Late for Nowhere

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Posts Tagged ‘Palaung

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.




Trekking to the mountaintop in Kyaing Tong

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Ethnic Lahu-shi girls in Kong Pat village, eastern Shan State, Myanmar

Treks in eastern Shan State’s Kyaing Tong region come in many shapes and sizes, from easy, 20-minute jaunts on flat terrain, to all-day journeys up the sides of mountains and back down again. It was the latter sort that Pauksi and I embarked upon during a trip to Kyaing Tong in mid-May. With foreigners still not permitted to take overnight treks in eastern Shan State, we asked our guide which day-hike he considered the most adventurous. Without missing a beat he answered, “Kong Pat village.”

Kong Pat, at more than 1500 meters above sea level, is home to the Lahu-shi ethnic group, who rarely leave their mountaintop village, and who are only occasionally visited by outsiders due to the 12-kilometer uphill walk required to get there.


Locals resting along the trail

It was the middle of the hot, dry season, and our guide, Francis (a local of Akha/Lahu descent who was raised Catholic), recommended an early departure so we could get the uphill walking finished before midday. He picked us up in his car at Princess Hotel before 7:30am, and our first stop before heading out of town was the Central Market to stock up on snacks, drinking water, and small, useful gifts for the villagers, such as soap, shampoo, and candles.

The drive to the start of the trek took less than an hour on a dirt road that wound through a landscape of bamboo groves and rice terraces carved into steep hillsides. Most of the fields were brown at the time of our trek, but Francis said that during monsoon season they would quickly turn emerald green. However, the same rain that brought abundant plant growth to the region also caused flooding that sometimes made it difficult to access the trekking areas.


Shady walking at the base of the mountain

We parked the car in a grove of shade-giving trees and started walking by 8:30am. The mid-May heat was already building, but we were able to enjoy vistas of rice fields with haze-enshrouded mountains as the backdrop. The shady trail started out flat, meandering along the edge of the wide-open fields. There were creeks flowing with water even in the midst of the driest time of the year, and we saw local kids on school holiday resting beneath a huge tree as they watched the water buffalo graze. The younger children shouted and played tag in the dry rice terraces.


Kids relaxing in the shade

It wasn’t long before the trail started to climb. We ran into a group of kids walking in the same direction as us, some of whom were sporting bleach-blonde hair (“Cheap Chinese hair products,” Francis explained). They escorted us to the ethnic Lahu-na village where they lived, and where most of the residents were Catholic and Baptist. In addition to the hair-bleaching trend, most of the residents have stopped wearing traditional clothing in favor of Western styles. All of the village dogs came out of hiding to bark at us, and we quickly walked through and out the other side, leaving the baying hounds in our wake.


Little kid, big knife

The climb steepened significantly as we walked through the second-growth, mixed deciduous forest above the village. There was no one else on the path, and the only sounds were the songs of birds in the trees and the rustle of bamboo in the mountain breeze. We felt as if we were far out in the wilderness, a sensation that increased further when Francis pointed out a baby cobra hiding in the weeds along the side of the trail. Despite its small size, we gave it a wide berth and continued onward and upward.


Kids along the trail

After about two hours of walking, we reached 1000 meters above sea level, and tall pines starting appearing among the forest’s deciduous trees. The temperature also dropped a bit and the wind picked up, providing some relief from the heat. The trail was cut into the side of the mountain, and as we walked we enjoyed incredible views of the valleys and distant mountains off to the right.


Ascending into pine tree territory

We soon rounded a corner and caught our first sight of Kong Pat, a village of about 100 people living in 22 bamboo houses with thatched roofs perched on the edge of the mountain’s peak. No wires were visible because the village did not have electricity or telephone service. We could see a Buddhist flag with faded, multicolored stripes flapping in the wind, a nod to Myanmar’s dominant religion in a village that was, according to Francis, “90 percent animist”.


First glimpse of Kong Pat village

We spent another 30 minutes or so climbing up to the village, passing a group of open-sided shelters intended as rest-houses for spirits, as well as pond around which small flags had been planted as offerings to the village’s otherworldly guardians. We were greeted at the edge of town by a handful of ferociously barking dogs, which ran for cover when I raised my camera to photograph them. I got the same reaction from the kids, who were extremely camera-shy. Unlike some other villages we had visited in the Kyaing Tong area, no one rushed out to sell us handicrafts.


