts and weddings, with cooler winter weather just around the corner.

The end of Lent is marked nationwide with the three-day Thadingyut Festival of Lights.

Buddhists believe that at one point in his life, the Buddha ascended to Tavatimsa, the Celestial Abode, and spent the three-month Vassa period teaching the sacred Abhidhamma discourses to the heavenly beings who lived there. Among his students was his mother from a previous existence, who had been reborn in Tavatimsa as a god named Santusita. The lengthy sermon was the Buddha’s way of thanking Santusita for having been his mother in a previous incarnation.

On the full moon day of Thadingyut – which is still known as Abhidhamma Day – the Buddha descended back to the human realm from Tavatimsa. Some versions of the story say that Sakka, king of the celestials, created stairways made of gold, silver and rubies to facilitate the procession, while other accounts claim that the pathway was fashioned from the stars themselves. In any case, the procession is said to have included a host of brahmas and gods accompanied by the sound of Sakka wailing away on his mighty conch-shell horn. The people of the earthly realm set out bright lights to help guide the Buddha and to celebrate his return, a tradition that is maintained to this day.

During Thadingyut, pagodas and homes throughout the country are decorated with electric lights, colorful paper lanterns, candles and even small ceramic saucers filled with oil in which wicks are lit. Major religious sites such as Shwedagon Pagoda are packed with pilgrims who light candles to pay homage to the Buddha and gain merit. Each light adds to the incredible spectacle of thousands of small flames burning in the night. Out on the streets, meanwhile, some people light fireworks or launch small hot-air balloons, which silently ascend and drift across the sky before burning out.

Thadingyut is also a time for street fairs, one of the most popular of which is held along several blocks of Bogyoke Aung San Road in downtown Yangon. For three days the air is thick with the aroma of fried food, and street vendors urge passersby to throw their money away on blue jeans, wristwatches, sunglasses and the latest hip-hop gangsta-wear from China. There are impossible-to-win ring-toss games, as well as sketchy Ferris wheels that are spun manually by acrobatic, death-defying carnies. Signboards are erected along the upper block of 50th Street and decorated with cartoons drawn by local artists, a tradition that dates back to 1932 when cartoonist U Ba Gyan set up an exhibition of his work on 13th Street in Lanmadaw township. After his death in 1953, young artists carried on the tradition in different locations around the city.

Thadingyut is also associated with paying homage not only to the Buddha and his teachings (dhamma), but also to the order of monks (sangha), parents, teachers and elder relatives. In this way, laypeople are able to emulate the gesture of gratitude that the Buddha paid to his mother during his sequester in Tavatimsa. Visits are made to parents and elders to present gifts and to give thanks, and some people hand out food donations (satuditha) to friends, family and strangers alike. In a ceremony known as pawarana, monks ask their monastic brethren to rep­rimand them for any sins they may have committed.

Several areas around Myanmar have their own unique way of celebrating Thadingyut. At Kyaikhtiyo Pagoda in Mon State – popularly known as Golden Rock – pilgrims offer 9000 lit candles and 9000 flowers to the Buddha. In Shwe Kyin in Bago Region, located along the banks of the Sittaung River, the day after the full moon day is marked with a decorative boat competition and the launch of a Karaweik barge carrying images of the Buddha. After darkness falls, thousands of lotus-shaped oil lamps are lit and set afloat on the water.

Shwethalyaung Pagoda in Kyaukse, 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Mandalay, hosts an elephant dancing festival on the full moon eve and the full moon day. The dancing is not done by genuine pachyderms, but rather by teams of two competitors dressed in colorful, homemade elephant costumes, who bust their moves to the beat of live drum music as they seek to out-perform the other contestants.

Thadingyut also marks the beginning of Kahtein (Kathina in Pali), a month-long period leading up to the full moon day of Tazaungdine in November during which people donate new robes or other supplies to local monasteries. These offerings can include anything from fans, alms bowls and books for learning the Pali language, to tote bags, towels and soap. They are attached to wooden frames called padethapin (trees of plenty) that are set up throughout the country by business owners, schools, hospitals and even groups of trishaw drivers who congregate on street corners waiting for customers.

