Edit Blog Post
Published: December 16th 2009
Ox and ox keeper making peanut oil.
We have secret information about the state of the world in 2010 - and we'll be happy to share it with you.
The Nats told us.
Buddhism is the official religion of Burma but it coexists peacefully with ancient animistic beliefs that have been part of local culture for thousands of years (worshiping nature, like hills, trees, lakes). The Nats (spirits) are at the center of this animist worship. There are 37 "official" nats but, in reality, many more exist and are worshiped by the Burmese people. Nat altars and statues are tucked away in corners of nearly every Buddhist temple that we've seen here in Burma. In fact, most Burmese homes are incomplete without one small altar dedicated to Buddha and a second one for the Nats (which are typically represented by coconuts with little red turbans wrapped around their "heads").
The Nats are very powerful. Not only can they make any number of things happen but they can also foresee the future. They live throughout Burma but their main power center is located on Mt. Popa. We're very, very lucky for two reasons:
- We get to visit Mt. Popa today
- Today is the day
Angelique driving the ox.
of the hugely important Nadaw festival, during which the Nats will make predictions about the state of the world and Burma in 2010. These will be communicated through mediums (ordinary people who can communicate with the nats).
We started our day with breakfast at the hotel, which was served under the acacia tree. It was fantastic and included both Asian food (chicken noodle soup, fried rice) and Western food (croissants, cereals, fresh fruit and juices). The coffee here is excellent.
We met Aung Shwe and Minmin at 8:30am to begin our 1-hour (~30 mile) drive to Mt. Popa. But first we had to take care of some business: getting some local currency, since dollars are not always accepted outside of Yangon. Aung Shwe is fabulous! He called around this morning to find the best exchange rate in Bagan. Right now it's 950 kyat to the dollar (the exchange rate is typically better in Yangon than anywhere else in the country so we expected something under 1000 kyat to the dollar). The best place to exchange money is at a respectable shop (you're less likely to be cheated or get fake bills) and that's what Aung Shwe had planned
Adrian driving the ox.
- we headed to a large lacquerware shop.
The lady at the lacquerware shop changed our money (Aung Shwe inspected the bills and counted them out for us) and then persuaded us to take a look at her "special room" filled with antique iron and bronze pieces: statues of Buddha and elephants, opium scales, and all sorts of other things. Many of the pieces were well over 100 years old and cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. They were beautiful but out of our budget so we left for Mt. Popa.
Our second stop was a highlight of the day and also of our entire trip so far. About halfway to Mt. Popa, we pulled over on the side of the main road. There were several basic wooden buildings with thatched roofs where a few locals were waiting to show us how some local products are made. It was fascinating.
First, we watched a young guy crushing peanuts to make peanut oil, which is commonly used in dishes here. He was guiding an ox, which was harnessed to a wooden grinder, around in circles. The peanuts were ground up inside a wooden bucket and the peanut oil
Climbing up the palm to recover the bowls of sap.
dripped out into a separate bowl. The leftover peanut paste (not exactly peanut butter) isn't valuable but the ox seemed to find it tasty. We even got to take a turn with the ox and the grinder.
Next we watched, with no small amount of fear and concern, as another young guy shimmied about 25-30 feet up a tall palm tree to collect sticky palm sap. The palm tree is tapped and then clean, empty coconut shells are placed against the trunk to capture the sap. The sap is collected once in the morning and again in the evening. Once collected the palm sap is used to make a number of different products including a tasty brown sugar and Burmese moonshine.
Aung Shwe guided us over to a lovely older Burmese woman who must have weighed, at most, 80 pounds. She proudly poured us each a shot glass full of a clear liquid and mimed "drink up!". We took a tiny sip. It was sweet and strong and honestly not too bad. Kind of like a dessert wine. We smiled and thanked her - but we weren't finished. She then opened another bottle. This moonshine was stronger -
No safety net or ladder.....be careful!
more like sake. Palm sake. It also tasted pretty good. But there was still one more bottle - this one marked only with a very large red letter "Z". This was the real stuff. The stuff that the locals drink. The stuff that puts hair on your chest. Angelique thought it tasted like lighter fluid. Adrian thought it tasted a bit like soju.
