Thursday, August 29, 2013


                                                        by Jim Goodman

    Visitors to Mandalay arrange their itineraries around visits to Myanmar’s former royal cities.  They tour the temples and historic ruins of Inwa, Amarapura, Sagaing and Mandalay itself, the last of the nation’s royal capitals before the British terminated the institution.  Yet not far away, around six hours by car to the northeast, lies another former royal capital, Shan not Burmese, known as Hsipaw by its Shan inhabitants and Thibaw by the Burmese.  It was once an autonomous state of its own, ruled by its own saopha, one of many such little princely realms that were eventually consolidated into the single political unit now known as Shan State.
Hsipaw lies on the banks of the Dokhtawaddy River
    Hsipaw has been drawing an increasing number of visitors in the past few years.  They come to enjoy a very different kind of royal city adventure than the one experienced around Mandalay.  The town is not very big, nor plagued by any traffic noise, and easy enough to explore on foot.  It lies along a picturesque river, bounded by hills on all sides, and close to a typically old-fashioned rural environment.  Though ancient monuments and important temples are among its features, most travelers spend little time checking them out and are more interested in tours by boat to Shan villages to visit traditional stilted houses and observe Shan farmers in the fields.  Second choice is usually a trek to a Palaung village, passing by a particularly striking waterfall.  Rather than a succession of temples and urban neighborhoods, Hsipaw’s guests opt instead for the pleasures of rural outings.
    The town itself feels like a true farmers’ city.  Other than an old cinema, there are no entertainment venues and the streets are nearly empty by nine p.m.  Farmers fill the morning market along the Dokhtawaddy River long before dawn, while activity in the town’s central market starts tapering off by eight a.m.  Bullock carts ramble through the streets as often as cars.  No one appears to be in any kind of hurry.  And all the women seem to carry their goods on their heads.
a common sight on the streets of Hsipaw
    Yet for all its relaxed atmosphere and relative isolation from the main currents of commerce and communication in the country, Hsipaw has in the past played important roles in Myanmar’s long history.  As the Shan state nearest to the new Burmese state of Bagan, it was the first ally the Bagan king sought when facing war with the Pyu and Kayan.  Paw Pan, the younger brother of Hsipaw’s ruling saopha, led the first-ever Shan delegation to a Burmese state.  Impressed with the treaty terms offered by Bagan, Paw Pan’s favorable report persuaded the saopha to dispatch troops, elephants and cavalry to Bagan, turning the tide against the Pyu and Kayan. 
    Some years later a succession struggle broke out in Hsipaw and Paw Pan usurped the throne without securing the customary approval of the Mong Mao saopha.  The latter’s son subsequently led an army against Hsipaw and Paw Pan capitulated at once.  The victor then had Paw Pan, his family, followers, horses and elephants all massacred together at a site called Tong Suat.  A temple and shrine then went up over the spot, now about two kilometers northwest of the town, and Paw Pan was declared Hsipaw’s official guardian spirit.  Whether Paw Pan was informed of his ultimate post-mortem role before he was killed is not known.
    Centuries later, with the rise to power of Bayinnaung, Burma once again had a strong and ambitious king.  After uniting the vassal states along the Ayeyarwadi River, Bayinnaung then launched a campaign against Siam.  The state of Hsipaw supplied the elephants and the cavalry for the invasion force.  In 1569 Ayutthya fell and among the treasures seized in the conquest were a number of ancient Khmer bronzes, which Thai armies had looted from Angkor when they sacked that city in 1431.  When he returned to his own capital Bayinnaung passed through Hsipaw.  In a farewell ceremony at Bagyo Paya, the king donated three of the bronzes to his Shan ally, which the saopha had installed in a separate shrine still standing in the pagoda’s courtyard.
