Land of Gold - Alfredo Cuomo

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Mysterious Suwannabhumi • Land of gold


This book is an act of love. For the countries we visited, for the people we met, for the art we admired.

To Elena, faithful companion of my journey; to Antonello who will continue the search of a tolerant truth; to Antonella for her priceless creative patience. A.C.

ON THIS PAGE: Waves of the Ayeyarwaddy River photographed at sunset. ON THE COVER: Golden curls of Wat Pho s Reclining Buddha, Bangkok.


Suwannabhumi Suwannabhumi, the mythical land of South East Asia, in the language of its people is the Land of Gold or the Golden Peninsula . It includes Thailand, Myanmar Burma , Laos and Cambodia and extends from the Southern borders of China to the tip of Indochina. While many famous cities claim this role, Nakhon Pathom in Thailand was probably its capital between 139 B.C. and 457 A.D. For the people of Myanmar, the capital was Thaton on the estuary of the river Sittoung where the Mon, the first ethnic group to reach Myanmar from the Mongolian plains of Central Asia, settled and prospered. For other historians the kingdom of Suwannabhumi stretched from the Bay of Bengal to present-day Malaysia. In the third century B.C. Emperor Ashoka of India sent to Suwannabhumi relics of Buddha s hair thus planting the seed of Buddhism in South East Asia.

Buddhism spread as fast as lightning through the four countries of Suwannabhumi and Siddharta Gautama s teachings became part of everyone s life. Today Buddhism is the connective tissue of a society where even a distracted traveler can see, smell, hear, touch the spirituality of the people. The Sangha, Buddha s monastic order and the oldest religious brotherhood in the world, is highly respected. Believers crowd their temples and cover Buddha s images with gold.


Indian and Chinese civilizations shared a strong influence on the cultural and artistic development of



Suwannabhumi. Many glorious kingdoms made history here as Bagan in Myanmar, Luang Prabang

Suwannabhumi, terre mythique de l Asie du Sud-Est, suivant la langue de ses habitants, est la

in Laos, Angkor in Cambodia and Ayuthaya in Thailand. Great civilizations like the Khmer, the Mon,

terre d or ou la pe´ninsule d or . Elle inclut la Thai¨lande, le Myanmar Birmanie , le Laos et le

the Siamese, the Tai-Yai, the Lanna and the Lan Chang lived and thrived in Suwannabhumi.

Cambodge et s e´tend des frontie`res me´ridionales de la Chine a` l extreˆme pointe de l Indochine.

The country was rich and, as the Thai used to say, Nai Num Mee Pla, Nai Naa Mee Kao meaning:

Alors que beaucoup de villes illustres revendiquent ce titre, sa capitale fut probablement Nakhon

The sea is full of fish, the fields are full of rice .

Pathom en Thai¨lande et ce, entre 139 avant J.C. et 457 apre`s J.C. Pour les habitants du Myanmar, la capitale fut Thaton sur l estuaire du fleuve Sittoung ou` le Mon, premier groupe ethnique a`

But why mysterious ? Is it because the legendary kingdom of Suwannabhumi is really just a

atteindre Myanmar depuis de l Asie Centrale, s installe et se de´veloppe. Pour d autres historiens,

legend? Is Land of Gold , as defined above, only a visual description of a geographical area where

le royaume du Suwannabhumi, s e´tendit de la Baie du Bengale a` l actuelle Malaisie. Au troisie`me

gold, like a mirror of religious faith, shines supreme? It can be presumed that, after continuous

sie`cle avant J.C., l Empereur Ashoka d Inde envoie a` Suwannabhumi les reliques des cheveux du

wars and mutations of borders, imaginative historians recorded signs of a larger regional kingdom

Bouddha, re´pandant ainsi la semence du Bouddhisme en Asie du Sud-Est.

almost a surreal superkingdom where Theravada Buddhism and its army of literate monks served as the unifying force behind a multi-ethnic restless population. The truth is that the great

Rapide comme l e´clair, le Bouddhisme embrasse les quatre pays du Suwannabhumi et les

cities of Suwannabhumi Ayuthaya, Bagan, Luang Prabang, Angkor are still there firmly rooted

enseignements de Siddharta Gautama deviennent partie inte´grante de la vie de chacun.

in splendor as the heritage of mankind.

