A BOWL OF RICE - PAGES OF A JOURNEY IN MYANMAR

 

 

Our journey in Myanmar begins in Mandalay. We leave at early morning to reach the famous Üben's Bridge before dawn. It's very cold, but we are alone. The light reflects on the lake and the longest teak bridge in the world seems to be suspended in the morning fog. We stay there for a few hours and then continue to Amarapura's Monastery, where many novices live before taking the final vows. There is silence and peace. At 10.15 am, the monks line up to eat, but if you want to visit this place, you should do it before this time, to avoid the zoo effect caused by many organized tours buses. We leave again to visit Inwa village where, first with a ramshackle boat and then with a cart pulled by horses, we arrive in a spectacular teak monastery dating back to the first '800. Inside, an austere sense of ancient is surrounding a small school, where a distracted teacher and some unruly pupils are studying.

The following day we take a flight to Kengtung, in the Shan State, famous for being the hub of the Opium path. Sai Leng, a local guide who I contacted online to visit the villages of this region, waits for us . We proceed to an Ahku tribe Village, where we sit down together at the shaman that offers us a liquor with rice, similar to a grappa. The following morning, we are invited to a Haka Tribe wedding, where many women, including the bride, wearing traditional clothing. In this part of the world to get married is simple: the two families approve the union, the groom's parents pay for the party, the news spreads in the valley, then hundreds of people come from all the villages to eat, drink and dance together, they are all witnesses, and voilà ... the two guys are married! Easy, right? After saying goodbye to a whole generation of relatives, we continue to the village of Ann Tribe, where the women show us proudly their wonderful black teeth.

The last day in Kengtung, we drive until 30 km from Chinese border, in the area of Loi Tribe, to visit the Long Houses. As our eyes adjust to the dimness, in front of us there is an unexpected scenario. In one house, up to eight families, composed of at least five children each, parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, live all together. The interior of the house is very wide and everywhere glimpes of everyday scenes. A woman is leaping the rice, another is preparing the embers, while a man is blowing on the coals and an old man is lighting a cigar. Other women have just come back with a baskets load of wood, while outside some teenagers are weaving long colored yarns. A small world enclosed under a huge straw roof. Everywhere there are curious children in front of our camera lens. We are captured. They offer us some tea and we smoke a tobacco cigar just rolled for us, then we proceed to the second village. Another very old monastery of 1600 expects us. Some novices are playing to Chinlon around the courtyard. From the hill,  we see the roofs of the village. Across a suspended wooden bridge over a stream, like a river in flood, there are dozens of children. We seem Pied piper, our flute has been the noise of the car. In a few moments we are surrounded. They are all under six-seven years old . They are dirty but very beautiful. Each one carries on his shoulders a little brother, some even two. They follow us everywhere and escorted us  up to the village. Many of them are shy and are afraid of the camera, but the childhood curiosity wins and after few minutes they become like little models.

Off once Heho airport, we drive to Kalaw, a lovely mountain town, where we spend a pleasant day of trekking through the valleys of orange groves, and then we continue to the famous Inle Lake, through a road that swings slow between grain fields and barren hills. Before heading to the lake, we make a detour to admire the Pindaya Cave and the Shwe Oo Ming Pagoda that rises inside. More than 8,700 Bhudda of all sizes are set among the rocks. Most are golden, but there are also some blacks or jade made. The view from the top of the pagoda is beautiful: a staircase starts from the valley and meanders towards the mountain. In the afternoon and the following day, we rent a boat to visit the Inle Lake, famous for its fishermen that dance on the water as true acrobats, swinging the fish basket on their head and moving slowly the oar with their feet. The villages on stilts surrounding the lake are well maintained, with floating gardens and colorful windows. There are workshops of craftsmen everywhere, from Lotus weavers or the tobacco workers, up to silver goldsmiths. Finally, there are teak monasteries and pagodas centenarian, a perfect destination for any tourist.

But a journey to Myanmar can not define that, without a visit to Bagan and its fabulous temples. When we climb the steep steps of the Shwe San Daw Pagoda in the dark and we see the red ball of the sun peeking behind the temple of Sulamani, we perceive its former glory. Dawn illuminates slowly all the pagodas of the valley, are thousands, from ocher to scorched earth color, from pure white to blinding gold, and while the bats come out in groups from Dhamnayangyi, a fine mist envelops the temple spiers, immortalazing its grandeur.

