Shan State

SHAN STATE lies on the Eastern Plateau of Myanmar, east of the Irrawaddy and Sittaung valleys, south of the Bhamo district and north of Kayah State. It is the home to about half the population of Myanmar. Ethnic groups that live here include the Shan, Burmese, Chinese, Wa, Kachin, Paluang, Lahu, Akha, Pa-O, Kachin, Palaung, Danu, Wa, Lahu, Kaw, Maingtha, Paduang, Taungyo, Yin, Gon, Kayah, Lishau, and Intha. For a long time much of Shan State was off limits to tourists because of opium production and fighting connected with ethnic insurgencies in the area. Open areas include Kalaw, Inle Lake, the Shan plateau, the Shan Hill, Inle Lake, Taunggyi, Pindaya and the roads that connect these places.

The capital of Shan State is Taunggyi, the fifth-largest city in Myanmar with about 400,000 people. Other major cities include Thibaw (Hsipaw), Lashio, Kengtung and Tachileik. The road from Thailand through Eastern Shan State opened up with the retirement of the notorious drug baron Khun Sa in 1995. Check the Lonely Planet books and website and their Thorn Tree online bulletin board and the Embassy of Myanmar and the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar for the latest information.

Shan State is divided into Northern Shan State, Southern Shan State and Eastern Shan State. Districts of Shan State include Taunggyi, Loilem, Lashio, Muse, Kyaukme, Kunlong, Laukkai, Kengtung Mongsan, Monhpyak and Tachileik. Shan State is formed with 54 townships and 193 wards and village-tracts. The capital of Shan State is Taunggyi.

The region is dominated by Shan plateau, which is between 915 meters (3,000 feet) and 1,220 meters (4,000 feet) above sea level and has a climate that is comfortable year round and less hot than the lowlands. The mountain ranges threading through the area are generally between 1525 meters (5,000 feet) and 2,37 meters (7,000 feet high). The valleys are filled with wet and dryland rice fields, irrigation canals, ponds, trees, water buffalo, lotus flowers, small pagodas, and footpaths. As is the case with the rest of monsoon Asia, there is a hot dry season from February until June, when the rains begin. The rainy season lasts from June until October or November, followed by a colder season until February. In the higher elevations there are frosts.

Thazi (on the main rail line between Yangon and Mandalay) is a hot, ugly town. Travelers bound for Inle Lake, Loikow and Pagan sometimes get off the train here to catch buses to their ultimate destinations. There is nothing to see in Thazi and it is good idea to get off the train and immediately try to find a bus to somewhere else. There are better places to spend the night. The people at the tourist office near the train station are helpful. They sometimes can provide you with information at where you can find working elephants.

Shan People

The Shan are a relatively large and prosperous minority related to the Dai in China. Their language is similar to Thai and Lao. They have traditionally been rice cultivators and lived in tropical and semitropical monsoon forests along river valleys and in pockets of level land in the hill country of northeast Burma and to a lesser extent in northwest Thailand and southern China. Some other groups regard the Shan as “a standoffish people.”

The Shan are related to the people in Thailand, Laos and Yunnan Province in China. They tend to have taller and fairer than the Burmese. Shans reside mostly in eastern Myanmar in the Shan State, which lies on the Eastern Plateau of Myanmar, east of the Irrawaddy and Sittaung valleys, south of the Bhamo district and north of Kayah State. The Shan have traditionally settled in valleys and river basins rather than in the mountains. Mostly Danu, Taungyoe, Intha (Ansa) and Bamar are living in the western part of the Shan State. Many Paos have settled in the southern part of Shan State.

Most Shans are Theravada Buddhists. Until recently they lived within a distinctive structure of feudal states ruled by hereditary princes. There is no good information on Shan numbers in Myanmar in part because of hostilities there between the Shan and the Myanmar government. There is small number of Shan in Thailand.

Inle Lake

leg rower on Inle Lake

Inle Lake (three hours from Thazi and 20 miles from Taunggyi) is one of Myanmar's most unique and scenic spots. Famous it's floating villages, colorful markets and leg rowers, this 22-kilometer-long, 10-kilometer-wide body of water is sandwiched between gentle green mountain ranges and located at a pleasant and cool elevation of about 1,000 meters. Most visitors stay in the town of Yaungshwe on the eastern side of the lake, where many hotels and guest houses are located.