Aujourd hui le Bouddhisme est le de´nominateur commun d une socie´te´ ou` meˆme un voyageur distrait peut voir, sentir, entendre et toucher le spiritualisme des gens. Le Sangha, l ordre

Mysterious Suwannabhumi , the book, is a sequence of photographic images taken in the four

monastique du Bouddha et la plus ancienne confre´rie religieuse du monde, est hautement

countries of South East Asia and assembled without a clear logical continuity but following, often

respecte´e. Les croyants se pressent dans ses temples et couvrent d or les images du Bouddha.

at random, the crossing paths of gold and religion, of glorious cities and ancient people. Particular emphasis has been given to Myanmar and its thousands golden pagodas only because visually

Les civilisations indiennes et chinoises eurent une forte influence sur le de´veloppement culturel et

and touristically the country, perhaps due to Western sanctions, is still relatively unspoiled.

artistique de Suwannabhumi. Beaucoup de prestigieux royaumes firent ici leur histoire tel que



Bagan dans le Myanmar, Luang Prabang au Laos, Angkor au Cambodge et Ayuthaya en Thai¨lande.


LAND OF GOLD De grandes civilisations telles que le Khmer, le Mon, le Siamois, le Tai-Yai, le Lanna et le Lan Chang s e´panouirent et se de´veloppe`rent au Suwannabhumi. Le pays e´tait riche, et tel qu ont l habitude de dire les Thai¨s, Nai Num Mee Pla, Nai Naa Mee Kao signifiant: La mer est pleine de poissons, les

India China

champs sont pleins de riz .

Mais pourquoi myste´rieux ? Est-ce parce que le royaume le´gendaire du Suwannabhumi est


seulement une le´gende? Est-ce que la terre d or est uniquement une description visuelle d une zone ge´ographique ou` l or, miroir de la foi religieuse, brille supreˆmement? Il est probable que conse´cutivement aux continuelles guerres et aux modifications des frontie`res, des historiens imaginatifs ont enregistre´ des signes d un plus grand royaume re´gional - presque un super royaume surre´el - ou` le Bouddhisme Theravada et son arme´e de moines e´rudits e´taient la force d unification devant une population agite´e et multi-ethnique. La ve´rite´ est que les villes


King Suw dom of anna bhum i Ayuthaya

mythiques de Suwannabhumi - Ayuthaya, Bagan, Luang Prabang, Angkor - sont encore la` et


solidement e´tablies dans leur splendeur comme he´ritage de l humanite´.

L ouvrage Myste´rieux Suwannabhumi , est une se´quence d images photographiques qui ont e´te´ prises dans les quatre pays de l Asie du Sud-Est et assemble´es sans une continuite´ logique pre´cise mais suivant, parfois, le chemins convergeants de l or et de la religion, des cite´s ce´le´bres et des peuples antiques. Une attention particulie`re a e´te´ porte´e au Myanmar et a` ses milliers de pagodes d or car - au niveau visuel et touristique - ce pays, peut-eˆtre en raison des sanctions occidentales,

Andaman Sea

Gulf of Siam

reste encore aujourd hui relativement intact. A.C. NOTE: The term Suwannabhumi is the combination of two sanscrit words: bhumi meaning earth and suvarna meaning gold or gold coin . The spelling varies slightly in the four countries. Places described in this book are identified with their current geographical names and, except for the adjective burmese , not with names or words used during the colonial era.



journey to an ancient land

Gold Leaf

Gold leaf

page 14

For centuries gold has had a religious significance for


page 24

the people of Suwannabhumi. In Pali and Sanscrit texts,

Krungthep City of Angels of the East

page 28

Three very holy places Shwedagon, Kyaiktiyo, Maha Muni

page 42

the Buddha is often described as having a skin of gold. The metal is believed to bring luck to body and soul and the most precious offer to the Buddha is a gold leaf.

The Kingdom of Bagan Mount Popa and the Nats

page 78

The Sangha

page 96

The leaves pictured in this book actual size are leaves of the pipal tree ficus religiosa dipped in gold.

Luang Prabang Wat Xieng Thong

page 118

Mothers and Children

page 130

Tribes of the hills

page 150

A glimpse of Angkor

page 180

The banyan tree, also known as Bodhi or Bo tree, is considered holy in Buddhist religion because, in its shade, the Buddha received enlightenment.

Gold leaf is also used for aesthetic and dietetic purposes Water Mighty rivers and calm lakes

page 187

The Buddha of Botataung

page 226

and, in animistic practices, as a gift to images of beings who are considered to have supernatural powers.


