Easily one of the funnest experiences I have had, Holi is the Hindu festival of colors. Celebrating the beginning of spring, Holi was originated in India but has spread all over the world and is especially popular in Southeast Asia. I was lucky to be invited to join the Myanmar Association of Indians at their annual Holi festival in People's Park in Yangon. I wasn't sure what to expect but I showed up giddy at the idea of a free-for-all carnival of colors. I jumped in the fun and "played Holi" with a group of 50 or so others where we chased, danced, a laughed as everyone threw colored powder at one another. Everyone at the event was covered in the bright colors as we frolicked around the park. Water sprayed everywhere from a makeshift fountain, individuals wielding hoses, and children squealing with delight as they refilled their water guns. Group games were organized, pass-the-hat, smash the pot, jump rope, collect-the-ribbons, all thoroughly enjoyed (my team won - go yellow!). The whole event was a blast as I progressively got more and more colorful; I left that afternoon with new friends, an ear-to-ear grin, and covered head to toe in color.
Only once a year do lions dance through the streets of Yangon. They dance to celebrate Chinese New Year, the festival that marks the turning of the Chinese calendar. Since January, we had been looking forward to participating in some of the festivities to mark one of Southeast Asia's biggest holidays. When the big day finally rolled around I was giddy with excitement at the uncertainty of what I would witness. The difficulty of finding out any information on any large event in Yangon meant that we did not know what was happening or when. All we knew was that it was Chinese New Year and we were headed to Chinatown.
*For video footage of the Lion Dance scroll to the bottom of the page*
Our 'go with the flow' attitudes paid off because as soon as we got downtown we heard drumming. We followed the loud banging and clashing of cymbals to the entrance of a hotel where there was a large crowd gathered. In the center we spotted our very first lion! It was a spectacular site, fluffy purple puffs were accompanied by gold and silver sequence that sparkled as the lion danced around. It was controlled by two extremely skillful and acrobatic performers, martial artists who train long and hard to receive the privilege of performing. A troupe of supporters from the same martial arts studio accompanied the lions in their dance. This lion was visiting the hotel in a customary tradition that involves performing a special dance called Cai Qing which means "plucking the greens."
In this dance the lion must "pluck" greens from an area in the establishment. It stalks the greens like a cat in hunt and then eats them a bit before spitting them out (see the ground of the picture below). Along with the greens the lion will also "pluck" a red envelop which customarily contains money to compensate for the performance. The purpose of this is to bring good fortune to the establishment for the coming year.
After our serendipitous find, we made the short trip over to Chinatown (which is between 20th and 18th street) to make our first official stop at the Chinese temple. I'm not sure how many Chinese temples there are in Yangon but I do know that this one is the largest and grandest.
Bonus points if you recognize what the containers with sticks in them (right side of the picture set above) are ^ . If you don't know or don't remember, check out when we visited the Chinese temple in Bago and our friends Alex and Meme showed us how to use the traditional Chinese fortune telling sticks.
As we were approaching the temple, we could smell it before we could see it. When we arrived there was a cloudy, smokey atmosphere that was so strong Kim had to stay outside. Come to find out, it was coming from all of these HUGE incense spirals. There were hundreds of these hanging up inside and outside of the temple, each one accompanied by a small purple tag. I couldn't read what was written on the tags but my guess is that it was a person's or family's name that donated to the temple.
The main section of the festival was held on Sinn O Dann street and featured a Lion Dance competition. Although the signs said that there were Dragon dances we did not see any during our time. We were lucky enough to see a lion practicing his dance. This was exciting for me because I was able to get up close and grab these great shots of the lion in motion!
We took a few hours as the day turned into night to wander the streets of downtown with our hearts set on our usual search: the quest for new, tasty food. This time we were hoping to try some special cuisine for the Chinese New Year celebration, maybe some Chinese food (?) but with no avail we settled for a tasty bowl of our favorite shan noodles instead.
It's not just the lighting here, the picture above is of an actual golden watermelon. Bellow is a stall of small bite-sized candies that were all over the place during the New Year Festival.
We left the vibrance of the night market and returned to the main festival to wait for the competition to begin. Sure to arrive early, we grabbed some seats (tiny plastic stools) on the sidelines and watched the small street fill in with more people than I could have ever imagined could fit in the space. After a long wait, a parade of all the competitors, some sort of performance that I think was the lion performers paying their respects to the temple or the association or someone, the dance finally began.
There are many legends about how the lion dances began, my favorite involves a fierce creature named "Nain" who liked to terrorize villages and kidnap children. One year, a lion was stalking near a village when the Nain creature appeared. The lion attacked the Nain and frightened it away. After the lion also retreated, the villagers decided to make a costume of a lion to scare the Nain away if it were ever to return. The dance is accompanied by loud banging, music, and fireworks to continue to frighten the Nain. Since this the dance became a yearly ritual, the word Nain has become the Chinese word for Year. Happy New Year everyone!
Inle lake is a serene body of water nestled between two mountain ranges in the mid-west of Myanmar. About 10 hours north of the central city of Yangon, the name, Inle Lake, often refers not only to the lake itself but also to the many villages that rest along the shore that depend on the lake for survival. A true fishing town, the lake is famous for the traditional fishermen who row their long wooden boats by wrapping a leg around an ore and using a specialized cone shaped fishing net.
Taking advantage of a few days off from work thanks to a full moon holiday, Kim and I took the opportunity to escape the hustle and bustle of city life and search for some peace in one of Myanmar's "must see" areas. We took an overnight bus through the twisting dirt roads and got dropped off at 4am at a road-side stop in the seemingly middle-of-nowhere. Blinking our sleepy eyes awake we flagged down a pick-up truck taxi, with two rows of wooden benches in the bed, and squeezed in with a couple other weary travelers. The air was cool and the sky was blacker than we have seen it in months, all signs reminiscent of the quite country landscapes we left back in Maine.
After a few hours of rest in our sparse but comfortable room at Zawgi Inn, we woke up ready to explore. Following the advice from the aged Burmese Inn keeper, we borrowed two of his bicycles and, hand drawn map in hand, began our trek around the lake. Welcomed sites of dirt trails, stretches of green fields, and mountains in the distance, greeted us at every turn.
After a couple hours of biking we had rode around the top of the lake over to the other side where we hired a boat to take us across. This was our first glimpse into life on the lake which was filled with houses on posts, children playing in wooden boats, and an expanse of water perfectly reflecting the sky above it.
When we reached the other side we stopped at a small side stand for a bowl of Shan Noodles, a traditional Burmese dish that originates from Shan State - which is exactly where we were! It was a tasty little snack but our tummies were still rumbling as we began the trek back up to the hotel. Luckily we spotted a well-known winery along the way that I had been looking forward to stopping at. We followed the long and steep road up to the top of a hill where we were rewarded with a beautiful surroundings at the Red Mountain Estate Winery. We soaked in the day as we sipped the delicious wine and indulged in tasty dishes, finishing it all off with a slice of decedent chocolate cake.
Chasing the sunset back to the hotel, we passed small pagodas positioned precariously next to gas stations and continued on the single dirt path back into town. It was a truly adventurous day filled with equal parts wandering and serenity and we simply could not wait to see what the next day was going to bring.
Alisa & Kim
Two expats living, teaching, and eating their way across this beautiful world