Sleepless In Shan State, Myanmar

We arrive at the monastery in the early evening, as the shadows lengthen and the heat of the day is about to disappear. I am so tired now that my knees are starting to wobble. The temperature is plummeting.

We’re hiking through the bucolic countryside of Shan State, from Kalaw to the shores of Inle lake, and tonight we are sleeping on a monastery floor. This is a teaching monastery where a few dozen kids (a.k.a. novice monks) live and get educated by the older monks.

Here’s what I learn about sleeping in a monastery in the hills.

  • Monastery buildings are built from wood – floor, walls, roof, and are raised up on stilts. Theres a lot of draughty gaps between boards, and it will get down to 6 ° tonight.
  • the monks hang sheets from the rafters to create separate sleeping spaces within the one large room, but we are all just metres from each other and every sound carries.
  • my bed roll is the thickness of a couple of sheets, with a sleeping bag and another sheet on top. It will feel like I am sleeping on a wooden floor (because I am)
  • tourism dollars have contributed to the building of a collection of quite new huts housing the squat toilets, down a path under the trees. It’s still a challenge , in the dark, to balance my light source while using them.
  • there is cold water available for a shower (of the tip the bucket over my head variety) but I choose to stay dirty and dry – I am going to be sleeping in today’s clothes and continuing the trek in them tomorrow so getting wet and cold for cleanliness seems superfluous.
  • lying on my bed roll and peeking under the sheet curtain to watch baby monks in their class is fun.
  • the monks evening prayer session is more singsong style than chanting.
  • young monks sing with enthusiasm and gusto, but not necessarily in tune. Get used to it, prayers go for a long time.
  • the easiest way to sit on the floor for dinner, when my hiking muscles are too tight to sit cross legged for long, and I need my arms free for eating, is to sit back-to-back with a friend, an easy way to prop each other up. I still need to make sure my feet are not pointing at Buddha.
  • a dinner of vege soup, rice and a fresh apple is a welcome diversion from evening prayers.
  • it will be lights (candles) out and everyone into bed before 8pm.
  • I will stay warm and cosy in my layers of clothing inside my sleeping bag, my angry birds hat from Kalaw market will also keep my head and ears warm overnight.
  • Floorboards are not a mattress. I am in deep discomfort all night (yes, I am a soft westerner who is used to a mattress, any mattress, please!). Moving is painful so I position myself as best I can on my left side, and then try unsuccessfully to doze off. After about an hour, the pressure points are burning so I gingerly roll over and repeat on my right side. I am so uncomfortable that getting up at 3am and heading out into the cold and dark to find the toilets seems like a substantial improvement.
  • I have never been happier to hear the monks’ prayers start up at 5am, out of tune or not – I can get up now! I discover that most of my fellow hikers also didn’t sleep, but everyone kept quiet as they didn’t want to wake anyone else – so we were all lying there awake all night!

After morning prayers, we hear the baby monks trying to recite the english alphabet as part of their lessons. We spontaneously start singing the alphabet back to them (while still wearing our silly market hats), and they burst out laughing at us, and then join us in a sing-a-long. All of a sudden sleeping on the floor is forgotten, we are having fun, making a small connection with our hosts, and it is all worth it after all.

 

 

Finding Chilli Town in the hills of Shan State, Myanmar (Burma)

It’s not really called Chilli Town. But it is the name we bestow on it as soon as we see it. We are only an hour or so into the first morning of our hike from near Kalaw, through the hills and rolling farmland of Shan State, to Inle Lake. Freezing overnight, it’s now warm and sunny under a clear blue sky. And on the ground, in every direction, around every house, are huge sheets of plastic covered with freshly harvested red chillies, drying out under the sun. The kids are playing between them, the women are working around them, and we are enchanted.


So we hang around for a while and get to know the village a bit more. We compliment the women on their bright and practical clothing – fisherman pants, colourful scarfs and tops. Before you know it, we are literally buying the clothes off their backs. Not surprisingly, the women of the village are far smarter negotiators than us, but we are happy customers.