On a designated day toward the end of Kahtein, the trees are taken to the monastery for which the robes, supplies and money have been collected. The donation day is cause for celebration in neighbourhoods and villages throughout Myanmar, and everyone participates. There are music and dance performances, and food is prepared to hand out to all comers. Everyone congregates at one spot, such as a community center or the village headman’s house, from where the colourful Kahtein procession sets out on foot or by vehicle to take each padethapin to its designated monastery.

One significant aspect of this festival is that donors do not make offerings to a particular monk, but rather to a monastery in general. To decide who gets what, the monastery holds a lottery starting with the most valuable item and moving down the list to the least valuable. The gathered donors watch, applauding when the names of their favorite monks are called. The most valued prizes are the new robes, and the monks who get them are considered to have received a special honor.

Blog.Thadingyut pic

Happy Buddhist New Year 1377 from Ngwe Saung Beach

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April is the hottest time of the year in Myanmar, which means it’s the perfect time for the biggest holiday of the year: Thingyan Water Festival, during which the entire country closes down for10 days. Despite the length of the break, the festival itself is only four days long (depending on the year), followed by Buddhist New Year’s Day, which this year fell on April 17.

During my first couple of years in Myanmar, I submitted to the chaos of Thingyan in Yangon, where a significant portion of the populace takes to the streets to toss water on each other using water pistols, buckets, and even garden hoses powered by portable generators. Huge wooden stages are set up from which music is blared and revelers soak the steady stream of passersby who line up for the express purpose of getting doused by the turbo-charged hoses. If you’re in the city, there’s no escape unless you stay locked up in your house: If you show your face outside, you (and everything you are carrying) will get drenched.

Ostensibly, the watering is meant to symbolize the washing away of the misdeeds of the past year; mythically, Thingyan is the time during which Thagyamin, the King of the Celestials, descends to earth and inscribes everyone’s name in one of two books: the golden one for the nice, and the dog-skinned one for the naughty. In reality the holiday inspires plenty of sketchy behavior of its own, most notably four consecutive days of massive alcohol consumption and its attendant idiocy. But not everyone partakes in the water splashing. Many Buddhists use the long holiday as an excuse to spend time meditating in a monastery or nunnery. Others stay home with their families making Thingyan snacks and catching up on their backlog of books and DVDs.

However people choose to spend the water festival, New Year’s Day (April 17) is one of Myanmar’s quietest days. Buddhists flock to pagodas to make offerings, and they also visit elders, parents, and teachers to give thanks.

For me, the attraction of being drowned in water by inebriated Burmese teenagers wore off a few years ago, and now I use the annual holiday as an excuse to get as far away from Yangon as possible. Sometimes this means fleeing the country altogether, but more often it means heading to other parts of Myanmar where Thingyan is generally celebrated in a more low-key, gentler fashion than in Yangon.

This year we headed for Ngwe Saung Beach, located on the Bay of Bengal about 150 miles west of Yangon.


The view from our room.

Our days consisted of morning bike rides, mid-morning swims in the ocean, lunch, afternoon siestas, late afternoon swims in the ocean, dinner, nocturnal beach walks, beer and wine on the patio of our room, and then sleep. Repeat for five days. Our only really excursion was hiring a local boat to take us out to some islands off the coast for swimming and snorkeling.

A few photos from the boat trip:






Akha ring in New Year with Kengtung festival

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Helmets are mandatory for anyone riding a motorcycle in Kengtung in eastern Shan State, but traffic police were willing to make an exception for the ethnic Akha women who sported traditional metallic headgear as they streamed into the town’s football stadium on December 28.

They had traveled from outlying villages to attend the 2015 Akha New Year Festival, which celebrated the arrival of the Year of Sheep on the Akha calendar.

Shan State Chief Minister Sao Aung Myat was on hand in the morning to cut the tinsel, release the balloons and deliver the standard government lecture about unity among Myanmar’s ethnic groups.

The festivities then ground to a virtual standstill during the heat of day, but when night fell the stadium was crammed with vendors selling sticky rice and grilled meat, children going loco in the dragon-shaped bounce house, and young men laying down wads of cash in fruitless efforts to master tricky ring-toss and darts games.

