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

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Last day out in Kengtung

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Our last “trek” in Kengtung did not involve much trekking: Just a 30-minute car ride outside of town and a couple of short walks to ethnic Akhu and Enn villages, plus a visit to a hilltop pagoda with an amazing view. Many photos below:


Wan Sai Akhu village.


Wan Sai Akhu Baptist Church.


The Akhu mafia threatens us with incessant finger-wagging if we continue taking photos without buying bamboo pipes and necklaces.




An Akhu woman prepares to pity the fool who refuses to buy a pipe.


Pipe purchased (from the least pushy woman in the village), peace restored.


Kaba Aye Pagoda.


Inside Kaba Aye Pagoda.


Sexism on display in the pagoda precinct.


The view from Kaba Aye Pagoda.


Ethnic Enn weaver.


Enn woman with betel-blackened lips.


Basket weaving.


An Enn woman prepares lunch.


Mustard soup, fresh-off-the-rock lichen soup, and mountain rice — just like mom used to make.


An Enn man pours tea for his guests.


Loi Monastery, shaped like a royal karaweik barge.


Loi village trek: Wan Nyet and Wan Seng villages

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More images from the ethnic Loi villages of Wan Nyet and Wan Seng in eastern Shan State:


The entrance to Wan Nyet village.


Traditional Loi longhouse in Wan Nyet. Each building houses eight or nine families.


Inside a Loi longhouse.


The walk up to Wan Seng.


Wan Seng.


Here and below: Loi villagers.






Motorcycle tire repair at Wan Seng Monastery.


Wan Seng Monastery.


Monastic kitty cat.


Mountain biking monk.


Loi hunter.


Snake on the trail.


Loi village trek: Wan Nyet Monastery

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The start of this trek is located about two hours by car northeast of Kengtung in eastern Shan State, and only about 30km (20 miles) from the town of Mongla on the Myanmar-China border. A map of the walk can be seen here.

Among the highlights of the 10.7km (6.6 mile) out-and-back walk are the ethnic Loi villages of Wan Nyet and Wan Seng, where residents live in longhouses that accommodate eight or nine families in a single large room. Between the villages are mountains covered with thick, unlogged jungle – an increasingly rare sight in Southeast Asia.

The first stop on our trek – after about 45 minutes of uphill walking – was 300-year-old Wan Nyet Monastery. Not atypically for eastern Shan State, the architecture looked more Thai than Burmese, but it also boasted unusual Himalayan touches that I’ve never seen anywhere else in Myanmar.

Photos of Wan Nyet Monastery are below, with more images from the Loi village trek to come.














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.


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.











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