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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.




Spirit walls, rice wine and legends of war

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On the way to Sankar in Shan State.

For anyone who has an extra day to spare while visiting Inle Lake in Shan State, one great excursion is the long boat ride south from the main lake to the Pa-O and Shan village of Sankar. During the early part of the journey, the boat leaves the lake behind and enters a network of narrow canals winding through a landscape of rice paddies, passing within arm’s reach of fishermen catching shrimp in nets and eels in wicker traps.

The canals eventually spill into a wider waterway, flanked on either side by bamboo forests and agricultural land. One sight of interest is the sprawling Sie Sone Monastery, where during the latter stages of World War II locals stashed guns provided by US and British forces, and shot any retreating Japanese soldiers who dared come too close.


Heading south from Inle Lake.

Farther south, boats enter an idyllic valley of cornfields, white egrets and stone farmhouses equipped with waterwheels before finally arriving at Sankar Pagoda, where trees and other plants run riot over the collection of small brick stupas.


Sankar Pagoda.


Old monastery in Sankar.


Pagoda and guardian.

Locals say that 500 years ago, Sankar was an important center of Shan culture, with a palace, white elephant compound, plentiful pagodas and nine monasteries, all but one of the latter now in ruin. A school now sits where the Shan palace was once located, and across the road is a pagoda fronted by two frangipani trees, called sankar in the Pa-O language. Legend says that a Shan prince once carved a Buddha image from one of the tree branches and enshrined it in the pagoda, thus giving the town its name.


Pagoda fronted by frangipani trees, from which the village gets its name.

Visitors to the village can spend time exploring the old monasteries, wandering among the village’s stone houses, visiting the market and mingling with the Pa-O residents. Most of the women still wear attractive traditional dress on a daily basis – indigo blouses reaching down to mid-thigh, with matching longyis underneath, the dark fabric offset with brightly colored, turban-style headdresses.


Kids in Sankar.


Pa-O woman and her frightened child.


After leaving the village, the boat pilot and guide take visitors through an area that long ago consisted of rice fields but is now a shallow lake thanks to a dam built in the early 1960s. There is a stilted Pa-O village here, and in one area old pagodas that were originally built on dry land now rise out of the water.


Waterlogged stupas.

The southernmost point of the journey is an ancient wall that spans the artificial lake, said by some to have been built by nats (spirits) in a single night to impress their girlfriends. The more plausible explanation is that it was an irrigation aqueduct built centuries ago by Shan farmers.


The nat (spirit) wall.


The nat wall bisects a shallow reservoir.

The return trip includes stops at several riverside religious sites, including the breezy hilltop pagoda of Sankar Thayangone. Not far away is a small distillery where visitors can sample shots of fiery rice wine before embarking on the relaxing ride back upriver for further adventures at Inle Lake.


Serving homemade rice wine.

During my return trip from Sankar, I noticed a cave high up on a cliff on the far side of a paddy field. I asked my Pa-O guide about it, and he said that according to local lore, Japanese troops had hid there during their retreat from Burma to elude Allied air patrols. It was also said that the Japanese had left a huge cache of weapons and other supplies at the back of cave, which they had booby-trapped with grenades and which had never been recovered.

I asked my guide if it was possible for us to climb up to the cave entrance. He looked at me and admitted that he had always wanted to explore the opening but had never had an excuse.

We stopped at a monastery to borrow a couple of flashlights, and two men there asked if they could also come along. By the time we made it to the base of the cliff, we had picked up two more locals who had been walking near the paddy field and asked where we were going.


Our party of impromptu cave explorers.

The climb up to the cave was steep and required our hands as well as our feet, but it wasn’t too tricky. The cave itself was another story: Our flashlights were weak, and away from the entrance the floor became slippery with bat guano. There were also a few drop-offs into voids whose bottoms we couldn’t see.


Inside the cave.

Needless to say, we didn’t go back far enough to find the mythical Japanese weapons cache – that’s a job best left to spelunkers with ropes, strong headlamps and a willingness to fiddle around with 70-year-old explosives.


Farmers near Sankar.


Toll collector on the way back to Inle Lake.


Journey below the surface of the Earth

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Ethnic Pa-O cadets take a break from playing football to pose for photos near Hopong in southern Shan State.

To enter a cave is to abandon the easily recognisable waypoints that provide clues as to where in the world you are. There are no familiar hills or trees, no stars in the sky, no reassuring architecture with which to get your bearings.

It’s no coincidence that caves are commonly associated with otherworldly experiences. They are, in countless stories both ancient and modern, the realm of monsters, oracles and eccentric hermits.

Hten San Cave, located 42 kilometers (26 miles) east of Taunggyi in southern Shan State’s ethnic Pa-O country, is no exception.

According to local lore, the cavern was found by a 10-year-old novice named Shin Borida. For a long time he kept his discovery secret, using it as a place for meditation and sharing it only with the spirits who lived there.


The entrance to Hten San Cave

Eventually the monk asked these spirits whether he could open the cave to the public. The restless souls assented but on the stipulation that a ritual be held to aid in their relocation to another nearby cavern, where they would take up residence and where humans would be forbidden to enter.