Bagyo Paya temple
    Bagyo Paya, just 8 km southwest of Hsipaw, is the most important Shan pagoda in the northern Shan States.  Its annual festival, staged the week running up through the full moon of the Burmese month of Tabaung (Feb-Mar) attracts masses of Shan and Palaung pilgrims, with Buddhist Jataka stories staged every night.  Local people claim the site has been sacred for 2000 years and that the original chedi, complete with its own umbrella, is encased within the large and ornate one visible today.  Over the centuries devotees have added more elaborate elements to the building, culminating in the 1995 restoration, which re-gilded the spires and added intricate glass decorations to the supporting columns.  The top of the sagawa tree beside the pagoda bends over towards the spire, paying obeisance, say the Shan, to the relics housed within,
    Despite its antiquity, though, its beautiful modern embellishments tend to impinge upon its historical atmosphere.  But for authentic ruins and relics of Hsipaw’s past glory, one needs to go outside the northern end of the town, turning west past the shrine to Paw Pan, to the quiet and evocative site known locally as Little Bagan.  This is an area around the 150 year-old stilted wooden monastery of Mahananda Kantha, comprising several groups of even older chedis, some whitewashed, some plain brick, that date back to the time Hsipaw was located here, 4 km northwest of the town center today.
stupas in "Little Bagan"
    In the 1860’s King Mindon, Burma’s penultimate monarch, adopted the Hsipaw saopah’s son and raised him in the Mandalay palace.  In 1876, when it was time for him to return to Hsipaw and take on duties as the new saopha, this foster son asked King Mindon for permission to rebuild Hsipaw next to the Dokhtawaddy River, with a grid copying that of Mandalay, with its regular blocks and right-angle turns and intersections.  The king granted it and Hsipaw’s residents relocated the entire city from Little Bagan to the land along the river, laying it out just like Mandalay.  The saopha even had a temple built on a hillock approaching the city that included a standing Buddha image with its arm extended, pointing towards the town center, replicating the image on Mandalay Hill that points to the old royal palace.  He also renovated and expanded the grounds of the town’s main Buddhist temple, the Mahamatyamuni Paya, modeled on the Mahamuni Paya of Mandalay.
pillar at Mahamatyamuni Temple
    The saopha did not, however, copy the Mandalay Palace, but instead lived in a grand, Shan-style mansion outside the town.  When he died his ashes were interred in an elegant mausoleum on a hill just southwest of the town.  It still stands, though weeds and shrubs seem about to take it over.  Bombs destroyed his old palace in World War II and its replacement, just north of the town, looks more like a modest English country house, all but bereft of indigenous architectural motifs.  British influence was paramount by then, for just over a decade after Hsipaw’s relocation the British came to occupy Upper Burma. 
    Until they left after 1948, the British brought the accoutrements of colonialism to Hsipaw, elements which have now become absorbed into the town’s contemporary character.  Thus, Hsipaw, like so many other Burmese towns and cities, also has a clock tower, symbolizing the British attempt to make their subjects aware of the passage of time, when prior to their arrival it did not matter so much.  Besides the magnificent Mahamatyamuni Temple the town has several other Buddhist pagodas, both within the town, on its outskirts, and on the hills around it.  But now it also has a big mosque, Hindu temples, Christian churches and a Chinese Mahayana temple, all of which still serve the religions of the communities brought in by imperialism. 
colonial era buildings
Hsipaw's clock tower
    Besides adding a bit of variety to Hsipaw’s architecture, this outsider legacy of colonialism means visitors can enjoy different kinds of food during their stay—Shan, Chinese, Indian and Burmese.   Shan cuisine resembles that found in northern Thailand, with its sundry noodle dishes, grilled items and fish or meat steamed in leaves.  A Burmese meal revolves around a selected curry, served with rice, soup, and several side dishes of vegetables that are steamed, grilled, boiled, raw, or pickled.  Even washed down with a big bottle of good Myanmar beer the set meal costs less than three dollars.
