Karen State, Myanmar Part Three: Ceremonies and Spirits

An early start in the morning began with the preparation for a traditional ceremony with our host’s family. Little did we know that this was going to involve drinking homemade rice wine and witnessing the sacrifice of two chickens before 8:00.

Waking up in the wooden long house that we shared with the family and our crew was a completely new and unique experience. Never have I ever shared a room with ten or so people before – it was like one giant sleepover! The Thermarest came in handy once again, and we were also fortunate to have a mosquito net over our mats/sleeping bags as well.

When we got up and climbed down the wooden ladder to wash up in the river, we were greeted with magnificent views of the morning light hitting the Dawna Ridge and a blanket of cloud sitting beneath it. Not a bad place to wake up to at all.

Watching the cloud cover rise over Dawna Ridge

Watching the cloud cover rise over Dawna Ridge

Shortly after, we walked over to a smaller hut made of wood and corrugated metal to join a couple of the family members who were getting the ceremonial preparations underway. The air was warm, thick and sticky and the river nearby was gurgling away in the background. A couple of unlucky chickens were brought into the hut while candles were being made out of fresh honeycomb and betel leaves carefully picked from their stems.

The purpose of the ceremony was to speak to the spirits and ask them if our onward journey would be okay. Prior to us arriving at the village, we were told by our guide Jack that they had conducted a ceremony a few days ago and they had been told by the spirits that visitors would be arriving. Our visit was supposedly unplanned and they had no idea we were arriving.

The two chickens that were soon to be sacrificed

The two chickens that were soon to be sacrificed

L: Some of the materials involved in the ceremony | R: The leader of the ceremony working with betel nut leaves

L: Some of the materials involved in the ceremony | R: The ‘leader’ of the ceremony dipping betel leaves into turmeric juice

L: Lighting up incense for the spirits | R: The sacrifice taking place, by hand

L: Lighting up incense for the spirits | R: The sacrifice of the two chickens taking place, both choked by hand

After the chickens were sacrificed, they were then smoked before having their feathers plucked

After the chickens were sacrificed, they were then smoked before having their feathers plucked

The chickens getting cleaned in the river

The chickens getting cleaned in the river

L: One of the ceremony members cleaning a chicken | R: The broth beginning to be cooked

L: One of the ceremonial members cleaning a chicken | R: The broth beginning to be cooked

An offering of food being prepared for the spirits

An offering of food being prepared for the spirits

L: Reading the chicken bones to see what the spirits have communicated | R: Incense and offerings

L: Reading the chicken bones to see what the spirits have communicated | R: Incense and offerings

After an hour of ceremonial preparation which included drinking two bottles of homemade rice wine out of coconut shells at 8:00 in between chanting and burning candles and incense for the spirits, the ceremonial leader read the cooked chicken bones and told us that the spirits had approved of our journey. 

Eight offerings made of rice, some chicken, a betel leaf and a candle were prepared for the spirits but there was also plenty of leftovers that would be eaten by the family, the crew and ourselves. While I didn’t have any of the chicken, it smelled deliciously aromatic as it was cooked with a range of lemongrass, garlic, onions and turmeric. I had some rice with a tasty pumpkin curry that really hit the spot after a few cups of rice wine on an empty stomach.

Although I didn't consume any of the chicken, the vegetable rice and pumpkin curry was still a delicious breakfast

Although I didn’t consume any of the chicken, the vegetable rice and pumpkin curry was still a delicious breakfast

After the ceremonial feast and getting our packs together, we soon thanked our hosts and bid them farewell. There was a bit of translated exchange going back and forth to express our gratitude, as well as some of the most genuine and warmest smiles around.

On our way out of the village, we were joined by a couple of the family members who insisted they accompany us on part of our journey and to help us carry our packs. While I prefer carrying my own pack, there really was no polite way of saying no to their helping hands… so on we went, with our expanding village posse.

A young calf we passed by on the way out of the village

A young calf we passed by on the way out of the village

Walking barefoot through what seemed to be miles and miles of rice fields

Walking barefoot through what seemed to be miles and miles of rice fields

A couple of farmers we met along the way

A couple of farmers we met along the way

I was impressed to see a solar panel outside this village home

I was impressed to see a solar panel outside this village home

A dip in the waterfall to end another spectacular day

A dip in the waterfall to end another spectacular day

Our barefoot walk through lush rice paddies was really a delightful way to spend the mid-morning, especially after such a captivating ceremonial morning and delectable feast. We were back on the road with our newfound family, ready to hit our next village where we’d be staying with a three-star army major and his two granddaughters, Paw Li and Bibi. Upon meeting the family and settling in to our nightly quarters (their living room), we hopped on a tractor and headed for a nearby waterfall to cool off from the thick, humid air.