Category Archives: Travel

Naga New Year on the Chindwin River, Burma

This is where my Burma experience really started to get interesting. The core of the trip was 11 days spent on the remote Chindwin River, traveling village-to-village on a temporarily converted rice barge. This is NOT a tourist destination (and it surely wasn’t a cruise ship we were on).  Several of the villages had never had foreign visitors – many of the people had never seen a white person. Lots of interesting experiences.

First stop: The Naga tribe’s mid-January New Year’s celebration.

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Ladies of the New Somra village on the Chindwin River gather to rehearse their dance for the next day’s New Year’s ceremony

 

January 15 is New Year’s Day for the Naga Tribe. So in far-northwest Myanmar (and adjacent parts of eastern India) mid-January was the time to see a traditional celebration ringing in the Naga New Year. We got to the Naga village of New Somra a day early, so we met a few people in advance and saw them rehearsing their songs and dance. They’d never had any outsiders at their ceremonies, so when we came back the next day, we were the guests of honor!

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In the village during the day, we were ushered to the ceremonial grounds and offered food. Even though we revealed that we had literally just finished eating on the boat, they nonetheless started putting food on the table in front of us. In one of the more awkward moments of the trip, they told us it was an important tradition that they feed us each a chunk of pork – by hand, directly into our mouths. We suggested small pieces, but somehow that was lost in the translation. I’m pretty sure the skin was still on my piece, but I got it down and kept it down.

The nighttime ceremony consisted mostly of a series of group dances, each with singing and chanting by the dancers. First the women; then a co-ed group of teenagers; then the men. There was something of a fashion show, too, with the younger adults showing off traditional tribal attire. I’ve got fewer pictures of the men because we were promptly pulled into the circle to do the “dance” ourselves. What I remember being chanted most sounded like “Hopie Bee – Lay Haw Lay” over and over. They were speaking Naga (not Burmese) so even our Burmese translator didn’t know what we were all singing and dancing to. The locals seemed to think it was hilarious to see us out there.

The event reminded me of a Cherokee “stomp dance” I went to in Oklahoma a long time ago.  I guess that makes perfect sense: these are traditional, ancient, tribal ceremonies, so it shouldn’t be surprising that they primarily consist of folks in a circle around a fire.

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The “Man Dance”, just a minute or so before I had to put the camera down and join the circle.

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The Naga language has no alphabet. They’ve apparently borrowed one from the Brits (who controlled Burma for 120 years), so when they write “Naga” (in fire!), they’re writing it in English letters.

They were as welcoming as one could ever imagine, but I still worried that we spoiling their traditional (even sacred?) event — often standing right in the middle of the circle with cameras clicking. I was relieved when some of village elders came to our boat the next morning to emphasize how honored they were to have outside people care enough to come so far to see them and how much they enjoyed sharing and showing off their traditions.

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Unlike most of Burma, the Nagas aren’t Buddhists.  During the British colonial period in Burma and India, American Baptist missionaries converted Nagas to Christianity.  The loudspeaker you can see on that “totem”-looking pole says N.S.B.C. – New Somra Baptist Church.  Curiously, the church building we went to had paintings of Jesus and photos of the (Muslim) Blue Mosque in Istanbul.

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We had asked if someone would sell us any of those red-and-black blankets/skirts/scarves everyone wore — that’s the traditional weaving pattern of the Nagas.  Because they’ve never really had “tourists” or visitors like us, they weren’t really set up for that, but a couple of ladies gathered up a handful and brought them out to our boat.  They were offering them way too cheap to start with, and then they unfolded one that they said was very old — a much finer weave and prettier pattern than the ‘modern’ ones they’d weaved themselves.  It was 100 years old.  And because it was so “old,” they said it was about half price!   They had no concept that a rare, irreplaceable antique might be especially valuable.  I felt a little guilty, but just paid them what they were asking and gladly brought it home.  They were thrilled with the cash, of course.  Now I just have to figure out what to do with it.

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The ladies’ dance. This is what they were practicing for in the picture at the top.

 

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What you see in these images are traditional rituals and costumes — not what the Naga folks in New Somra wear or do day to day.  As you can see, they had some electric lights (powered by generator) and a loudspeaker — technology at a level you might have seen in the U.S. nearly 100 years ago.  Some aspects of their life looked like they would have looked 500 years ago, and a handful of things were relatively modern.

As later posts will show, we covered about 500 miles of the Chindwin river.  Ringing in the Naga New Year in New Somra was just the first stop.  More fascinations to come from remote northwestern Burma.

Inle Lake, Burma: Life on the Water

Inle Lake was another interesting stop in my tour of Burma — but the core and highlights of the trip were still to come.

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One of Inle Lake’s foot-paddling fishermen, out on the lake before a foggy sunrise.

 

There’s a famous Monty Python comedy skit that takes the “we-walked-to-school-uphill-in-snow” joke to its ultimate absurd level. Four Englishmen are talking about their childhood homes: One claimed to have lived in a shoebox in the middle of a road.  Another calls a tiny house “Luxury!” and claims that his own family had lived “in a lake” (and then it gets even sillier).  I thought about that lake-dwelling Englishman when I got to Inle Lake in central Burma.