Then we spot the local “Mr Whippy” – his old wreck of a bike carries an icebox inside a battered tin box, from which he sells homemade ice blocks. It’s also hung with old empty sacks that previously carried more toxic sounding materials, hopefully there has been no cross-contamination. The village kids are all kinds of excited, with their ice cream treats and a group of odd visitors to play with as well.

Eventually it’s our time to go as well, with many more miles to walk, with a few extra chillies in our pockets, and a definite spring in our step.

Two reasons to pause in Pindaya, Burma

Pindaya, Burma
Markets, fresh pancakes
I found two very good reasons to stop and explore the little town of Pindaya. It’s in the picturesque Shan State in Myanmar, on the edge of a beautiful lake in a valley.

The Market.

There is always something endlessly fascinating to me about a true local market. One that has nothing to do with tourism.  The market (held every five days) in Pindaya is one of those markets, so we just had to stop and explore for a few hours. The variety of food stuffs was fascinating, from deep fried tofu to multicoloured rice crackers of many shapes, from fresh fish and fruit to dozens of varieties of dried fish.

My favourite though was what I called the “coconut crumpets”, being freshly made in front of us on a table that seemed filthy with splattered pancake mix, but the cooking pans themselves were very clean. The pancake batter included shredded coconut, and when they came out of the pan they were warm and light and full of holes like a crumpet, and absolutely delicious. Sadly we never found them anywhere else in Myanmar. If anyone has a recipe please let me know!

Pindaya, Burma
entrance to Buddha Caves, Pindaya, Burma

Browsing through the rest of the market was like having a nosy through a local home, there was clothing, bedding, electronics and plastics, music, a hairdresser, flowers and bicycles.

The Buddha Caves.

On a hill just outside Pindaya is the Shwe U Min pagoda, commonly know as the Buddha Caves. We drove part way up the hill to the entry hall to the pagoda. Bizarrely there is a giant fake spider guarding the entrance, based on a very old (pre buddhist) local fable. From there it’s about 300 steps up to the main part of the pagoda, which extends into the mountainside through numerous caves.

Pindaya, burma
sign of the day

There are reputed to be 8000 buddha images in these caves – 4000 are “miniatures” forming a few larger sculptures, the other 4000 are from inches to metres in height, and a multiple of styles and ages. In one cave there is a maze, in other caves there are hidden meditation chambers. And being in caves is pleasantly cool compared to the temperature outside in the sun.

There’s a great sign at the entrance to the cave, which clearly meant to remind visitors to remove their shoes, proudly announcing  “Foot-Wearing Prohibited”

We then walked the longer set of steps right to the bottom of the hill so that we could avoid walking out past the legs of the giant spider. At the bottom of the hill is also a shop selling homemade paper, beautifully made with petals and leaves scattered through it, a nice souvenir.

Ten things you will do on Inle Lake, Myanmar

We hiked for two days to Inle lake – through farms, over hill and dale. So we arrive ready to relax. Sitting in one of the long boats being whisked across the large, serenely blue (sometimes brown) lake to tonight’s accommodation (and showers) is a good start.  

Leg Rowing at Inle Lake, Myanmar
Our boat for the day is being leg-rowed

We all arrive in Inle Lake knowing we are going to explore the lake and its communities by one of these boats, but what you probably don’t know yet is that there is an established tourist trail across the lake, and you will probably do the following ten things in one day, even if you don’t explicitly request them. I am not normally a fan of enforced tourist trails, but being whisked from one spot to another by local boat makes it way more fun than a bus tour. So sit back and enjoy:

