Cheek by Jowl
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Wednesday, December 12, 2018


Cheek by Jowl

By Shah Paung/Kengtung, Shan State AUGUST, 2007 - VOLUME 15 NO.8


A Wa village where happiness depends o­n how well you get along with the neighbors

You have to be a gregarious type to live happily among the Wa hill tribe people sometimes called Lawa, of Burma’s eastern Shan State. A typical home is shared by several families, living in o­ne large common room, where adults and children alike eat, sleep and commune happily enough with each other.

I was invited into o­ne such house in Wun San village, a four-hour drive from Kengtung in the far northeast of Shan State. The bamboo and timber structure, o­ne of about a dozen similar dwellings, was home to no less than 20 families, sharing o­ne windowless common room, ventilated o­nly by doors at each end.

Two or three men were cooking a simple rice dish over a wood-fired stove, the smoke adding to the gloom. A roughly made bamboo bed sat nearby.

In o­ne corner of the room sat an old, dirt-stained refrigerator and an electric fan. Naked lamp bulbs hung over some of the beds, but they gave out a weak light, powered by electricity from a generator driven by river water. Candles are still a necessity in this remote village.

The oldest member of this o­ne-house community, an 83-year-old man, explained to me the remarkable lifestyle of Wun San and other Wa hill tribe villages, including customs probably found nowhere else in Burma.

When local boys and girls reach the age of 17, for instance, they are encouraged to seek out partners and begin living together. They are prohibited from marrying until the girl is pregnant. If they remain childless after 10 years they must separate and look for other partners.

The villagers’ main cash crop is tea, which is sold at Kengtung market.

Wun San has a small primary school, but not much importance is attached to education and many children never see inside a classroom. Children are everywhere and mob every visitor, clamoring for attention and sweets.

In stark contrast to the poverty are the gilded and richly decorated “golden temples” of the Wa villages. The village of Wun Nyat has o­ne of the area’s finest. It was built in 1650 and contains beautiful frescoes of flowers and mythical beasts. Regular ceremonies are held to add gold leaf to the frescoes and Buddha images.

Many texts are written in the language of the sub-Shan Khun tribe. Shan traditional music is played o­n the monastery’s two ouzi, a long open-ended drum.

A monk of the Khun tribe sat at an open stove, making tea and surrounded by cats, as I toured the temple compound. A vacant throne stood nearby, reserved for the senior abbot.

Novice monks and children alike played in front of the temple as the sun set. Women of the village and their daughters were returning home from the tea plantations carrying bamboo baskets of tea leaves.

It was a peaceful, restful scene, but perhaps not for much longer. The far-off Burmese government is opening up the area to outsiders, an access road was built two years ago and already the Wa temples are o­n Shan State’s tourist route.

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