Gold is found mainly in the mines of Northern Myanmar. The nuggets are stretched into long ribbons by hours of pounding. The ribbons are then cut into small squares separated by bamboo foil. The process of cutting and hammering is repeated several times till the gold leaf becomes transparently thin. Three grams of gold, when flattened, correspond to one square meter of gold leaf.

Hammering gold in Mandalay.


LEFT: Applying gold leaf, Wat Mongkhon Bophit, Ayuthaya. RIGHT: Gold leaf on a holy figure, Wat Phanan Choeng, Ayuthaya.


Continuos application of gold leaf alters the features and shape of holy images. In some cases, as for the statue of the Maha Muni Buddha in Mandalay, the thickness of the precious metal reaches 20 centimeters.

LEFT: The Hindu God Hanuman at Wat Phanan Choeng, the oldest pagoda of Ayuthaya. RIGHT: Statue of Sangudchai, a famous Thai monk, photographed in the gardens of Wat Pho, Bangkok.




Gold leaf on a Reclining Buddha at Wat Phanan Choeng, Ayuthaya. The reclining position is assumed by the Buddha just before dying when He is about to reach Nirvana.



For four hundred years, the powerful kingdom of Ayuthaya ruled over much of South East Asia. Its boundaries included today s Thailand and stretched from Bago in Myanmar to Angkor in Cambodia. Even if its mighty ramparts and gilded pagodas were razed to the ground completely by the Burmese armies in 1767, the glorious city is still considered one of the historic pillars of Suwannabhumi.

ABOVE: Modern images set on the ancient walls of Wat Phra Mahathat, Ayuthaya. RIGHT: The empty grounds once occupied by the Royal Palace of Ayuthaya. The chedis stupas visible in the background are those of Wat Phra Si Sanphet, the first example of Ayuthaya s architectural style.



Of all the urban centers of Suwannabhumi, the fastest growing metropolis is Bangkok, known to the Thais as Krungthep or city of angels . The Western name Bangkok was taken from ancient maps and literally means village of plums . The founders of the city were the Rama Kings, whose descendant is the present King of Thailand, H.M. Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX.

LEFT: A Thai monk conversing with one of the stone statues of Chinese dignitaries that watch over the grounds of Wat Pho. These heavy statues were brought to Siam Thailand as ballast by cargo ships that sailed to China full of rice and returned empty.

RIGHT: A view of Wat Pho, or Temple of the Reclining Buddha, one of Bangkok s holiest monuments.



The divine face of the Reclining Buddha of Wat Pho see also detail on cover and page 4 . The statue is 46 meters long and 15 meters high.


BELOW: One of the 178 scenes of the mural depicting Ramakien, the Thai version of the Ramayana, that adorns the walls of Wat Phra Kaeo, the temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok. The epic poem, written 2000 years ago by the Indian poet Valmiki, tells the story of the capture of beautiful Princess Sita by the demon Dasagir and of the heroic rescue by her husband, Prince Rama.

RIGHT: The statue of the hermit doctor was erected in front of the library of Wat Phra Kaeo by King Rama III. Holy figures are covered with white or colored cloth as a sign of devotion.



Close up of a golden kinnari at Wat Phra Kaeo, Bangkok. Kinnaries are mythical half-bird half-woman creatures revered in the countries of Suwannabhumi. They are regarded as a symbol of feminine grace and beauty.


LEFT: A regular visitor on a wall of Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn in Bangkok.

RIGHT: The chedis of Wat Pho dedicated to the first four Rama Kings. A chedi, or stupa, is an architectural structure without internal cavity.


The Buddha of Wat Arun s monastery. Votive gold leaf on the statue s chin and temples. The Buddha s long ear lobes are a sign of his princely birth.


The golden pig of Klong Lord in Bangkok was erected to honor Queen Sowabha Phongsri, wife of King Rama V, who was born in the Year of the Pig. The statue is covered with gold leaf offered by supplicants who believe in its supernatural powers.


“The Shwe Dagon rose superb, glistening with its gold, like a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul...� W. Somerset Maugham

“Elle est millénaire; depuis les vieux temps, les fidèles y accourent de tous les points de l’Asie, apportant des richesses et de l’or, de l’or surtout, des plaques et des feuilles d’or, pour épaissir cette couche magnifique dont sa grande tour est revêtue et qui miroite là-bas sous ce soleil...”

Pierre Loti Les pagodes d or visit to Shwedagon, February 1900


Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon also preceding four pages is the holiest shrine in Myanmar and one of the most revered in Asia. Gifts of kings and rulers have embellished it beyond imagination. There is more gold on Shwedagon shwe , in Myanmar language, means gold than in any other place of worship in Suwannabhumi.