Kaylar village at Inle Lake isn’t just lakeside.  And unlike Venice these aren’t just canals. The houses and shops (and, e.g., the post office) are built on stilts in the lake. People fish and farm, but even the farming (mostly tomatoes and flowers*) is hydroponic — on floating mats tied down in long rows right in the middle of the lake.  What looks like grass on the shore in these pictures are mostly plants floating in about six feet of water.

 

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These ladies were harvesting flowers that had grown in those floating garden rows you can see in the background. They’re out in the middle of the lake.

 

The fishermen at Inle Lake are famous for their unusual foot-paddling technique. They balance on one foot on the far end of their flat canoe-like boats and wrap their other leg around a long wooden oar. Fishing with their traditional cone-shaped net-traps required them to see and capture their prey in the clear shallow water, so the foot-paddling kept hands free to deal with nets and fish, and allowed much better vision down into the water.   Now small gas motors get them out to their fishing grounds, and nylon nets have made those cone-nets mostly obsolete, but foot-paddling is still the norm while actually out there fishing. The one-footed balancing is impressively graceful; it’s an especially fascinating sight in the quiet, still mornings as the sun rises over the lake.

 

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This guy was after some sort of shrimp or crawdad. Notice that he has traps instead of nets.  In the distance are some of the hydroponic farm plots in the middle of the shallow lake.

There’s an impressive weaving “factory” in Kaylar.  Everything is done by hand on old wooden looms and other primitive equipment.  They put those patterns in their fabrics by dying “stripes” into the threads before weaving.  The place does a unique process to make lotus flower stems into thread (which the then weave into cloth).  You watch every step of that being done by the few dozen ladies buzzing around the place.

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A few of these images are from Indein, an hour or so upriver from the lake.  The Buddhist temple complex there (Shwe Indein) has hundreds of mid-sized “stupas” around 20-30 feet tall, mostly around 1,000 years old.  The place is being completely refurbished.  All those elegantly-crumbling relics are being encased in concrete and plaster and painted gold.  We Westerners have an impulse to preserve the historical archaeological site as-is, but the Burmese Buddhists believe that their religious sites shouldn’t be left in ruins.  (We saw this in several places all over the country).  They’re about half-done at Shwe Indein.

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A young monk at a Shwe Yan Pyay monastery, a few miles north of the lake on the way  to the airport in Heho.   A few blocks from the airport was a restaurant, of sorts, which served only soup and beer, and had guys there who would give you a massage while you ate (and drank). I just had the soup.

 

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We saw a handful of these ladies — from the Padaung tribe — near Inle Lake. I was uncomfortable photographing them, but our guides insisted that they were flattered by the attention and were proud to model their “jewelry.”

 

*In such modestly-developed areas, flowers seemed like a non-essential luxury, so I wondered who would be buying very many of them. During the trip, though, I saw flowers very often, usually as a sort of offering or tribute to Buddha or to one of the various spirits (“nats”) that seem to be a big part of their culture.

Bagan, Burma: Temples, Monks, Balloons & Fractals

On my first morning in Bagan, I watched the sun rise from one of those balloons; the next day I watched the balloons go by from the top of one of those big temples.

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One of the dozens of hot air balloons that fly every morning over Bagan, viewed from atop the 950-year-old Shwesandaw Pagoda.

 

The Burmese City of Bagan was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan* in the 9th to 13th Centuries.   The people of Pagan built several thousand Buddhist temples and monuments (“stupas”), some smallish and some reaching nearly 20 stories tall. The Mongols (a “horde” of them, no doubt) overran Pagan in the late 1200s. Happily, though, they left the Buddhist monuments largely intact, so thousands of them survive even today.

 

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Many Bagan monuments are solid “stupas,” but many are hollow temples like this one, usually with Buddha statues inside. There are thousands of them; I’m not sure this smallish one even has a name.

 

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Some of the young monks you see in Buddhist cultures are orphans, who live and go to school at places like the Shwe Gu orphanage and monastery in Bagan.

 

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A “fractal” is something with repeating patterns at different scales, so that if you “zoom in” on it, it still tends to look the same. Picture a stock market chart: A typical ten-year chart often looks about like a typical one week chart or a typical one-hour chart. The fractal-like shape of an ocean coastline can look much the same whether you trace the outline of a 100-yard stretch, a 10-mile stretch, or a 1,000-mile stretch. The temples at Bagan made me think of fractals. If you take a broad view, you see huge temples dotting the landscape. But zoom in and you’ll see a similar patterns of smaller temples filling in the gaps.  Similarly, the enormous scale of these monuments is all the more impressive when you see the tiny, intricate detail painted on the interior walls of many of the temples.

 

* As best I can tell, the Asian kingdom of “Pagan” has nothing to do with the “pagan” gods or practices of, e.g., the ancient Romans.

