Saturday, February 6, 2016

My Trip to Burma: Arrival in Nyaungshwe, the incredible Pindaya Cave, a paper Factory, a cool monastery, and the raucous Fire Balloon Festival.

This morning we’re heading east, from Bagan to the Inle Lake area.  Such chaos at the airport.  There are three or four domestic airlines in the airport, each located next to each other, in booths smaller than a Paris hotel room.  

I‘m crazy paranoid about our luggage, given what happened on day 1, but it all goes smoothly.  We land in Heho airport, high in the southern Shan hills. Our next three days are going to be spent exploring and learning about the Shan state.

Burma has 135 different ethnic groups (officially recognized by the government).  These are arranged into eight major national ethnic races:  Bamar, Chin, Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Mon, Rakhine, and Shan.  

The Shan are Burma's second-largest ethnic group, making up about 9 percent of the population.  The Shan people are located mainly in eastern Burma (and also across the border east, into northern Thailand). Culturally and linguistically, they're closely related to the Tai peoples of Thailand and Laos. The Shan have inhabited this area of eastern Myanmar since at least the tenth century, playing a major role in the country's history.  


Although the Shan are the most populous group in the east, chances are we won't see that many of them, since the main Shan heartlands are east of Taunggyi, which is off limits to foreigners due to the continued civil conflict there.  But there are many other different hill tribes, including the Intha, the Padaung, the Pa-O, Eng, Danu, Akha, Lahu, and Loi.  

We'll definitely see the Intha. They are one of the country's more visible minorities.  Intha means "sons of the lake", and they live mainly around Inle Lake, where we will be spending lots of time.  They are most famous for their distinct style of rowing their boats (you'll hear and see lots more about that soon).

At the airport, we're met by our driver, and our guide, a diminutive woman named Nyein Nyein Ei.   She speaks English very well.  She tells us that Nyein Nyein means "quiet", but that she is anything but.  She is Shan, and she is very proud of the area and the people. We're going to learn and see a lot.  

It's too early to check into our hotel, so we immediately begin our sightseeing.  Our first destination is the pretty countryside hill town of Pindaya.  The journey into town is notable, as the countryside is pretty spectacular.  

We first stop at a local store.  I'm not sure if this is really on the tour, or if Nyein Nyein just wants to do some shopping.
There's Mark, checking out the goods, with Nyein Nyein next to him.  If he looks freaked out, it's because things are so incredibly cheap, it's mind-boggling.




For example, here's a shelf with alcohol.  (There are wineries in the Shan state.)  The bottles on the top shelf are between 2500 and 3500 kyat.  That's about $2 to $3.  


Mark loaded up on spices and tea.















The countryside was indeed beautiful.  Fields and fields of yellow chrysanthemum.  There's a lot of farming going on in the Shan state.



































As we were driving, we came upon a bunch of people harvesting cabbage and loading and transporting it by truck.   A city boy like me doesn't get to see rural sights like this very often.




Friendly cows below!







































A few yards up the road was another cabbage cart, and a truck alongside of it.  It never ceases to amaze me how they transport people in this country.  People just pile on a truck, and off they go.  There's no such thing as "capacity".  The more the merrier.  

























Our drive to Pindaya continued, but with a quick detour to a roadside chickpea-cracker stand.  Another slice of authentic Shan culture. 











Nyein Nyein apparently knew the proprietor, so she took us around the back to see how the crackers are made.  No glamour here.











Here are the ladies in the back, frying them up.












We got to taste 'em right out of the oil.  They were awesome.  We bought a package.  They were gone by the time we reached Pindaya.

About 20 minutes later, we reached Pindaya.  You're probably reading this and pronouncing it "pin-DYE-uh", as I was.  Until I heard Nyein Nyein say it.  It's "PIN-dee-uh", rhyming with "India".   Pindaya is a typical Shan State town - small, relaxed, with a bustling market (which we didn't visit) and very friendly locals.  There really isn't much to do in Pindaya. Life revolves around pretty Pone Taloke Lake.  This lake is best appreciated from our lunch restaurant, Green Tea, as you'll see in a few minutes.  