We continue our journey to explore the Chin State, a little tourist destination. We are out of the world, the mobile phone doesnt'receives the signal and it becomes just an object to illuminate the path to the room, in the starry nights. Electricity is rationed and only available from 6 pm to 10 pm. The villages, set among the mountain valleys are torn between old traditions and new rituals: the woven-straw houses are starting to be replaced with wooden brightly colored ones and the latter, from some brick houses. The wolf blows hard at night, shaking the branches of the pines and by dropping the petals of rhododendrons.  The ancient custom of tattooing the face of Chin women will disappear soon, when the older generation will passed to a better life. The young girls prefer to put sandal wood as makeup, rather than get a tatoo on their cheeks as symbols of their tribe. And how blame them? The tattoo was made with a scalpel and it were very painful, so much so that the girls, 40 years ago (they don't make it anymore since then), had to stay at home for at least a week with a swollen face, unable to eat anything from the pain, but a bit of vegetable or bamboo soup . In any case, the elderly tattooed ladies are hospitable. An old woman of 88, little more than a meter high, playing a wooden flute with her nose nostrils. An unusual technique, but produces sweet sounds, melodic.

In the first village near Mindat we are witnessing, unfortunately, to a sacrifice of a goat. Religion, in this part of Myanmar, is still confused between animist beliefs, Buddhist and Christian ceremonies practices. In the afternoon we discover that a young friend (35 years) of our guide died the previous night. We are invited to the funeral.  Everyone is already very drunk, the distilled home-made palm wine doesn't forgive nobody, even the deceased. We are greeted with wide smiles and handshakes. There are tattooed grandmothers everywhere, surrounded by a swarm of grandchildren. The acrid smell of a buffalo, skinned for the occasion, sticks to our clothes. Some parts of the animal are scattered everywhere, even near the guitarist, cousin of the dead. We are invited inside the house. The scene in front of us is creepy: the body of the dead has been dressed with the traditional clothes and is placed in plain sight, in a rudimentary pale pastel blue cardboard coffin. Around him, three of his five children, are happily playing , while their mother, covered with a veil, is singing some sad litanies. On the right of the coffin, some old drunk ladies are sleeping on beds made of rags. A young woman takes out her left breast to feed her baby, while others women are keeping alive the fire under blacks pots, where another buffalo meat is boiling. Everywhere, the pieces of the animal are covered with dozens of flies. The stench of death is mixed with that of the flesh. We give an offer to the family then we go out. The crisp mountain air is like a cure.

Our journey proceed to Mrauk U. Life in the remote northeast region of Rakhaing (formerly Arakan), it flows slowly, following the rhythms dictated by the placid river. Arrived with a flight to Sittwe, we continued by river for five hours to the ancient Burmese Capital. It is difficult to imagine how this sleepy town could have been in the sixteenth century one of the most thriving Capitals of Asia and how its ships were a feared fleet in the Bay of Bengal, yet observing the ancient stupa, blackened time or circumnavigating the crumbling walls of the royal palace,you can imagine a bit of the lost splendor. This area of Mynmar, in one year, is visited by the equivalent of all the tourists who visit Bagan in one day. not surprising, therefore, the fact that people are very intrigued by our presence and very prone to the conversation. With a few hours of sailing on a smaller boat, flat bottom, we arrive in remote rural villages, immersed in Bamboo forest, where live other Chin women with tattoos, although with different designs those of hill tribes. The Lemro river, now, is very low, so much so that in some places, the boatman has to get on the water and push the boat to not to run aground on the sandbanks, but during the rainy season the river can also get up to 3-4 meters, bringing the brittle straw huts to the valley. The interior of the temples of the northern valley in Mrauk U is very impressive: there are thousands of Bhudda set in small caves, in tight concentric corridors, illuminated by the sun filtering through some side slits. We walk in silence, enjoying the mystique of the place.