    As a typical small city in a very underdeveloped country, Hsipaw also boasts the unusual attraction of old-fashioned small factories that provide a few more interesting distractions for those coming from the advanced countries of the West (and for that matter most of Southeast Asia).  Visitors can watch the production of noodles, popcorn, sandals and cheroots.  With boat trips and day-treks available, hilltop temples with great views of the city and its surroundings constantly beckoning, fine-looking buildings, good food and a friendly local population, it’s no wonder that nearly every visitor to Hsipaw adds another day or two to the original amount of time intended to explore this fascinating Shan destination.
the ruins of "Little Bagan" on Hsipaw's original site

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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Chiang Mai’s Younger Brother

                                                  by Jim Goodman

War Jong Kham
    To travel from Chiang Mai north all the way to Kengtung one crosses an international political boundary, but certainly not a cultural one.  Around 400 km from Chiang Mai, Kengtung (also spelt Kyaintong or Chieng Tung) looks and feels like a Lanna town.  And in fact, historically speaking, Kengtung has had a longer and more intimate relationship—political, cultural and social—with Chiang Mai than with the Burmese or other Shan states.  Its residents are mostly Tai Khoen, whose dialect is close to that spoken in Chiang Mai, whose written literature uses the same Lanna alphabet, and whose monks belong to the same orders as those in the wats of Chiang Mai and vicinity.
    As in Chiang Mai and other Lanna towns, monks with their begging bowls make their early morning rounds on the city streets.  But they don’t have much traffic to dodge, for Kengtung is never crowded.  The big central market, where over 80% of the city’s commercial transactions take place, is the only busy place in town.  The produce for sale, tribal handicrafts on display, handicrafts products, presence of colorful mountain people, food and snack stalls and the language of the crowd all resemble and evoke markets in Chiang Mai like the riverside Wararot.
    While the houses, temples and religious monuments in general reflect the indigenous Tai Khoen style, similar to that in Lanna, other buildings attest to events and influences not part of Lanna history.  Kengtung was the last princely state incorporated into the British administrative system after seizing northern Burma.  Several colonial-style mansions and offices still exist in the city, along with a whitewashed mosque, with an attractive three-tiered minaret, dating from the same period. 
Stilted houses are common in Kengtung
Burmese-style Pointing Buddha in Kengtung
    The modern Burmese imprint is also visible in the form of a new, giant standing Buddha with his right arm stretched out and pointing to the center of the city, mimicking that on Mandalay Hill.  In addition, a new and attractive Burmese-style temple, with ornate fringed roof awnings, called Mangala Kyaung, was recently erected next to the small but pretty Naung Kham Lake in the town’s northeast.
    Credit for the 1267 foundation of the city goes to Mengrai, who conquered the Lua on the 1200 meter-high plain, set up Kengtung and left his nephew as ruling prince.  Mengrai himself returned south to Chiang Rai, founded five years earlier, and eventually, in 1296, transferred his capital to the new city of Chiang Mai.  For the three centuries or so of its independent status, Lanna’s fortunes and boundaries would vary.  When its power was waxing it occupied and directly administered Kengtung.  When it waned, the latter broke away and defended its autonomy.
    Throughout its heyday, Lanna maintained close cultural and commercial ties with Kengtung.  Chiang Mai people referred to it as their city’s “younger brother,” even though it was founded earlier than their own. The ruling house set up in Kengtung by Mengrai outlasted his own dynasty and persisted into the 20th century.  Kengtung princes sent gifts to the Chiang Mai court on the occasion of state funerals or the accession of new monarchs and the Lanna king reciprocated.  Other than that between the ruling families, ties between the two cities continued to be close the two centuries the Burmese took over the region.  But Kengtung did suffer a loss of much of its artisan class when the Burmese forced them in 1701 to move into the new administrative center they were making out of Chiang Saen.
street in central Kengtung
    By the end of the century resurgent Thai forces had driven the Burmese out of Lanna, but the latter continued to use Kengtung as a launching post for attacks on the Thai.  From their base in Chiang Mai the Thai armies, under King Kawila, responded with counter-attacks.  The war seesawed a few years before the exhausted Burmese gave up and even left Kengtung.  Its legacy was a wide swath of devastation and depopulation stretching between the two cities.  Even the victor, King Kawila, had to celebrate his triumph in a relatively empty capital.