The central zedi chedi in Thai, a stupa is 98 meters high and is covered with 8688 gold slabs. According to the Pagoda s entrance ticket, the hti the umbrella on top of the stupa , the hngetmana the flag indicating the direction of the wind and the seinbu diamond bud are decorated with 3154 gold bells, 79569 diamonds and other precious stones.

ABOVE: The Westerner.



Depending on atmospheric conditions, every ten years or so the stupa of Shwedagon Pagoda needs to be regilded. Thirty thousand packets of gold leaf are used each time. In total, about 60 tons of gold cover the dome. Only the hti , the golden umbrella at its summit, weighs 200 kilograms of pure gold .


RIGHT: Young monks observing the dome of Shwedagon Pagoda.

Left: Peaceful smile of a monk resting in the shade of Shwedagon Pagoda.

One of the many resting chapels of Shwedagon Pagoda. The statue of the Buddha is in Bhumisparsa mudra . Mudras are the different symbolic positions of Buddha s images. Bhumisparsa , with the left palm on the lap while the other hand points downward, is the most common mudra. It refers to the Buddha calling the Earth to witness His moment of enlightenment.




Golden representations of holy figures belonging to the animistic faith are displayed, next to the statues of the Buddha, in Shwedagon Pagoda and in other shrines of Buddhist worship.

LEFT: Thurathati, one of the 37 Nats guardian spirits of Myanmar. The equivalent of the Indian deity Saraswati, she holds in her hands the Tipitaka, the three manuals of Buddhist teaching. She is the keeper of knowledge and protector of students.

RIGHT: Close up of the hands of Bo Min Kaung, a personage named lawyer protector of business people. Believers offer him money and cigarettes.

For the people of Yangon, Shwedagon is much more than just a place of worship: it is a refuge, a meditation center, a point of reunion, a home where the constant beat of the religious heart of the city fills everyone s life.



A team of sweepers cleans the marble floors of Shwedagon Pagoda. By doing this kind of voluntary work, believers earn merits thus improving their own karma the balance of good and evil deeds and the key to man s future reincarnations. Through his merits , man finally can escape the suffering dukkha caused by the complicated cycle of rebirths and attain Nirvana the ultimate reality, extinction .


The Reclining Buddha of the Kyauk Htat Gyi Pagoda in Yangon. The statue is 70 meters long and is housed in a pavillion tazaung built in the monastery of Kyauk Htat where 600 monks study the teachings of the Buddha Dhamma from ancient Pali and Sanscrit manuscripts.


Detail of Buddha s footprints with an explanation of the 108 foot markings. Some of the signs indicate holy places where the Buddha walked or stopped to meditate; others are related to the Dhamma, Buddha s doctrine. Reclining Buddha at the Kyauk Htat Gyi Pagoda in Yangon .


The Golden Rock of Kyaiktiyo, a massive boulder literally hanging on a cliff of a mountain by the same name. After Shwedagon Pagoda this is the second most sacred place in Myanmar. It is covered by layers of votive gold leaf. The story goes that the rock keeps its precarious balance thanks to one of Buddha s hair inserted in the small stupa at its top.


Pilgrims applying gold leaf to the rock of Kyaiktiyo.

“You are the Golden Eternity because there is no me and no you, only one Golden Eternity”

Jack Kerouac The Scriptures of Golden Eternity , 1960

The Maha Muni Pagoda in Mandalay is the third most sacred place in Myanmar. It houses a 3,8 meters statue of the Buddha. The statue has an adventurous history. Originally cast in bronze in the second century A.D. in the Rakhine State the ancient Kingdom of Arakan, today part of Myanmar , the statue became such an important national symbol for the Arakanese that, when it was seized by the Burmans after a bloody battle, the Kingdom of Arakan lost its independence. Over the centuries, the Arakanese unsuccessfully tried to recover the sacred image. Finally, the Maha Muni was brought to its present shrine where it is the object of fervent devotion for all Buddhists. The statue is covered in gold leaf at least 20 centimeters thick.


Detail of the Maha Muni and His golden pagoda, three kms from Mandalay s city center. Maha Muni means Great Sage .

Everyday at 4.30 the face of the Maha Muni is washed and His teeth are cleaned. To keep the gold leaf in its place, lacquer paint is often applied to the statue. Even so, each year about three kilos of gold leaf powder are recovered on the floor of the chapel by special attendants.