On the main stage, pop music blared as women in Akha dress performed dances whose movements borrowed heavily from Kachin, Kayin and other ethnic styles.

Far more interesting was the secondary stage, which featured eerily beautiful traditional Akha singing.

Near this stage, a group of dancers circulated around a flagpole, around which a wooden pathway that had been laid on the ground. As they moved, many of them rhythmically clacked bamboo sticks on the wood, while others rang gongs.

While many Akha attended the celebration in Kengtung, many others stayed away because of the expense of traveling to the city.

“If they don’t have relatives they can stay with while in Kengtung, most of them can’t afford to come to the festival,” said Shan tour guide Matt. He explained that the villages compensated by holding their own individual New Year festivals around January 2 and 3.

The Akha are the second-biggest ethnic group in the Kengtung area, accounting for about 10 percent of the regional population. The biggest group, the Shan, constitute 80 percent of the population.











Catholics celebrate 500 years in Myanmar

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The view of the Catholic Church’s 500th Jubilee from my office window.

Saint Mary’s Cathedral in downtown Yangon held a festival from November 21 to 23 to mark the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Catholicism in Myanmar. The cathedral’s location directly across the street from my office ensured that I did not miss a single word of the sermons, or a single note of the liturgical music, that were broadcast throughout each day at a volume of about 8,000 decibels from the church’s robust PA system.


St. Mary’s Cathedral.

According to the website of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Myanmar, evidence of Christianity in the region can be found in frescoes in ancient city of Bagan dating back to 1287AD.

But the “official” arrival of Catholicism is pegged at the year 1510: “After the discovery of the route to India by Vasco da Gama in 1497, Portuguese missionaries set out for the Far East as chaplains to Portuguese soldiers, sailors and settlers,” the website says. “The rich land of Burma attracted these Portuguese traders and by 1510, after having founded Goa as the seaport to the East, they came to Mergui, Tavoy, Syriam and Akyab befriending the King of Pegu.”


Women in traditional Kachin dress.

This means that the 500th jubilee should have occurred in 2010, but the Catholic Church was not able to hold celebrations at that time due to restrictions on religious freedom imposed by the previous military government. The slight political liberalization that has occurred since then has been accompanied by a loosening of constraints on religious worship, so the celebration was finally able to occur four years late.

Christians make up about 4 percent, and Catholics 1 percent, of Myanmar’s population of 51 million. A huge proportion of the people at the festival appeared to be ethnic Kachin, many of them travelling from the far corners of the country to attend the event. Yes, people of all faiths take their religion very seriously in Myanmar.


Vendors at the festival.



Written by latefornowhere

November 24, 2014 at 9:11 am

Mission impossible in Pathein

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A few weeks ago I posted a series of photographs from a recent excursion to Pathein. Following is one of the travel stories I wrote as a result of that trip, which was published in the September 29-October 5 edition of The Myanmar Times.


I was sitting in a minivan with three local friends, and we were prowling the streets of Pathein on a mission.

Pathein is the fourth-largest urban area in the country, the capital of Ayeyarwady Region and a lively port at the center of the delta’s rice trade. We were trying to get our hands on a copy of a particular Myanmar-language book that told its history.

We located a cramped bookstore near the Central Market. The owner was familiar with the book, but said no copies were available as the writer had passed away two years ago. Given that the invention of the printing press has, for the past 500 years or so, obviated the need for living authors to crank out freshly handwritten originals, we found this rather odd reasoning.

Still, we soldiered on. Our next stop was the city’s public library, which we found to be unburdened by printed material of any description. An underworked watchman in the lobby informed us that the knowledge-starved citizenry of Pathein had cultivated a habit of borrowing books but not returning them, thereby depleting the collection into nonexistence.

Our last hope was a mysterious cultural museum. It was not listed in the latest edition of Lonely Planet, but I had encountered a passing reference to it (sans address) online. One of my travel companions had heard about it too – from the friend of a friend. But none of the four Patheinians we queried were aware of there being a museum in their town.

Fortune smiled upon us when we noticed a bilingual sign for the Cultural Museum of Ayeyarwady Region as we passed its location on Mahabandoola Road, two blocks up from Strand Road.