Inle Lake doesn't have a clearly defined shore. The level of the lake rises and falls in accordance with the wet and dry seasons. Depending on the season, Yaungshwe and other towns are some distance away the shore, which is fringed by high grasses and swamp vegetation. Less fish are being caught in Inle Lake every year. Part of the problem is overfishing. Part of the problem is also an overabundance of silt and water hyacinths, both of which are taking their toll on the fish population by robbing the lake of oxygen.

Inle is located in the heart of Shan State which shares borders with Thailand and Laos. More than 30 hill tribes are living in the mountains. Much of the area is unspoiled, and there are many picturesque places that travelers can visit and have all to themselves. Lake Inle is surrounded by the “Blue Mountains” of the Shan Plateau. The lake is 22 kilometers long and 10 kilometers wide. It is home to people of the Intha ethnic group, many of whom live in villages built on wooden stilts in the middle of the lake. The Intha are also famous for their distinctive leg-rowing technique.


Kalaw (70 kilometers west of Taungyi, about halfway along the Thazi-Taungyi between Thazi and Inle Lake) is a medium-size town in the Shan highlands. A former British hill station, it contains several government agencies and ethnic groups brought here by the British, including Indians, Burmans and Nepali Gurkhas that live among the local Shan. Many travelers on their way to Inle Lake get off the Yangon-Mandalay train in Thazi and stop at Kalaw for one- or two-day hill tribe treks to Pa-O, Danu, Taungyo, and Palaung villages.

Kalaw stands high on the western edge of the Shan Plateau. It was a popular hill station in the British days and it is still a peaceful and quiet place. At an altitude of 1320 meters it is also pleasantly cool and a good place for hiking amid gnarled pines. bamboo groves and rugged mountain scenery. There are lots of guest houses and Kalaw has a nice climate. Hiking trails lead to beautiful mountains, mountain-top temples, pine forests, bamboo groves, rices terraces with water buffalo and villages. Many older local people were educated at missionary schools. Traveling by car it's about two hours west of Nyaungshwe on the western edge of the Shan hills.

Nee Paya (Bamboo strip lacquer Buddha Image) lies in Pinmagon Monastery in Pinmagon Village. It is estimated to have been made in First Inwa Period over 500 years ago. The donors were hard to ascertain and there were no records. The statue is eight feet four inches high. It is noted for its longevity, its prevention of fire. and its wish-granting powers. Occasionally radiation seems to come from the pagoda at the front of image. The image is now lacquered and gilded.

Places of interest around Kalaw include Thein Taung Pagoda, Aung Chan Tha Pagoda, Su Taung Pyae Pagoda and the King Church. A colorful market takes place every five days. Climb the stairs to a temple and enjoy good views of the village. Walk up the hill—a pleasant 1.5 hour trip—for an even better panorama. Also taste strawberry lassi, feed birds, visit a coffee, tea or cheroot tobacco plantations or see elephants at work. It takes two hours (short way) or four hours through the hills to the village of the Palaung tribe. At first a steep track leads down into a narrow valley where the Palaung cultivate cheroot tobacco, tea, damsons and mangoes. Other places of interest include Shwe U Min Cave and the umbrella cottage industry

in the Shan Hills

Visiting Kalaw

Amanda Jones wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “From Bagan, I took a chaotically delayed flight to Heho, in the center of the country, and was driven an hour and a half east to Kalaw, a town in the pine-covered hills. Kalaw, established by British colonialists in the early 1900s as a retreat from the lowland heat, is slightly shabby, and the only reason to visit is to trek and visit with what is left of Burma's hill tribes. [Source: Amanda Jones, Los Angeles Times, December 13, 2013]

“The surrounding valleys are beautiful, bucolic and untouched, with villages clinging to hillsides and mountains as far as the eye can see. Mr. Moe, my new guide, and I hiked up one such valley to reach the Pein Ne Pin village inhabited by the Gold Palaung tribe. I spent a happy afternoon with Palaung women in their bamboo house while they served roasted homegrown tea. I sat on the floor of the monastery and drank more tea with a lone monk, then watched Buddhist nuns cook over an open flame.

