Near Inle Lake, a Burmese County Fair

Nyaung Shwe’s Buddhist festival is far from solemn

By Dave Fox
Nyaung Shwe, Burma (Myanmar)

1980s fashion has arrived among the youth of Inle Lake. As we wandered the streets of Nyaung Shwe, Burma, the mid-day sun beat down on teens in pleather jackets and tight jeans. The most fashionable among them had spiked hair, lightened to a reddish-orange or blond. On some, the orange hair complimented their red teeth, colored from chewing betel leaf, a local stimulant that stained their mouths and lent an extra edge of hyperactivity to their hormone-addled behavior.

From new wave to grunge, Burmese youth are catching up on Western fashion.

By chance, we had arrived on one of the biggest festival weekends of the year. A Buddhist tooth relic, shared among five different villages around Inle Lake, would be transported by boat at the end of the weekend to another town. Boatload after boatload of villagers from around the lake were swarming into Nyaung Shwe for the festivities – dressed to impress. In spite of its sacred significance, we could tell this was not going to be a solemn affair.

Older tribespeople sported traditional village clothing – colorful head wraps and longgi – ankle-length, skirt-like wraps worn by both men and women. But the younger crowd’s clothes and hairstyles seemed influenced not by local culture, but ‘80s new wave bands like A Flock of Seagulls.

The Nyaung Shwe market — packed tight with bargain hunters.

In the Inle Lake area, Nyaung Shwe is the closest thing you’ll find to a tourist town. It has a mix of paved and unpaved roads, a few hotels and guesthouses, and enough restaurants and street food to keep you nourished. Rooms are filling fast there these days. Booking ahead is recommended as tourism is increasing, and demand is outstripping supply.

After checking into our hotel, we wandered through an outdoor market. It ran the equivalent of several street blocks, crammed with stalls selling clothing, household items, fruits and vegetables, deep-fried snacks, betel leaves, balloons, stuffed animals, you name it. The market was packed tight with visitors from nearby towns, but we saw few other foreigners. We drew stares and occasional smiles as we flowed with the jostling crowd.

At a food stand, we slurped 500-kyat (60 US cent) bowls of sticky, peanutty, Cham noodles, a regional specialty. Then, in a land where poverty has kept old trades alive that have been lost elsewhere, we marveled at knives and scissors hand-forged from iron. A couple of blocks from the market, we met a family who ran a paper shop. The paper they sold, they made themselves from mulberry bark.

At the Nyaung Shwe market: Scissors are still hand-forged from iron.

Over the river that leads to the lake, people swarmed along a wooden bridge linking two sides of a dirt road. Long, wooden racing boats, with 60 or 70 rowers and musicians standing in each, cruised beneath us, celebrating on their way to a race downstream. Anchored nearby was a vessel in the shape of a golden phoenix that, at the end of the weekend, would transport Buddha’s tooth to a temple at another village on the river.

An elaborate raft is ready to transport one of Buddha's teeth from a temple in Nyaung Shwe to one of four other towns on the lake that take turns with the relic.

An elaborate raft is ready to transport one of Buddha’s teeth from a temple in Nyaung Shwe to one of four other towns on the lake that take turns with the relic.

Mid-afternoon, we ducked into a local watering hole to gulp pints of Myanmar Beer. Many of the Burmese customers went with a cheaper option: local “whiskey” and rum. (I sampled both at other moments in our trip. The whiskey is sweet, with little resemblance to Western whiskey, but it’s not bad. The rum is a little rough on the throat.)

Rowers and musicians head to a race. In local tradition, they row with their feet. (See short video clip below.)

As the day wore on, the flow of people on the dusty road outside our bar grew thicker and thicker. Most were on foot, but motorbikes buzzed by, and tractors with exposed engines hauled wagons crammed with passengers.

Also appearing as the sun dipped lower was a growing number of tourists. I’d been surprised earlier in the day by the lack of foreigners. But the foreigners, during daytime, had been on boat trips on the lake, an hour down river. As the afternoon wound down, they returned to Nyaung Shwe.

Nevertheless, we were still a source of fascination – particularly among the retro-chic teens, who, as their betel leaf and alcohol consumption increased, grew bolder in their introductions. Shy smiles earlier in the day gave way to hard-hitting high-fives and boisterous hellos in English or Burmese.

After dark, things grew raucous. The market jostling devolved into full-on body checking. It was an odd sensation; physically, the shoulders crashing into mine felt hostile to my Western way of thinking, but none of the Burmese seemed to mind the scrum.

Sven Wondermoose samples the local whiskey and Coke.

We followed the noise to a wide open field where things became simultaneously surreal and familiar. There were beer gardens and carnival games, and a carousel for kids. In the middle of Burma, it felt oddly like being at an American county fair. As one would find at such an event in the United States, there were people of all ages. Kids were giggling. Teenagers were flirting. Adults were watching their kids or getting sloshed at the beer garden.

But we knew we were most definitely not in the US when we saw the Ferris Wheel.

From a distance, it looks like an ordinary Ferris Wheel; however…

From a distance, it looked like any other Ferris Wheel, with flashing colored lights on each spoke. But as we got closer, we realized this was something that, for safety reasons, could never fly at an American county fair.

It had no motor. In groups of four, people clambered into carriages. Workers turned the wheel by hand – slowly until they had a full crowd of fresh passengers. Then, with the dexterity of circus acrobats, a few of them would climb the spokes to the top. A whistle would blow, and on that cue, they would swing their weight forward, dangling as the wheel began spinning at what looked like a terrifying speed. Passengers and onlookers would shriek. The workers would let go as they neared the ground and plunk into the dirt. The wheel would spin for a couple of revolutions before losing inertia. The workers would then climb the wheel for another spin or two before loading up a fresh crowd.

I didn’t go on the Ferris Wheel. I had a couple of beers in my by this point but my judgment wasn’t that impaired. Stories from my mother ran through my mind of an incident many years ago, when her grandmother had seen a Ferris Wheel tip over. If ever in my life I would see a Ferris Wheel tip over, I suspected it would be this one.

… You’ll be amazed when you see how they make it spin! (Watch a short video clip below.)

The wheel did not tip over, however, which was lucky for our friend Gary who was bold and/or inebriated enough to go for a whirl. He climbed off laughing, and later coerced my wife, against my pleas, into joining him. They both survived.

Back on the ground, a party was in full swing. Techno music was throbbing. Teens were showing off their hip-hop moves and swigging flasks of booze.

It was well past midnight when we wandered back to our hotel. The noise faded into the background as we walked the two blocks back to our room. Inside, our windows rattled as the distant festivities continued.

I’m a night person. In spite of the fact that we’d been up at 4:45 that morning to catch a flight from Yangon, I could have happily stayed out longer. But we had plans in the morning. We’d just spent an extraordinary day in Nyaung Shwe and we hadn’t even seen the main attraction yet. At 8 a.m., a boat would take us to Inle Lake, where entire villages exist on stilted houses over the water.


A Quick Clip: Rowers and musicians head out to the race:

 Take a spin on the Amazing Human-Powered Burmese Ferris Wheel!

Published on Saturday, December 15, 2012

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