The museum, established in 2012, held no books but did boast an array of colorful and copiously illustrated text panels crammed with useful information about the industries for which the area is famous, including paddy cultivation, salt production, mat weaving, halawar cookery and, of course, parasol making.

But the few panels dealing with “history” offered some questionable theories as fact, including the much-debated claim that the Pyu civilization extended into areas of southern Myanmar traditionally rooted in Mon culture.

Another panel sought to impose an ethnic identity upon a 40-million-year-old fossil found near Mandalay, ostensibly proving that “Myanmar started from Myanmar”. This grandiose and insupportable attempt to politicize archaeology dates back to the dark ages of junta rule, and should probably be consigned to the propaganda archives rather than displayed in a museum.

Okay, forget about the history of Pathein.

We departed the museum and decided to spend the rest of the late afternoon taking photographs around the city.

About three minutes after this course of action was agreed upon, rain began pummeling us from the sky and did not stop until 15 minutes after sundown, at which point we managed to get a few shots of the modest nighttime vegetable market along the river. We then retreated to a dimly lit restaurant for agreeably piquant steamed fish and cold beer.

Our goal for the next day was to visit Mawtinsoun Pagoda on the southwestern tip of Ayeyarwady Region.

It’s possible to get there by boat along the Pathein River at a cost of only K3500 for locals and foreigners alike. Such a trip requires an overnight stay near the seaside pagoda before returning to Pathein the following day, and local authorities will call ahead to arrange basic monastic accommodation for travellers.

Unfortunately, our group didn’t have time for an overnight trip, so we took our minivan instead. I had imagined this to involve a simple drive on a straight road through deltaic flatlands, but the outbound trip turned into a five-and-a-half-hour odyssey on a surprisingly twisty, hilly and increasingly bumpy road through the southern reaches of the Rakhine Yoma.

When we arrived at Mawtin Point, there was no town to meet us: The road simply ended at the grey unruly ocean.

The complete lack of facilities was made more surprising by the fact that 30 minutes earlier we had seen a Coca-Cola delivery truck heading back toward Pathein. Despite the bold claim on the side of the vehicle that it was the “real thing”, the mystery of where this delightfully refreshing apparition had originated remained unsolved.

Mawtin Point sports two golden pagodas: Mawtinsoun Pagoda on a hilltop overlooking the sea, and Phaung Daw Oo about 100 metres offshore. The latter is said to mark the spot where King Alaung Sithu – who ruled Bagan from 1113 to 1160, and was renowned for his wide-ranging travels – once berthed his royal barge.


These pagodas teem with activity during the annual Mawtinsoun Pagoda Festival, held in the week leading up to the full moon of the lunar month of Tabaung (February or March). But during our visit we had the wild, beautiful coast to ourselves.

I was tempted to curse the lousy weather as my efforts to take photographs were complicated by ongoing struggles to control my wind-whipped umbrella with one hand while wielding my camera with the other.

But conditions weren’t to blame. It was a pleasant day for walking, and the rain was only annoying insofar as it threatened to ruin my electronic gadgets.

The reality was that I would have enjoyed the pagoda experience to a much greater extent had I not felt obligated to commemorate the experience with my camera, and had I granted myself the freedom to relax, get wet and register the moment in my own memory instead of on an SD card.

But I kept snapping away, at the behest of my 24.1-megapixel slave master, pausing only to light some candles at a shrine under the curious eye of a deaf, elderly pagoda attendant who was happy and helpful in a way that is rarely seen outside of Myanmar.

We descended a steep, narrow stairway from Mawtinsoun and waded out to Phaung Daw Oo along a concrete walkway that was slippery with algae. The footing was rendered even less sure by the steady assault of waves rolling across Mawtin Point from two directions at once – the Bay of Bengal on one side and the Andaman Sea on the other.

Before we departed the coast, we stopped at the lone restaurant onsite, a modest hut with a dirt floor and one item on offer: steamed rice and fried eggs. Our bellies full but unsatisfied, we then hastened back to Pathein at all possible speed, inspired to make the return journey in less than five hours by the promise of a decent dinner and a few bottles of beer.

Our last day in Pathein dawned sunny and bright. As we ate breakfast on the rooftop of Htike Myat San Motel, we could see dozens of white egrets roosting in an expansive tree near the river.

