Rites of Passage in Myanmar's Tribal Highlands
Story and photos by Michael Shapiro

Following the clanging and drumming of ancient music in a Burmese hill town, a visitor stumbles upon a two-day ceremony filled with color and spectacle.

Myanmar travel

We sensed something important was happening when we heard the clang of gongs and cymbals and the percussive beat of large drums. It was a March afternoon in the central Burmese town of Kalaw, at one time a British hill station with clapboard houses that make it look like the setting for a novel by George Orwell. Few white foreigners remain; today the village mix includes Shan tribal people, Nepali gurkas, Indian Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims.

Arriving in the relatively cool highlands of Kalaw, 4300 feet above sea level, was refreshing after seeing more pagodas that we could count in the steamy lowlands. Our guide Christine had said: "Some of my friends say 'you are not a good Buddhist' because I don't want to see any more pagodas." We agreed, hoping to see a slice of authentic Burmese life in this tribal region.

When my wife Jackie and I heard the soul-stirring sounds of an indigenous marching band, we asked our driver if he could locate the distant music. He drove up one hill and down another, no luck. But the sound kept getting louder.

Soon the rolling thunder of celebration became so clamorous we knew we were close. We got out, turned a corner and saw a procession of more than 100 people: musicians, giggly teenage girls tossing popcorn, stolid elders, and seven boys, monks-to-be in shimmering robes atop decorated horses. Young men walked alongside the boys, holding golden umbrellas to shield them from the afternoon sun.

Burma travel

Wearing flowing pink, yellow, and orange costumes, pearl necklaces, makeup and bejeweled crowns, the monks sat stoically astride their steeds, trying earnestly to lead the parade. Their lives were about to change dramatically: the following day they would have their heads shaved, be given burgundy robes, and move from their family homes into the ascetic environment of a local monastery. The oldest initiate was 11. The youngest, who seemed bewildered by the proceedings, was 4.

We weren't sure if we were intruding so we asked the popcorn-tossing girls if it'd be ok to walk with them and take some photos. They laughed and waved us forward, so we spent a couple of hours marching from monastery to monastery on Kalaw's serpentine roads.

Young Boys in the Buddha Line
One boy's mother spoke some English. She told us the costumes represent the dress of young Prince Siddhartha, who 2,500 years ago sat under a bodhi tree and found enlightenment, becoming the Buddha. We learned that the following day the boys would take their vows and get a festive send-off from the village.


Dawn the next morning was a golden-pink sunrise symphony with a soundtrack of crickets and songbirds. Though it was barely past 6 a.m., in the distance I could hear the familiar clang of bells, resonant horns, and rumbling drums. Jackie was still sleeping so I slipped into my clothes, laced up my boots and walked toward the mesmerizing music.

After a mile I didn't seem to be any closer, but the siren-like sounds wouldn't release me. I kept walking through the cool leafy streets but still didn't seem to be gaining ground. I stopped to ask an elderly Burmese man where the sound was coming from. He didn't speak much English but shook his arm as if to signal "very far." By this time the morning mist was lifting and my stomach was starting to growl. I turned back to the hotel.

After breakfast we could still hear the music but more dimly. Again I asked our driver if he knew where it was coming from. He wasn't sure, but this time the sound wasn't a moving target, and after asking directions a couple of times he brought us to a hilltop settlement called Kyauthit, which translates as "new village of Kalaw."

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