We left Mandalay early in the morning and flew to Heho. Heho is kinda-sorta in the middle of nowhere in the Middle of Burma. Which is perfect. What I mean by this is, it’s rural and not close to any particular city. Rural — non urban that is — usually comes closest to being relaxing, in my opinion. Our favorite vacations are the ones that involve bicycling, snorkeling, being outside and away from the city. This was the first, and only, part of our vacation that qualified as "relaxing"! I was also looking forward to Inle, because my friend Joani had told me that Inle Lake was her favorite place in Myanmar. (She was right, it was mine too.)
We were met at the small airport by our guide, Koh Zan. Yep, that’s "Zan". Koh is a term of respect which means "elder person." Koh Zan was the eldest of our guides. He was born in 1954 and has three daughters. Koh Zan is a member of the Ba-O Tribe. His tribe has approximately 1 million people total. They grow the outer leaf that is wrapped around locally made, Burmese cigars. In his first career, he marketed these on behalf of his people. One year, however, there was too much supply, and the price was so low the farmers could not sell the leaves. This was a disaster. Koh Zan ended up living in Singapore and in Thailand, where he worked.
While living in Thailand, he learned English for the first time at the age of 44. He was working in a shop that sold antiques to tourists who only spoke English. He had to learn how to speak English in order to communicate with his customers. Koh Zan’s English was truly remarkable, considering the manner in which he had learned the language. In thinking about what to do with the rest of his life, after the enforced change, Koh Zan considered what his skills were, what he enjoyed, how he could be of benefit to his family and do something he enjoyed. He had daughters in university, just as we do now. After working overseas for two and a half years, he decided to study and take the exam to become a licensed tour guide. This way he gets to earn an income, share his culture with others, and remain close to his people. His wife works in a medical clinic in their local tribe. One of his daughters just finished her master’s degree, one is in university, and the "baby of the family" is just now graduating from high school. He is also a very devout Buddhist, just like most Myanmar citizens.
When we stepped off the plane, the very tall, confident Koh Zan greeted us with twinkling eyes and a ready smile. After we were in the car, he announced, "If you agree, now we will go to Pindaya Cave!" I had expressly left it up to our local tour guides to choose what they thought would be the most interesting sites and things to do in each location. My only mistake was in not being more explicit with them about our interests, likes, and dislikes ahead of time. But they learned as we got to know each other.
I had envisioned that upon arriving at Heho we would first go to our hotel and check in, but I knew that it was a drive of some distance from Heho to the place at Inle Lake where we would be staying. I assumed that Pindaya Cave was a destination chosen because it happened to be along the way to Inle Lake. (I was wrong.) We agreed, and we all settled in for the ride. Pindaya Cave was, he said, only 60 kilometers distance but a two and a half hour drive because of the condition of the road. He turned around from the seat and told us that if there was anything we saw along the way which we wanted to photograph, simply to tell him and he would have the driver stop the car so that we could take a picture. Well, there was plenty to see!
Geographically, Heho is in Southern Shan State. I found it very interesting that Southern Shan State is roughly the same population size as my state in the USA, and the capital city is roughy about the same size as the capital city of my state. Interesting parallel, but more than this, before visiting there I had heard of neither the state nor the capital city. I guess that’s a comment on my own geographic ignorance as well as the small size of my "home town"! Southern Shan State has many different topographies. It encompasses the Myanmar portion of the Golden Triangle, bordering with the mountainous Yunnan Province of China as well as Thailand at the Mekong River. There tend to be two seasons: (1) hot and wet, and (2) hot and dry. But because the particular location of Heho is situated in a highland plateau, the area around Heho is much cooler and moderate in temperature.
Along with Banyan and Orange trees, we saw many deciduous trees such as oaks and various kinds of pine trees. It reminded me very much of my homeland in the USA. Indeed, at one point we even saw an apple orchard! I was a bit shocked. Koh Zan said they had been planted as an experiment. They didn’t look like they were doing particularly well — the trees looked a bit small and dry. I asked how cold it gets there. Koh Zan said it never gets extremely hot but that it also never gets any colder than about 4 degrees Celsius in the coldest part of the year. If I’m not mistaken, apple trees (like pecans, peaches, and cherries) like a period of dormancy to do well. I don’t think 4 degrees is cold enough for them.
Anyway, the land we passed through was extraordinarily beautiful to our eyes. It may be that it seemed beautiful to us because it reminded us so much of our homeland, with rolling hills, large deciduous trees, even red clay of the same consistency as our own home. And just look at that sky! The sky in Guangzhou is always grey and smoggy, hazy even on the best of days.