“Hiking down, we encountered a set of tranquil white stupas beside the trail, the bells on the silver crowns tinkling in the breeze. Perhaps this was the original purpose of these Buddhist shrines, to walk around them in peace and with presence.

Pinadaya Caves

Pinadaya Caves (north of Kalaw, 60 kilometers from Heho) contains thousands of Buddha images which have been placed in the caves over the centuries. Located in a limestone ridge overlooking a lake, the cave has many chambers, some of which contain small Buddha images which are reached by crawling on your hands and knees.

Buddha images in various size and shape have been installed in the caves since the 11th century. The winding galleries and nooks and corners have been regarded as ideal places for of insight meditation since ancient tines. Huge monastery compounds with numerous pagodas and temples in different stages of dilapidation are much respected by such ethnic groups as the Shans, Danus and Paos living in the environs of Pindaya.

The town of Pindaya is a small quiet place perched on the bank of the placid Botoloke Lake. Surrounded by mountains, it has only a couple of guest houses. It can be reached by taking a road north from Aungban off the main Thazi-Taungyi Road. Northwest of Pindaya are the Padah-Lin Caves, the country's most important Neolithic excavation site. In one of the caves is an early wall painting with a human hand, a huge fish and part of an elephant.

The ancient caves are about one mile southwest of the town. and can be reached by taking a horse-cart, motoring there by jeep or just walking. Save some energy for the 200 step climb up to the covered stairway leading to the cave entrance and for exploring the huge meandering maze of caves. Bt one count there are 8,094 Buddha images made from various materials such as teak wood, marble, alabaster, brick cement and lacquer.

At the entrance to the main cave there is a 50-foot-high pagoda. This pagoda is called Shwe U-min Hpaya or the Golden Cave pagoda. The tazaung or prayer hall was built by the famous hermit U Khanti who also built many of the religious edifices on Mandalay Hill. The entire length of the cave is 490 feet. The numerous stalactites and stalagmites in these limestone caves. from fanciful shapes and have given rise to such names as the "Fairy Princess Loom". "Posts for tying horses and elephants" and so on.

Trekking in the Kalaw Area

Jillian Dunham wrote in the New York Times:“We’d been walking for hours on a dirt path with no shade when we came to the rice field. In a clearing, half a dozen farmers had set slanting wooden boards on the ground, arranged in a circle. They were hitting bundles of harvested rice plants against the panels so that the kernels broke away and slid down onto a tarp. Oxen waited nearby, hitched to heavy wooden carts. We were in the rural foothills of Myanmar’s Shan State, in November. It was over 90 degrees and the three of us — my friends Tressa and Tanya, and myself — had been walking for two days. As we stared at the farmers, fat drops of sweat dripped down my face, and my hair lay in damp clumps on my forehead. Later, looking at photos, I would realize that I resembled a harmless, but decidedly disheveled, stranger. [Source: Jillian Dunham, New York Times, December 16, 2015]

“My friends and I were on a three-day hike in the southwestern part of Shan State — farming country known mostly for narrow, silvery Inle Lake, a popular destination for travelers. Bountiful and ethnically diverse, southern Shan is a patchwork of villages and farms growing sesame, wheat, potatoes, rice and chiles in a stunning highland landscape. Dirt paths and quiet roads connect villages, some of which host markets on alternate days.

“With our guide, Ko Phyo — whose services we had arranged through a local guesthouse — we set out from the former British hill station of Kalaw on a road that became a dirt path, passing through a stand of mountain pines that opened to undulating valleys dotted with villages. Tar Ngye, who is in his 30s, walked ahead of us in flip-flops and a longyi, a saronglike garment — my stuff hoisted on his shoulders. (An old spinal injury prohibits me from carrying my own pack.) On the day we arrived, someone from the guesthouse had run into the market and asked if Tar Ngye could set aside his work selling cabbages for a few days.

“December through February is the best time to visit Shan State, when rainfall is low and temperatures milder, although overnight stops may be crowded with other travelers. The walk we took is of moderate difficulty, with steep climbs and limited shade. The distance can vary depending on your route, but for a three-day trip, count on walking at least five or six hours each day. Guides can be arranged through several outfits in Kalaw, including Ever Smile (eversmiletrekking.com) and Sam’s Trekking Guide, a family business that also operates a restaurant in town by the same name (samtrekking@gmail.com; 95-81-50237 and 95-81-50377). Expect to pay between $15 and $30 per person per day, which includes food. At a minimum, you must have sturdy walking shoes and a flashlight, as well as plenty of drinking water.

