Category: Travel

Cenote Dos Ojos

Cenotes, ultimately, became the only water source for the Mayan civilization. Thus, the people consider them sacred spots. Perhaps the most prominent cenote in the region is the Cenote Dos Ojos (two eyes). It earned its named because of the two rivers that unite in a big underwater cavern. Dos Ojos is also very famous because it is, at the moment, the deepest known cave passage in the Yucatan. It is estimated to be more than 415 meters deep.

This cenote lies 13 kilometers north of the town of Tulum, juts a kilometer south of Xel Ha. The dirt road, which stretches 4 kilometers, off Highway 307 leads to the entrance of the cenote. This journey is an adventure in itself as you may most likely come across some interesting flora and fauna along the way. There are two hardwood decks that are set up at the entrance that serve each river. The left side (eye) is usually where the divers enter, while the right side is where more swimmers and snorkelers go.

Cenote Dos Ojos dazzles visitors with its large cave system, which features large columns and clear water. There are many ways to explore Dos Ojos; the first one being scuba diving. By doing so, you will be able to marvel at the deep cave walls up close. With miles and miles of extensive cave systems that connect to more than 25 cenotes, you have a lot of freedom of which direction to dive through. Take note that you need an open water diving certification to be allowed to dive.

If you don’t have the needed certification, you can always to snorkel, which is also fun. There are even tourists who just swim or look around the cenote. If you intend to snorkel, climb down the stairs from the right entrance or second eye. From here, you can explore the secret passageways made of stalagmites and stalactites. The passages can bring you different caves. One of them is called the Bat Cave, which is part of the cave system called Hidden Worlds.

Cenote Dos Ojos receives the same water that flows into the large Caribbean cove called Xel Ha. This water is believed to have healing powers and is considered very pure as it comes from a massive area pristine jungle. To protect the pureness of the water, divers and snorkelers are highly discouraged to not use sun tan lotion, which may pollute the water.

Otway Sound Penguins

Otway Sound (Ping¸inera de Seno Otway) is home to a penguin sanctuary, which is considered to be the most easily visited area on earth to visit these amazing creatures. The Spheniscus magellanicus or Magellan penguins are relatively small penguins that thrive in slightly warm weather. Almost 10,000 penguins migrate to Otway Sound during the month of September, which is the beginning of the Patagonian summer period. All of the penguins come here in couples! Why? They choose Otway Sound as a place to build their nests and lay most of their eggs.

The penguin couples usually have 1 or 2 offsprings. The male and female penguins take turns to feed and watching over their young. If you want to see baby penguins up close, plan a visit to Otway Sound in November and December, which is also the most common months for tourism. During this time, the adults are fishing for food for their babies. The fishing time takes most of the day so the best time to visit the sanctuary is after 5 pm, when you can witness how the penguin parents come back from the sea to feed the little ones.

The Otway Sound penguin colony is situated northwest of Punta Arenas town, which sits on the Straights of Magellan. Punta Arenas houses the Carlos Ibanez Airport (PUQ), which facilitates direct flights from key cities. From this airport, you need to travel approximately 40 miles or 65 kilometers to reach the sanctuary. You can easily catch a bus from Carlos Ibanez to Puerto Natales, which is the prime gateway to Otway Sound.

There are also a couple of tour operators that conduct visits from Punta Arenas to Otway Sound. The tours are usually conducted from 4 pm to 8 pm. Both Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas are equipped with the usual tourist facilities. You can opt to book an accommodation in either of these towns as they have a wide range of lodging options.

Sumaco Volcano in Ecuador

It is only 50 kilometers east of the Andean Mountain Range and is within the country’s western Napo province. The Sumaco region’s isolated location makes it a rarely visited site and results in its excellent preservation. The park that houses it covers about 200,00 hectares or 500,00 acres of land area and is representative of about 8% of the Ecuadorian Amazon area.

The hike to Sumaco promises to be an incredible jungle adventure. Before you even get to the peak, your eyes will be treated to the beauty of an untouched jungle landscape, packed with diverse flora and fauna like monkeys, giant anteaters and tapirs. Such a memorable trip can only be rightfully culminated by reaching Sumaco’s summit.