Spirit rest-houses outside Kong Pat village

The Lahu-shi still wear their traditional costumes on a daily basis: simple white shirts or blouses, and eye-catching, turquoise-blue longyis or Shan-style trousers. Many wear simple but attractive necklaces, worn tightly around the neck, made of beads or woven grass.


Lahu-shi kids

Francis led us to a house where the village chief and shaman were sitting and talking. We removed our shoes, climbed a short ladder up to the veranda, and entered the dark house. We were followed by a group of children who, despite their curiosity, continued to avert or cover their faces to avoid being photographed. But a few started growing accustomed to the camera, and with Francis asking permission on our behalf, we were able to take a few pictures.


Lahu-shi kids

The shaman, who was sitting on the floor and holding a jovial child in his lap, was wearing a Smurf-like white cloth cap twisted into a point at the top. He exhibited some strange mannerisms, such as staring into the distance rather than looking people directly in the face while taking to them. Occasionally, he placed his hand against the right side of his face and mumbled a few words as if to himself. Pauksi thought he might have had a toothache, but it looked to me as if he were speaking to the spirits on an invisible mobile phone.


Lahu-shi shaman

Francis explained a few things about the Lahu-shi, including the tradition of newly married couples living with the bride’s family for 10 years (this is opposite to other villages in the region, where couples live with the groom’s family). Also, the Lahu-shi are entirely self-sufficient, subsisting on terrace-grown and wild rice, as well as wild game. In fact, the second house we visited was equipped with three front-loading muskets that the villagers used for hunting, and our hostess offered us the barbecued meat of a wild pig that had been killed the previous day.


Lahu-shi kids in the shaman’s house

I had asked earlier whether the villagers played any special traditional musical instruments, and as we ate lunch, the chief reappeared carrying a small woodwind instrument called a nawkou. It consisted of a gourd with a mouthpiece to blow into, plus five bamboo pipes affixed to the top. There was a finger-hole drilled into each of the pipes, and five more holes in the bottom of the gourd. The chief stood in the center of the room, surrounded by children, and demonstrated how to play. The sound was eerie and repetitive, but, with air passing through five bamboo pipes at once, it was far more complex than it first seemed. I felt privileged to witness the performance: It was the sort of unique music that might be in danger of disappearing from the face of the planet if younger generations don’t show interest in learning how to play the instrument.


The village chief playing the nawkou

Just as the mini-concert ended, a brief but intense rain shower blew across the mountaintop and drenched the village in the first significant precipitation of the impeding monsoon season. The kids dashed outside and ran circles around the house, shouting happily as the big drops plummeted from the sky. The clouds soon passed, leaving behind sunny skies, a pleasant breeze, and significantly cooler temperatures – perfect conditions for the two-hour walk back down the mountain to the car.


Pauksi standing near the spirit shrine at the highest point in Kong Pat village

Before returning to Kyaing Tong, we drove to the ethnic Palaung village of Wan Pauk in the flatlands at the base of the mountain. The town was fairly well-developed, and there were even some cars and two-story concrete houses in town. Most of the residents wore contemporary clothing, but a few of the women still sported attractive traditional Palaung dress, characterized by colorfully striped skirts, black tunics, and metal or bamboo hoops worn around the waist.


Pauksi and our guide Francis walking back down the mountain

We visited the house of an elderly Palaung woman who was sitting on her balcony and using a simple back-strap loom to weave traditional clothing. The woman’s sister appeared from inside the house to show us some textiles and metal bracelets she was selling. Among the goods, I was most interested in the black conical hats with sequins and bright tassels, which looked like something I might consider wearing if I were planning to ride a unicycle on a tightrope over a pool of swimming Sunderbans tigers.


Ethnic Palaung woman weaving with a back-strap loom

As we watched the elderly woman weave, we could hear preparations for a three-day wedding emanating from a nearby house. The first song they used to test the amplified sound system was South Korean singer Psy’s “Gangnam Style”, and as I sat in the middle of the Palaung village, the K-pop tune’s shockingly banal, robotic vapidity was enough to make me cringe. Despite the distance, I felt the distinct urge to walk back to the top of the mountain and sit among the villagers of Kong Pat, enjoying the infinitely more fascinating, distinctive, and organic sound of the traditional nawkou played by the Lahu-shi chief.

Written by latefornowhere

July 22, 2013 at 9:18 am