The one lane, paved but potholed, road even reminded me of the roads of my childhood, before the days of interstate freeways in the USA. It was very much like a "farm to market" road of post war years vintage. And what I saw in the fields enabled me to envision in real life the stories I had been told by my mother and grandmother about their lives growing up.
The fields were ripe with a harvest of wheat.
Koh Zan told us they get two harvests per year.
The livestock were tended by herders rather than being fenced in.
The water buffalo are sent to the fields for a rest during
the dry season. During the wet season of rice cultivation,
Koh Zan told us, they work in other locations.
The work of harvesting the wheat was being done by teams of workers in the fields, using hand held sickles. The scene made me think about how agriculture throughout the world is largely the same, for it also reminded of a description of harvest that I once read in a Tolstoy novel, which seems about as far removed from a rural area of the USA — and also as far removed from rural Myanmar — as one could imagine. Some workers would cut the wheat and wrap it into small bundles. They would then either leave it for the next team or carry it to a central location to be threshed.
We saw the threshing being done two ways. In one technique, people would take all the bundles to one spot and thresh it there, either by hand (by beating it) or by using a threshing machine. In another technique, people would work in smaller clumps and the group of threshers would move from spot to spot. We also saw women tossing the wheat grains using baskets to let the chaff blow away, using the broad, woven baskets that one finds over so much of Southeast Asia and which are also sold in the handicraft markets of my own state.
At some point during the two and a half hour drive, I took it upon myself to read in my guide book about Pindaya Caves, our destination. The Lonely Planet guidebook describes Pindaya Caves as a "strange and somewhat kitschy mix of the artificial and natural and the commercial and holy . . . ." Being a semi-avid archaeology / anthropology buff, I toyed with the idea of asking our guide to switch and take us to the also-nearby Padah-Lin Caves, described by Lonely Planet as "the most important prehistoric site in Myanmar . . . ." It says the inside of one of the Padah-Lin Caves is decorated with remains of paintings estimated to be 11,000 years old. The only thing that put me off from this idea was the that the guidebook said it would be best to take a 4 wheel drive vehicle to reach the Padah-Lin caves. I considered. The road we were on was about as good as it gets in rural Myanmar. We were not in a four wheel drive, and I was already concerned about potholes and one of my children’s latent car sickness tendencies. Nevertheless, I decided I really would like to see this. After conferring with David, I asked if we could revise our destination and go to Padah-Lin Caves instead. Koh Zan was willing to go there (he said he had never been). He conferred with the driver about the change of plan.
The driver told him that the Padah-Lin Caves had been closed by the government. A good idea, actually. Prehistoric caves are best left alone, protected from lights and modern hands. I was a bit relieved to have been disappointed in my briefly considered request.
At about the halfway point, Koh Zan stopped the car at an orange grove. Each of use went into the grove and picked one orange. The girls had fun wandering about and picking out what they speculated would be the juiciest and best orange. Unfortunately, they were both a tad disappointed, for we have become incredibly spoiled by the oranges of southern China — which must be the best in the world, especially as the little deliciously sweet, tangy, seedless Mandarins were still (just barely still) in season when we left Guangzhou. (Even just this week, Song Ying came in with some of the sweetest, most delicious Navel oranges I’ve ever had, and today she brought in some of the sweetest kumquats I’ve ever tasted.) But still, it was quite nice to be out in the country and to pick our own orange from the heart of a peaceful orange grove.
After another hour or so of being jostled and bounced by bumpy roads, we neared our destination. But first, it was lunchtime. Out of nowhere, along this dusty, dirty, bumpy road in the primitive setting, appeared a beautiful restaurant, so beautiful and out of place it was like a mirage. We thought it must have been designed and owned by Europeans, so different it was in character. We walked up the beautiful teak steps, onto the beautiful outdoor terrace adorned with blooming orchids and overlooking a lake. We ordered Chinese food (a better risk, we felt, and a good bit cheaper than the western food on the menu). The air was quite cool from the high altitude, and there was a too chilly breeze, but my family opted to sit outside on the beautiful deck anyway.
I asked Koh Zan about the restaurant, whether it was owned by Europeans. No, he replied. He told us that when Inle Lake was first being "discovered" as a tourist destination, there was one guy who owned a boat for hire, and he was the person you would go see when you wanted to go out in a boat. Over time, this guy began buying more boats and hiring boat drivers. Then, he began buying cars and supplying cars and drivers for hire. Several years ago, that man had purchased the land near the Pindaya Cave, and then just last year he had built this nice, new restaurant. Now, all the cars and tour buses that he rented out had drivers who would stop and bring their guests to this restaurant. Clarissa missed part of the story, so I repeated it for her. Then I added jokingly, "Including the driver who is driving you today!" I glanced over at Koh Zan, and he did not contradict me. But it was a decent lunch with good service in a nice setting.
