The Heho (airport) arrival hall dominated by a baggage scanning unit reinstates my pre-conceived notions. Its a bit like India in the seventies, when passenger comfort played second fiddle to paranoia over contraband. The authorities definition of it anyway. Once luggage is identified from the heap in the middle of the room however, and passed through the all seeing machine, you are transported into this otherworldly landscape of rolling green hills interspersed with cheerful mustard and canola fields that could very well have you thinking you are somewhere in Tuscany.
I hadn’t asked to visit Pindaya. It is a considerable detour (nearly two hours) and not a cheap one at that, with the $2/pp entrance to the village, $3/pp to the cave and an additional 500K camera fee. We have time, and the landscape is working its magic, so we opt in. I really have no idea what to expect, but the cheesy giant spider – the target of a handsome, garishly painted archer prince – or the glass fronted elevator to the top of the monastery at the entrance to the caves, isn’t it! The sculptures, and the name of the town itself that roughly translates to “I got the spider!’, refer to a legend featuring seven royal princesses trapped in the cave by the monster spider and their rescue by the hero prince.
The panorama of the surrounding countryside is alone worth the elevator ride that exudes a distinctly Chinese vibe. And then you enter Buddha Disneyland! A dimly lit series of caves, jam packed with over 8000 gilded Buddhas in every size, shape and style! The earliest, dating to 1773. The bling and some psychedelic lights aside, it is a living site, used with utmost faith and devotion.
Nyaung shwe, the crowded gateway to the primary attraction of Shan state – the tranquil Inle lake – is just over an hour away by road. We make it with enough time before dusk to explore the beautiful Shwe Yan Pyay teak monastery, before hopping on a longtail boat to our resort villa for the first of three blissful nights on the lake.
Ringed by the greenest mountains peppered with stilt houses, floating vegetable gardens, golden tipped pagodas and over 400 captivating villages, the 45 square km freshwater lake is an enchanting kaleidoscope of life and Buddhist culture. It was designated Myanmar’s first biosphere reserve this past June under UNESCO’s Man & the Biosphere programme.
At Indein, on the West bank, is a veritable forest of stunning ruined stupas that exhibit, to some extent, the evolution of Buddhist (stupa) architecture over the centuries. Khmer apsaras and mythical birds adorn some of the more ornate friezes while the Buddhas inside the niches display distinct Chinese features.
It is believed that the oldest of the stupas, the tallest among the over-restored ones near the main pagoda up on the hill, was built by the great 2nd century Indian emperor, Ashoka, although there is no evidence of his ever having set foot in Burma. But what is a bit of historical proof, or its lack thereof, in the face of absolute faith? Legends are nurtured and fake relics imbued with more sanctity here, than if they were real. And to me it is that unquestioning faith in a rudderless populace that is endearing. And mind boggling that a religion can take root on the weight of faith alone and vanish just as easily from the place of its origin.
The Hpaung Daw U pagoda is home to five misshapen but highly venerated 12th century Buddha icons whose original forms are indistinguishable beneath centuries of gold leaf anointing*. The annual 18 day festival procession has four of these icons paraded through the towns around the lake in a replica of the royal barge shaped like the mythical Karaweik bird. All five used to be taken out until 1965, when the barge capsized and divers gave up the fifth for lost, only to find it miraculously back in its place at the pagoda on their return! It hasn’t moved from its place since.
Then there is the ‘Jumping Cat’ monastery – Nga Phe Kyaung – where clever felines, named after Hollywood celebrities no less, were once trained to jump through hoops by bored monks! A wise abbot put an end to the circus a few years ago, but the stilted wooden monastery with its collection of giant gilded bamboo Buddhas is worth a visit even minus the cat calisthenics.
The many metal and craft workshops around the lake are patently touristy and it is embarassing to watch the flurry of activity when a boat arrives, peter out to lethargy even before it departs. The lotus fabric and silk weaving villages are infinitely more interesting possibly because they are real workshops and not exclusively put on for tourists. We pass up a visit to the Red Mountain winery for fear it would not measure up to our very recent tour of the Rioja region. I have to admit, the red we tasted (sometime later) was surprisingly good.
We are fortunate to catch the colourful rotating farmers market at Nan Pan next morning. It reminds us of the rural Khmer Psah we stopped at enroute to Beng Malaea in Siem Reap, and spoils us for markets to come later in the trip. We sit with the locals and slurp hot noodle soup and taste a variety of sweet and savoury snacks, most rice based and sweetened with jaggery (unrefined cane sugar), that takes me back to similar childhood treats in my native Mangalore.
Roasted rice crackers seem to be a particular favourite. We end up one evening in a village that is entirely occupied in the making of crackers, where the hospitality of its residents, the imperceptible nod by the matriarch to the younger women of the household to rustle up refreshments despite our protests, transports me to a gentler time that has long vanished in the modern India I inhabit.
It is the iconic single leg rowing Intha fishermen however, who are the legitimate stars of the lake. The costumed ‘performers’ with their conical nets, whose synchronised hypnotic ‘dance’ against the setting sun makes me laugh with delight, as well as the ‘real’ paddlers who fill me with awe at their consummate skill and remarkable sense of balance.
*In what appeared (to me) like a Hindu legacy, the anointing here, as in most other significant shrines across the country, is exclusive to men. Women aren’t even allowed entry into the sanctums.