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Spirits, sky lords and single-speed bikes in Hsipaw

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The open fields just east of Nauk Gad village looked typical by northern Shan State standards. Nestled between a range of hills to the north and the narrow, sluggish Dokhtawaddy River to the south, the unremarkable tract of cultivated flatland was dotted with cone-shaped stacks of hay and, during my winter’s morning walk, shrouded in light mist.

But there was more to this landscape than met the eye. As I returned to the Mr Charles Riverside Lodge from my sunrise stroll, I was met at the gate by the man himself: Hsipaw’s original hotel and tourism entrepreneur, Mr Charles.

Keen to fill me in on local history, he explained that the name of Nauk Gad village, located just a few hundred meters down a dirt lane from the lodge, means “near the market” in Shan language. Indicating the open land spread out before us, he said, “Before the 1880s, these fields were the site of a big trading centre that brought merchants from Thailand, China and Laos. Farmers ploughing this area have found old opium weights and other items from those countries.”

The market lasted until 1888, he said, when an outbreak of smallpox devastated the area. Villagers interpreted this disaster as a warning from angry local spirits (nats): The merchants from afar were no longer welcome. The market was closed and the town of Hsipaw, originally located in the adjacent hills, was moved a few kilometers east to its present location.

More than a century later, Hsipaw has emerged as an increasingly popular stop along the Mandalay-Lashio Highway. Although the main road through town can get busy with through-traffic, the laidback vibe of the side streets and the surrounding countryside beckons travellers who are looking for an excuse to slow down and dwell in one place for a few days. As such, it’s ripe for exploration on foot or by bicycle.

A wide variety of such trips can be planned through local hotels, from half-day walks around town to overnight excursions to distant ethnic Palaung villages. During a recent visit to Hsipaw, my wife and I opted for a one-day walking tour of the Shan villages that dot the countryside just outside of town.

Shan trekking guide Joyin met us at the Riverside Lodge at 8am, and we started the day by walking through Nauk Gad, where we became acquainted with the local spirits – perhaps the same ones who had driven away the foreign merchants so many years ago.


Shan trekking guide Joyin (right) and a friend.


A Nauk Gaud resident demonstrates traditional Shan smoking methods. (Photo: Thandar Khine)


Nauk Gaud residents grill fish for breakfast. (Photo: Thandar Khine)

In the centre of the village was a watchtower-like shrine dedicated to Kyaut Won, who protects each populated settlement in the area. Directly underneath the tower was a lingam-like wooden phallus, beneath which was buried an urn of cooking oil.


Shrine to Kyaut Won.


Magical oil lies beneath the wooden wiener.

“The oil is changed every two or three years,” Joyin explained, “and the old oil is used as a healing balm rubbed on the skin to rid the body of evil spirits.” Just outside of Nauk Gad we visited a bigger shrine to Kyaut Mein, a more powerful nat who protects whole region. These shrines – there were several in the area, each located between but never within the Shan villages – feature statues of red and white horses, small pavilions with bedding for Grandmother and Grandfather Spirit, and plenty of offerings from families seeking various blessings for themselves and their children.


Shrine to Kyaut Mein.

Leaving the shrine behind, we walked through open countryside. For a short time we followed the tracks of the Mandalay-Lashio railroad line before climbing up to the main highway. On the other side of the road, we walked up another incline, passing a nunnery and Loi Mote Pagoda and Monastery on our way to a cluster of the hilltop tombs: the burial sites of several Shan saopha.


Walking along the Mandalay-Lashio railroad line.


Buddhist nuns return from their alms round.

During the time of the Burmese kings and for several decades beyond, these Shan “sky lords” (as the word saopha translates into English) were the hereditary rulers of the numerous fiefdoms into which Shan State was once divided. The largest of the three tombs in Hsipaw – featuring a domed ceiling supported by tall columns – was dedicated to fiery-tempered Sao Khe, who ruled the region in the early 20th century until his death in 1927.


The tomb of Sao Khe.

One of the smaller tombs on the hill was the burial site of Sao On Kya, the father of the last saopha of Hsipaw, Soa Kya Seng. The history of the saopha has particular resonance in Hsipaw because of the manner in which their rule came to an end: When the military took control of Burma in 1962, all of the saopha throughout Shan State were arrested. Most were released several years later – except for Soa Kya Seng, who was reportedly thrown into a bamboo cage after his arrest and executed by the Burmese army shortly afterward.

This story is told in detail in the 1994 book Twilight over Burma, written by Soa Kya Seng’s Austrian wife Inge Sargent. They had met as students in Colorado in the United States, and in 1954 she had returned with him to Hsipaw, where Shan astrologers gave her the name Thusandi. Following Soa Kya Seng’s arrest and execution, she fled the country with the couple’s two daughters.

Photographs of Soa Kya Seng, Thusandi and their daughters can be seen in hotels and restaurants throughout Hsipaw. My wife spent a long time studying one such family portrait and finally said, “I like history, but sometimes it’s too depressing.”