Farms Along the Trek in the Kalaw Area

Jillian Dunham wrote in the New York Times:“A few hours into the trek, we passed a terraced garden of onions and cabbages, and Tar Ngye nodded his head toward a cluster of huts made of bamboo woven in chevrons. Because he spoke Pa-O, a language used by one of the many ethnic groups that call Shan State home, Ko Phyo translated for us. “That’s his village,” he said. Tar Ngye lived there with his wife and young daughter and raised vegetables that they sold at the market. Theirs was one of the more prosperous settlements we’d see, with shade trees and elegant, fenced gardens with rows of greens, garlic and eggplant. [Source: Jillian Dunham, New York Times, December 16, 2015]

“They made an odd pair: Tar Ngye, the soft-spoken, responsible father, and Ko Phyo, at 20, a goofy, gawky college kid. Ko Phyo’s jawline-length hair was slicked back with gel and his bright green soccer socks were pulled up to his knees. A too-small bowler hat was perched jauntily on his head at a precarious angle, which made him look like a perpetually shrugging pop star. “My mother hates it,” he said.

“Through farmer’s field after farmer’s field, Tressa, Tanya and I took turns ducking under a yellow umbrella that Ko Phyo carried, and talked about the contrasts between our lives. The terrain grew challenging, with glowing checkerboards of sesame and rice planted on steep hillsides. This was completely unlike the Himalayan treks Tressa and I had made in recent years. There were no Wi-Fi zones, no hot water, no base camps at which to Instagram ourselves. I forgot about my phone, buried deep under items I needed more readily — oranges, peanuts, drinking water.

“As we wandered into open country, Ko Phyo let his hand drop into a field that was the color of rust, and came up with a handful of long red chiles. “Try them, they’re sweet,” he said, holding one out to me. They were thin, about the length of my index finger. They did not look sweet, but I bit the end off one. “Ko Phyo!” I shouted. My mouth and lips were on fire. “They’re sweet!” he said, smiling mischievously. He was old enough to work as a guide, but still a kid.

“When we’d stopped, Tar Ngye, our porter, watched us, amused. Everywhere we went, we stopped to help women pick chiles or men thresh rice. A farmer himself, Tar Ngye seemed to find our interest strange but endearing. He asked the men if we could try threshing, and soon we were hitting the bundles against the boards, first timidly and then aggressively, to the very satisfying cicada-like sound of hundreds of tiny kernels slipping to the ground. After a while, two farmers walked around, solemnly placing orange segments and wisps of rice on each board. This was an offering for good weather, and hence a good harvest. A bad harvest would spell disaster. It meant children pulled from school; meals missed; long, anxious days in a region with scarce or nonexistent public resources.

“They handed us, the foreign guests, some orange segments, which were among the many gifts we received during our stay in Myanmar. It was a constant flow: bananas, persimmons, a wood apple, more tiny oranges, many, many chiles. Long after I returned home, I could think of little else but what it meant for so many people to wish something refreshing on the unexpected stranger.”

Spending the Nights in a Village in the Kalaw Area

Jillian Dunham wrote in the New York Times: “That first day, we walked seven hours, until we arrived in the village of Kyut Su. In the common room of a small home built on stilts, we set our packs near a shelf of Buddhist icons. Three mats were spread on the floor where we would sleep. When we poked our heads in the kitchen, our hosts, a middle-aged husband and wife, beckoned us to sit on the floor near the fire. They were joined by their daughter and her young son, and their son-in-law, who poured rice wine in small glasses. Using gestures rather than words, we made a toast. [Source: Jillian Dunham, New York Times, December 16, 2015]

“Salty, pleasant smoke floated through the room. A layer of tiny fish were roasting on a screen held over the flame. “With the rice are these fish,” Ko Phyo translated from Pa-O. “At the end of the harvest, they take a car battery and —” He mimicked placing the cords of a battery charger into a watery rice paddy. “The fish float to the top,” he explained.

