At the Inle Lake: Ghost ride on a water buffalo

Superstition? Sunstroke with hallucinations? Or, after all, something you can’t really find words for? On a day in February in the heart of Burma I wasn’t so sure anymore…

This morning has had a surreal touch already. The sweltering heat, the dusty haze above everything, the lethargy of the little village. It has almost felt like I had caught a mild fever. The air seemed to vibrate in a very low frequency.

I have made my way to the Southern end of Nyaungshwe on a rickety bike without brakes, always riding along the river that forms the waterway between the villages in the North and the Inle Lake. My small budget has brought me here. There is no way I could afford one of the luxury accommodations located right at the lake or, even better, swimming on the water. Every night in the hotels for the less well-heeled, people conspiratorially tell each other about the water hotel where Mick Jagger has recently stared at the lake for three days straight.

My first destination is an extraordinary, colorful pagoda which is twinkling away in the midday sun. The golden tips and all the painted statues make it look like a giant toy for toddlers. I am not surprised to find myself alone here. Most of the tourists at Inle Lake are way too busy visiting all the cigar makers and goldsmiths as well as the floating gardens and the odd monastery of the jumping cats in the middle of the lake. It is my third day here and in the morning I have felt a strong urge for an experience aloof of the tourist paths.

I lock my bike and start wandering around aimlessly between the small towers and the buddha statues. The bells on the tips of the towers ring vaguely in the wind. A handful of birds and the obligatory geccos add to the overall psychedelic melody.

Streams of sweat are running from my neck into my shirt. Hastily, I gulp down a litre of the water which tastes like plastic, but that only seems to worsen the situation. It takes some skills to place my body in the small shade of of one of the towers where I try to clear my mind. Somehow I feel like I am dreaming or, at least, hallucinating. I apply the reality check I use for lucid dreaming. Surprisingly, it all seems to be real. As a matter of fact, I really seem to be standing all by myself in this old holy place.

Walking through the buildings in the direction of the river, I get my bike and push it besides me. The second thing I want to see today is located only a stone’s throw from the pagoda, according to the map. But unfortunately the river, about 50 meters wide, cuts right through the way. When I reach its bank, I am immediately reminded of the pictures from the night before. I had taken a boat into the sunset with a few people and, close to where I am now, a group of water buffaloes had come swimming the other direction. A very strange sight which I contemplate about for a bit.

My plan is to find someone who can take me and the bike to the other side of the river in his boat. That way I would be able to avoid riding back the whole way in oder to cross over the only bridge in Nyaungshwe. But I don’t see anybody. I search all around the temple area, but it really seems like I am the only person here. But then I discover two boys with self-made fishing-rods in their hands. They don’t carry any fish, yet their fishing seems to be over already. I wave at them and they wave back reluctantly. As slowly and clearly as possible I articulate my wish for a boat and tell them that I am willing to pay a few Kyat for that service, too. When the two leave the scenery rather hastily, I am not sure if they have understood me and if they are on their way to get a boat. Ten minutes later, and now even more soaked with sweat for that matter, things seem clearer. They have not returned.

Almost like in a trance I pedal the whole way back to the bridge I have come from. I cross the muddy brown river on the thin poling boards and ride back down again on its other side. I am feeling close to a sunstroke, but I definitely don’t wanna  miss out on the second thing on my to-do list for the day: A nat temple in a small forest.

Nats are natural spirits, quite similar to the ‘phi’ in Thailand, the spirits all the little shrines are built for. They can appear in various forms and usually symbolize forests, rivers or mountains. But each place also has its own nats, souls of deceased citizens which have to be mitigated with sacrificial offerings. The belief in these nats originates in animism and is a lot older than buddhism. In the last weeks I have come to the conclusion that these spirits even play a bigger role here in Myanmar than they do in Thailand. And here, somewhere along the river, there is supposed to be quite a big nat shrine.

Some minutes away from the village already, a young woman approaches me on a motorbike and stops right beside me. With an ambiguous look on her face she asks me where I want to go. I can’t help it, but she looks a little transparent in the backlight of the sun. I tell her about my destination of choice. As if she has expected precisely this answer, she explains the way to me, but then asks me twice to please be careful. Then she de-materializes in the sunrays. I rub my eyes, then I wipe away the sweat from my forehead and leave my bicycle at the side of the path. The last 100 meters between me and the shrine forest apparently go through rice paddies, so I have to walk from here.