  1. Your boat driver will automatically look out for fisherman on the lake, take you in close and slow down so you can get good shots. He literally eased off the throttle every time I picked up my camera. They know how fascinated we are by the fishing styles and large cone nets.
    spooling the lotus silk
    spooling the lotus silk
  2. You will visit Phaung Daw Oo, a large pagoda housing five buddhas which we nicknamed the ‘golden balls’. Originally five normal small buddha statues, they are now unrecognisable large round blobs, due to decades of being rubbed with gold leaf for good luck. The Phaung Daw Oo festival runs for 16 days every spring, and the five golden buddhas are taken out on the royal barge around the 14 lake communities. A few years ago the barge tipped in rough water and one of the five buddhas was lost to the bottom of the lake. However when they got the other four buddhas back to the Pagoda, the fifth lost one had mysteriously reappeared in its spot in the pagoda. Since then they only take the other four buddhas out for the ceremony every year, the fifth one is left permanently on dry land.
  3. The Lotus Silk workshop is fascinating, seeing lotus plants being turned into silk fabric, beautifully soft and colourful. It is also tourist ‘grand central station’,  the shop is very expensive and it stocks more cheap synthetic fabric than real silk and lotus silk, so buyer beware! Then again you will struggle to find lotus silk anywhere else in the country, so if you want it, this is the place to get it.
  4. Your boat will dock at an ordinary stilt house in a small village, you’ll enter the front room and you will find that you are in a Cheroot factory. There will be burmese women sitting on the floor hand-making the cheroots, they are so skilled at it that they never need to look at their hands, they can look at each other and chat instead. They will be surrounded by a circle of stools for the tourists to sit on and watch them. Off all the touristy things I did in Myanmar, this seemed the most uncomfortably like a zoo, and I made a quick exit. 
    delicious shared lunch
    delicious shared lunch
  5. You will stop at one of the dozens of stilt restaurants for lunch. Because boats only travel on the lake in daylight, they only get lunch business, as no-one can get to them for dinner. Instead of the feast of a number of shared curries that was our usual enjoyable daily meal in Burma, here we had a meal of other local delicacies – stuffed whole lake fish, green and red tomato salad, chicken and peanuts, and bokchoy. All washed down with a good Beer Myanmar of course.
  6. There is nothing quite like the procession which accompanies a young boy on his way to the monastery to become a novice. It’s a boat procession of course, with boatloads of family members celebrating, loads of noise, and the novice dressed all in pink with gold jewellery and sitting on a throne, like a barbie doll, shaded by gold umbrellas. 
    novice monk in parade to the monastery
    novice monk in parade to the monastery
  7. Shwe Nin Thein pagoda is renowned for its hundreds of stupas, dating from the 14th to 16th centuries, mostly in a state of decay and disrepair. It’s a nice change to see stupas that are old brick and plaster, not just shiny gold. I really hope they stop restoring them, their charm is in how they show their age. There is a long covered arcade running hundreds of metres gently up the hill to the pagoda, lined with market stalls of both sides, but it seems to get little business, most of the stalls are empty. At least they have expansion capacity here as tourism grows. We were lucky enough to find a volleyball competition underway in the local village, it is a very popular sport in Myanmar. 
    ruined stupa at Shwe Nin Thein
    ruined stupa at Shwe Nin Thein
  8. You’ll see how the local communities have created agriculture on the lake with their floating fruit and verge gardens, established on floating platform made out of lake weed. The combination of fishing and floating agriculture on the lake makes for an impressive supply of fresh food for the local population and the visitors here.
  9. Nga Hpe Chaung monastery is famous for its jumping cats. Except when we visited in December, as one of the head monks had died three months previously, and since then the cats had refused to jump. I wonder if they have started jumping again. There’s not much to see here if the cats aren’t jumping, although they did have a large number of impressively clean toilets for tourists.
  10. You will shop at markets. It might be the market stalls at Phaung Daw Oo, it might be a market stall on the boat coming alongside your boat on the rivers and channels between communities, or it might be the “farmers market” which revolves daily around five sites around the lake. If you’re really lucky, you’ll get the one day out of five when it is a floating market, rather than in a village on the land. Bargain hard, it is expected and respected here.

The Unique Fisherpeople of Inle Lake, Myanmar

The man stands on one leg on the flat stern of his small wood boat, wraps the other leg around his upright rowing oar, and starts paddling in a circular motion with his leg. It is a unique and oddly graceful sight to see the unique rowing style of the fishermen of Inle Lake.