We took advantage of the good weather to buzz around town collecting the photos we had missed on our first day: serene Shwemokhtaw Pagoda, the forest-green façade of St Peter’s Cathedral, the crowded Central Market. At the riverfront, we watched women haul rocks from a barge while men sat nearby playing games.

We also dedicated an hour to wandering around the delightfully surreal environs of Royal Lake Park. Near the entrance were pavilions erected by various government ministries aimed at flaunting their good works to the public. In a strange way, the setup reminded me of the exhibits at Disney World’s EPCOT Center, but less rooted in reality than the dreams trapped inside Walt Disney’s cryogenically frozen head.

I was not disappointed to see that the mouldering government displays were completely ignored by visitors, and that the porticos in front of each pavilion had been commandeered instead by young couples snuggling and whispering behind strategically deployed umbrellas.

Other items of interest at the park included a sculpture of a battle tank made from discarded cans of insect spray; the Bay of Lovers, consisting of a decrepit boardwalk arcing toward a statue of a naked mermaid endowed with bountiful golden breasts; a waterlogged mini-golf course; lakeside cabins from which emanated the banshee wail of daytime karaoke aficionados; and a whimsical graveyard of half-sunken, duck-shaped paddle boats long past their prime.


And of course, we couldn’t leave Pathein without visiting the famous Shwe Sar parasol workshop. Monsoon is the slowest period for the industry, and only a few parasols were being made at the time of our visit. Still, the proprietors went out of their way to accommodate our efforts to photograph their masterful work.

They were also keen to relate the long history of their enterprise: how U Shwe Sar had been the royal parasol maker to King Thibaw but was forced to escape Mandalay after the city was taken over by the British in 1885.

He had fled south along the Ayeyarwady River, eventually settling in Pathein and reestablishing his workshop in his backyard. At first, U Shwe Sar made parasols in exchange for rice, but he later expanded the enterprise into a more viable business that has been passed down to the current generation.

It was a fine, adventurous story that added vitality and context to our workshop visit. The best guidebooks to Pathein, it seems, are still the people themselves. We bade farewell to the city with our photographs taken and our notebooks full, departing for Yangon just before the afternoon rain began to fall.


A spirited way of life

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This year’s Taungbyone Nat (Spirit) Festival is currently underway, occurring from July 28 to August 10. Following is an article I wrote on the connection between spirit worship and gay culture in Myanmar. The story originally appeared in the July 2012 issue of Southeast Asia Globe magazine.

Nat 1

August is a slow time for social events in Myanmar. Monsoon downpours keep people indoors, and it’s also the midpoint of the three-month Buddhist Lent, a time for abstinence, self-denial, and religious contemplation. There are no pagoda festivals, no weddings, and few live music performances during this time.

A notable exception to this temperance occurs in the town of Taungbyone in central Myanmar, which for one week each August becomes the site of the biggest animist festival in the country. The antithesis of moderation, the Taungbyone festival has gained a reputation as a Dionysian pickpocket-magnet characterised by copious alcohol consumption, ear-splitting music, and wild dancing.

Nat 5

The throngs of rambunctious revellers who descend on the town go there to make offerings to powerful spirits known as nats, described by Myanmar author Ma Thanegi as humans who died violently and were “caught in a limbo between lives”.

“Their anger and bitterness at their fate made them unable to be reborn into the next existence, and they remain as ghosts,” she explained. These ghosts, endowed with supernatural powers, can punish humans who offend them, or grant favours to those who show the proper respect.

According to Myanmar lore there are 37 central nats, plus a number of others associated with particular regions of the country. The spirits associated with Taungbyone are the brothers Min Gyi and Min Galay, put to death in the 11th century after failing to follow a king’s orders to contribute bricks to the construction of a pagoda. Later regretting the executions, the king granted the dead brothers dominion over Taungbyone, which they are believed to rule to this day.

Nat 2

The central spectacle of Taungbyone are the boisterous rituals, held in temporary bamboo pavilions, at which mediums channel nats into their bodies. Accompanied by the loud, clanging music of traditional percussion ensembles, the dances vary in form and intensity according to which nat is being channelled. Some spirits are relatively sedate while others, such as crowd favourite U Min Kyaw, the renegade patron of drunkards and gamblers, prompt the mediums to spin and sway spasmodically while swigging their way through entire bottles of rum or whiskey. In the midst of the performance, festival goers crowd in to have their fortunes told by spirits speaking through their human hosts.