After lunch, we headed quickly to our destination. Along the way, there were some huge banyan trees that reminded me of my childhood days. In my elementary school, Lakewood Elementary in St. Petersburg, Florida, a giant banyan grew on our school playground. It was a huge tree, with what seemed like hundreds of square feet of roots and many hiding places among them as well. We children used to play a variation of tag where one had to always stay on or in the roots of the tree. Driving toward the cave, we passed a row of similarly huge banyans. I just knew Munchkin would enjoy the tree; I asked to stop and let her experience it. Then we were quickly back on our way.
The tree of my childhood memories had smaller limbs (all out of reach of children) and much more extensive roots!
Then we arrived at our destination, Pindaya Caves. The mouth of the cave complex is up high on a hill. From that vantage point, one can see across the entire valley.
With its phenomenal view from the entrance, I felt this cave must be at a very auspicious location.
I thought to myself that, most likely, this cave also had a prehistory as long and complex as that of the Padal-Lin Caves, with one crucial difference. Prehistory had become the present. The Pindaya Caves are still in use, so vestiges of their prehistoric use are long gone.
Koh Zan told us that he had first come here as a small child with his grandmother. Unlike the present time, at that time there were no stairs or handrails inside, only the bare stone. The local legend is that the cave was first used by a monk as a holy place for meditation and contemplation about 1,100 years ago. You could never convince me that they weren’t used long before that time, as well.
As a matter of fact, as I looked at the modern use of the cave, I considered that these modern art relics probably fill the same niche in human culture as the prehistoric art of other caves. Besides the obvious utility of a cave for shelter, the deep, cool, quiet recesses of a cave provide a place for meditation, sanctification, religious rite, display of religious symbols and omens, and prayer. Indeed, certain rooms within this cave have names indicating they are specifically set aside for contemplation in general, or places where specific persons meditated or had visions. How is that different from what we conjure about the function of prehistoric cave art?
Regarding modern function and religious observance, it was here that I observed the closest to anything I’ve seen displayed as anger. It happened because Munchkin was not behaving with proper reverence inside this holy place. There is one spot where some of the more than 8,000 Buddha images are set into a formation called a "maze". Like me, Munchkin took this at its literal meaning and began wandering the maze, but she became exhuberant and, though quiet, she began running through the passages. In sharp contrast, many of the Buddhist worshippers who came to the place were walking through the entire cave — silently, slowly, and meditatively — with hands in prayer position. As Beatrix Potter put it in the Tale of Tom Kitten, Munchkin "destroyed the dignity and repose" of the atmosphere. One woman in a group of worshippers, heretofore walking around with prayer hands, interrupted herself long enough to tap Munchkin and fuss at her. Though I had no idea of the language, I’m sure the woman told Munchkin that her behavior was inappropriate and told her to stop running. I relayed the message in English, telling Munchkin that this was a place of worship and not to run.
a view from inside the maze
So, the question I pose is this: How is the function of these religious symbols — in the cave as a set aside, holy place — any different from the function of prehistoric paintings on the walls of caves? I propose that the reverent placement of these more than 8,000 Buddha images is is merely the modern manifestation of the same impulse that inspired the prehistoric wall paintings in this and other caves . . .
Spiritual Direction for those interested
Okay, well back to feet on the ground . . .
Koh Zan didn’t want to rush us too much, but we had ground to cover. It turns out, the Pindaya Caves were not on the way to our hotel, not at all. To return home, we had to go all the way back, past the airport, plus another hour on the other side. Three and a half hours of that jostling again! Koh Zan said we could sleep on the way.
On the way back, he stopped at a roadside stand and purchased a local snack for us to try. I mentioned that this country felt was almost like home: the food was fried pork rind! After we had eaten all we wanted, Koh San stopped the car as we passed by some people along the road. All day long, people had smiled and waved at us as we passed by. "Country folk," I thought to myself. In my part of the world, country people also smile and wave. The people where we stopped gladly accepted the extra bag of pork rind as a gift. Just like country people everywhere. Everything you read about Myanmar talks about how friendly the people are. Well, I didn’t find the people in the cities extraordinarily friendly. But the people in the countryside are just like country people everywhere. City people just don’t know what that is!
