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Images from an Akha village trek, Part 2

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More photos from the Hokyin village cluster in eastern Shan State:

Akha village 13

Akha weaver.

Akha village 14

Rolling up woven and dyed fabric.

Akha village 15

Kids show off their homemade go-karts.

Akha village 16

Go-kart ride.

Akha village 17

Dried chilies.

Akha village 18


Akha village 19

A protective sign marks the entrance to animist Hokyin village #2.

Akha village 22

A cross marks the entrance to a Christian Hokyin village #1.

Akha village 23

Akha church.

Akha village 20

Akha village 21


Cutting sugarcane. (Photo: Thandar Khine)


A small child carries a slightly smaller child. (Photo: Thandar Khine)


A certain blogger braces for a shot of 160-proof homemade Akha corn hooch. (Photo: Thandar Khine)


Images from an Akha village trek: Part 1

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Akha village 07

Kengtung in eastern Shan State is pleasant enough, but the best reason to travel there is get out of town to explore the ethnic minority villages in the surrounding mountains.

The day before the Akha New Year Festival – covered in my previous post – I went trekking to the Akha village of Hokyin. The starting point for the 10.8km (6.7-mile) walk was located about 45 minutes by car from Kengtung along the road to Tachileik at the Thai border.

Hokyin actually consists of a group of four closely clustered villages, all ethnic Akha but each practicing a different religion, as follows:

Hokyin village #1: Christian

Hokyin village #2: Animist

Hokyin village #3: Christian

Hokyin village #4: Divided into two, with Buddhists on one side and animists on the other.

Despite these differences in faith, strong elements of animism – especially protective signs to ward off bad luck and evil spirits – can still be seen in all of the villages.

The trek – done in cool, sunny December weather – consisted of a steady climb up into the hills where the village cluster was located, followed by a long descent to our pickup point. Our route – which can be seen here – took us through the villages in reverse order, starting with #4 and ending with #1.

Photos below, with more to come tomorrow.

Akha village 01

Tea plantation along the walk up to Hokyin village #4.

Akha village 02

Akha girls on their way to collect firewood from the forest.

Akha village 03

Pagoda on the Buddhist end of Hokyin village #4.

Akha village 04

Dried honeycomb nailed above a doorway to protect the household against bad luck.

Akha village 05

Akha woman carrying firewood.

Akha village 08

Another wood carrier.

Akha village 06

Although I prefer photographing people when they’re not staring into the camera, this woman posed so I could get a good look at her traditional ethnic bling.

Akha village 09

Akha woman making a beaded hat.

Akha village 10

While the women carry firewood, the men water their plants.

Akha village 11

Caged bird.

Akha village 12

Akha house.


Myanmar’s Olympus

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A storm approaches Taungkalat.

When most people hear the word “Popa” they mistakenly think not of the 1509-metre peak of that name but of nearby Taungkalat, a 737-metre plug of volcanic rock nearby which is topped by a Buddhist pagoda complex. This is the main destination for most day-trippers from Bagan, who climb Taungkalat’s steps – said to number 777 – while trying to protect their belongings from being filched by the mischievous resident monkeys that scamper up and down the long stairway. The reward at the top is a spectacular view in all directions.


Mount Popa.

Many ancient folktales surround this region. Taungkalat means “Table Mountain” and was, according to legend, used by alchemists to crush pills. More famously, at the base of Taungkalat is a shrine guarded by two tiger statues. Inside are images of many of Myanmar’s most famous spirits (nats), as well as Indian deities and other supernatural beings. This shrine is an important destination for spirit worshippers from around Myanmar, and Popa is sometimes referred to as the Mount Olympus of Myanmar, based on its status as the center of nat culture in the country.


Banana offerings in the mouth of a tiger guardian at the nat shrine at the base of Taungkalat.

However, these nats are not gods, but rather the spirits or ghosts of people who died in unjust or violent ways. In death they have gained extraordinary powers to grant protection to those who show them the proper respect, but many are also known to harbor foul temperaments and can be quick to curse or harm people who offend them.

The animist practice of worshipping nats predates Buddhism in Myanmar, and there are legends that before the 11th century hundreds of animals were sacrificed as part of spirit rituals at Mount Popa and other sacred sites around the country. However, King Anawrahta, who ruled Bagan from 1044 to 1077 AD, is said to have subsumed nat culture into the sphere of Buddhism, allowing people to make offerings and pray to these spirits as long as they understood that the Buddha was above them all in the order of the universe and celestial realms. As a result, nat shrines can still be seen at many Buddhist pagodas throughout Myanmar.

There are generally considered to be 37 powerful “inner” nats, plus many “outer” spirits from different regions of Myanmar. Although the shrine at the base of Taungkalat contains images of all 37 inner nats as well as numerous others, only four of these spirits actually have their abode at Mount Popa: U Byat Tha, Mai Wunna and the two Mahagiri nats.



U Byat Tha and Mai Wunna

One of the most famous nat legends tells the story of U Byat Tha, who was sent by King Anawrahta to gather flowers from Mount Popa every day. While carrying out this task U Byat Tha fell in love with Mai Wunna, a flower-eating ogress who lived on the mountain. As U Byat Tha started spending more time with Mai Wunna, his deliveries of flowers to the king started occurring later and later in the day. The king must have really relied on his daily floral fix, because for this transgression he ordered U Byat Tha executed.

In the meantime, Mai Wunna gave birth to two sons by U Byat Tha, named Min Gyi and Min Lay. When they grew up they became generals in the service of Anawrahta, but they too were executed by the king, for failing to contribute bricks to the construction of a pagoda in the town of Taungbyone just north of Mandalay. In their deaths they became powerful nats and remain – along with their mother, who is now known as Mother Popa – the cener of worship at Myanmar’s biggest nat festival, held in Taungbyone every August. Mother Popa holds the place of honor at the center of the nat shrine at the base of Taungkalat, flanked by her sons Min Gyi and Min Lay. U Byat Tha is also nearby.



The shrine also houses a statue of Maung Tint De, a blacksmith who died at the hands of the king of Tagaung, a town along the Ayeyarwady River said to be the place where Myanmar culture originated. The king, fearing the blacksmith’s great physical strength, captured Maung Tint De, tied him to a tree and burnt him to death. In protest, the blacksmith’s sister Shwe Na Pae – who happened to be married to the king – also jumped into the fire and died. Their angry spirits subsequently dwelt in the tree, placing curses on any animal or person who came too close. The king eventually had the tree uprooted and thrown into the Ayeyarwady River, on which it was carried downstream.

The king of Bagan at the time, Thelegyang, heard about the tree and had it pulled out of the river when it reached his kingdom. He ordered artisans to carve the wood into the figures of Maung Tint De and Shwe Na Pae, and enshrined them at Mount Popa. Though his sister also became one of the 37 inner nats, it was Maung Tint De who became known as the nat Min Mahagiri (Lord of the Great Mountain), who is worshipped in homes to this day by those who seek his blessing and fear his anger. Because of the manner of his death, he will be upset by offerings of candles, but it is for him that people throughout Myanmar have a tradition of hanging coconuts inside as an offering.


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.