The main reason why people come to Pindaya is to see the Shwe Oo Min natural cave pagoda.  It's pretty impossible to describe just how freaking amazing this is.  The Shwe Oo Min Cave is a cave that is crammed full of Buddha statues.  How many?  More than nine thousand!!  

Pindaya is actually a  complex of three caverns in a steep hillside.  the largest of them extends 490 feet into the rock, and this is where everyone is headed.  The cave is located way up on a limestone escarpment above town.  The two parallel towers you see are elevators up to the top.  Branching out from the elevator towers, in red, are covered stairways making their way up from nearer to the ground level.  








You drive up, then climb up one of the covered walkways, to the entry level. 




































You can continue the climb, or you can take the elevator.  We took the easy route.  So did most of the visitors.  Nyein Nyein led us to the larger capacity elevator, so we got up more quickly.  the elevator bypasses 130 of the steepest steps of the covered stairway. (There are 200 steps total, not as many as the 777 of Mount Popa, but still not easy, due to the steepness.)  To climb up by stairs takes 30 minutes.  


There's a nice terrace when you get off the elevator, and you get a nice perspective of the covered stairways flanking the elevator towers.




In the picture below, the large complex of gleaming white and gold stupas (at the top of the photo) close to the start of the walkway (this is the eastern walkway)  is the Nget Pyaw Taw Pagoda, and it's an impressive sight.






You also get a great view of lovely view of Pone Taloke Lake. 













Time to go inside.  Lots of people heading up.  








The cave itself is spectacular.  It is literally CRAMMED full of Buddha statues.   The sight of almost 10,000 golden statues  (Shwe Oo Min means "golden cave") illuminated against the cave ceiling is something you never forget.  More statues are being added all the time by Buddhist pilgrims and an assortment of international organizations.  The cave is ancient, but the statues date back only to the late 18th century. 


Sorry if the next bunch of photos seem repetitive, but this is what it was like in the cave.  Endless Buddhas.  They come in a variety of styles and sizes.  Some are wood, some are marble, some are stone.  It is the entire ensemble that really makes the impact, though.  The brain just can't compute this much gold and these many images in one place at one time.  














In one part of the cave, I saw a sign down by my knees that said "Meditation Cave".  There was a little entrance in the stone.  You had to get on all fours and crawl inside.  Inside was a small room with, you guessed it, more Buddhas.  





In another part of the cave, there was a marker that said "stalactitic column".  This was a huge stalactite that had water constantly running down it.  It is said that if you touch the column and let that water run over your hand, you will be protected from illness.  That's me, getting my hand wet.  It didn't stop me from getting a kidney stone attack the next day.  So much for faith.  







A few minutes later, who do we run into?  Renee, the woman we met on the second leg of our departure flight (from Beijing to Rangoon)!  She heard our voices, of all things, and came over to say hi.  While we were chatting, some Burmese visitors to the cave asked if they could take a photo with us.  This happened to us a few times on this trip.  The Burmese are still thrilled to see tourists and they want pictures with us.  I took a picture of them being photographed with Renee.  This love and fascination with tourists is another reason to see Burma now.  


A couple of Buddha images had Naga, the serpent that protects Buddhism.






As we went deeper inside, it became really cavernous, and many of the statues were just dwarfed by the immensity of the cave.  




We finally exited the cave.  At the base of the stairs leading up, we encountered the famous diorama "The Archer and the Spider".  This recalls the legend of the giant spider that captured seven princesses who were bathing in Pone Taloke Lake and imprisoned them in the Shwe Oo Min Cave.  Prince Kummabhaya of Inle Lake (that's him with the bow and arrow) bravely battled the mega-arachnid, shooting it with a single deadly arrow.  The name of the city, Pindaya, is derived from Pinguya, which literally translates to "taken the spider".










Lunch was at a beautiful place, the Green Tea Restaurant.


Very popular.  Lovely decor.  And again, the prices were amazing.










 There's a page from the menu.  All of the beef dishes were 4200 kyat.  That's $3.50. This entire meal for the three of us, with drinks, was about $13.



While waiting for our food, we went around the back to check out the scenery.  The restaurant borders the lake.  Beautiful scenery out back.





