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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



The roots of Mount Popa

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The word “popa” is widely believed to be derived from the Pali word for flower, and even the folklore surrounding the mountain acknowledges its fame as a place where many blossoms grow: One story that continues to resonate with spirit worshippers to this day involved a servant who was sent each day by King Anawrahta of Bagan to collect flowers from the forests growing on the volcanic slopes. These forests also support an incredible array of plants that are believed to have medicinal properties. Local villagers collect some of them for direct use, while others are harvested to be made into pills and tablets for commercial sale. Some medicinal roots are even sold by vendors at the base of the stairway leading to the top of nearby Taung Kalat. In any case, officials at Popa Mountain Park distribute only a limited number of permits for plant collection, and 30 rangers patrol the park to keep an eye out for poachers not only of medicinal plants, but also of orchids and firewood.



While it is possible to spot some of these medicinal plants while hiking with a local guide, the best way to understand the sheer diversity is to visit the Popa Mountain Park Forest Department’s Environmental Education Center, which opened in 1993 and is located only 2.5km from Popa Mountain Resort.

Inside the centre are displays of dried, pressed and framed plants, as well as many of the butterflies and birds that populate the park. Outside, the Forest Department maintains a sizable Medicinal Plantation with demonstration plots that are signed for easy identification. Knowledgeable park officials – such as the impressively erudite Khin Myo Htwe, who has participated in exchange programs with botany specialists in Japan and South Korea – clue visitors into the properties of each species of plant, and how to prepare it for maximum effect.




Suffering from lucomederma (white spots on the epidermis)? Pluck a Plumba ginaceae plant from the ground, grind its roots into powder, mix it with the water used to wash rice, and apply the paste to the skin. Flatulence and hypertension got you down? Crush some Tinospora cordifolia into powder and mix it with honey. Gentiana kurroo root for toothaches, powdered Withania somnifera bark mixed with alcohol for menstrual cramps, sap from Tradescentia spathacea leaves for burns and scalds, lime-scented Glycosmic pentaphylla for soothing muscle pain: The list goes on and on.


Another attraction near the resort – just 3km away, and often reached by foot or horseback down a narrow dirt road – is an unusual sandalwood forest. According to Khin Myo Htwe, sandalwood trees are not native to Myanmar, but in 1957 a retired forester brought seeds from India and planted them in the Popa region.

“The trees require 20 years to mature, and unfortunately as soon as the grove reached the two-decade mark, poachers moved in and cut down all the trees,” she explained. The trees were targeted for harvesting and sale because of their many applications: the pith is use for medicine for runny noses and itchy skin, while the large roots systems (which penetrate 50 feet into the ground) are carved into Buddha images for homes and pagodas. Women also use sandalwood as a skin conditioner and perfume, and wood is also quite well known as a form of incense.

But the poaching incident did not mean the end of sandalwood in Myanmar. Miraculously, birds carried leftover seeds from the decimated trees to a nearby area, and around 20 years later another sandalwood grove took root on the slopes of Mount Popa. This is the forest that can be seen today, and its 60 acres are protected inside a walled compound, which is also home to two sambar deer and four golden deer that are allowed to roam free. The golden deer had to be reintroduced from other regions; native to Popa, they had previously been hunted into extinction in the area.

Khin Myo Htwe said that according to a December 2010 census, there are 574 sandalwood trees in the compound. She added, “Because sandalwood is not native to Myanmar, but because the seeds that created this particular grove were carried here by birds, it’s sort of an ‘unnaturally’ natural forest.”

Naturally occurring or not, the trees are thriving in the climate of Mount Popa, and the forest is popular side trip for visitors.


Popa Mountain Resort has also taken advantage of the local climate by establishing its own garden, which, since it was planted in 2009, has supplied most of the fruits and vegetables used in the resort’s restaurant. Hotel operations manager Myint Lwin explained that the area where the garden is located was once full of thick undergrowth and was initially cleared to keep snakes away from the guest rooms.

“But the soil and weather at Popa are particularly good for plant growth, so we had the idea to make a garden in the cleared area,” he said. “In the past we bought our fruits and vegetables from Popa village at the foot of the mountain, but with our garden we now grow most of what we need for the restaurant. We still buy some produce we don’t grow, and we also need to buy extra produce when there are many people visiting the restaurant. But during the low season when we don’t have as many guests, we even sell some of our produce to the village.”


The list of fruits and vegetables grown at the resort is impressive: cauliflower, capsicum, celery leaf, chili, coriander, citron, eggplant, kalian, lemongrass, lime, lemon, mint, green mustard, pennywort, radish, roselle, tomato, jackfruit, papaya, strawberry, banana, lettuce, broccoli and Thai ginger.