“A light rain was falling and the sky was dark with heavy clouds when I reached Bagan. In the distance I saw the pagodas for which it is renowned. They loomed, huge, remote and mysterious out of the mist of the early morning like the vague recollections of a fantastic dream.� W. Somerset Maugham The Gentleman in the Parlour , 1930

Bagan, the ancient city in the heart of Myanmar, with Angkor in Cambodia, Luang Prabang in Laos and Ayuthaya in Thailand, is one of the four cardinal points of the legendary kingdom of Suwannabhumi and one of the most amazing archeological sites in the world. Founded in the 9th century A.D., Bagan achieved its splendor under King Anawrahta 1044-1077 A.D. and his ten successors. More than two thousand pagodas originally ten thousand are still standing in the vast arid plain of the Ayeyarwaddy River. Most of the monuments were erected in the short span of two hundred and fifty years, between 1044 and 1287 A.D., the year the Kublai Khan s armies conquered the city.



When the soldiers of the Kublai Khan “furono a questa città mandarono a dire al Gran Cane la bellezza di queste torri e la ricchezza e ’l modo come furono fatte e ov’elle erano e se voleva che le disfacessero mandandogli l’oro e l’ariento. E lo Gran Cane, udendo che quello re l’aveva fatte per la sua anima e per ricordanza di lui, mandò comandando che non fossero guaste...” Marco Polo Il Milione , dictated in 1299


LEFT: Buphaya, one of the oldest pagodas in Bagan, fell in the waters of the Ayeyarwaddy during the 1975 earthquake. The new Buphaya is once again a bright landmark for boats and river people.

RIGHT: Shwezigon Pagoda. This is the most famous monument of King Anawrahta s reign and the first example of Burmese architectural style, as distinct from Mon s.

An extraordinary historical site of Bagan is Manuha Paya, or Pagoda above . It was built in 1059 A.D. for Manuha, king of the Mons, who feared for his life after having been taken in chains to Bagan by King Anawrahta. The reason for the war between the two kings is one of religious faith. When a monk sent to Bagan by King Manuha converted Anawrahta to Buddhism, the latter became so enthusiastic about his new faith that, at all costs, he wanted to own the Tipitaka, the holy texts of Buddha s doctrine, kept in the Mon city of Thaton*. When Manuha refused to surrender the books, Anawrahta s armies conquered Thaton and returned to Bagan with 30,000 prisoners, including Manuha and his court, while 32 white elephants carried the precious texts of the Tipitaka. Inside the pagoda, four colossal statues of the Buddha are confined between tight walls in remembrance of the jailed King Manuha.

*Thaton, in Southern Myanmar, is known as one of the possible capitals of Suwannabhumi.



In his newly acquired Buddhist fervor, King Anawrahta tried to eliminate from the religious scene of his kingdom the 36 Nats , or guardian spirits, venerated for centuries by the local population. But when animistic practices continued clandestinely, the king was forced to reinstate them and, to prove his tolerance, added a 37th Nat, Thagyamin, the King of Nats. In Myanmar, Buddhist faith and the cult of Nats exist side by side. The faithful believe that while Lord Buddha protects one s soul, Nats safeguard the body and promote material well-being.


The Mahagiri Nats Lords of the Great Mountain , Nga Tin De and Shwemyethana, the brother and sister affectionately known as Mr. Handsome and Mrs. Beautiful, stand guard by the Sarabha Gate, the entrance to the old city of Bagan.



LEFT: The Taung Talat, known incorrectly as Mount Popa, is the abode of the Nats. It rises 737 meters from the plains of central Myanmar, 60 kms from Bagan. The real Mount Popa is on the Eastern side of the Taung Talat and it reaches 1518 meters of altitude.

RIGHT: Nat Sanctuary on top of the Taung Talat, the Mount Olympus of the Nats. It can be reached by climbing 777 steps.

RIGHT: Resting on top of the Taung Talat, Mount Popa.

OPPOSITE PAGE: The entrance to the Nat Sanctuary of Mount Popa.



Young puppeteers turn into puppets, in Mandalay. Puppet theater is an established art in the countries of Suwannabhumi. An expert puppeteer can handle up to 28 different puppets in the same show, each puppet articulated by 20/40 strings.


The Sangha the monastic order with the Dhamma the doctrine and the Buddha represent the Triple Gem of Buddhist thought.

RIGHT: The Ananda Temple in Bagan is considered a masterpiece of Mon architecture. It was completed in 1091 A.D. The Venerable Ananda was a cousin of the Buddha and his closest disciple. Each year, during the full moon of January, the Ananda Festival unfolds. Thousands of people travel to the temple from far away places using all types of transportation, including hundreds of ox-carts, and camp around the temple for days.