First Look at Burma (Myanmar): Yangon

The start and finish of my three weeks in Burma were in Yangon. I’m still sorting pictures from the rest of the trip, which included everything from remote tribal villages to famous golden Buddhas to a stunning hot-air balloon ride over a thousand-year old sacred city.

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Young monks in their living quarters at Naga Hlaing Gu monastery in Yangon.

 

The United States officially recognizes the country that lies just east of India, south of China, and west of Thailand as “Burma,” even though Burma’s current government wants to be called Myanmar. Today Burma has a population of around 50 million.

 

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Shwedagon Pagoda, already busy even before dawn

 

Burma was a British colony, starting in 1824 after the first Anglo-Burmese War.  Before the Brits, the area – like most of Asia – was governed for many centuries by a series of kings, dynasties and empires. Britain’s control of Burma was mostly lost during World War II; Burma was given its independence in 1948.  A “military junta” ruled Burma for most of the last 50 years, though its grip has been loosened somewhat in the last decade. The military renamed the country “Myanmar” in 1989, just months after an especially brutal suppression of dissenters. Perhaps because that origin, the new name has been slow to catch on, and the U.S. still hasn’t officially recognized it.  I prefer “Burma” mostly because it has one less syllable and is straightforward to pronounce.

 

Also renamed was the now-former capital city: Rangoon is now “Yangon.” I stayed in Yangon three different times in my three weeks in Burma. It’s a city of about 5 million, which makes it bigger (in population) than Los Angeles, though its downtown commercial skyline looks more like Wichita Falls. Only in the past few years has the Burmese government made it feasible for ordinary people to own cars, so terrible traffic overwhelms the city streets, perhaps also trumping Los Angeles on that front, too.

 

The most famous and prominent landmark in town is the Schwedagon Pagoda. It’s a huge Buddhist temple complex dominated by one towering golden “stupa.”  Legend has it that it’s 2,600 years old, though history and archaeology apparently peg it at closer to 1300. I got there long before daylight and it was already brimming with visitors.

 

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The girls in pink are nuns; the boys in dark orange or maroon are monks.  It sounds odd to Americans to hear of young children being monks and nuns, but those terms have different meanings in Buddhist practice than they do for the Catholics. Most Buddhist boys are monks at some point in their youth – perhaps only for a week or a month. It can be about like going to church camp. They can (and frequently do) leave at any time without any resistance or stigma, so it’s a very different type of commitment. As the pictures with smartphones and toy guns hint, they’re mostly typical kids. That young nun with the umbrella looks like a set-up shot, but it’s not. We caught her walking down a city sidewalk as we hopped of the bus.

 

A Buddhist "nun" near the Naga

A Buddhist “nun” near Naga Hlaing Gu in Yangon

 

All those boats operate as rush hour passenger ferries, taking folks across the Yangon River. The activity was intense: I think they had a ferry leaving at least every 30 seconds during peak rush hour traffic. We were told that foreigners weren’t allowed on those boats – because the government is concerned about safety (of foreigners).

Bangkok 2015: Wat Pho, And Other Important Questions


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Did you know that Buddhism is the second most practiced religion (behind Christianity) in 13 western U.S. states (including Oklahoma!)? I didn’t (until recently, anyway). Nor did I really know a darn thing about it. So I brushed up a little in preparation for my January Asian adventure.

First stop:  Bangkok.

The most visited sites in Bangkok include a handful of huge Buddhist temple complexes (“Wats”), mostly arrayed along the Chao Phraya river that runs through the heart of town.  There’s one at the Grand Palace called Wat Phra Kaew; there’s one right next door called Wat Pho, and one just across the river (with the tall towers) called Wat Aron.  Wat Pho is home to a 160-foot reclining Buddha – a Buddha statue the size of a US Navy patrol ship, casually lying on its side with its head propped on its right arm.  The legend is that a “reclining” Buddha isn’t sleeping or resting – he’s just so “enlightened” he’s practically floating: that’s the standard pose in Nirvana.

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Depending on your definitions, Buddhism isn’t necessarily even a religion at all. It’s theoretically “non-theistic” which means it doesn’t (necessarily) involve a god or gods. Buddha himself is believed to have been a teacher/philosopher who lived 2500 years ago in India. Technically, he’s not considered a god, and in theory neither he nor those statues are worshipped or prayed to – though to an outsider that’s just what it all looks like when Buddhists bow down with their palms pressed together in front of their faces. (Come to think of it, though, they did pretty much that same thing to me when I walked into my Bangkok hotel lobby).  They say those ever-present gilded statues of Buddha are just there to remind them of the qualities and teachings of Buddha.

Bangkok was just a short stopover on the way to a three-week stint in Burma, so there’ll be much more to come from my foray into the Buddhist world.

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Bangkok isn’t solely about ancient Wats and Palaces. This was the view from the balcony of my hotel room along the River.  The main part of the city’s skyline was behind me.

 

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If you’re like me, you can’t think of a visit to Bangkok without thinking of the 1980s song “One Night in Bangkok.”  Written by a couple of members of ABBA, it’s actually about an international chess tournament set against the backdrop of some of Bangkok’s seedier aspects.