Once you reach the top of the rim, you will get to see the extinct crater and marvel at the group of snowcapped mountains of Cotopaxi, Antisana and Cayambe in the distance. If you look towards the south and east, the extensive landscape of the Amazon basin unveils itself for admiration. Because of the difficult up and down trek, and forested and muddy terrain, the ascent to the summit usually takes about 4 days to complete. You will need to be physically fit as well mentally sound to make it to the end.

The only access area to the Sumaco Volcano is a community of approximately 300 people called Pacto Sumaco. Despite its small size, the community has been successfully running sustainable ecotourism initiatives to preserve the cultural and natural value of the volcano and the park. This Sumaco region has been declared a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO. There are some simple lodging facilities within the village. Spending some time here guarantees you an invaluable cultural experience.

The route to this Ecuadorian volcano is challenging and presents some real risks. That is why it is mandatory that you hire a local guide to help you reach Sumaco safely and on time. Fortunately, there are many guides that reside in Pacto Sumaco and other villages along the Loreto Road, which crosses path with Tena-Quito Road. The estimated daily guide fee is 38 USD, and also covers the use of the shelters. You will most likely do the hike with a group of people.

After exploring the volcano, consider trying out birdwatching! After all, you are in Sumaco Park, one of the places with the highest number of bird species to land area in the world. In fact, there are about 830 species that populate 66 square miles of land. So there are plenty of chances to see some of the fascinating birds within the park vicinity and some that you have never seen before.

Noong Nooch Gardens of Thailand

The best way to explore the Noong Nooch is to experience it on foot. Most visitors will begin with the Butterfly Hill where you will be greeted with three huge corn installations, surrounded by well- trimmed colorful flower patches. Expect a lot of people taking pictures here because of the incredibly vibrant burst of yellow, burgundy, orange and pink flowers. It transitions via a bridge to another garden full of palms. This part is a sea of dark olive and emerald green. There aren’t any flowers but a puff of pink somewhere in the middle of the garden will surprise you. They are not real but the multitude of concrete flamingoes surprisingly work well in the landscape.

The most visited of the gardens would be the French and the Italian gardens. They are separated by several other gardens but their prominence due to excellent geometrically shaped plants capturing the splendor of their European counterparts, can make you forget what the gardens in between were. These are two of the most photographed in all of Noong Nooch.

The Stonehenge that sits right beside the French garden deserves attention too. The contrasting rough rock arrangements with the neatly manicured lawn and perfectly trimmed shrubs are a delight to behold.

The Mammoth garden is also very picturesque, and the Cactus garden draws volumes of delight! Other gardens you should not miss are the Desert Rose garden, the Cycad Valley and Cycad conservation center, the Orchid garden, the Topiary trees that look like a green zoo, the Palm of the World, the Ant hill, which is a hit among kids just like the Animal sculpture garden, and the zoo garden where animals are not sculptures but real and alive. Here kids can feed deer and goats, see ducks, tigers, turtles etc.

The garden tour is mostly done on foot but if you’re feeling a bit lazy, or perhaps you haven’t ridden an elephant yet, for a fee, you can go around some of the gardens on an elephant’s back. But if you want to make the most of your garden tour, walk! Exploration of the gardens can take up half a day. If you have some hours left to spare, why not also catch Noong Nooch’s cultural and elephant shows.

The cultural show dazzles audience with graceful Thai traditional dance performances; vibrant Thai costumes; short funny Thai acts/ skits and a depiction of the famous Thai martial art called Muai Thai. Another highlight for this marvelous show is the presentation of a portion of Thai history with the participation of the beloved elephants which usually gets the most cheers from the audience.

If you can’t get enough of elephants, stay longer to witness the elephant show staged after the cultural one! This particular show may feature similar elephant tricks and antics similar to the ones seen in places like Samphran but, Noong Nooch’s version is still very much adorable because of the elephants. Prepare your baht for the experience of feeding the elephants, being lifted by an elephant trunk, and any photo opportunities you wish to have with these gentle creatures.

Full Moon Of Kason

Only some two weeks have passed since ‘Yay’ (water) played an important role in Burmese people’s life. That was when in Tagu (March/April) during ‘Thingyan’ or ‘Water Festival’ – the ‘Burmese New Year’ – the people poured lots of water over one another to wash away all physical filth and dirt and the spiritual sins and evils in order to enter with a clean body and soul into the New Year. Meanwhile we are coping with the heat of the summer as best as we can. All my clothes are dry again and I have recovered from the cold I had caught during that time.