    To re-establish Chiang Mai as a worthy capital again King Kawila turned to historical precedents in the region and began a campaign to go capture and resettle people.  In 1808 he marched his army into Kengtung, rounded up several thousand local Tai Khoen and removed them to Chiang Mai.  In later years he returned and persuaded the Kengtung prince to leave as well, along with the city’s best lacquer ware specialists, silversmiths and wood carvers.  He settled them just outside Chiang Mai Gate, south of the walled city.
    Kengtung never fully recovered from this second population transfer and it could no longer maintain its reputation for quality craftwork.  Chiang Mai benefited, of course, but by 1828 was offering a new relationship with Kengtung--“brother cities,” with increasing trade ties.  Unfortunately, Chiang Mai was a tributary state of Siam by then, and the regime in Bangkok had other thoughts about Kengtung.  Great Britain had already defeated Burma and annexed the lower part of the country.  Siam believed Kengtung was strategically important for the defense of northern Siam, the old Kingdom of Lanna, both against a possible Burmese threat and a more plausible future British one. 
    In what became known as the Kengtung Wars (1849-1854), three times Thai armies attempted to seize the city.  And three times, due less to valiant resistance than to bad roads, bad weather and bad planning, they had to turn back.  Eventually the British took the city, but did not use it as a base for campaigns against Siam.  When they finally left relations should have returned to their historic norms.  But northeast Burma was then plagued by decades of warfare and instability.  Ex-Guomindang forces, various Shan nationalist groups, opium warlord gangs, Wa soldiers from the Burmese Communist Party and troops from the Burmese regular army crisscrossed the area and marched through the city.
colonial era building
    Gunfire ceased punctuating the after-dark silence around Kengtung 15-20 years ago and tourists began trickling in.  Though that number is still well short of a torrent, the way has become easier in recent years.  Decent new buses leave twice a day, 9:00 and 12:30, from Tachilek.  What used to take ten hours in a cramped station wagon over an incredibly rutted dirt road now needs less than half that, counting checkpoint stops.  The Myanmar government built a new paved road to shorten the time and in spite of several years use it remains remarkably free of pits and potholes.
    Don’t expect any nightlife there, though.  The floating disco on the big lake Naung Tung has closed down.  Townsfolk go to bed early and except for the few restaurants and small shops still open, the streets, too, are dark, the only light being that reflected from the shops.  Even in business hours shops are never very busy, though they may have three or four clerks ready for anyone stopping to look at anything.
    Kengtung’s chief attractions are its elegant old temples.  The finest is Wat Jong Kham, originally built in the 13th century, redone and renovated often since.  Besides the gilded chedi in the courtyard, with precious stones and golden balls attached to the tip of its spire, the temple also features a set of old Buddha images behind the main altar and frescoes all over the interior walls.  In gold paint on a dark brown background, these vignettes depict both religious scenes from Buddhist mythology as well as secular ones like riding buffalo carts or dining on khantoke tables.
fresco inside Wat Jong Kham
   Buddha images, Wat Jong Kham
    Nearby Wat In, named for the god Indra, also features similar frescoes, as well as an even larger collection of old Buddha images, no two exactly alike.  The book depository in the compound seems to have been influenced by colonial architecture and the temple itself, excluding the statues, dates from the 19th century.
    Except for the murals, Kengtung wats resemble those in Lanna, a reminder of the historical and cultural connections between Chiang Mai and its younger brother Kengtung.   So do the stilted wooden houses in the city’s suburbs.  Only when you leave the city to return to Thailand and go through the passport checks and the Tachilek border crossing does it dawn on you that, in fact, though you have been visiting a Lanna-type city, it was in an entirely different country.
chedi in a Kengtung pond
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