But somehow I can’t find the entrance to the little patch of trees, the plants form an impenetrable wall. Not far away, a few workers  tinker on a worn-down pagoda, but I don’t want to bother them. Then I suddenly see two boys who seem to wait for something, slingshots dangling in their hands. Are these the same kids from the pagoda? Either way, I can’t get rid of the impression that they have been waiting for me. ‘Nat shrine’, I say cautiously. Without any further hesitation, they start moving and gesture that I should follow them. The situation isn’t really kosher, but now I have come so far that I really want to know what this shrine is all about.

The two boys, about 10 years old, seem to know the area quite well. They bend branches and make me aware of slippery roots. The rubberbands of their slingshots swing back and forth as they walk; for some reason that has a threatening effect on me. We fight our way through the brush and soon I spot a grassy clearing in front of us. Could that be it already? There is a derelict shanty in the middle of the clearing which sits on tall stilts. Other than that, there is not much around. Just as we reach the hut, an old, dark man magically appears out of the brush on the other side of the open field. Behind him, there is a huge water buffalo, following the man on a rugged rope. The two head straight for us. I look back at my little guides.

They point towards the stairs leading into the shrine, but they don’t show any interest in accompanying me up. So I climb the few stairs alone and enter through the open door. There is some kind of altar with various foods and candles displayed on top. I wonder how the candles can actually be burning. In the last minutes I did not get the impression that many people find their way here. The walls and the wooden roof are covered with dusty spiderwebs. There is a strange ambience here, but all in all I seem to have expected something else. No hint of the solemn atmosphere that I usually feel when entering temples and pagodas. The only thing I notice is the complete quietness in here. I climb down the stairs again.

The old guy with the water buffalo now stands next to the kids, all four of them look in my direction. It’s only now, from close, that I can see the insanity in the old man’s face. There is sweat on his forehead, an unusual sight for a local. His skin is very dark, his hair is greasy, he is dressed in rags. But the one thing really striking me is the look in his eyes. He is staring at me with an alarming acuteness. Taking a closer look, I also seem to detect a mocking disgust towards me.

All of a sudden, he gestures towards his animal and pets its back. I don’t understand. But the man keeps slapping the backside of the massive beast and looks encouraging. Also the boys display a summoning expression. The man says something which, of course, I don’t understand. I’m not even sure if that was Burmese. Then the penny drops. They all want me to ride the water buffalo!

Even though I find things stranger by the minute, my curiosity makes me approach the grey colossus cautiously. The man reaches out and before I understand what’s going on I am already sitting on top of the working animal which is breathing heavily.

The next 2 minutes crown the feeling of surreality. The old man leads the buffalo and myself around the shrine in a circle, scuffling on his worn-out plastic sandals. The kids walk next to me smiling. But there is something underneath that smile and I can’t put my finger on it. The water buffalo feels surprisingly cool, his thick bristles pierce my uncovered calves. It doesn’t even seem to register my weight. It sluggishly lumbers over the sun-dried grass. Every now and then it gasps loudly and, judging from the smell, it seems to fart quite often. Its crooked horns wobble around in front of my body, I brace myself with my hands on its butt. Gadflies surround us.

After we have surrounded the shrine once, they ask me to get down. I notice that we have not walked around the hut clock-wise like you do with Buddhist places, but counter-clockwise. The old man smiles at me one more time, turns around together with his animal and they disappear so fast that I am inclined to believe they have been nothing but a mirage. The kids make clear that they also want to leave. I follow them on the old path through trees and brush, out of this parallel universe. Every now and then, one of them turns around and looks at me, as if to check on my facial expressions.

When we get to my bike, I reach into my pocket and find two 200-kyat-bills. I give one to each of them. They seem to appreciate it a lot and leave in the direction of the village, waving all the way with the bills in their hands. All of a sudden, they look like normal kids at play again, not even the slingshots seem like a threat anymore.

A little lightheaded, I paddle back to the village and sit down in a restaurant by the river. I order a beer and am honestly happy about spotting two other tourists. Looking back, it would have been nice if someone had joined me on this little trip. This person would be able to tell me if I have really just ridden a water buffalo, who the old guy was and how he was able to show up and disappear that quickly with this old body of his. And maybe even why the last half hour feels a lot like a dream or a carefully planned illusion.

I take a big sip of the cold Myanmar beer and check my calves. Somewhere the bristles must have left a mark…

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