And now, again, yay plays in more ways than one an important role in and for the lives of the people of Burma who are in their vast majority – some 86% – Buddhists.

Again, they pour and throw water; only this time not over one another (so you must not worry, we will stay dry) out of earthen pots (atar pots) they have bought earlier (at the full moon of Kason they can buy them literally at every pagoda corner) but over a tree (or its roots) of the genus ‘Ficus’ that belongs to the family of ‘Moraceae’ and is classified as ‘Ficus religiosa’. This tree is commonly known as ‘Banyan tree’, ‘Bo tree’ or ‘Bodhi tree’ and is a fig tree, more precisely the ‘Indian fig’ tree. Especially on the full-moon day of Kason this sacred tree is of great significance to Burmese Buddhists as it is closely related to Gautama Buddha. In order to understand why this is so, we have to travel some 2,500 years back in time.

Before we start to time-travel and beam ourselves back into the time of around 500 B.C., I must once again draw your attention to the fact that it is often extremely difficult if not impossible to separate historical facts from myth and legend particularly, when it comes to Siddhartha Gautama and his life. Those accounts of his life that still exist were mostly handed down by the Buddha’s disciples as oral traditions and written down long after his death by often idolising followers. For this reason it is most likely that they do not always reflect the historical truth. Therefore, not everyone may agree with all of the details of my writings. However, I have done my very best to find out the truth, which according to the historical ‘facts’ available to me could be as follows.

On the morning of the full-moon day that is celebrated by Burmese Buddhists as the full-moon of Kason, Siddhartha Gautama, the son of the head of the Indian ‘Sakya’ warrior caste (which accounts for the name ‘Sakyamuni’, ‘Sage of the Sakya’, a name Siddhartha Gautama was also known by) sat under a Bo tree near Gaya (now Buddha Gaya in the north-eastern Indian state of Bihar) south of Patna (present-day Bihar’s capital) when he had his ‘Great Enlightenment’ that revealed to him the way of salvation from suffering. This he tried to find for many years by looking for as he is said to have put it: “Who wrought these prisons of senses, sorrow, fraught.”

On this full-moon day under the Bodhi tree he is said to have declared: “I know thee, never shall you build again these walls of pain.” He made the ‘knowledge’ he had acquired in the course of his Enlightenment the basis of his following some 45 years of preaching and teaching as a religious philosopher while travelling as a mendicant. He was about 80 years old when he died in Kusinagara in Nepal after being poisoned.

Legend has it that A) the day he was born as Prince Siddhartha Gautama in ca. 563 B.C., B) the day of his ‘Great Enlightenment’ under the Bodhi tree (Tree of Enlightenment) in ca. 533 B.C. and C) the day of his death, i.e. his passing on to ‘Nibbana’ or ‘Parinibanna’ (a state of neither being existent nor non-existent that to reach is Buddhism’s ultimate goal) as ‘Buddha’, meaning the ‘Enlightened One’ in ca. 483 B.C. fell all on a full-moon day, the day celebrated by the Burmese Buddhists as full-moon day of Kason. For this reason this day is also called ‘Thrice Blessed Day’ or ‘Three-fold Anniversary’. Subsequently the ‘Full-moon Day of Kason’ marks the three main events of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha’s life and as such it is celebrated in a fitting manner by Burmese Buddhists all over the country.

People of all ages, women and men alike go to ‘Payas’ (Pagodas), ‘Zedis’ (Stupas) and ‘Kyaungs’ (Monasteries) in processions to water the sacred Bodhi tree, give alms, make offerings, keep precepts or practice meditation, enjoy the company of other worshippers, the music made by ‘doh bats’, (folk music groups) accompanying the processions and people even dance a few steps to their music. The celebrations are marked by good deeds, songs and music, dances, happiness, hope and many believers make a wish while pouring water on the Bodhi tree from your atar pot to water the tree in this hot summertime and gain religious merits. I too have made a wish, which is that you will enjoy my articles.