“They passed the fish, browned and crunchy, in small bowls. Through a square cut into the bamboo wall, we could see the moon rising, while the fire chased off the growing chill. Conversation went in all directions, with Ko Phyo as the conduit, translating between English, Burmese and Pa-O. But generosity is as much a language as any other; everyone smiled and laughed at the antics of the baby, and our glasses were filled and refilled with rice wine. Soon, our muscles begged for rest; on my mat in the common room, I lowered my eyelids to the smell of wood smoke and the sounds of our hosts whispering good night to each other.

Trekking in the Hot Sun in the Kalaw Area

Jillian Dunham wrote in the New York Times:“In the morning we walked down into a wide, treeless valley. It was hot again, hovering just below 100 degrees, and for the first four hours we talked mostly about a river that Ko Phyo had mentioned. After lunch, we arrived at a small riverside beach. Two men — solo travelers, one Chinese and one Israeli, who had connected in Yangon — caught up to us, the first walkers who stayed with us for any length of time. They lingered nearby as Tressa and I took our shoes off and walked over the cool river stones, and then returned to the shore to watch Tanya and Ko Phyo dive into the hollows. “This is boring,” one of the men said. [Source: Jillian Dunham, New York Times, December 16, 2015]

“We were sitting in the shade, on a blanket Tar Ngye had made for us from palm leaves. Nearby, young boys played Burmese pop music and wove bamboo baskets, taking breaks to run into the river. Tar Ngye had cut stalks of bamboo, sharpened them, and stuck them into the ground, hanging our sarongs and Ko Phyo’s hat out to dry. Ko Phyo strode down the river like a sea monster, swinging his skinny arms and legs wildly.

“We needed to make it to Tadiy village before nightfall, so we forced our boots back on and hiked across the sun-baked river valley to a broad stony ridge, where we ducked back into the woods, out of the heat, and walked up to an old teak Buddhist monastery. In the courtyard, young monks played soccer, their maroon robes tied above the knees so they could run. Whenever one team scored, the other had to do push-ups. An extended family of tiger-striped cats scooted from monk to monk and up the creaking steps of the monastery, to a balcony that looked out on the soccer pitch and the valley below.

“Inside, we set our things to the side of the altar, taking care not to turn our bare feet toward the giant, bejeweled Buddhas, a sign of disrespect. As the sun fell, we stood in shoulder-high concrete baths, pouring bowls of cold water, cruel but delicious, over ourselves. We returned, in our least dirty clothes, and sat around a candlelit table.

“Earlier in the day, during one of our many stops at a farmer’s field, Tar Ngye had dug into the soil and come up with a dozen tiny potatoes cradled in his palm. They were now rolling, crisped and roasted, on our plates, next to noodles and Burmese salads, or thokes, made from tea leaves and beans. The monastery was a popular place for travelers to rest, and we were joined by other young porters and cooks. As the monks disappeared into the building for final prayers, Ko Phyo, Tar Ngye and the other guides told ghost stories until we could barely make out the shape of the giant, antique temple in the dark.

Final Leg to Inle Lake

Jillian Dunham wrote in the New York Times:“The three of us were quiet as the men talked, silently preparing ourselves for our final walk the next morning to the town of Indein on Inle Lake. As villagers collected water for their day, we would descend from the remote highland villages down a boulder-strewn path to the port, where we’d catch a longboat taxi back to our emails and our suitcases and our return flights. My feet ached but I did not want to stop. Days of walking had dissolved something in me — a hardness, a wariness that came from living in New York, where resources are something guarded rather than shared. [Source: Jillian Dunham, New York Times, December 16, 2015]

“In the pitch dark, we sneaked back into the monastery and lay on the ground. Sleep would come quickly, as it had the night before. But in the candlelight, I kept my eyes open as long as I could. I could barely make out the prayers painted on the soaring teak framework that rose over our heads. We would wake long before sunrise to the chanting of monks. I looked forward to that moment, but before I got there, I was content to watch the shadows of cats and monks moving silently across a wooden sky. I didn’t want to be anywhere else.


