Last chance to see in ru­ral Myan­mar

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - JUDYTH GRE­GORY-SMITH

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.

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