At dawn on the last day of the Festival, hundreds of monks in their saffron robes line up on the grounds of the Ananda Temple to collect alms offered by the faithful. Alms - food and money - are put in black lacquer bowls, one of the few objects that a Buddhist monk is allowed to own. In the four countries of Suwannabhumi more than 1,000,000 monks dedicate their life to the Sangha, the Buddhist brotherhood that renounces worldly possessions and fosters the preservation of the Dhamma. They practice Theravada Buddhism, the doctrine of the elders or small vehicle . The Theravada way is a strong cohesive factor for the people of Suwannabhumi. All other Buddhist countries, in fact, with the exception of Sri Lanka and the territory of Chittagong in East Pakistan, practice Mahayana Buddhism, or greater vehicle , a less conservative form of the religion.


Young monks stand in line to collect alms at the Ananda Festival in Bagan.

A boy carried by his father for the shin-pyu or initiation ceremony at Shwedagon Pagoda. This is the most important moment in the life of a young man when, between nine and twelve years of age, he becomes a novice in the Sangha. Boys remain in the monastery for a minimum of two weeks. Some stay for years, others for ever. For the ceremony, boys wear princely clothes and a gold headdress to symbolize the material values that must be abandoned in order to become a son of the Buddha .


LEFT: A Buddhist monk is not a priest or a preacher. He is the keeper of Buddha s teachings and a model for man to follow in his path to salvation.

RIGHT: Novices wear the robes of monks and are provided with shelter and education. Some choose to become bhikkhus ordained monks , a word that in Pali means mendicant . There is no basic difference between brown, saffron or orange monk robes. Colors vary with the age of the monks older monks prefer darker robes , with the location of the monasteries and with the manufacturing technique of the cloth mainly home spun and dyed .

Two young monks photographed in the courtyard of the Maha Muni Pagoda in Mandalay.

As a sign of renunciation of materialistic values, novices, like monks, shave their heads at least once a month. In Thailand, they also shave their eyebrows.


Fixing their home and playing in the fields, young monks photographed in and around Kyaingtong, Myanmar.



LEFT: Young monk photographed at the Ananda Festival, Bagan. RIGHT: Monastery at Inle Lake, Myanmar.

Ice cream seller and consumers at the Ananda Festival in Bagan.


Female members of the Sangha, or bhikkuni , wear pink robes. Photographed on the road to Mingun, near Mandalay.



ABOVE: Phat That Luang the Great Stupa is the holiest national monument in Vientiane, Laos. It was covered with a half ton of gold before invading armies pillaged it in the 17th century. RIGHT AND FOLLOWING PAGES: Golden doors, glass and pearl inlays, delicate stuccos, enamel and gilt-lacquered works of art embellish the religious buildings of LuangPrabang, once the royal capital of Laos. The Kingdom of a Million Elephants , as Luang Prabang was known, together with Bagan in Myanmar, Ayuthaya in Thailand and Angkor in Cambodia, is one of the four pillars of legendary Suwannabhumi.




Young monks at Wat Xieng Thong, the Golden City temple, in Luang Prabang.


In the gardens of Wat Xieng Thong in Luang Prabang, richly decorated chapels haw surround the main sanctuary sim where monks are ordained.


The famous Tree of Life mosaic shines at sunset on the Western wall of Wat Xieng Thong in Luang Prabang.

LEFT: A monk at the window of his wooden house in Luang Prabang.

RIGHT: Daily chores of older monks, in Luang Prabang.


In April the countries of Suwannabhumi celebrate the Festival of Water which marks the arrival of the Buddhist New Year. In Laos, the Festival is called Pimai , in Thailand is Songkhran , in Myanmar is Thingyan , in Cambodia is Chaul Chham . Throwing water is the core of celebrations.

ABOVE: Children of Luang Prabang, their faces smeared with thanaka, play on the doorstep of the Royal Carriage House during Pimai. OPPOSITE: A young Lao girl made up for Pimai Festival s religious procession.



“All the dust the wind blew high appeared like gold in the sunset sky but I was one of the children told some of the dust was really gold�

Robert Frost



Mother and child, their faces smeared with thanaka, photographed in the alley of Bagan city market. Thanaka, Myanmar s most popular cosmetic powder, is produced from the bark of a tree similar to sandalwood murea exotica . It is believed to protect from sunburn and give the users the smoothest of skins. Thanaka is applied in different ways see previous and following pages: all photos taken in Myanmar .