After our snack, we did nap a bit. We also stopped at a place where a young couple had a roadside workshop. They demonstrated how they made homemade mulberry paper and then made that into hand-crafted umbrellas. The umbrellas were really beautiful. But we were short on cash, as I already mentioned. Mindful of our budget, and also not wanting to carry extra weight, I didn’t even ask the price. Anyone who knows how messy I am, knows that I don’t have any place for any more "stuff" in my house, either. I have enough as it is! Koh San nevertheless bought one beautiful little umbrella and gave it to Munchkin as a gift. It’s in her room right now, and I’m sure we’ll find a nice place for it, eventually. Someday I will find a way to incorporate it into her decor and display it nicely.
Well, as if this weren’t enough, there was still more adventure awaiting us!
We rode in the car to the northern part of Inle Lake, to a small town called Nyaungshwe. Inle Lake is a large, shallow, inland lake fed by the watershed of mountains all around it. Koh Zan told us that Inle Lake is at an elevation of 3,000 feet. The mountains that surround it rise up another 2,000 feet, to a total of 5,000 feet. During the dry season, which is while we were there, the lake is a maximum of about 3 meters. During the wet season, the water level in the lake rises another meter. The lake becomes much larger and the water becomes too choppy for safe boating.
Inle Lake is inhabited mainly by the Intha people. These people are distinct from the surrounding tribes and have made their home ON the water of the lake. Their houses are raised on stilts, they fish, and they have developed a very interesting technique for growing vegetable and flower gardens on top of specially cultivated, floating pods of water grass. The pods are anchored to the bottom of the lake by cane poles.
But we didn’t get to see much of this on our first day arriving at Inle Lake. We were already a bit late arriving — we had to travel by boat another 1/2 hour down a canal and across open water to get to our hotel. Dusk was fast approaching as we traveled down the canal toward our hotel, the Paradise Inle Resort. It quickly turned dark during our ride.
There are no shots of David because he was manning the camera
We hit open water just as darkness descended. As it was Chinese New Year, there was no moon. The dark, silhoutted bank the lake in the distance reminded me of times as a small child, when I would be out on the water in a boat at night with my parents. We always lived near the water and had a boat. Whether during the time when we lived on a lake or during the time when we would sail on Tampa Bay at night, there would always come a time, while we were navigating home at night, when I would look out into the darkness and wonder with some amazement how my parents could find their way home. They would navigate by stars, by knowledge of general direction, and by shadows of bays and trees. As we would get closer, the distant shadows would become more distinct and more familiar, with the mysterious, unknown slowly giving way to the recognizable and familiar.
But here, there was nothing familiar to be seen. It also became apparent that not very much of the lake, with its 100,000 surrounding inhabitants, had electricty at night. David said to me, "Our hotel does have electricity, doesn’t it?" I could hear real trepidation in his voice. We were approaching a brightly lit, hotel, adorned with Christmas lights all around. "Of course our hotel has electricity," I said with cheery confidence. "That’s probably it right there!" But we rode past that hotel, on into the darkness. I didn’t dare voice my own lack of confidence. Fortunately, another hotel appeared on the far horizon, also with lights, and it turns out that was, indeed, our destination. It did have electricity, after all!
Our hotel consisted of numerous small buildings, all built on stilts and connected by boardwalks. As we entered the small harbor area formed by the surrounding buildings, a five piece percussion band struck up a cacauphonous chorus to greet us. We had arrived. Koh San got us checked in, then he set off quickly again in the boat. He was staying somewhere else. It was already quite dark and everyone needed to get in off the water.
Each room consisted of a separate small hut that had its own bath and small indoor and outdoor sitting areas. While we did need the supplied two blankets per bed, we didn’t need additional heat. We also made use of the mosquito netting, as this is a country where malaria and dengue fever are endemic. But our surroundings were lovely and quiet. Very nice.
After supper, we learned that there was only generator powered electricity after 8:00 PM, and no power whatsoever after 11:00 PM. Enforced lights out! Now, that’s a real vacation! There was also no internet, and phone calls to the USA cost $7 per minute. Well, I guess that means we won’t be calling in to the office. Welcome relief!
We all managed to have showers — hot showers even — prior to lights out at 11:00. The only one issue problem with the lights out is that in the pitch blackness of a moonless night, it can be slightly problematic if one needs to find the loo! Oh well, minor challenges, I thought. We gave our only flashlight to our children, who were staying in a different hut, in case they needed it during the night.
For the first time in months, we saw stars in a clear, moonless sky with no artificial light to mar the view. It’s amazing the clarity with which one notices what one has been missing, when it suddenly reappears. For us, the appearance of stars in the sky was a cause celebre! We wanted to applaud. We were truly on vacation.