The ‘Board of Trustees’ in Yangon organises and conducts an official ceremony to celebrate this day in the context of which a huge processions is led around the great gilded ‘Shwedagon Stupa’. The people leading this procession are clad in the garb of celestial beings such as ‘Thagyamin’ (King of Celestials), the ‘Galon/Garuda King’ (a mythical being half human and half bird) and the ‘Naga’ (Serpent King). This much to the religious, the commemoration part of the full-moon day of Kason. But what about the anticipating part mentioned earlier?

Well, if you remember correctly I have mentioned that in Kason water is in more than one way important to the Burmese. And water is the subject of anticipation. Burmese farmers put it into the following words: “Water in the ponds recedes in Tagu and the whole land is parched in Kason.”

Weary of the scorching sun during high summer that now comes to an end both people and nature are longing for water and are looking forward to the first rains that herald the monsoon that will begin in June and bring the water so badly needed in this agriculture country. And the first light showers, that are drastically changing the natural environment, are falling around the full-moon day of Kason.

Now everything turns green and colourful, the air is cool and clear and people – especially, of course, children – are happily dancing in the first showers, also called ‘Mango showers’ as they bring forth the delicious mangoes which will soon be ripe and available in abundance. So, I hope you have enjoyed the celebration of the full-moon of Kason and have become familiar with what it is that makes this festival so full of meaning to the Burmese people. I suggest that we have a rest now because soon we will celebrate the next festival, the ‘Full Moon of Waso’ in the month of Waso (June/July) that marks the beginning of the ‘Buddhist Lent.

Wonderful Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam

Standing resplendently like a castle, Rijksmuseum, or the State museum, is one of the oldest museums in Europe and has been with us for over two centuries now. This lengthy existence warrants its extraordinary collections of old paintings highlighting its own most celebrated Dutch masters as Rembrandt and Vermeer. The museum encapsulates 800 years of the Netherland’s history and the art from the Middle ages to contemporary times. Some 8,000 works in 80 exhibit rooms are on display.

For the Rembrandt fan, the Rijksmuseum is a delightful collection of the artists work. The exhibition “Late Rembrandt” which has been running from February until May of this year, showcases the master’s works at the pinnacle of of his life as an artist. These works total over a hundred paintings, drawings and prints. Rijksmuseum has managed to curate these works from other museums and individual’s private collections. The Late Rembrandt Exhibition is definitely a once in a lifetime experience and opportunity to know Rembrandt like you have never before.

The Masterpiece collections exhibit some 200 works such as old paintings, sculptures and inventions. Don’t miss Van Gogh’s self-portrait, Pieneman’s “The Battle of Waterloo”, The Javanese Court Collections of paintings, and the astounding sculptures like “The Portraite of Andries de Graeff” and “The Seated Cupid”. A must-see would be the Gallery of Honour featuring paintings of world renowned masters including Frans Hals, Jan Steen, Vermeer and Rembrandt. The famous Night Watch will take your breath away, as well as the popular piece entitled “The Milkmaid”.

For the tea lovers, the museum exhibits an elegant collection of Delft Blue pottery. Gorgeous tea sets and stunning vases will surely wow you! If this is not enough, understand life in the Golden Age through Rijksmuseum’s Doll’s Houses. The oldest in the collections dates back to 1676.

Don’t miss the Cuypersbibliotheek too! It is the biggest and oldest art history library in the country but has been fully renovated recently. Nevertheless, the glorious antique touch has been greatly preserved. The reading rooms are splendid, the spiral staircase for reaching the books is so romantic, and the lights are warm and inviting. Everyone interested in the study of art history is encouraged to come here. iPads for studying are available, and Wi-Fi is free.

Masaya Volcano National Park

The national park covers 54 square kilometers, which include two volcanoes as well as five craters. These volcanoes have erupted so many times throughout history including during the time of the Spanish colonization in the 16th century. The frequent eruption is the reason the Spanish conquerors called one of the active volcanoes the “Mouth of Hell” (La Boca del Infierno). They believed that the devil had something to do with the regular eruptions. Thus, they planted a cross called La Cruz de Bobadilla to exorcise such evil. Today, you can still encounter the cross that was named after the priest Francisco Bobadilla, and this structure has become one of the popular attractions in the park.