LEFT: Cambodian child photographed at Angkor.

RIGHT: War games in the Palaung village of Wanpawk, Myanmar.




LEFT: The whackin white cheroots , the Burmese cigars of Rudyard Kipling s fame, are still very popular in Myanmar. Made with a mixture of tobacco and chipped wood, they are rolled in the dried leaf of thanapet, an aromatic plant grown in the Inle Lake area. The word cheroot comes from the hindi-urdu charut meaning cigar .

RIGHT: Father and son in the busy market of Kyaingtong, Myanmar.


Kyaingtong ex Kengtung , the Easternmost town and former capital of Myanmar s Shan State, reminds the traveller of Luang Prabang in Laos. Not far from each other across the Laos-Myanmar border, the two towns have kept the same romantically colonial character. Surrounded by mountains, they are cultural and administrative centers not only for residents but also for thousands of people of the most diverse ethnic groups who descend downtown from isolated hill villages for markets and festivities.

LEFT: Naung Tung, a clear water lake in the center of Kyaingtong.


Amongst the hill tribes that settled in the legendary kingdom of Suwannabhumi, the Tibetan-Himalayan Akha are certainly the most colorful. They number more than half a million; about 200,000 still live in the Yunnan Province, in Southern China, from where thousands of Akhas originally fled. The rest are scattered throughout Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. Some have been converted to Christianity, others still follow their animistic beliefs. All have kept their fascinating identity. The men are famous for their remarkable memory. Some will recite chronologically the names of up to 70 ancestors. The women wear their wonderful costumes every day of the year. Their heavy headdress is adorned with silver coins given to their families long ago by colonial officers in exchange for local produce including opium.

The Akha woman on the right was photographed in the village of Hokyin, 50 kms from Kyaingtong.


Akha women selling distilled mountain alcohol at the Kyaingtong market.




Compared with the ubiquitous Akhas, the Enn or Ang people are few and not very visible. They live in remote mountain villages and seldom travel to the valleys and nearby towns. Their sign of distinction is their black mouth and teeth, a cosmetic achievement that they obtain by starting to chew a special betel root very early in life. Their general hygienic conditions are very poor. For their animistic beliefs, in fact, it is better to be clean inside than outside. A point of view that has its merits but that is one of the causes of their high mortality rate. Without outside help the Enn will soon disappear from the mountains of Suwannabhumi.

Nicolas Gervaise, a French missionary in the 17th century, so describes the black mouth habit: thing these tribes cannot endure about us is the whiteness of our teeth because they believe that the devil, like dogs, has white teeth and that, therefore, it is shameful for a human being to have teeth like a beast... . Then Gervaise goes on to explain the various methods for blackening one s teeth.

ABOVE: The Enn village of Panlin, two hours from Kyaingtong.



Enn families in the village of Panlin on the mountains of the Shan State, Myanmar. As usual with hill tribes, men do not mix with visitors: only women and children do the entertaining.



Enn woman and child photographed in the village of Panlin, Kyaingtong.



In the village of Wanpawk, not far from Kyaingtong, Palaung women trade silver belts or, rather, these days, aluminum belts. This practice is based on ancient traditions. The Palaung women believe to be the descendants of seven female kinnaries , mythical princesses half birds and half women. One day, the story goes, while the seven beauties were frolicking in the clear waters of a mountain lake, a Prince arrived from the heavens, snatched away the youngest princess with his lasso, put her away in a silver cage and, lovingly, kept her there forever after. Thence the silver belt hong rurh , a symbol of the silver cage and of woman s fidelity. The lasso is symbolized by other rope belts worn by the Palaung. The romantic stories of the kinnaries have their roots in Indian literature. Half-bird half-woman statues and bas-reliefs decorate Buddhist temples in Thailand Wat Phra Keo, Wat Arun , in Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. The kinnaries , like the heavenly apsaras of Ankgor Wat, are considered secondary divinities. Kinnara is the male version of Kinnari . In Myanmar, the Palaung are well-known for hand making the popular cheroot cigars.

LEFT: Living with Western sanctions in the remote village of Wanpawk, Myanmar.


Ladies from Shan State, Myanmar.