After we finished our lesson in palm moonshine we bought a bottle of the strong stuff ($5) to offer at Mt. Popa - we thought the Nats might appreciate some strong booze.
Our lesson in local products continued. Aung Shwe sat down with us at a small table and offered us a few traditional Burmese snacks:
- Brown sugar cubes with toasted sesame seeds. Hugely popular with kids and adults alike. Very tasty!
- A mixture of peanuts, fried garlic, toasted sesame seeds, dried "gran" (butter) beans, and green tea "salad". The ingredients are served separately and you mix them together in a little bowl and eat it with your fingers or a small spoon. Quite good but the tea salad was a bit too potent for us!
As we ate, we watched the
Adrian enjoying palm sugar moonshine.
fermentation and distillation process for the alcohols. It reminded Angelique of Genentech's manufacturing plants in principle but not at all in practice. With flies buzzing around and specks of dirt and twigs falling inside, the bubbling vats aren't exactly up to the Food & Drug Administration's standards.
We continued on to Mt. Popa (which means "flowers" in Pali, the language in which many ancient Buddhist texts are written). Aung Shwe asked around and found out that there had been some changes to the schedule for the Nadaw festival. We were a little unclear why the festival had been rescheduled but found out later that, in the aftermath of the protests in 2007, large gatherings are discouraged (or completely forbidden) by the government, even religious festivals. It seems that, at the last minute, the government had required the organizers to change the main Nadaw festival from today to yesterday. Most of the people traveling for the festival would not have known about the change until it was too late - and probably missed the main festival. Luckily a small part of the festival was still on today so we managed to see a few things.
The main event at
One of the mediums communicating with the Nats at the Nadaw festival.
the Nadaw festival are the prophesies. Throughout the day and night, the mediums contact the Nats and listen to their predictions for 2010. The mediums are either women or transvestite men and communication with the nats happens when the medium enters a trance like state while performing a traditional dance - makes for a very interesting time for everyone.
We heard the festival before we saw it. It was taking place in a clearing near the main village on Mt. Popa. Two large stages had been set up. On one of stages a band was playing awful, screeching music at high volume (the Nats love loud screechy music - no joke!). We watched the first dancer, a woman wearing beautiful peach-colored silk robes. She moved as if in a trance. As she danced, women came up on to the stage and pinned money to her robes, asking the Nats for good luck in 2010. They each received a blessing from the Nat who was "communicating" with the dancer. An enormous table of offerings (food, money, flowers) occupied one end of the stage and occasionally the dancer would move toward it and an attendant would jump up and either feed
Are you sure you want to get closer....the music is dreadful! Small crowd watching a band at the Nadaw festival.
her or give her a drink. This went on for quite a while. Next up was a "sister" act. Of the three dancers, all dressed in elaborate black silk robes (traditional dress of the Shan people) and with heavy makeup, we think only one was actually a woman. Their dance was less trance-like but still fascinating, especially since one of the sisters was waving two sharp daggers.
We were the only foreigners at the performance.
Since we didn't think the band would switch to Coldplay covers anytime soon, we left the festival after 30 minutes and headed to the temple on top of the volcanic peak of Mt. Popa. It's an unbelievable sight: the temple is perched high up on a rocky cliff, surrounded by nothing but air. It looked like a castle in a fairy tale. There's only one way up to the temple: climbing 800 steps.
But first we had to meet the Nats. Aung Shwe took us to a Nat temple at the base of the stairs in which the Nats sit, all 37 of them, in a row. They all have pasty white skin, well-groomed eyebrows and red lips. They wear beautiful gowns
The volcanic cone at Mt Popa. 800 steps to get to the temple on top.
and each has his or her own story. Several of the Nats are based on real people- people that lived just prior or during the 1100s when the region was undergoing its conversion to Theravada Buddhism. People come to pray and make offerings to specific Nats for specific reasons, not unlike how Catholics pray to specific saints.