One highlight of a trip to Masaya Volcano National Park is the large impressive crater called Santiago. The crater is sandwiched between the Masaya and Nindiri volcanoes. Due to successive eruptions of the craters in the park during the 1900s, they eventually collapsed in 1985. These days, when you head over to the vicinity of the craters, you can still smell the sulphurous gasses as well as hear the lava flowing below the ground. The landscape in this volcanic area is filled with rocks and ashes. However rough the surroundings may be, it also has a certain serenity to it.

If you want to be a bit adventurous, grab the opportunity to peek over the edge of the Masaya Volcano. By doing so, you will see in full scale, its magnificent and powerful crater, which still emits sulfur gases and smoke. After marveling at the central crater, you can also hike over to the other craters and viewpoints. Such hikes are certainly worth it as the captivating volcanic surroundings will unfold before your eyes. Aside from the trails that lead to craters and lookout points, there is also one that leads to the Tzinaconostoc Cave, known as the haven for hundreds of bats.

Special trails which stretch from 1.5 to 6 kilometers, are all guided and have corresponding fees depending on the distance. Aside from the usual day tour, the park management also offers the nocturnal tour, which is quite unique and exciting. This night tour begins at 5 pm and ends at around 8 pm. The objective of the tour is to lead the participants first to the La Cruz de Bobadilla before sunset, and then proceed further to the crater area for wildlife observation, underground tunnel exploration and possibly, to watch the red, glowing lava flowing through the deep crater opening. This spectacular sight can only be seen at night.

Canary Islands

One of my favorite destination is none other than the Canary Islands off Spain. You can choose to get there by cruise, in which case, it is a good idea to engage the service of a cruise-only travel agent or an online agency that specializes in cruise vacations. They probably can give you better cruise holiday deals.

You can also get there by air. All the islands have airports. Most international flights and those from mainland Spain goes to Tenerife, Gran Canaria, and Lanzarote. You can also fly to the Canaries from most
European cities. If you are flying from North America, flights usually go to Madrid, where you can get a
connecting flight.

The Canary Islands were originally inhabited by an unknown aboriginal group, probably from North Africa.
It was in the 15th century that they were discovered by Frenchman Bethencourt. Some popular Canary Islands destinations to check out are: Fuerteventura, Gomera, Grand Canary, Lanzarote and Tenerife.

In my opinion, this place is one of the best holiday resort to get away from the winter. And, there are many activities to keep you and your loved ones busy! If you like golf, you can try the mini golf course. If biking or hiking is your thing, there are many tracks to wonder around.

One of my favorites is the Teide National Park. It is a marvel of nature with its stunning volcanic landscape.It is also home to Spain’s highest mountain, the dormant volcano Teide. There are numerous walking trails and a cable car to the top of the volcano. Truly awesome!

If you are into sea-sports, the Bahía de Pozo Izquierdo is the best beach on Gran Canaria for windsurfing. If snorkelling or scuba diving is your thing – you will be delighted to see grouper, barracuda, turtles, rays,
tropical fishes and the occasional shark. Needless to say, deep sea fishing and sailing is also fantastic!

If you are going to spend a week at Gran Canaria, go try out “ClubHotel Riu Vistamar”. While its pool area
can be busy, the hotel is very well maintained, and the food you get there – is well, heavenly! You get pancakes, cereals, toast and even champagne for breakfast! On certain days, you’ll even get smoked salmon. Quite frankly, I don’t mind having it everyday! Remember to attend the 6:30pm dinner to enjoy the night entertainment too.

Burma And The Elephant Dance

For those not so familiar with Hinduism and Buddhism to understand why – particularly the white – elephant is sacred and so closely associated with Hindu and Buddhist beliefs it is important to know that, for example, the religious Indian figure that is always depicted with an elephant head is the powerful Hindu god Ganesha (in Burma known as Maha Peinne) one of the globally best-known (because of the elephant head) and most worshipped deities of the Hindu heavenly abode and that the later Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was according to legend conceived by his mother Queen Maya after a white elephant was presenting her with a lotus flower the common symbol of wisdom and purity on the eve of giving birth and after she had dreamed that a white elephant had entered her body. And what concerns the Burmese nat worshipper and the nat worshipping part of Burmese Theravada Buddhism there is the powerful guardian spirit of the elephants, Uttay Na, who is worshipped by everyone who has to do with elephants (this includes the people making the elephant figures for the dance competitions) and, last but not least, there are also the nats Ngazishin, Lord of the five white elephant as well as Aungbinle Hsinbyushin, Lord of the white elephant from Aungbinle.

