I traveled in Burma in 1997 and fell in love with the people and the landscape. Shades of Moonlight, Karen L. McKee’s paranormal romance is set in modern day Myanmar and String Singer, the first volume in Karen Abrahamson’s soon-to-be-published  historical fantasy trilogy were both inspired by that wonderful traipse with a backpack and camera.

Schwedigon pagoda
Holy Schwedigon pagoda at sunset, Yangon, Myanmar (Photo (C) Karen Abrahamson)

Kaiytiko – the golden, mountaintop shrine

kaiytiko, the golden rock temple
Kaiytiko ,(pronounced Chi-tio), sacred balancing boulder, Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

This is a holy place. Filled with supplicants, swallows and dragon flies where you can see from the Andaman Sea to the rivers northwestward that empty out the heart of Burma. The air is redolent with music from bells almost beyond hearing, distant voices, and gongs reverberating.

The golden rock stupa sits balanced at the top of the mountain and around below it, other lesser shrines glisten white and silver/white and gold along the ridges. In the valley below – on the flatlands, field and trees burn, filling the air with smoke that twines around the sun rays that slide between clouds. The wind runs here. And quiet. I could stay here a long time to fill myself with them. Certainly more than a day. This would be a good place to read and study… but…

It seems I’m a novelty. People want to know about me, my country and what I think of Burma. It’s a country of smiles. Of their surprise at seeing this strange creature of straps and pockets and pouches (my camera vest and equipment). How must I appear to them so neat in their longyi when I’m grimed with sweat and travel dust after the long climb up the mountain. I ended up with about 30 people crowded around me and one poor fellow trying hopelessly to translate.

I’d describe this place as a combination of the sublime and the mundane rolled into one. Little common things add up to so much: the flowering tree that floats scent over the hillside; the families with their novice monk sons; noisy children; people seeking shade against the fierce sun. Those you can see anywhere, but here there’s also the ornate tiles hot under your bare feet, the huge waterwheel, the Burmese temple gongs resonating across the mountain ridge tops, the incense at sunset and the overawing spectacle of the rock at twilight. There’s something here: I’m not certain what, but a peace and tranquility and love. My face aches from all the smiles.

May 1997

At U-Bein’s Bridge, Sagaing, Burma

Lake temple U bien's bridge
Lake temple U bien's bridge (Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson)

Late morning and we headed to U-bein’s Bridge on Lake Taungthaman. The air heats in the sun even now at 9 am. The lake is half-covered with water hyacinth – rich green with lavender flocking of flowers. A blue Pagoda built in the water mirrors the color of sky, and the color reflects in the water. People wade in the water, fishing with nets laid out on glistening strings. Others fish with poles from the bridge, or are on the lake, far out beyond the hyacinth – for prawn and small fish.

I’m told the bridge is now primarily for tourists or where locals come to relax. There are no bullock carts on the bridge anymore. At a small restaurant of bamboo chairs Tan Win, the driver ordered tea and fish and prawn cakes – the latter are whole fish or translucent-bodied shrimp pressed into crispy rounds and deep fried. Quite good after you get past the eyes staring up at you. Crisp and salty and good with white, tender flesh. In a poor country you eat what you get.

May 1997

The Nat Dancer at Nyaungschwe, Inle Lake

Nat Dancer - Inle Lake, Myanmar
Nat Dancer at village festival, Inle Lake, Myanmar (Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson)

The tent is yellow and crowded with people, young, old, middle-aged – all focused on the dancer, musicians, and the Nat (spirit) altar. The tent stands under a tree near a small spirit house to the regional Nat, Comushin. The dancers are men – or, as one local man described it “ body of man, spirit of woman” – transsexuals in the hard edged western vernacular – draped in thin iridescent blouses and longyi (sarong) of pink and yellow, with bright makeup to enhance eyes, lips and cheeks.

The dancer – there are seven in this troupe, though only one dances now – swoops and poses and bats his eyes at the audience, bows and accepts kyat notes pinned to his clothing and tucked into folds of his skirt. He exhorts the crowd over a loudspeaker that makes his voice distant, ethereal, like something from a B Grade Scifi movie as he dances and swigs from a ¾ full bottle of Mandalay rum.

His gaze meets mine and he crooks a finger at me to come to him-perhaps because here I’m an oddity just like him. Babes in the arms of their fathers watch me as he takes my sweaty hand in his dry one and accepts the 100 kyat note I offer. He hands me a lipstick-stained glass of the russet liquid and motions for me to drink. I sip the liquor and it burns my tongue and throat.

A slight nod and a chin up motion from the diva and he sings to me and I knock the liquid back and feel myself flush, and warm sweat form at the temples. He releases my hand and smiles, the money magically gone, and gives me a thumbs up, then steps back and resumes his dance.

As I slink back beyond the offerings of bananas and rice cakes and flowers and stuffed animals placed at Comushin’s spirit house a local man comes up to me and says with what could be admiration, “he give you the good stuff”.

Everything is relative.

May 97

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