Driving through luscious, green pastures and picturesque landscapes the agricultural paradise of the Shan State mesmerised us as we gazed out the window on our way to visit Kakku, home to one of the nine ethnic groups of the Shan State – the Pa’O people.
We left Nyaung Shwe early morning for the semi-long drive east towards Kakku, a religious centre for the Pa’O tribe. Our driver stopped at the Taunggyi Tourism Office where we would meet our guide and pay the small entrance fee to the area. Kaam met us, dressed in traditional black costume and a striking red headpiece that resembled the long worn traditional outfits of the Pa’O people. On the way, Kaam would explain to us the history of her people and guide us as we visited their villages and religious shrines in the central region of Myanmar’s Shan State.
Kaam is a descendant of the Pa’O people. She dedicates her time each week guiding the community-based tourism program and sharing the history of her people with visitors from around the world. As we drive through small villages of bamboo houses, windy dirt roads and endless crops Kaam explains to us the origins of the Pa’O people.
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The Pa’O people believe they are descendants of a dragon. The legend goes that one day a female dragon came to earth and disguised herself as a human. She met an alchemist named Zawgyi and they fell in love and ran away to live in a cave deep in the forest. One day Zawgyi woke from his sleep and went for a walk into the woods where he was shocked to see his love sleeping in the form of a dragon. So outraged Zawgyi fled and left the female dragon all alone and pregnant with two eggs. When Zawgyi did not return after days, the female dragon took the two eggs to a monastery where she left them and flew back to her dragon kingdom. The two eggs would hatch to be the king and princess of the kingdom and thus create the Pa’O people.
The significance of this legend is apparent in the clothing of the Pa’O people. The women’s colourful, conspicuous turbans represent the head of the female dragon, and their darker, four layers of clothing represent her numerous scales.
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As we ventured deeper into the Pa’O villages we could see many of the women dressed in traditional headwear just like Kaam. It is evident that the traditions are still well alive in this part of the world, as women and men go about their daily lives growing much of the regions root vegetables including garlic, peanuts and various kinds of beans. This occupation proving to be a successful livelihood for the Pa’O people who live on fertile, rich lands in solid bamboo and wooden structures and clean, tidy surroundings. It is a more affluent lifestyle than those who aren’t so lucky to live in such a resource-rich environment.
Through the villages and out to greener pastures we see the famous Kakku Pagodas up ahead. Striking views of hundreds of pagodas sprawl across the outline of the hills like tiny chess pieces. Our driver drops us to the entrance for a chance to explore this hidden treasure with a history dating back to the third century B.C. As the Pa’O people are pious Buddhists, the Kakku pagodas hold religious significance to them and you can often find them paying homage in the 2000+ temples that encompass these hills. Thousands of stupas lay side by side, various architectural styles disguised with awe-inspiring stucco carvings. It is said to be one of the most remarkable religious shrines here in Myanmar.
Soon after our time exploring the stupas, Kaam takes us to a local restaurant where we get a taste of Shan State traditional Pa’O food. Yellow bean is famous in this region so we order the tofu salad, a mix of soft yellow bean tofu, covered in mouth-watering spices and mixed together with steamed cabbage and carrot. We then order a traditional Shan Soup, with flavours like lemongrass, ginger and chilli creating a concoction of wonderful flavours to the palate, the delectable food an example of the agricultural richness of the area.
On our way back to Nyaung Shwe we reflect on a delightful day exploring the Kakku region and seeing how untouched and unspoiled this stunning place is, with all its lime coloured pastures, superb mountain ranges and significant historical ethnicity. The Pa’O people, like many other tribes in Myanmar, envelop their own language and their own traditions that formulate the many colours of this great country. It is people like Kaam that help to keep those traditions alive and, through community-based tourism, we are able to learn and share those traditions to also help to keep them alive.