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Posts Tagged ‘Sie Sone Monastery

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.