The ceremony was held by Shin Borida and other monks, and ghost-free Hten San Cave was opened to the public on February 12, 2009, to mark Union Day. But it wasn’t until early 2013, when the nearby town of Hopong was removed from the government’s blacklist of areas off-limits to foreigners, that the cave was made accessible to international travelers.


Dragon sculpture near the entrance to Hten San Cave

I visited the cave earlier this month with my wife, driving from Taunggyi on a bumpy, madly twisting road through a landscape of sunburned hills and cave-riddled limestone outcroppings.

Upon arrival at Hten San, we were dumbfounded to find that the entry fee was a rapacious US$20 for foreigners, which the Pa-O ticket-taker agreed was too much. He acknowledged that the famous Pindaya Caves north of Aungban could be seen by foreigners for a mere $3, but he added that he dared not question the pricing scheme put in place by the cave’s board of trustees.

“At busy times Hten San Cave has only three or four foreign visitors a week, but sometimes we get only one foreigner in a month,” he told me. “I think more would come if the fee was lower.”

I asked if a souvenir stalactite was included in the price. He said no, but he offered to guide us through Hten San and afterward take us to another cave that had not yet been opened to the public. Two caves for the price of six: How could I resist?


Inside Hten San Cave

We plunged into the underworld. Hten San turned out to be much superior to Pindaya, the latter of which suffers because its natural beauty is concealed behind thousands of garishly painted Buddha images. At Hten San, several attractive shrines have been placed at strategic points, but the unembellished subterranean environment is also given plenty of space to simply exist for its own sake.


A Buddhist shrine inside Hten San Cave

Our guide explained that the entire cave system was about 6000 feet (1818 meters) long, but so far only about one-third of that has been made accessible. Originally, water flowed across the tunnel floor, but a dam was built to divert its course and gravel was put down to create a walking path for visitors. Some water still trickles through, and pilgrims believe that splashing it onto one’s skin will bring good luck.


A Buddhist pilgrim makes an offering at clay shrine deep inside Hten San Cave. (Photo by Thandar Khine)

We re-emerged into the sunlight and walked to the second cave. Along the way, our guide pointed out the barred and locked entrance to the forbidden third cave where the “spirits and souls” from Hten San now live. “It is very bad luck to enter and disturb the spirits,” he said.

Meanwhile, the second grotto, known as Meditation Cave, was even better than Hten San. There were no shrines, and we had it all to ourselves. We enjoyed the glittering rocks, narrow passageways and stalagmite forests, all shrouded in eerie silence.


Meditation Cave in all of its natural glory

Our guide said the trustees planned to maintain the cave in its natural state, aside from a small “swimming pool” under construction on a high ledge and intended for use by a resident angel named Nan Lu Hyawm, from whom the extraordinarily beautiful Pa-O women of the surrounding villages were thought to have descended.

“The girls work in the fields but still have fair skin and good body structure,” our guide said. “One village has seven or eight girls who are very tall and light-skinned like Koreans.”


The back entrance to Meditation Cave

As we returned to the surface, he admitted that although he was a devout Buddhist, he didn’t really believe most of the “supernatural” stories associated with the caves.

He did, however, fill us in on some history, describing how during World War II Japanese soldiers eluded the Allies by ducking into Hten San Cave and escaping through a back exit; how 30 years ago Meditation Cave was used by Pa-O dacoits to store the corpses of their murder victims; and how the area was riddled with “bottomless” sinkholes into which the aforementioned dacoits were thrown whenever they were captured by Pa-O villagers.

Hopong village, meanwhile, had been a flashpoint for vicious fighting between the Myanmar army and Pa-O rebels until peace deals were forged in the early 1990s.

The area is now at peace, and Shin Borida has a huge following among locals, many of whom emulate him in adhering to a strict vegetarian diet. He is even said to possess special powers, including the ability to read people’s thoughts and determine whether they harbour good or evil in their hearts. It’s said that one of his fingers grew back after being cut off.

When we visited Hten San Cave, a number of pilgrims awaiting the monk’s daily appearance were hanging out at a nearby pavilion where free vegetarian meals were served.

He didn’t show up at his usual time, so we drove to his hilltop monastery a few kilometers from the caves. On the way we passed a big house that Shin Borida’s devotees had built for his mother, and we stopped to photograph a group of pre-adolescent Pa-O cadets who were dressed in camouflage gear and playing football.

At the monastery we were told that the revered monk had just left for Hten San Cave – perhaps he had passed by while we were taking photos of the cadets.

Resigned to having missed out on meeting him, we took time to enjoy the sweeping view from the hilltop but declined an invitation to eat vegetarian food at the monastery. Our driver had told us about a place in Hopong famous for its fried chicken and rice, and we were keen to give it a try.

Had we met Shin Borida, and had he used his powers to probe my mind, he would have detected a small amount of consternation over the $20 entry fee, as well as profanely un-vegetarian thoughts of sinking my teeth into some mouth-watering Hopong fried chicken.

But mostly he would have sensed my contentment at having found my way into another extraordinary, formerly war-torn but now peaceful corner of Myanmar.


The view from Shin Borida’s hilltop monastery