Elephants have in the region that is nowadays Burma/Myanmar always played an important role in more than one way what is, among others, reflected in the fact that the white elephant is an accepted symbol of and omnipresent in Burma. White elephants are e.g. often guarding the entrances to Burmese pagodas and white elephants are also depicted on all Burmese bank notes (Burmese/Myanmar Kyat). Because of the low value of the Kyat coins do not exist otherwise there would certainly be elephants on.

In Burma, the land with the worldwide second largest population of wild Asian elephants (India has the largest) and largest number of captive Asian elephants, the elephant, in general, has been used as working or timber elephant, war elephant and the white elephant, in particular, belonged by law to the king and was used as royal mode of transportation when the king was hunting, travelling, rode into battles or took part in parades or processions; the more white elephants a king possessed the higher was his status and the more powerful he was; the elephant as royal status symbol.

Another example that perfectly demonstrates the importance the possession of white elephants was given is the names of Mon and Burmese queens and kings. For instance, the Mon queen Shin Saw Bu had the title ‘Mistress of the White Elephant’, the Burmese Kings Kyawswa I of Pinya claimed the title Ngarsishin (Lord of Five White Elephants, King Kyawswa II of Pinya claimed the title Laysishin (Lord of Four White Elephants) and King Sin Phyu Shin’s name means Lord of the White Elephant.

The latter is of course part of Burma’s history but the former (working and timber elephant) is still very much part of present-day Burma; as is the Kyaukse Elephant Dance in Burmese Kyaukse Shin Ka.

The small town Kyaukse where as the name implies the Kyaukse Elephant Dance is originated from is situated in central Burma 25 miles/40 kilometres south of Mandalay, the capital of the last Burmese kingdom and 20 miles/31 kilometres south-east of the ancient Burmese capitals Sagaing, Ava and Amarapura about halfway between Sintgaing and Suu Lay Kone at the National Highway No. 1 and the railway track connecting Rangoon/Yangon with Mandalay. The ‘town’ Kyaukse is actually one of four townships that make up the Kyaukse district. These 4 townships are Kyaukse Township, Sintgaing Township, Myittha Township and Tada-Oo Township.

When approaching Kyaukse (township) two white elephant statues welcome you and it is no accident that these elephants are standing there. However, the reason for their being placed there is like so many things in Burma’s history hidden behind a thick screen of myth and legend what, by the way, provides ample room for interpretation.

One of the various legends explaining these elephants existence has at its centre the Pagan/Bagan king Anawrahta who reigned from 1044 A.D. to his death in 1077 A.D. His death was as legend has it (another legend) caused by a wild buffalo called Cakkhupala that was actually not a buffalo but a former enemy of Anawrahta who appeared in the form of a buffalo. However, the more probable cause of his death is assassination.

According to the ‘Kyaukse Legend’, Anawrahta has returning from China from where he brought some Buddha relics made camp with his entourage someplace close to what was later to become Kyaukse. The relics – so it is said – were so valuable to him that his intention was to place them in a pagoda build especially for them at a suitable place. The question to be raised at this point in time is why he did not bring them to Pagan and find a place worthy of them there?

The same question is – by the by – to be asked with respect to the history of the – as many people say – ‘5 Buddha images’ (which is not true because they are 1 or 2 Buddha statues and 3 or 4 disciples) now housed in the Phaung-Daw-Oo pagoda at Inlay lake. These Buddha statues were – again as legend has it – left behind hidden in a cave nearby the lake by the Pagan king Alaungsithu (who reigned from 1112 A.D. to 1167 A.D.) when he came back from a journey to the Malayan peninsula. Why did he not bring them to Pagan but hid them in a cave at the Inlay Lake? But now I am off topic.

Back to Kyaukse and the elephants where instead of waiting till his return to Pagan king Anawratha put the relics on his favourite white elephant’s Thanmyinzwa back in order to have the elephant lead him to a place where to build the pagoda for the relics.