At the back of the restaurant, I spotted a kitten out back.  She was a very pale, dilute torte.  I don't think I've ever seen one with the colors so diluted.  She was beautiful.  She was timid, but I rustled my hand in the grass, which got her attention, and I put my camera down at the level of the grass and took what I think is my best cat photo of the trip.







After lunch, we went to a paper-making place and saw the entire process.  A woman pounds the pulp until it's soft.  
She then spreads it out in this large square tray.  


They apply petals from flowers to the wet pulp, making a nice design. The petals come from real plants, which you can see nearby.




Once it's completed, they take it out of the water and let it dry.  Then then peel it off and voila!  A big sheet of parchment type paper, from which they make all sorts of pads, journals, and parasols.  


These women must perform this demonstration countless times for tourists, and yet you can see how enthusiastic and friendly they remain.  This is just the nature of Burmese people.  They love life and they treat visitors and guests with kindness and generosity.







On the premises was also a guy who makes parasols.  We watched him very skillfully whittle out a parasol.  Amazingly precise and talented.








Nearby was a pile of parasols that he had recently completed.


The shop nearby had a variety of different parasols that were made on the premises.  They had a good business going.  There were loads of tourists buying them up.





While Mark shopped, I of course had wandered off to play with a puppy.  It's no secret where my interest lies.

































Our destination isn't actually Inle Lake.  While it's possible to stay at a hotel right on the lake, the de facto base for most visitors to Inle Lake is the small town of Nyaungshwe.  This little town is a beneficiary in the growing tourism trade, with hotels and restaurants popping up like mushrooms.  The town has handled it well, though, and the small-town charm hasn't been diluted at all.

As we approached Nyaungshwe, we saw one of the prettiest of all the monasteries in the area, the Shwe Yaunghwe Kyaung.  It’s about 1.5 miles north of town. Before we went to the monastery, however, we checked out the white building next door.





























I cannot find, on the internet or in any book, the name of this building, but it was very unique.  The walls are lined by tiny cells, each containing a small Buddha.  The walls themselves are decorated with glass mosaics.































This was another situation where we had the entire place to explore on our own.  We were completely by ourselves.  Again, if you visit Burma, do it soon, before this becomes impossible.




There were deserted hallways and quiet empty courtyards.  When you went through, though, you encountered more walls with more cubbyholes with more Buddhas.








A peek out one of the doorways revealed the Shwe Yaunghwe Kyaung (monastery) across the way. 


I saw a very cute scene as we approached the monastery.  As with all holy places, you have to take off your shoes before going in.  Here's the stairs leading to the monastery.  You can see all the shoes.




Well, I spotted a little puppy nearby, with something in his mouth.  I got a little closer and discovered that he was proudly parading around with someone's sandal! Too cute!


 It really is the little things like this that make traveling so wonderful.


We entered the monastery.  Note the splendid carved teak eaves.


The monastery has a traditional thein (ordination hall) which is lined with unique oval windows.  Young monks happily pose for photographs when foreign tourists visit the monastery. 








It actually looks better when you take the photo from the outside, looking up. Makes for a more dramatic photo.


Okay, this is a cat blog, and fortunately, at this monastery, there were a bunch of cats to photograph, both inside the monastery...































And on a terrace outside.  This little calico was keeping herself entertained by batting a little pebble across the deck.








She was soon joined by a friend.


He got bored, though, and retired to his little cushion.


 We finally arrived at our hotel, the Mingalar Inn.  This was a family owned place, and you could feel the warmth and hospitality the moment you check in.



The hotel itself is a tale of two cities.  Or two wings, actually.  Rooms in the old wing are huge, with a no-frills, authentic, homey feel.  Rooms in the new wing are gorgeous, with fancy coffee tables, bathtubs, and balconies with deck chairs overlooking the pool.  We went with the old wing, and not just because of the better price (we're talking only $65 a night for this room!), but also for the more low-key, genuine feel. 

  The room was really enormous.  There were two beds, a coffee table, and three leather chairs, and a few dressers.  













We rested up a bit, because we had a big night ahead:  The Taunggyi Fire Balloon Festival.  

