I sleep 11 hours in a row and I do not even hear the 5am litany. After a breakfast of homemade cookies and tea in a Chinese teahouse, we walk towards the temple of Prie Jé, a half hour walk from Namshan direction south, where they celebrate the last day of the Kahtain festival. We cross a lovely hilly area with wooden houses surrounded by flower gardens and well-cared for vegetable gardens. The locals greet us joyful, some children are playing with colorful kites that fill the sky in this brilliant day.
I entertain a conversation with a barber originating from Bangladesh who is inclined to talk politics; he tells me that Burmese people in general are still suspicious of the moves of the central government, which according to him has a hidden agenda despite the recent openings. The natural reserves are sold to China, which finances a harbor area in the Burmese coast, a gas pipeline and an oil pipeline that will reach Kumming in southern China, as well as a hydroelectric plant in the Burmese Himalayan regions where local people are organizing protests against exploitation.
He tells me how his family moved to Yangon during the war with the British in the 40s, then moved here in the state of Shan to open stores. He claims that he has never been granted nationality in Myanmar and eventually lost that of his country, so after the independence of Bangladesh in 1964, his family was not able to return home. He says he’s still stateless. While he is cutting the hair of a young Shan boy, the scissors opens in two and fall to the ground; we all laugh a lot. “See? China buys good resources and sell us cheap merchandise, like the scooters, which are often so poorly built that it is not worth repairing them” he comments, amused. He believes that China is doing a roaring trade in these parts, that the recent tendency of the government to open is only temporary and that things will go back to worse. I say goodbye and thank him for the chat.
We then continue our journey; the are a lot of people in procession towards the temple hill, amongst them are several elderlies with original faces, proud smiles and clothes for the occasion. Everyone smiles as we pass, and some groups of young people even attempt an approach with what little English they can show off. Upon our arrival at the temple, ceremonies have already started. There are traders who sell food and various amulets, as well as offerings for the monks; the elderlies wear costumes that recall the tribal people of the past, but they do so with such a simplicity that leads me to think that they are just their everyday clothes.
The Kahtain festival is celebrated once a year, and apart from the opportunity for locals to meet, dance and dress well, its aim is to make offerings to the monks and nuns of the various villages. Money, blankets and other items that the monks may need are offered by each participant in an humble way. We immediately meet Shandi, one of two ‘guides’ we got to know in Namhsan, and he invites us into a hut where a group of villagers are enjoying a meal of spicy-looking food sitting cross-legged on a carpet of colorful fabrics. We sit and are served plate to fill by drawing from common bowls in the middle of the carpet. The curries are delicious and they taste amazing. The villagers make us feel at ease, watching us but in a much less curious way than we do watch them. We drink tea, as usual, and Shandi tells us about some of the customs of the area and about the importance of today’s festival, insisting that we take pictures of everything we see.
We take leave and go out to snoop between the various activities of the temple. In different buildings, people pray, eat, chat, play. The environment is austere, this is certainly not wealthy people, but their authenticity and their apparent honesty conceals it all with a solemnity that seems to make up for the lack of material wealth. Some monks and nuns give their blessing to all those gathered, while others give public speeches focused on the happiness and prosperity that this event will bring to the peoples of the area. We are completely absorbed in these rituals; the path to reach Namhsan and yesterday’s mud and rain are light-years away.
Shandi is about to leave and invites us to visit his village, a few minutes from the temple. We get there in 15 minutes of walking between stairs and descents, accompanied by leafy trees branches several meters long that shade us in part from the rays of a scorching sun. At the bottom of the hill there is an open space crowned by a forest of white pagodas: it is the village temple. There, on the upper floors of solid wood houses on stilts, old men are preparing giant burners with bamboo branches, pine twigs and incense, covering them with huge sheets of colored paper hand-produced there. These burners will burn for hours and hours during the evening closing ceremonies.
We then follow our friend down to a picturesque village of wooden houses on stilts distributed along a main road, like the rest of the villages surrounded by mountains and valleys. His house entrance leads to a large area room that serves as living room and kitchen; the floor is made of earth, the walls are covered with cheap made-in-China plastic sheets, and the wooden planks sofas provide us with some rest while Shandi sends the daughter ‘shopping’ . I get out from the house and follow her with my sight: she enters a couple of neighbours’ homes and comes out with a variety of vegetables, then she returns and engages in the creation, on a rusted stove and pots that have fed generations, of a Palaung curry with rice and fried vegetables, delicious to say the least . She looks at us for a bit while we eat at a wobbly table of rotten wood, and then sets off to watch Thai karaoke at high volume in the one and only electronic element of the whole house: a flat-screen TV that we did not notice before as it was covered by a thick wool curtain! We drink tea while outside a violent downpour has made its way into a sky that until shortly before was clear.
Once the rain nearly stops, Shandi insists to find us a ride to Namhsan in a borrowed scooter, but he also informs us that soon a bus will pass so we decide to wait. The bus arrives after five minutes, and to say its conditions are poor is an understatement. Inside, the floor is literally covered with compact jute sacks full of dried tea that emit a pungent odor even though all the windows are open, broken or missing. Tea, tea and more tea, life in Namhsan hovers in every way around this drink. The seats of the bus have been unbolted and laid on top of the bags; on them, a group of guys who work in the tea factory are seated, jumping at each hole that the rundown bus hits thanks to nonexistent shock absorbers. We prefer to sit on the bags, which seem far more comfortable; the boys and the bus driver watch us amused while we suffer the inclement blows. The road winds through the hills and seems much longer than the path we walked on foot to get to the village; through the windows we can see two gas stations (we did not yet seen any and wondered how the locals got gasoline supplies), ironically situated alongside one another. We get off on the outskirts of Namhsan, right at a junction where a column of young soldiers is passing: they are ill-equipped with shorts and canvas green shoes, rifles and other heavy weapons and ammunition hanging on their shoulder or by their bodies. They march towards the country: government patrols in charge of hunting the woods for Shan liberation armies, they travel on foot for hundreds of miles across these inaccessible lands, and, on top of that, they are not at all welcomed by the local people who look at them with anger as they pass by. They are faces of different features and looks disconsolate. I pity them: imagine them while getting ambushed by a group of well-armed Shan soldiers accustomed to this climate and to these surroundings, and much more motivated than them.
The sun shines again but not for long. I stop to write my diary in the tea room where they have satellite TV; there, the usual frenetic zapping goes from football to music to documentaries, with the latter that seem to have the upper hand. When I get out the sun has already set and the road is lit by hundreds of candles; the kids have fun with their harmless firecrackers and the sky lights up with a myriad of prayer lanterns launched from various points of the village. At the monastery nearby our accommodation, children monks play around the beautiful stupa, lighting candles and making drawings with them: hearts, letters, animals; they chase each other happily. The full moon lights up the night, the locals pour into the streets, while fleecy clouds slowly run through the sky. It is a special evening in Namhsan, unfortunately the last one for us.