Traditional fishing on Inle Lake
Traditional fishing on Inle Lake

Because the boats are so low to the waterline, they need to stand up to see where they are going, and also to spot all the weeds just under the water line. This rowing style also leaves their hands free for fishing. Apparantly only the men do this, the women sit on the stern and paddle with their single oar.

Traditional fishing on Inle Lake
Traditional fishing on Inle Lake

The fishing also involves hand nets, and large conical wooden framed nets, about 2 metres in length. Other than the fishing boats, the main form of transport on the lake are larger longer boats with a motor on the back – similar to long tails in Thailand, without such a long tail! These are used by locals and tourists alike, although the tourist boats are easy to spot as they have seats in them and rugs to keep off the cold and/or the water spray, while the local boats were more basic. All boat transport stops at night, as none of the boats have lights.

Traditional fishing on Inle Lake
Traditional fishing on Inle Lake

The freshwater lake is the second largest in Myanmar, at about 116 sqm, with floating garden agriculture on the western side of the lake taking up about half as much space again. The floating water agriculture has developed over the last century in particular. The local people harvest lots of seaweed from the lake, and then tie the seaweed all together to make floating platforms on which fruit and vegetables are grown, particularly tomatoes.

floating agriculture on Inle Lake
floating agriculture on Inle Lake

The platforms are so robust that the farmers can stand on them to tend to their crops. The combination of water and lake weed makes a very nutrient rich environment, supporting intensive agriculture. In other words, it’s not difficult to eat well around Inle Lake.

Brushing Buddha’s teeth and washing his face in Mandalay

It all started innocently enough. “Anyone want to get up early tomorrow to see Buddha get his face washed and his teeth brushed?” asked our local guide. And then he added the clincher. “It’s a local custom, for the local people, not for tourists”.

Which is why I get my wake up call at 3.15 am, and am in the lobby at 3.30am to join two fellow travellers and our driver. Its pitch black and cold outside, with no other traffic. There’s a small queue of about a dozen people at the door of the Maha Muni pagoda, and we have plenty of time to peruse the stalls to buy offerings for the temple , as we discover that the doors will only open at about 4.45am today. The queue is slowly growing as tour groups arrive (so much for the ‘not for tourists’ claim), but it seems that these groups are buddhists visiting from other asian countries, we are still the only westerners here.

The Buddha at Maha Muni is famous for having grown ‘fat’ from the amount of gold leaf rubbed onto it for the last one hundred or so years. When the doors open we are all shepherded into areas in front of the Buddha statue, where we place our tray of offerings on a bench and then sit down behind it on the floor. This is the point when my sleep-deprived brain remembers that I struggle to sit cross-legged for more than five minutes at a time, and that’s before I add in a stone floor. Uh-oh, better find the endurance switch, and quickly.

As a distraction, and following the lead of the more experienced visitors, we open the packets of food on our trays, peel the top half of a banana and the top half of an orange, and try (unsuccessfully) to arrange all the food in an attractive pattern on the tray.

The actual ceremony is carried out by the head monk and a number of lay helpers (distinguished by their white robes). My silent hope that this turns out to be a spectacular but surprisingly short ceremony is quickly dashed.

First many ornate containers and platters are carried up to and placed in front of Buddha. The monk then presents these to the Buddha one by one to be blessed. The monk wraps a large gold cloth around Buddha’s neck and shoulders, and climbs up on a platform so he can easily reach Buddha’s face. One of the lay helpers passes up a large urn of cooked rice, and the monk takes a handful and proceeds to scrub Buddha’s teeth with the rice (or more accurately he scrubs Buddha’s lips, as the statue does not actually open it’s mouth).

This is repeated for about ten minutes with more handfuls of rice. Eventually the rice is passed back down and the monk starts to wet Buddha’s face with a spray of water from a golden can. The face is washed with a cloth in a series of rhythmic arm movements, over and over again, and then dried with a series of towels in the same repeated rhythmic pattern. Strangely this reminds me of Karate Kid – wash on, wash off! The drying is then finished off with the waving of a golden fan.