TAUNGGYI (456 kilometers north of Yangon and about 210 kilometers southeast of Mandalay, 40 kilometers east of Heho) is the capital of the Shan State. Situated on a high plateau surrounded by mountains, this 4,712-foot-high city was once known as the Administrative City of British Colonial rule in Shan State. Its current name means "huge mountain." The steep mountain on the eastern side of Taunggyi is the biggest mountain in the area. Treks can be organized there as well as to hill tribe villages, “hawnanas” (palatial residence for Shan chiefs), and Myaseintaung and Lwan Zedi (two mountains with pagodas with Buddha images).

Taunggyi can be reached by road. rail or air from all parts of the country. The distance between Yangon and Taunggyi is 456 miles and can be reached by road directly. The road to Taunggyi is full of bends and zigzags, To reach Taunggyi by air you can first fly to Heho, about 40 kilometers to the west. The flight from Yangon takes about one hour, 20 minutes. The bus ride to town is about 45-minutes.

Taunggyi has a cooler temperatures than Yangon and Mandalay and offer lovely mountain scenery and colorful market/bazaars. Inle Lake is not far away. Taunggyi is a fairly large town, There are cinemas, shops, stores, restaurants, churches, the Taunggyi Degree College and a golf course. There are pines, cherry and eucalyptus trees growing all over the town and the whole area is green and pleasant. The busiest part of Taunggyi is the Myoma Market, which used to be a once-every-five-day market but is now a daily market constantly crowded with people. Although less so than it used to be it is a gathering point of different ethnic groups residing in the Taunggyi area.

Sights and Events in Taunggyi

Sights in Taunggyi itself include Myona Market, where hill tribes from the surrounding mountains come every five days to buy and sell their goods; and the Cultural Museum, which contains cultural objects, musical instruments, traditional costumes, household and farm implements, paintings, sculptures and crafts produces by the numerous ethnic groups residing in the Shan State. There are two pagodas—Shwe Phone Pwint and Myasein Taung—on the hill top with panoramic view of the city Taunggyi. It usually rains in Taunggyi from June to November and average annual rainfall is 32.68 inches.

The Taunggyi hot air balloon festival is a fairly big event. In Taunggyi. the people celebrate the Tazaungdine festival with Kahtein (offering of monk robes) as well as the releasing fire-balloons into the sky. Balloons in the shape of elephants, oxen, horses, water-buffalos, birds, pigs, fish, owls and parrots are released. The Taunggyi festival is one of biggest festivals in southern Shan State. Many different ethnic groups are present.

Kekku Pagoda (south of Taunggyi) is thought to have been built in the 16th century but was only recently uncovered after being hidden for centuries in the wooded hills. The pagoda consists of about one square kilometer of land crammed with more than 2000 stupas. Kekku Pagoda can be reached any time of year by the paved road from Taunggyi. During the dry season it can also be reached by travelling on rougher but more adventurous roads directly over the mountains from Inle Lake.

Hopong (10 kilometers from Taunggyi) is situated in the southern part of Shan State east of Thanlwin River. It is the home of Wa (Lwela) people. Manganese is found in Hopong.

Badah-lin and Associated Caves (Southern Shan State,Taunggyi District , Ywa-ngan Township) were nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Cave 1, excavated 1969-72, have yielded a rich prehistoric material. Carbon 14 analysis of charcoal pieces has provided dates of 13000 years before present time. Numerous stone implements, ringstones and animal bones were unearthed during excavation. 14 rock-paintings in red ochre (representation of animals and of human hands, and symbolic motives) were discovered on walls and ceiling. The large number of unfinished pieces indicates that the cave was used as a workshop for stone tools. As the cave provides evidence of the transition from Paleolithic to Neolithic implements, it represents a determining milestone in the prehistory of south-east Asia. Location: Coordinates: 21°09' N , 96°20' E

Ancient City of Kukku

Paduang woman

Ancient City of Kukku (26 miles from Taunggyi) an ancient city of pagodas from 11th century that lies among the plains and mountains among the Pao tribal villages. There are over 2,000 stupas. Most are in ruins. Their designs are different from those at Pagan. In the past there were more than four hundred thousand stupas. At present about four hundred stupas can be seen in Kukku. Some sitting Stupas are decorated with fine glass mosaic and some have fine plaster carvings. This place is now being developed into one of the top tourist attractions in Shan State.