Arrived in Yangon, the last stop of our journey, we visit the downtown: a succession of dilapidated colonial-era buildings, mixed with some modern buildings from undefined style. On both, an array of well-aligned parables and clothes hanging out of the windows.We get lost among the uneven sidewalks, kidnapped by the life of its inhabitants and the potpourri of races that lives in the largest city of Myanmar. At each intersection, with the nose up, we admire the domes in Art Nouveau style, covered by the roots of the ficus benjamin and from the mildew of decades of neglect. Many crows and pigeons nest there as a comfortable home, regardless of the hectic traffic that becomes congested in the evening, along Merchant Road. The old city plant is a grid of parallel streets with increasing numbers. Every street seems to represent a trade or its related products that are exposed in plain sight. There is the road of the painters and the street of the blacksmiths, the street of shoemakers where skilled craftsmen shape the uppers and the path of the fabric with its colorful buttons. And yet, the street of the lamps and the photocopying road, where the damp sheets are dried with a hair dryer. And, within walking distance, the street of gold and that one of the precious stones, followed by that of fishing nets, of the mirrors, of the cables, of the ropes, of the spare parts for everything from a bumper's car up to each individual component to build your own lighter. There's even the road of the "little Monk", with baskets containing all the necessary kit: the tunic, the umbrella and the rice bowl for offerings, which inspired us the name our travel diary. Every morning, in fact, the monks, they put it on their shoulder and walk, barefoot, for the streets of the cities in search of a gift. This is not begging, but a way to offer people the opportunity to improve their Karma, with the hope of a better life.

Small bars to drink tea or enjoy a cane juice are scattered everywhere. Hot oil pans on the sidewalks sizzles under the golden roots trees; every corner is good to squat on plastic tiny little chairs and watch the street scene, eating the Maji-yweq dhouq, a salad prepared with tender leaves of young tamarind. Entire families are handed down a gesture made of small things, from how to cut onions finely to how unravel the nodes on a net. A manual skill orchestrated to create a concert of artisans. A routine that takes your breath away and makes us curious spectators of habits that do not belong us.

The ingenuity of Yangoon’s inhabitants exceeds all our expectations. In particulary, fascinate me a lot the anarchists of the color. Each old house, in fact, has its own color and each tenant must independently provide for the maintenance of the front piece of his property. Many are painted in bright colors, from lemon yellow to green aquamarine. Others have kept the original pastel colors, from periwinkle to sugar paper. The anarchists of color, instead, regardless of the condominium meeting, repaint their home piece in a different way, creating rainbow palaces ranging from orange to turquoise. A palette tangled by pipes and wires, but, in his own way, fascinating.

Our jouney is almost finished. The long shadow of the Shwedagon, the golden pagoda, the symbol of Myanmar, dominates the city with its 98 meters height. At sunset, it reaches its maximum splendor and seems like a headlight. So my thought goes to the Lady - as Myanmar’s people call Aung San Suu Kyi - who, everyone wishes, will lead this Country out of the dark years of military dictatorship, giving hope for a better future.

Yangon, city of thousands craftsmen; Myanmar, Country of thousands Golden Pagodas.

Written by Sarah Falchi - Photos by Paolo Castellari

 

WHERE TO STAY – SOME ADVICE AND USEFUL LINKS

Mandalay: The Home

Inle Lake: Hupin Inle Khaung Daing Village Resort

Bagan: Gracious Bagan Hotel

Mrauk U: Mrauk Palace Resort

Yangoon: Hotel Grand United - Ahlone Branch 

Local guide in Kengtung: Sai Leng- sairoctor.htunleng@gmail.com

Local guide in Mrauk U: Myint Zaw - mraukuguide@gmail.com

For more infos about our Myanmar trip visit our blog: paolocastellari.com/icastell

UBEN’S BRIDGE
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MANDALAY MONASTERY
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MANDALAY VIEW
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MONK’S LIFE
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MANDALAY MARKET
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AKU WOMEN
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VILLAGE
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AKHA WOMAN
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ANN WOMAN
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OLD MONASTERY
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LONG HOUSE
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LOI TRIBE
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VILLAGE CHILDREN
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A SMALL WORLD
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LOI WOMAN
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KENG TUNG
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PRAYERS
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PINDAYA VIEW
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PINDAYA PAGODE
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FISHERMAN
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INLE LAKE
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