The majority of nat mediums are homosexual men or transvestites dressed in traditional women’s clothing, a notable idiosyncrasy in a conservative culture in which the gay lifestyle is not openly accepted.

The nat medium role was not always dominated by gay males. In his 1967 book Burmese Supernaturalism, American cultural anthropologist Melford Spiro noted that most mediums at the time of his research were women, with only 3 to 4 percent being men. In a sign of things to come, however, he described all of the male mediums that he encountered as “highly effeminate”.

According to Ma Thanegi, it was in the mid-1970s that homosexual men took over the roles of spirit mediums in Myanmar. Although she would not hazard a guess as to why this transition occurred at this particular time, Spiro had earlier suggested that certain types of social behaviour enacted by marginalised sectors of society – including heavy drinking, rowdy dancing, and cross-dressing – could be “exhibited with impunity” if prescribed by nats as part of a ritual.

As Ma Theingi put it: “It seems to be a profession made for transvestites, for it gives them the chance while being ‘possessed’ by the nat to dress up in fine satin and silk, act out tragedies, dance, and sing.”

Nat 4

One gay medium based in Yangon, who wished to remain anonymous, provided a practical explanation for this demographic shift, based on the understanding that at different times, a given medium can be possessed by different spirits of either sex.

“In my opinion, gay nat mediums are more popular because they are better dancers than male or female mediums. We have many male and female nats, so male mediums are not skillful or good enough to dance for female nats, and likewise female mediums are not good at dancing for male nats. For us, we can perform both without trouble,” he said.

Regardless of their sexual orientation, mediums play a demonstrably important role in Myanmar culture, and aside from their popularity at festivals, they are also consulted throughout the year by people seeking help from the spirits.

Well-known medium U Win Hlaing enjoys a steady stream of clients at his home, located on a quiet street in eastern Yangon. On a recent Saturday morning he received three women in his spacious front room, which is nearly bare of furniture except for several elaborate altars decorated with images of dozens of nats.

U Win Hlaing performed a brief ritual to invoke the favour of the spirits, then sat on the floor with the women to consider their problems.

One, bearing a property deed, wanted advice on a real estate transaction. The second said she had been related to a nat in a previous life, and although the spirit now afforded her special protection, the supernatural entity often reminded her that he could “call her back” to the family at any moment. The woman, who appeared to be in her 60s, asked U Win Hlaing to petition the nat to allow her to enjoy her human life for awhile longer.

The third woman questioned why her son had fallen ill with typhus. Rattling a handful of cowry shells, U Win Hlaing determined that the illness was the result of a curse cast by a woman who loved the boy but whose feelings had not been reciprocated. The medium wrote a “magical” prescription to cure the problem, which the woman carefully tucked into her purse as she left the house.

During the interval before the next group of clients appeared, U Win Hlaing, 60, explained that he had become a medium at the age of eight while attending a spirit ceremony led by his uncle, who was also a medium.

“I was very close to nats in a past life, so I was possessed automatically when I first saw a nat ceremony,” he said, quickly adding that being possessed was not as rigorous as one might imagine.

“Some beginners and amateurs might pass out when they’re possessed, or they might become unconscious or uncontrollable. But when I was first possessed it only made me feel sleepy, and now I’m so used to it that I don’t have any big feelings about it anymore. I only get goose bumps now, but the nats possess my mouth and control what I say,” he said.

While U Win Hlaing refused to answer questions about the prominent role of homosexuals in the nat medium subculture, he was effusive about his satisfaction with the accompanying lifestyle.

“I’m contented with my life since I’m very interested in other people’s lives, helping them, guiding them. I also like putting on makeup, singing and dancing. Being a successful nat medium has been my lifelong ambition since I was very young,” he said.

As for the Taungbyone Festival U Win Hlaing said he would be there ready to perform along with his fellow mediums from around Myanmar.