We bought a few garlands of fragrant orchids and offered them to the Nat who watches over travelers. Our bottle of moonshine went to the Drunk Nat who loves food and wine (he's a bit of a rascal but much-loved). There's even a cute little grandma nat who protects children; she had a little basket filled with offerings of candy. The stars here, however, are "Strong Man" Nat and his wife "Golden Face" Nat who have a complicated history; this blog entry is getting very long so we'll leave that for another time (or you can google it with "Mt. Popa").
After getting to know the Nats a bit, we began our long climb to the Buddhist temple on top of Mt Popa. The climb up 800 stairs is made slightly more dodgy by hundreds of cheeky monkeys that swing overhead,
One of the cheeky monkeys enjoying a banana - Mt Popa.
occasionally grabbing hats or sunglasses. According to Aung Shwe, some monkeys will even jump onto your leg and will hang on for a minute or two while you walk. The monkeys are cute for about 5 minutes and then you realize that, to get to the top, you have to walk up 800 steps, barefoot, avoiding puddles of monkey pee and piles of poop. Ick.
Still, the views from the top are spectacular and when we returned to the bottom our wonderful driver Minmin was waiting for us with moist towelettes.
We then drove back to Bagan, past many farms and farming villages, making a quick stop for lunch.
If we haven't said it already - Aung Shwe is just wonderful. If you ever visit Bagan, we recommend hiring him as your guide. We learned that Aung Shwe is one of 11 children (and he has an identical twin!). He's married and has a 3 year old daughter. Guiding is considered a very good job in Bagan. Aung Shwe has been working as a guide in Bagan for the past six years and worked in Yangon for several years prior to returning home to Bagan. He loves
Some of the 37 Nats inside the Nat shrine/temple - Mt. Popa.
his job and it shows.
Aung Shwe also looks a bit like President Obama - a Burmese version - with high cheekbones, the same coloring and almost exactly the same smile. Several tourists besides us have noticed the resemblance too - we're not making it up!
After lunch, Aung Shwe gave us a synopsis of the Nat prophesies for 2010:
- The world economy will improve this year
- There will not be any large epidemics like H1N1 this year
- There will be some changes, small but noticeable, in Burma.
The Nats didn't provide detailed information on that last point but we took it as an indication that the elections currently scheduled for 2010 in Burma may actually take place.
Once back in Bagan Aung Shwe took us to see two more temples:
- Nathlaung Kyang. It's one of only two Hindu temples still standing in the area and was rumored to have once been the prison for the Mon king who was taken prisoner by King Anawrahta many years ago. Whether the temple served as a prison is not certain but we thought it looked like a prison - very dark with only a
The Nat that protects travelers.
few windows high up on the walls.
- Ananda Pahto. This is the star temple and the one that everyone visits. It's one of the best-preserved temples and also one of the tallest at 170 feet high, capped with a shining gold corncob-like "hti" (kind of a spire and very ornate). Here's why we liked it so much: there are four enormous (30+ feet tall) golden standing Buddha statues. This is rare - most Buddhas are seated. What is even more interesting is the facial expression of one of the Buddhas - it changes. From close up, his face appears stern; from further away, he is smiling. It's fantastic!
Our day was not yet over. Aung Shwe had a lovely surprise for us: we drove down to the boat dock and boarded our own private longtail boat to watch the sunset on the Ayeyarwady River. It was absolutely lovely and romantic.
Tomorrow is our final day in Bagan and we decided to explore the temples on our own. Aung Shwe gave us a map of the area with a suggested list of temples to see (the best temples circled). He is a teacher at heart and a very
Ha Ha....he just slipped in my pee!
good one. Unfortunately, teaching doesn't pay nearly as well as guiding.
Yesterday was wonderful but today was even better. We ended our day with a delicious dinner outside under the acacia tree, watching the full moon reflecting in the river.
Tot: 2s; Tpl: 0.07s; cc: 12; qc: 28; dbt: 0.0194s; 1; m:saturn w:www (22.214.171.124); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.3mb