Last chance to see in rural Myanmar
We are visiting Daw The Mgu, a Red Karin village of about 100 families near Loikaw in Kayah State, Myanmar. The Red Karin are animist and believe they are descended from two large birds that flew over the mountains. The male bird is Karin Na Ye and the female is Karin Na Yar.
Most of the women no longer wear traditional dress, but one young woman dons hers to show us. This takes time and involves three helpers. As well as the red scarves wound around women’s heads, their capes are red. Silver was once plentiful here and they wear long silver earrings, the favourite style being a bunch of (scaled- down) sweet corn cobs and we see necklaces of silver coins, some of which depict England’s Edward VII. The Red Karin women wear a beaded belt around their midriff, and a long white scarf reaches from the neck to the knee. Over the knee they wear coils of cotton threads dyed black with lacquer.
We ask to meet the oldest person in the village to see if he or she would like some spectacles we have brought with us. Daw Phye Myas thinks she is about 95. Her five children would like her to go and live with them. She won’t, because she likes her traditional house and can continue looking after one of her daughters, who is about 65, and has mental health problems. She tries the glasses but says they are of no use; we then discover her eyesight is so good she can still thread a needle.
Later, we enter a house where we are invited to view the nat, or guardian spirit, of the kitchen. Hanging from a beam, and smoked black over the ages, is a basket that once contained choice morsels of pork as well as the pig’s skull and giblets of chickens. On an auspicious day, the pork and chicken would have been put into a pan of water, along with wine and turmeric. The shaman then makes pronouncements about, for example, when the next festival should take place.
We ask to meet another elderly person. A woman, who we are told is 93, sits beside a very smoky fire, which keeps away insects. She tries both pairs of spectacles. She says both make her sight clearer, but the reading glasses are her favourite. Beneath her cardigan, she is wearing traditional dress, including silver drop-earrings that are so heavy they have elongated her earlobes.
At the end of Thadingyut, the villagers erect tall bamboo and short eugenia totem poles. They decorate these with bamboo symbols of the sun, moon and stars, below which are bundles of rice with their roots and earth still attached. Although some villagers have become Buddhist or Catholic over the years, they still hold animistic rituals. They sacrifice pigs and chickens to pray for good rain, peace, tranquility, safety and unity.
Before we leave Loikaw, we visit its spectacular pagoda, Thiri Mingalar Taung Taw, built atop a precipitous outcrop of rock above the town. The view over the settlement is panoramic with the Shan Mountains in the distance. We are delighted to find there is a lift to the top. When it is time to return to safe ground, we read a notice telling us to ring a mobile phone number and the lift man will come up to collect us. This is definitely a first for me in Myanmar.
Judyth Gregory-Smith is the author of Myanmar: A Memoir of Loss and Recovery.