“I enjoy all the nat festivals since they are celebrations of my spirit protectors, but the most popular is Taungbyone. I feel proud when I dance grandly at Taungbyone in front of my supporters and my protectors,” he said.

Nat 3

On the way to Taungbyone.

Written by latefornowhere

August 7, 2014 at 4:30 am

Kengtung drummer ensures New Year isn’t a bummer

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On the surface, the Thingyan water festival in Kengtung, Shan State, appears similar to celebrations helds throughout Myanmar in mid-April: Temporary stages are set up around Naung Tung Lake in the middle of town, and locals spend a few days driving around and around, reveling in the opportunity to splash and get splashed.

But Kengtung also has its own unique way of marking the festival that dates back to 1410, a year during which the area around Kengtung suffered from extreme drought and brushfires that decimated crops and livelihoods.

According to legend, the crisis prompted the region’s saophwa (Shan leader) to approach a famous astrologer named Oak Ta Ra in search of a remedy.

Oak Ta Ra calculated that Kengtung was, according to Myanmar astrology, a “Monday” region and was therefore aligned with the moon.

The town’s ethnic Yun rulers, on the other hand, were under the influence of Rahu, the mythical planet associated with the second half of Wednesday. The conflict between these two celestial bodies, the astrologer said, was the cause of the drought.

To solve the problem, Oak Ta Ra suggested that 24 ethnic Tai Loi from Moung Yang village be summoned to Kengtung, where they were dressed in red and white robes.

At 1pm on the second day of the water festival leading up to the new year, the Tai Loi were told to place a sacred instrument called the Nanda Bay Ri Heavenly Drum at the Sao Loang Kart nat (spirit) shrine at the centre of town and play it for 24 hours straight.

The astrologer further instructed that a clay sculpture of a frog (representing Rahu) with a crescent moon in its mouth be created at Long Kope near Nam Khun Creek in northeastern Kengtung. A stupa made of sand was also built at the site.

After the drum had been played nonstop for 24 hours, it was taken from its place at the nat shrine and carried by procession to Long Kope, where the town elders recited the Mingalar Sutra and paid respects to the frog and the stupa.

After the villagers followed the astrologer’s instructions, steady rain fell throughout the region, reviving crops and restoring the farmers’ livelihoods. The saophwa therefore ordered that the ceremony be repeated every year.

To this day the water festival in Kengtung begins with a ritual at the Sao Loang Kart shrine. The special Mingalar Conch is blown, and speeches are delivered by local authorities and the chair of the festival committee.

This is followed by a series of songs and dance performances by representatives of local schools, religious organizations and ethnic groups, including the Tai Loi who centuries ago had been charged with playing the sacred drum.

The next day the crowds reconvene at the Sao Loang Kart shrine, where at 1pm sharp the Nanda Bay Ri Heavenly Drum is placed on the stand where it will be played for the next 24 hours to expel evil spirits and welcome the auspicious New Year.

Once the drum is in place, a township official sprinkles it with scented water and strikes it seven times. Each beat is accompanied by an invocation, given in the following order:

May the authorities of the nation be blessed with grace and prosperity

May the authorities and the citizens be joyful and prosperous

May the nation be victorious and unharmed

May the nation be wealthy and commercially successful

May there be development and mutual understanding within the nation

May all be blessed eternally

May the sound of the drum echo throughout the universe

The drum is then handed over to a leader of the Tai Loi community for continuous playing until 1pm the following day. At that point it is removed from its stand and carried in a procession along the Loimwe-Mong Yang Road to Long Kope, where each year the clay frog sculpture and sand stupa are created anew for the festival.

The Tai Loi musicians continue beating the drum along the way, while others in the procession carry colorful flags. Bystanders sprinkle scented water on the walkers for good luck as they make their way to the ceremonial grounds, where respects are paid to the frog and sand pagoda sculptures.

At the end of the festival, the drum is taken to Mahamuni Pagoda in Kengtung.

Once there, four monks from Wat Som Kham Monastery – located near a banyan tree believed to house the guardian spirit of Kengtung – sprinkle the instrument with scented water and recite an incantation, after which the drum is then sent to its storage place at Wat Kengzan Monastery until next year’s festival.




Written by latefornowhere

April 13, 2014 at 12:49 am