I had read about this festival in guidebooks, and I had our travel agent arrange the itinerary so that we were in the Inle Lake area on the day of the festival.  Taunggyi is about an hour and a half away from Nyaungshwe.  Taunggyi is famed for their balloon festival, which takes place very year in October or November, at the end of the rainy season, when the chill of winter is about to abate.  This is the most famous, colorful, and potentially lethal celebration in Shan State.  Legend says the festival originated 1000 years ago, although the balloon part is a more recent addition.  Seen as offerings to the Sulamani memorial in one of the heavens of Buddhist cosmology, extravagantly decorated giant unmanned hot air balloons made of rice paper are lit and released over a period of three nights, watched by crowds of thousands of people.  The balloons have fireworks attached to them, and the more the balloons explode, the louder the cheers. As they explode, they shower the crowd below with fiery embers. Last year, four people died after a balloon mishap.  It’s a day trip by taxi from Nyaungshwe, and traffic can be bad coming back in the late evening, partly due to the fact that many on the road are pretty drunk. There is no shortage of YouTube videos of the mayhem that can result.  Our tour company stressed that we go at our own risk.  

Because we had to leave early, we didn't have time to eat at a restaurant.  We stopped at a place called Disney (still not sure if this place is actually owned by Disney - the sign on the store was done in the classic Disney font - or if they just appropriated the name) and got some fried chicken and beer to go.  
































There was a huge number of people on the road going there.  Lots of young folks on motorbikes.  Sometimes three or even four people on one bike.  We passed trucks that were unbelievably loaded up with revelers.  












As we approached the festival site, we could see the lights from some rides.











The festival takes place in an enormous field.  Our driver apparently had special privileges and was able to park in a special parking lot that was overseen by the tourist police (yes, there's a police squad whose job it is to make sure us tourists are safe and happy.  Seriously.)  










There was also a viewing stand for tourists only.  That's where we ended up. That's it, in the photo on the right.  It has a covered roof.  It was like sitting in the bleachers at a ball game.










There were entire families there, spreading out their blankets and just hanging out, eating, napping.  They spent the entire day there.












I expected to eat there, but Nyein Nyein said that the food there was twice as expensive as the regular price, because you're a captive audience there.   I would have rather eaten there, though.  They had a huge selection of food, as you can see.  A lot of it looked really tasty.















































Not sure what this was, but I definitely wanted some.  


















Don't forget the bubble tea!















We ended up wandering into this beer station and ordered some food to accompany our fried chicken.  














I forgot what we ordered, except for the Myanmar brand beer.














The good thing about this beer stand is that you have a decent view of the balloons going up without having to be in the huge mass of humanity on the field.  

































These balloons are really nice, but they're not the star attraction of the festival.  The ones that get the crowd excited are the rice paper ones that are ignited with fireworks.













Designing, constructing, transporting, and then flying each enormous (some of them are three stories tall!) balloon is quite the undertaking, considering how fragile these paper balloons are.  It can take a group of six to ten people up to two weeks to construct a single balloon. 









 I don't have a still photo of this balloon ascending, and then exploding as the fireworks attached to it were ignited.  I took a video, but it's too big to upload to this blog.  But if you go to YouTube and type in "Taunggyi Fire Balloon Festival", you can see the mayhem and destruction for yourself.

I kinda regret not being able to experience this to the fullest, like we would have if Mark and I were on our own, without a guide.  We would have meandered deep into the crowd and really experienced this annual, wild Burmese festival 'til the wee hours of the morning.  Alas, logistics prevented this from ever happening.  But Nyein Nyein did take us reasonably deep into the fairgrounds.  She said a police officer said that there were 200,000 people there!




 To end the evening on a wacky note:  I was standing at the festival with Mark and Nyein Nyein, taking it all in and chatting away.  I looked down, and saw Nyein Nyein's feet.  I knew I only had one beer, so I wasn't drunk and imagining it.  She has six toes on each foot!  How crazy is that?!







 After watching a balloon explode and rain dangerous sparks onto the delighted crowd below, we made our exit.  We arrived back at the hotel around 2:00 a.m.   More adventures tomorrow!


































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