Even though Kukku is not far from Taunggyi it take about 3 hours drive by car to reach. Kakku is in the territory of Pa-Oh people. The stupas are packed relatively close together in ranks in an area covering perhaps a square kilometer. The main stupa is around 40 meters high. Their design is fairly uniform. Originally each one must have been topped by a gilded metal hti. the multi tiered umbrella-like feature. which is typical of Myanmar Pagodas. Many of them are tilted or fallen. External rendering of mortar and stucco has crumbled away on others. exposing the brick core while trees have established themselves in a few, threatening to split them apart. But so much of the originals still exist that this site must be free of the destructive force of earthquakes, which have periodically ravaged many of the Myanmar's other monuments.

External decoration on many of the stupas is simple. almost sparse, but others have elaborate decoration. Traditional motifs include intricate arabesques and floral patterns. Even more fascinating are the many figures, carved in stucco and apparently originally brightly painted, which adorn corners or niches in the base, many of which still contain old Buddha images, angels, musicians and dancers. The remoteness of the site and reluctance of the local people allow visitors has helped to preserve its sculptures and artistic treasures to a degree.

According to legend the first stupas were created by King Alaungsithu, the 12th century King of Pagan. The decorative sculptures and figures are 17th or 18th century but some of the structures are clearly much older. Researchers say Kakku was built about 400 years ago. The Kakku pagoda festival is usually held during March, the full moon day of Tabaung. Kekku has been the center of the worship for the Pa-O people. During the festival the Pa-O people come to pay homage to the pagoda in their best costumes. Some people from nearby villages come to the festival with decorated bullocks.

Loikaw and Long-Neck Women

LOIKAW (five hours from Kalaw) is a medium-size town located on a lake in the Kayah State. Most visitors used come here to see the long-necked women of the Paduang tribe, a branch of the Karen tribe with only 7,000 members, most of whom have traditionally lived in villages within a 100 mile radius of Loikow. Now most people who check out long-necked women do so in Thailand.

Long-necked women visited by tourists were based in Sompron village (about three miles south of the center of town), where ten or so long-necked women and girls lived in small huts set up for them by a travel agency. The woman come out when visitors called on them. They didn't speak any English so visitors often played games or did some other or activity to keep them amused.

The visit to Sompron was a little strange and awkward. I did it in 1996. After allowing you take some pictures, the women speak up and say the only English words they know, "Five dollars please." Some people have compared the experience to a zoo trip. About three miles north of town three long-neck women live in a small village; and about ten miles down the road there is another village near Cabusera with four long-neck women and an Italian who speaks English and doesn't mind answering questions. Ask for directions to these places from the guest houses in Loikow.

Loikow also has a couple of picturesque temples located on precipitous rock outcrops as well as three or four guest houses and a couple of Chinese restaurants. Short treks can be arranged to Paduang, Lahu, Lisu, Pao and other hill tribe villages near Loikow. For information about trekking ask for Joseph at the Pearl Guest House. An experienced guide who worked for many years in Thailand, Joseph can organize treks from one to 20 days and is highly recommended by many trekkers. Loikow can be reached a rough partly-paved road from Kalaw.

Kayah State

Kayah State

Kayah State is inhabited by Kayah, Kayan (Padaung) Mono, Kayaw, Yintalei, Gekho, Hheba, Shan, Intha, Bamar, Rakhine, Chin, Kachin, Kayin, Mon and Pao. Kayah State is situated in eastern Myanmar and bounded on the north by Shan State and on the east by Thailand and on the south and west by Kayin state. According to Myanmar government figures 49 per cent of the population are are Buddhists. 43 per cent are Christians and 6 per cent are Animists. Kayah State had a population of 158.400 in 1983. In the 2000s the estimated population was over 240,000. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

The Kayah State was founded when Burma became independent in 1948. The 1983 census conducted by United Nations and the Burmese government reported that Kayah made up 56.1 percent of Kayah State, followed by Bamar (17.6 percent), Shan (16.7 percent), Karen (6.4 percent) and mixed races (2 percent). According to 2014, figures, there are 286,627 people in Kayah State. It has a population density of only 24 people per square kilometers(6 per square mile). Ethnolinguists distinguish the following linguistic groups in Kayah State: Karenni/Kayah (Red people), Padaung (Kayan), Bwe, Geba, Manumanaw (Kayaw), Yantale, Zayein (Kayăn Lahta), Geko (Kayăn Kakhong), Yinbaw (Kayăn Kangan), Paku (Karen). [Source: Wikipedia]