While the repetition and rhythm of the ritual is very relaxing on the mind, it hasn’t helped at all with my attempts to sit still on the floor – I am changing position every few minutes, and struggling to remember to make sure my feet always point away from Buddha. I marvel at how my hips can be completely numb and yet very painful at the same time. Eventually I admit defeat and drag myself out of the viewing area – the hardest part is trying to stand up – it takes another ten minutes before I can walk with any  normality again.

Now that we are standing we realise that the best viewing spot might actually be to the right hand side of the buddha (when facing the buddha). In this area you can stand or sit, with room to stretch and it is much less crowded. It would also be a good idea to bring a cushion!

Elsewhere in this pagoda I am able to admire the soaring gold arches of the hallways, the intricate patterning, the collection of ancient Angkor sculptures which had been stolen from Cambodian kings during wars over the centuries, and an impressive row of large bells to ring to share your good merit. It’s also a good site for charcoal and ink sketches, the quality here is a lot better than the ones for sale at U Bein bridge.

So the final verdict is yes, the face washing and teeth brushing ceremony is a unique enough local ritual to get up early for. It’s also far too uncomfortable for me to ever do twice, if I happen to make it back to Mandalay.

Especially when I learn that the length of the drawn out process of washing and drying with multiple cloths is driven by economics. Buddhist pilgrims like to buy a cloth used in the ritual as a souvenir, as the cloths are considered to be blessed by Buddha. So the more the monk uses, the more they can sell, which enhances the pagoda’s ability to support the local population. I call it a trade-off between charity and hip bones.

The buddha with mood swings

I stand in the beautiful long corridor in Ananda temple and look at the huge happy smile on the face of the golden 10 metre high buddha. As I walk closer to him, I notice his expression has changed. The big happy smile is now a mindful expression, as though he is gently teaching me. As I walk right up to his base and look up, his expression is now sad. This buddha really has mood swings – or maybe I’ve just upset him?

It’s quite a freaky experience watching the expression change the first time. I see lots of people doing a double-take and then going back to the start and trying it again (and I do too). It’s a deliberate design feature on this buddha statue from the 12th century, and it’s pretty cool. I’m in Ananda temple in Bagan, Myanmar. It’s an unusual temple in a number of ways. It is built in the shape of a symmetrical cross, with four buddha statues in the middle, one at the end of each arm of the cross. In fact the North and South corridors both have identical buddhas with changing expressions, the buddhas in the east and west wings are many centuries newer and their expression does not change. There are also hundreds of other buddhas in little alcoves all over it’s walls. The only difference between the two original buddhas is that one is artificially lit, to make the statue shine a vivid gold, while the other is naturally lit through the temple design, and looks a much subtler colour. I definitely prefer the natural look.

A happy expression, lit naturally.

 

A mindful expression, lit naturally.

 

A sad expression, lit naturally.

 

A happy expression, lit artificially.

 

A mindful expression, lit artificially.

 

A sad expression, lit artificially.

Blissful Ballooning Over Beautiful Bagan

It is hard to imagine too many places that are better suited to a sunrise hot air balloon trip. In Bagan the 2200 temples and pagodas are spread across a small plain in the elbow of the Irrawaddy river. In the dry months it is flat, warm and calm.

The flight path starts to the north and had us float through old Bagan to land in the south. The balloon pilot keeps circling the basket around,without disturbing the balloon’s overall direction, so we all get to see in all directions in turn. We go up to 1.7 kms, and down to barely brushing the tops of palms.

 In the east, the sun is rising in a blaze of colour, and anything in front of it is silhouetted, but most of the temples are on, or to the west of, the flight path, so there wasn’t much to see directly into the sunrise.

 Look towards the west and the east facing sides of temples and pagodas are ablaze in the warmth of the new sun.

 Look to the North and all the home fires combine into dreamy hazy snakes of smoke across the landscape, and North East gave lovely pink and brown tones to the haze.

 Look south and it looks like a clear and sunny day, basking in a golden glow.

 

And to round it out, I have added a few shots of Bagan at sunset from a temple top.