The ubiquity of these photos around town is testament to the hard feelings still harboured by many Shan over the saopha’s abduction and murder. It was just one of the countless atrocities committed over the decades by the Burmese army (Tatmadaw), which had been created in the 1940s as the patriotic, much-beloved brainchild of Burmese independence leader Bogyoke Aung San but later, under generals Ne Win and Than Shwe, degenerated into the scourge of its own citizens. To this day the army refuses to admit that it played a role in Soa Kya Seng’s arrest, much less his execution.

Despite the government’s intransigence in this regard, small steps toward political liberalization have been made in Myanmar since the 2010 national election. One of the byproducts of this modest relaxation has been the opening of the once-forbidden residence of the last saopha to tourists. The mansion is located just north of downtown Hsipaw, and my wife and I rode there on rented bicycles the day after our trek through the Shan villages. We were met at the door by the property’s caretaker Fern, the wife of Soa Kya Seng’s nephew. She recommended that we walk toward the river to see the wooden prayer house – an attractive and atmospheric two-storey structure that is now collapsing under age and neglect – and then return to the living room to hear her abridged version of the last saopha’s tragic story.


The prayer house at the last saopha’s mansion.


The author at the prayer house. (Photo: Thandar Khine)


The last saopha’s mansion.


Fern (left) tells the story of the last saopha to visitors.

This depressing history aside, not all is dark in present-day Hsipaw, as we found out during our explorations. There is also plenty of beauty to be seen amid the reminders of Myanmar’s bleak past: Our trek through the Shan villages, for example, included a visit to the 30-meter-high Nam Tuk Waterfall, which cascades in braids of water down a sheer cliff face and into a deep pool that would have tempted us to swim had the morning not been so cool.


On the way to Nam Tuk Waterfall.


Nam Tuk Waterfall.


Nam Tuk Waterfall.

During our bike ride the following day, we pedaled north out of the centre of town on Namtu Road, which in the morning was busy with motorcycles and thick with wood smoke. We struggled up a short hill on our heavy, single-speed clunkers, and turned left at a huge tamarind tree. The narrow lane led to Sao Pu Sao Nain nat shrine, which boasted the usual array of red and white horses, tigers with bananas stuffed into their mouths, and other mysterious figures from the spirit world. Just past this was Little Bagan, a scenic area of traditional wooden houses and old brick pagodas. The most striking was Eissa Paya, recognizable by the big tree growing straight out of the top. Not far away were Mandalaya Monastery and Maha Nanda Katha, home to a 150-year-old bamboo Buddha.


Sao Pu Sao Nain nat shrine.


Eissa Paya.


Kids playing near Eissa Paya.


The bamboo Buddha at Maha Nanda Katha.

After our visit to the saopha’s mansion, we cruised the town’s back streets, stopping at a small workshop where a man sat out front making sandals from old car tyres. His very friendly and very talkative wife pulled us inside the house, showed us her photo albums and complained that her husband continued making shoes despite the fact that few were actually sold. We bought two pair (2,500 kyats each), despite thinking that we would never actually wear them, before finally extracting ourselves from the house.


Making rubber sandals.


The finished products.

After lunch at a BBQ shop on Namtu Road, we cycled a few kilometers west of town on the main highway to visit Bawgyo Pagoda. This eye-catching shrine – which glows with gold on the outside and glitters with mirrored mosaics on the inside – houses four Buddha images that, according to legend, were carved out of wood given to the Bagan King Narapathisithu (1174-1211AD) by the King of the Celestials.

These statues are displayed only once a year during the week-long Bawgyo Pagoda Festival, held around the full moon of the lunar month of Tabaung (March). During this time, thousands of pilgrims gather to pay homage to the Buddha images, and the area surrounding the pagoda is thronged with market stalls run by Shan and Palaung vendors. But all was quiet during our visit to the pagoda, which is just the way we like it: just a handful of visitors offered flowers to the pagoda as small bells chimed in the breeze and the afternoon sunlight magnified the lustre of the golden stupa.


Bawgyo Pagoda.

With daylight growing short, we cycled back into town, crossed the Dokhtawaddy River on the highway bridge and climbed the paved, forest-flanked road up to Thein Daung Pagoda, our last stop of the day. Our bikes did not provide the best means of ascending the steep incline, forcing us to dismount and push most of the way up.

Also known as Sunset Hill, the peak often attracts significant numbers of late-day, westward-gazing backpackers. But when he reached the top we saw that we had the place virtually to ourselves – again, just the way we like it. We enjoyed the silence as we took in the view of the countryside, which was pink-hued in the waning light of the day. Then we climbed aboard our hefty bicycles and coasted back down into town, the shrieks of our overheated brakes echoing through the darkening forest like a host of angry spirits.


Cooling off in Shan State.




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.


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