The first thing that we do coming into this world is scream to be heard and then try and stand to be noticed.
It is the nature of being human.
Early in March 2014 I arrived back in Burma now known as Myanmar with the intent of traveling to Mogok,
fabled land of the world's finest rubies.The first order of business was to visit the Shwe Dagon Pagoda rising majestically above Rangoon, gold covered, gem encrusted, legend infused, whose construction is said to have been started during the life of the Buddha, 2,500 years ago.
Walking around the massive bell shaped pagoda clockwise I stopped at the animal which represents the day of the week I was born. When you ask a Burmese citizen their birthday, they will answer a day of the week, in my case, Thursday represented by the Rat .Rats are industriousness, intelligent and always seem to be the first creatures off a sinking vessel.
I had been assured by friends in Yangon that it would be "No Problem" to go up to Mogok although I thought that I would need special permission. I assumed that what I was being told was correct.
My old Burmese friend and I flew up to Mandalay from where the last kings ruled Burma. It was from here
that King Thibaw was deposed and sent by the British into exile in India. He croaked in penury.
From the airport we drove to a cave pagoda called Datdawtaung near a town called Kyaukse which was isolated and a few hours drive down unpaved dirt roads. There were no signs and when the road would fork we had to wait for someone coming along to give us directions .Finally we arrived at the base of the hills and began to climb. climb and climb. Some of the bricks in the stairway were large tablets of the same era as the Pagan period proving that this place had been visited for many centuries. After several hours climbing ever upwards we came to the entry way of the natural cave with long dripping stalactites and huge stalagmites. Below was a gold covered reclining Buddha at least 75 feet long. Other than a monk and a friendly dog, there were no other visitors.
The next morning we drove out of Mandalay on the new road to Mogok. About 40 miles out, a remote controlled bomb had injured 3 people a week ago including the Chief Minister of Mandalay General Ye Mying. I had heard that this road was closed but clearly it is not. We stopped at a Shan Restaurant and I had a Myanmar beer and soft boiled eggs served submerged in a bowl of hot water. A Shan girl peeled a banana and ate it out of the skin with a spoon.
After several hours the driver told me to lay down in the back seat concealing myself. This didn't sound good. We stopped at a check point which was serious. "No Foreigners Allowed Beyond This Point" read the sign. A young guard with a G-3 machine gun opened the back door of the car where I lay down hiding.
"Bad stomach",says I.
The driver and my Burmese friend were escorted into Mogok where they were told that I needed to apply for the proper paper work to gain entry to
"No problem" became "big problem". and we were forced to return 6 hours down the hills back to Mandalay. $150 bucks up, $150 back.
I again checked in to the Shwe Phyu Hotel and sent my Burmese friend back to Rangoon to apply for the proper papers.
This left me with several days of nothing to do but to explore Mandalay. I found an old friend, a Shan who accompanied me to the Mandalay Jade market. The Chinese buyers will take a day trip from Yunnan, buy their jadite and return the same day. I was looking for multi-colored pieces, but there were few to be had and the prices were crazy. Like so many of the stones in Burma, the Chinese had inflated the prices of jade beyond the world market.
I went to see the Mahamuni Buddha taken from Rakhine State centuries ago. The faithful press sheets of pounded gold leaf on the statue which is now several inches thick.
It began to feel like "Ground Hog Day" where waking up is a repeat of the day before. I found a reliable motorcycle taxi driver named Win who would drive me around Mandalay and see the sights. In the afternoon when it became really hot, we would go down to the port and watch the boats unload clay jars and screaming hogs.
In one area of town all the shop houses were engaged in the carving of a pure white marble lending an eerie
ghostly layer of white powder over everything including the carvers. The subject of the carving was almost entirely that of seated Buddhas. I asked about where this marble was quarried and was told there was a marble mountain about an hour and a half drive from here in Mataya Township.The mountain did indeed have a massive seam of pure white marble being quarried by earth moving machines.
I spent time looking at over priced stones of mediocre quality, but I did see a large optically clear piece of
quartz crystal with an interesting inclusion of hexagonal crystal inside which was probably just dark quartz. Even for this the owner asked $5,000!
There was a traditional dance show which I photographed, and I had such traditional culinary offerings such as chicken anus, luckily unstuffed.