As one of several slightly different versions of this legend has it the elephant wasting no time led Anawrahta to a hillside situated east of what is nowadays Kyaukse where he first knelt down at the Tha Lyaung Hill and then continued to the Pyat Khar Shwe Hill where he knelt down the second time. The question was now where to build the pagoda, at the place of the elephant’s first or second and last stop? Anawrahta’s answer to this question was to build a temple at the Kha Yway Hill and a pagoda at the Shwe Tha Lyaung hill. However, this part of the legend is not tally with the reality. There is indeed a temple in Kyaukse – the Tamote Shinpin Shwegugyi Temple – that was originally a one storey structure built by Anawrahta in Pagan style (a second storey was added by the Pagan king Narapatisithu) but this temple is not located at the Kha Yway Hill but some but 8 miles/13 kilometres north of Kyaukse (township) in Tada Oo township not very far from Mandalay International Airport. Also, the distance of 8 miles which is quite a lot sets me thinking. From this inconsistencies follows that there is some confusion regarding the names and locations of the temple or pagoda.

Be that as it may, the Shwe-Tha-Lyaung (the reclining Buddha) pagoda is ever since its completion the venue for the annual Shin-pwe, the Elephant Festival with the elephant dances that takes place in commemoration of the pagoda’s construction and also – although to a much lesser extent – the elephant nat Uttay Na.

The elephant dance festival is celebrated on the day before the full moon of Thadingyut, the Light Festival in October.

Since long real elephants are replaced by artfully crafted artificial elephant figures or costumes. Inside these figures are 2 men performing the elephant’s movements.

The basic elephant comprises two skeletons (one for the body and one for the head) made of bamboo and a skin made of paper mâché and pieces of black or white cotton cloth and textile such as, velvet and satin. The paper mâché parts get after being properly dried a final coating with black or white paint what also serves the purpose of surface protection. Although the white elephant is the royal variety are for practical reasons most of these elephants black.

Once the two pieces that make up the basic elephant are ready they are richly and colourful decorated ‘royal-elephant-style’ with e.g. glass gems, artificial pearls, gold foil, sequin and embroidery. Elephants decorated mainly with sequin (what takes longer to do and is more expensive) are judged in a separate competition.

In order to make the skeleton that gives the body the shape and stability needed fresh green bamboo stripes that have for reasons of higher pliancy been soaked in water are used. Because the hindpart of the body must provide sufficient space for two dancers and their movements its form is bulky, of simple shape, made in open-belly style and has a hole for the head that is worn and operated by the front-dancer. Imitations of the elephant’s legs are textile tubes worn by the dancers ‘trouser style’. The head with tusks is a real piece of art and modelled lifelike of paper mâché. Attached to the head are the ears of cardboard covered with textile and a trunk made of bamboo rings sewn into a textile tube. As a finishing touch the name of the elephant dance team is put on the sides of the elephant’s body. This is done either by painting it directly on the elephant figure’s surface (skin) or by way of e.g. attaching an embroidered piece of fabric.

Making these 2-piece elephant costumes requires a high level of craftsmanship and is done by family businesses in Kyaukse that are specialising in this craft and are famous for their skills all over Burma. They do not only make the elephant figures for the elephant dance and dance competition but also, for example, models and statues by customer specification and all kinds of small and medium sized multi-purpose paper mâché figures such as elephants, Happy Owls’, horses and so on. They can be used for decoration purposes, as children toys, for offerings, can be sold as souvenir to tourists, etc. The knowledge and skills needed for this art and craft are handed down from generation to generation. Each business has their own tricks, which belong to the strictly guarded family secrets.

The schedule and procedure of the building of an elephant figure is taking place based on religious considerations. According to these it is in order to guarantee greatest possible success important to, firstly, choose an auspicious date and day for the beginning of the work. Once this is decided upon it is equally important to make prior to the beginning of the work on the elephant figure flower and candle light offerings and say prayers. Work on the elephant must not start after noon (12:00) because this is believed to be inauspicious. Building an elephant figure can easily take months from start to finish.