The staff also grow both white and red dragon fruit (the latter variety is more tasty and more expensive), with each plant bearing fruit five to nine times a year. When the dragon fruit nears ripeness, it must be covered with plastic to protect it from thieving squirrels (guava gets the same treatment). Rainy season, according to Myint Lwin, is best for growing fruit, while the dry, cool season favours vegetables and flowers.

“We strive to grow our produce as organically as possible. The soil is so rich that we don’t need to add chemical fertiliser unless absolutely necessary, and even then we use only a very minimal amount,” he said. Indeed, the nutrient-rich dirt literally clings to the shoes of anyone who walks around the garden, and when it’s damp, more than a little scraping is required to remove it from the treads of footwear. Because of this, Myint Lwin said the resort plans to establish paved footpaths between the planted plots for the convenience of guests who want to see where the restaurant’s fruits and vegetables are grown.


It’s fascinating to compare the growth of fruits and vegetables on the mountain to the farming traditions on the plains below. Between Popa and Bagan, in Kyaukpadaung township, many locals earn their living farming crops that are more suitable to dry soil, including maize, peanuts, sesame and other beans. Many of these same farms also have their own palm trees, from which sap, or toddy, is harvested by brave individuals who scale rickety bamboo ladders to collect sap-filled ceramic pots. The sweet toddy can be consumed directly, or it can be converted into a bitter juice popular with locals. It is also made into sweet jaggery candy, and some is set aside for fermentation to brew alcoholic toddy wine.

One farm located about halfway between Mount Popa and Bagan has about 80 palm trees, which are harvested twice a day by U Pho Thein. For him, this means an incredible 160 death-defying trips up and down the ladders every day.


While U Pho Thein demonstrated his work by effortlessly scrambling to the top of an 18m palm tree, another farmer, U Chit Oo Maung, explained the process: “The sap is collected twice a day, from 5am to 10am, and again from 2:30pm to 7pm. The harvesting season is from January until the end of September.”

The climber ascends the tree carrying minimal equipment: a knife in a wooden scabbard tucked into his waistband, and two or three small, empty ceramic pots dangling from rope also tied around his waist. When he reaches the top he removes the toddy-filled pots that had been put in place during the previous ascent, and replaces them with the empty pots.

He then uses the knife to slice about 1 inch from a part of the male trees called the htan-nou (toddy udder), a stem enclosing the palm tree’s flower cluster from which the sap drips when freshly cut. Each stem can produce toddy for about three months before being depleted, with the daily yield decreasing over time. A new stem will fill one pot in about 10 hours, while older stems will only partly fill the pot during that time.

The sap is sweet when initially collected and can be consumed in that state. Popular with locals is bitter toddy, which is made by mixing sticky rice power with the sweet sap and then allowing it to sit for one day. Although this drink is non-alcoholic, it is sometimes amusingly referred to as “sky beer”. The truly alcoholic variety is brewed by boiling jaggery candy and water in a pot, mixing in sticky rice powder, allowing the concoction to ferment for two days, and then dripping the liquid into glass bottles.


To make jaggery candy, fresh sweet juice is boiled in a large pan over an open wood fire until it becomes a thick paste. After it cools it is rolled into balls and allowed to dry in the sun. According to U Chit Oo Maung, a farm with 80 trees can produce about 25kg of jaggery each day, and this is usually purchased by brokers who then resell it to hotels, restaurants and other shops.

“But we don’t made much money from jaggery, even though it requires a lot of work to collect the sap and produce the candy,” he said. “That’s why a lot of palm tree climbers would rather find work doing other jobs in cities or even overseas, where they can earn more money.”

The palm trees of the Kyaukpadaung region can be used for much more than collecting toddy, and in fact no part of the tree goes to waste. The fruit of the female tree can be eaten directly, and the juice can be mixed with rice to make a custard-like snack called htan thee moun. The husks of the ripe fruit are usually fed to cows and oxen. The large fronds from the trees are used as roofing material for houses, and the tough frond stalks can be made into everything from baskets and hats, to furniture and yokes for oxen.

The tree trunks, meanwhile, are made into posts for houses, as well as tables and chairs, and the lower portions are even carved out to create big flower pots. The roots are used for firewood, and some portions of the root can even be roasted and eaten. The tree’s seeds are pressed to produce an oil that is used to make soap.

The list goes on, and as long as the diverse plants of Mount Popa and the Bagan region continue to thrive, the locals will be able to benefit from their bounty.

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.