Finally after 10 days of eating Mandalay dust, and fighting mosquitoes as big as birds, my Burmese friend called from Rangoon to tell me that the permission papers were complete, and that he would fly back to Mandalay with them the next morning. Promptly at 9am we left Mandalay.
Hours after leaving the sizzling plains, and climbing into the mountains, the temperature dropped and became refreshingly cold. Having my paperwork in order, immigration was a breeze and we passed into Mogok, fabled land of the world's finest rubies, sapphires, peridot and bright red spinel.
I had completed photographing more than 45 different tribal groups out of what the government says are a total of 135. This erroneous number is perhaps from General Ne Win himself who altered the number from 142 to add up to his favorite astrological number 9. 1 plus 3 plus 5 is 9. Even 135 is wrong as even the Chin themselves are listed as 53. Fifty tribes out of 135?
Now a census is being done in Myanmar. This census is to determine how state funds should be allocated to the various groups. There are 41 questions on the census. One is of religion. Animist is a choice, the box I would check. One is of ethnicity. In Kachin State the Kachin Independence Organization will not take part.in this census. How can they grant access to their territory when they are at war?
This will not be done. There's 2 million missing from the list.
Karen State government refuses to allow villagers evicted from their homes by the Burmese military to move into rebel held territory. A census here can not be done.
Same with the Northern Shan State, North East Kachin State or Karrini State, the Chin Hills or Nagaland.
Hello Konyak Naga, how many in your household? Aggha, don't cut off my head! Good luck there.
Wa State will take their own census.
The Rohinga can only be listed as Bengali. Unlike the Maramagji, the Shakama, the Mro, and Daignet who live in Arakan State and are listed as distinct ethnic groups, the Rohingya are not on the list. What do you check if you are not on the list?
Are they not part of the fabric of what is Burma?
No ethnic group can choose more than one ethnic category. What category shall the Rohingya choose?
What about a mixed heritage?
A Maru and a Jinghpaw?
A Khaku and a Lashi?
A Burman and a Azi?
Some groups are listed twice under different names. Other groups like the Banyok of Kayan State who were described by Scott in 1900, a tribe that used to bind the heads of their children to appear as cone heads have vanished.
What if Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is barred from running for president next year 2015 because she had married a foreigner, and has children with British citizenship. Will she be barred from contesting the election and to not be able to complete a Mandella like transformation from political prisoner to head of State?
I will not speculate. I ain't on the census. Honkey ain't a category.
Ethnographic inclusion to the Union of Burma is part what got General Aung San, Daw Suu Kyi's father assassinated only six months after concluding the Panlong agreement in 1947 giving certain tribes autonomy under a federal system. Ethnicity. A very touchy subject in a country where the diversity of tribes are perhaps the most varied in the world.
Beside wanting to look at the source of the best stones in the world, to visit Mogok, is for a gemologist as necessary as a Muslim entering Mecca,
I was also interested in seeking the local tribes of that area. Our driver is a Lisu and knows of a village nearby of Shwe Palaung, the Golden Palaung. Previously I had photographed the Pale Palaung close to Kalaw in Southern Shan State, and the Silver Palaung near Kengtung. The Shwe Palaung do not wear these cloths everyday, as those other groups do, but they are stored at the monestary and only worn during the festival days. The blouse is incredibly ornate and stiched with tiny glass beads. The girls were very playful and aware of their own beauty.
High in the hills of Mogok close to a huge sapphire mine is a village called Stone Elephant. The rock formations here are of weathered marble jutting out of the earth like sharp teeth.There was an old Lisu woman I found in her kitchen boiling water. Her dress was also particular to this area near north west Shan State. Other Lisu I had photographed such as the smiling girl on the cover of my book, Vanishing Tribes lived near the Thai border of south east Shan State. Another style of dress was that of the Bhamo Lisu with broad stripes who lives in north east Shan State. And then there was a lovely girl who is a Lisu from Putao, northern most Kachin State. She and her dance troupe happened to be visiting Mogok and was eager to be photographed.
Mogok is indeed a magic place with fog filled valleys and huge trees. The incredible diversity of gem stones mined here and offered in the gem market everyday has been happening for many hundreds of years.
It will I suppose continue until Mogok has given up the last of her treasures.