According to to the Myanmar government the Kayah are comprised nine different ethnic groups: 1) Kayah; 2) Zayein, 3) Ka-Yun (Padaung), 4) Gheko, 5) Kebar, 6) Bre (Ka-Yaw), 7) Manu Manaw, 8) Yin Talai, 9) Yin Baw. The famous long-necked women of the Paduang tribe are regarded as members of the Kayah ethnic group. The Karen are often confused with the Red Karen (Karenni), which is one of the tribe of Kayah in Kayah State, Myanmar. The subgroup of the Karenni, the Padaung tribe, are best known for the neck rings worn by the women of this group of people. This tribe reside at the border region of Burma and Thailand.

Sights in the Loikaw and Kayah State Area

Loikaw is the capital of Kayah state. It just one hour's flight from Yangon, but is difficult to reach by road. The most famous religious landmark of Loikaw is the Thiri-Mingalar Taung-kwe Pagoda Hill, scenically set on a hill overlooking the city. It is a good place to watch pilgrims and enjoy the marvelous view.

Thiri Mingala Hill (Taunggwe) (south of Loikaw) is a 387-foot-high hill nine peaks and nine pagodas on each peak. The nine peaks are 1) Pyilone Chantha, 2) Shwe Yattaung, 3) Shweyin-aye, 4) Kyauk Thamban, 5) Aung-dawmu, 6) lower Kyaikhtiyo, 7) upper Kyaikhtiyo, 8) Sutaungpyi and 9 Shwe-Pyi-Aye. Pyilone Chantha Pagoda was built in 1933 to be 36 feet high and 27 feet in girth. Shwe Yattaung Pagoda was built in 1895 to be 20 feet high and 15 feet in girth. Shwe Yin-aye Pagoda was built in 1913 to be seven feet high and five feet and six inches in girth. Kyauk Tbamban Pagoda was built in 1914 to be four feet and six inches high and three feet in girth. Aungdawmu Pagoda was built in to be eleven feet and six inches high and ten feet nine inches in girth. Sutaungpyi Pagoda was built in 1929 to be eleven feet six inches high and nine feet six inches in girth. Lower Kyaikhtiyo Pagoda was built in 1933 to be five feet and ten inches high and five feet ten inches in girth. Upper Kyaikhtiyo Pagoda was built in 1934 to be five feet and six inches high and five feet in girth. Shwe Pyi-aye Pagoda was built in 1950 to be seven feet high and six feet and ten inches in girth. There is a prophecy that one day the nine pagodas would be unified into one omniscient pagoda in the propagation and perpetuation of the Buddhist faith. The name of the sacred hill was changed to Thiri-mangalar Hill in 1970.

Htee-pwint-kan (Demosoe Township) means Umbrella pond. It was just a small pond around a hundred feet in circumference in the middle of paddy fields but it has an interesting story attached to it. The Kayahs believe that it was dug by the crocodile with the help of a white buffalo. According to Kayah legend: "Once upon a time in a dense forest a big white rabbit and a big crocodile lived together as friends. One day the rabbit told the crocodile that a severe drought would befall the following summer which would cause extreme hardship. The rabbit then persuaded the crocodile to leave the forest to more salubrious pastures where water was plentiful. Believing in the rabbit they both traveled till they reached the top of a hillock when the rabbit ran away, leaving the poor crocodile to his dire fate. Luckily a white buffalo passed by and saw the predicament of the distraught crocodile, who requested the former to take him to where water was available. The buffalo replied that water was very far away. Then the crocodile suggested that the buffalo dig the earth with his strong hoofs, urinate on the earth to soften it and repeat the process again and again until the pit was deep enough for the crocodile to wallow inside. The buffalo obliged, and the crocodile wallowed until as luck would have it water spurted from the subterranean lake, bringing relief to the amphibian. The thankful crocodile offered to help the buffalo so that he may not suffer for want of water. Thus we now see that buffaloes never feel the scarcity of water as the crocodiles kept the promise made once upon a time. "

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Myanmar Travel Information, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2020

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