Inside the elephant outfit two men are dancing to the often especially composed tunes of dobat and bon shay (long drums). This is no easy task as to gain and maintain the necessary synchronisation and elegance of movements to perform the different occasionally downright artistic figures of the elephant dance well requires precise timing and rhythm of the two dancers. What concerns the dancing part the dancer in the back plays the main role whereas the movements of the head are performed by the front dancer. The dancers practise up to one year (with the old elephant costume) to perform the physically very demanding traditional Burmese elephant dance steps and movements perfectly because much is at stake in terms of fame, glory, popularity and money.

Competitions are held in four disciplines, which are ‘Traditional elephant dancing competition’, ‘Child elephant dancing competition’ (under ten), ‘Best traditional elephant figure’ and ‘Best sequin elephant figure’.

The money prizes awarded to the victors and 2 runners-up in the respective discipline are ranging at the time of this writing between Burmese Kyat 200.000 (app. US Dollar 200) to Burmese Kyat 1.000.000 (app. US Dollar 1.000). This is for the people of Kyaukse and the Kyaukse district who in their majority do not always find it easy to make ends meet a lot of very welcome money; a windfall, as it were. But this is not all. The victorious teams will during the year of their victories be invited to other events and get the opportunities to show off their skills and bask in the glory of being champions. Their first show after the victory will be to dance the next day – the full moon day – at the pagoda on the hill’s top what is a great honour. And, last but not least, they will go down in the ‘Kyaukse Elephant Dance’ history.

The ‘Kyaukse Elephant Dance Competitions’ begin in the early morning of the day before the Full Moon Day of Thadingyut on the market place of Kyaukse situated at the foot of the Shwe Tha Lyaung hill, which the ‘elephants’ have to surround three times. This for two reasons; firstly, to equal the ‘Three Jewels’ in Theravada Buddhism; the Buddha (The Enlightened), the Dharma (Buddha’s teachings) and the Sangha (Buddhist monk community) and, secondly, in order to give the jury and the spectators sufficient opportunity to closely inspect the elephant figures and make photos if they so wish; e.g. family members of the contestants, tourists and journalists certainly do.

There are usually more than 50 teams from different towns and villages that are competing for the championship title. Virtually all of these teams have very beautiful elephant figures that easily survive the dance competitions undamaged and dancers who are performing their dances perfectly so that it must be really difficult for the judges of the juries that are made up of pagoda trustees, Kyaukse town and township officials as well as other dignitaries to decide on who are the winners, who are the runner-up and who does not even make it into the group of the ‘Top-Three’.

Main criteria for the performance appraisal are e.g. general appearance, quality of the elephant figures in terms of craftsmanship, quality of the decoration, quality of the dance performance, the quality of the music and singing that accompanies the dance performance and the quality of the teamwork (dancers, ‘mahout’, musicians and singer).

For those teams that do not make it into the top groups the disappointment is certainly deep; after all the sweat shed during numerous exhausting training hours and the lots of money spent for the elephant outfit. But there are next year’s competitions to look forward to; this year it did not work out well but next year it surely will.

The festive award ceremonies take place in the evening and all participants and spectators go home to prepare for the next day when the pagoda festival takes place.

Before continuing with the following, the full moon day I would like to draw your attention to the many elephant dance teams that are not taking part in the competitions but do instead – led by their ‘mahout’ – dance from house to house and shop to shop in the town to entertain the people and ask for donations. Well, actually it is the ‘elephant’ that is asking and not the dancers what as you can imagine has a very positive effect on the peoples readiness to donate. Not to mention these elephant dance teams would be grossly unjust because they are integral part of the festival and are much liked by the people of Kyaukse and visitors from other places. I like to say that when the ‘professionals’ who are taking place in the traditional elephant dance competitions are ‘playing opera’ the ‘amateurs’ who are dancing through the streets much to the delight of the people are ‘playing musical’. One of my favourite pieces is ‘The Drunken Elephant’. For these elephant dance teams it is more about fun, enjoying the peoples’ being happy with their performance and the (sometimes not so) small money they get from them in exchange for the pleasure they are giving.

The next morning at ‘Full Moon Day’ the winner teams of the elephant dance competitions and literally thousands of devotees are setting off to circumambulate the pagoda clockwise three times, make their offerings comprising food, water, incense sticks, candles, small white paper umbrellas and small paper mâché elephants and watch the elephant dance performances.

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