About an excursion to the cave of caves of Eastern Myanmar.  8094 Buddhas, four wonderful locals, a new travel companion and some rain, of course.  And about umbrella making Myanmar style.

I was heading up another mountain today and what else is new? I arrived in the rain…  By now, that’s what I expect when I go on mountain pilgrimages as the holy mountains of Myanmar obviously have an issue with me.  But then… the sun came out before I started my descent and I did not fall this time.  Perhaps, there is hope?

I was not alone.  Stephanie from Germany and Mr. Young from South Korea joined me and shared a taxi with me.  With Mr. Young, I had already shared the Inle Lake boat trip two days ago.  Stephanie I met last night at the guest house.  She had taken a 6 months leave from her high-powered job as a patent lawyer to get away for a while.  She was a delight to be with and to talk to in German.  We were a great group, even though this was not quite how I had pictured this day.  I had wanted to “rough it” once again, be on the road, mingle with the locals, not ride around in a taxi.  But roughing it would have looked something like this:

Catch a motored tricycle early in the morning to “the junction” where at some time before noon a bus should arrive that takes you to a little village called A>>>>>>>.  There you need to find “the pickup” place where tuck-tucks that head north fill up with locals.  It is anyone’s guess how long that might take.  Once you arrive in town you have to hire a motorcycle to take you up to the mountain to the cave or you have to climb the entire mountain from the bottom up.  For sure you need to spend the night at Pindaya as there would be no way you would make this journey back in one day…  Ok, perhaps a taxi does not sound so bad after all?

The two-hour ride each way took us through beautiful rolling hills of alternating red and green fields.  The reds were areas where the soil of the land shone through.  The greens were anything from cabbage, to potatoes, beans, silkworm plants [note by DG: Google sez that silkworms eat only mulberry leaves], even vineyards and tea plantations.  Judging by the prosperous looking villages — houses looked sturdy  and spacious — people made a decent living around here by farming.  Many women were out in the fields working with hoes, typically in groups of three to ten people.  Men were plowing their fields with the quintessential pair of white back-horned cows [note by DG: Google sez that this would be a zebu].  It was a good day for farming:  cool, breezy, cloudy.

You know you are approaching a holy site when dozens if not hundreds of stupas cluster at the bottom of the mountain; votive offerings by devotees who hope to gain merit.  What used to be a treacherous climb in the olden days had long ago developed into a manageable covered walk lined with stairs.  But nowadays it is two giant steel pylons right above the parking lot, housing two glass elevators that not only deface the beautiful mountain site, but that turn a merit-gaining pilgrimage into a photo-op Sunday afternoon excursion site.  One of the most iconic photo ops is a heroic archer pointing his arrow at an enormous, hideous spider at the very entrance to the mountain.  Huh?  Well, it was Thursday and only a few visitors aside from us were around.

In Hpa’an I had seen cave sites before.  In principle, this site, the Shwe U Min, was no different.  A natural cave had been discovered at a point in time that nobody can quite determine any more.  And from then on, people had filled the cave with Buddhas and other votive images.  This is a process that obviously still continues as we watched the preparation for the installation of more Buddha figures in progress, and some donor plaques were quite recent.  This cave has several cavities and a length of about 500 feet.  Impressive stalactites and stalagmites form the backdrop for a maze of little walkways lined with over 8000 Buddha figures big and small.  If it were not for some super bright, naked, dangling electric light bulbs installed to keep the bats out, the cave could glow in a warm array of gold.  Despite the bright spots, there is a majesty and serenity to these figures that no one can escape.  It is a forest of Buddhas you can get lost in, and for nearly two hours we did.

As we entered the cave we must have looked rather lost as a local woman pointed us in the right direction in very good English.  She was a visitor to the cave herself from Yangon and had come to visit the site with her daughter and her two nephews.  She must have looked at us as a good opportunity for an English lesson for her kids, as she volunteered her flock to guide us through the cave.  That was a delightful experience as these young students had a few stories up their sleeves which they had just heard from their own Burmese guide:

As folklore has it, seven people were trapped once in this cave by a spider who had spun the entrance closed and it was a brave archer-hero, who rescued them all!  That certainly explained the Disney figures outside.  There were more stories of this sort and others:  Almost all the Buddhas in the cave are gilded (or at least made of a shiny gold bronze), but a few are pitch-black.  They are the so-called perspiring images — they sweat so much that no gold leaf will stick to them.  It is particularly good luck if you put your hands on theirs, then cross your arms in front of your chest and make a wish.  And at one spot — I forgot why it was so special — if you make a wish, backed by the total belief in the power of the Buddha, any wish — it will come true!  Superstition and Buddhism, folklore and doctrine, as everywhere in Myanmar they go hand in hand.  And in this cave they came together in a powerful visual display.

I am two days from departing Myanmar and it was as if the driver had read my thoughts: there was one workshop I had not yet been able to attend, the umbrella makers.  He asked if we were interested in seeing one.  Yes!

The third generation of this local family is operating one of three umbrella workshops in the area: brother, sister, children, aunts and the extended family is involved in the production of umbrellas and lanterns made of hand-made paper.

Once again, the process is labor intensive, ingenious, and done with tools that were invented eons ago.  The bark of a tree is harvested in strips and stored for about a year.  Then it is soaked for several days and boiled for several hours until it is a fibrous blob of slimy material.  It is pounded for about 1/2 hour before it is stirred up in a pot with water and distributed into a square wood and cloth frame suspended in a water basin.  Flower petals and leaves (or anything you can think of) are added for decoration.  The wood frame is then lifted and left out to dry in the sun for several hours.  Then, the handmade dried paper can be peeled off the cloth.  It is surprisingly sturdy.

Handles with clips, and the delicate wooden skeletons for the umbrella are hand-carved and then assembled and tightened with thread. The paper is glued on to the wood and cut.  It all sounds so simple, but I am telling you I was in awe over how the clip was carved that holds the umbrella up out of nothing but bamboo.  This is a mechanism that needs to withstand repeated pressure and it does.  And I was in awe over the intricate network of threads that keeps all the wooden bamboo strips in the right places.  Some decorative umbrellas are as small as dinner plates, others larger than a person.  You can easily sit four people under one of those, safely protected from the sun.  I wish I could have brought back one of the those big ones for our porch…

Now I can leave Myanmar in peace.  I think I saw most of the major processes of handicrafts that are still practiced here.  But then, I would have never thought of rubber bands as a hand-made item…  Who knows what else these people craft out of nothing but what they find around them?  My hat is off to them!

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  1. You have wrapped up so much on your adventure from Buddhas to markets to stupas to umbrellas and interesting people and stories along the way. What a trip and do you ever dream of returning? We have lots of rain here to welcome you home and you won’t have to climb any mountains.

  2. Zebu — good scrabble word!

    Good grief: 8000+ Buddhas in one cave? Did anyone ever calculate Myanmar’s Buddha density, that is, the number of Buddhas per capita?