The Padaung, or women giraffe , are quite different from the Palaung, women birds , of the preceding pages. Like the Enn, the Padaung, a small Mongolian tribe living in Southeastern Myanmar and Northern Thailand, are rapidly disappearing. In the early 1900s they numbered 150,000. Today they are less than 7000. The women are famous for their necks elongated by brass rings, often more than 20 of them for a weight of 10 kilos. The necks are extended up to 25 centimeters. After a few years the rings can no longer be removed. If they were, the women would probably die as their neck muscles could no longer support the head. The purpose of the rings is unknown. Some say that originally they represented a shield against tiger attacks or kidnappings by enemy tribes. More likely, the rings are just an aesthetic device to enhance the women s beauty and prestige within their communities.

The rings begin to be applied to Padaung girls at the age of five, at the rate of one every three or four years. The ceremony takes place on lucky days as indicated by the village shaman.

As for other lands of the mythical kingdom of Suwannabhumi, Laos is a cauldron of ethnic groups. The H Mong or Meo live high on the mountains and have a reputation for being fearless warriors. Between 1918 and 1922 they fought the French Army and during the Vietnam war about 30,000 of them were drafted by the CIA to fight the secret war against the Vietcong and the Pathet Lao. At the end of the war, fearing retaliation, many fled to other countries, some to the United States. Even today, the H Mong resist the central government.

H Mong women at the Pimai market in Luang Prabang.

Two of the mightiest rivers of the world cross the legendary kingdom of Suwannabhumi. The Mekong and the Ayeyarwaddy are lifelines to millions of people who originally descended from Central Asia to the fertile valleys of the South. LEFT AND RIGHT: The Mekong at Luang Prabang, Laos.


“ même que le vieux Nil, avec son limon seul, avait fait éclore dans sa vallée une civilisation merveilleuse, ici le Mékong épandant chaque année ses eaux, avait déposé la richesse et préparé l’empire fasteux des Khmers. C’est à l’époque d’Alexandre le Macédonien qu’un peuple émigré de l’Inde vint s’implanter sur les bords de ce grand fleuve, après avoir subjugué les indigènes craintifs (des hommes à petits yeux, adorateurs du serpent). Les conquérants amenaient à leur suite les dieux du brahamanisme, les belles légendes du Ramayana, et, à mesure que croissait leur opulence sur ce sol fertile, ils élevaient partout des temples gigantesques, ciselés des mille figures.” Pierre Loti Un pe`lerin d Angkor , 28 November, 1901

Rice fields on the banks of the Mekong, near Angkor.



RIGHT: Newlywed couple next to one of the Nagas of Angkor Wat. The Naga, the sacred snake of Hindu mythology, is omnipresent in religious architecture and statuary of Southeast Asia.

LEFT: One of the five gates of the walled city of Angkor Thom. The gates are twenty meters high and support giant heads of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion.

Angkor Wat, the great masterpiece of Angkor, was built around the 1200 A.D. by the Khmer King Suryavarman II. Originally dedicated to Vishnu, it became a center of Buddhist cult only at an unknown later date. The Khmers had established their capital at Angkor in the 10th century A.D.; for historians, Angkor was mysteriously abandoned in the year 1431 A.D.

LEFT: The smiling face of Avalokiteshvara.



“In the province still bearing the name of Ongcor (Angkor)... there are, on the banks of the Mekong, and in the ancient kingdom of Tsiampois (Cochinchina), ruins of such grandeur, remains of structures which must have been raised at such an immense cost of labour that, at first view, one is filled with profound admiration and cannot but ask what has become of this powerful race so civilized, so enlightened, the authors of these gigantic works. One of these temples - a rival to that of Solomon and erected by some ancient Michaelangelo - might take an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece and Rome...� Henry Mouhot Travels in the Central Part of Indo-China , 1864 French explorer Henry Mouhot, who wrote this account in English, is the official discoverer of the temples of Angkor .


The Lawkananda Pagoda on the shores of the Ayeyarwaddy River near Bagan.


LEFT: Rowing downstream on the Ayeyarwaddy.

RIGHT: Comfortable reading in the shade of Shwe Kyat Yet Pagoda on the shore of the Ayeyarwaddy.



Busy afternoon on the Ayeyarwaddy River.



The Ayeyarwaddy near Mandalay. As a golden highway across Suwannabhumi, the majestic river is inspiration for poets and singers: from Rudyard Kipling s “…on the road to Mandalay where the flyin’ fishes play…” to Robbie Williams lyrics of his Road to Mandalay : “…everything I touched was golden…”


Romantic boat ride on the Taungthaman lake at Amarapura, 10 kms South of Mandalay.



U Bein bridge crosses the Taungthaman lake in the town of Amarapura, a former capital city near Mandalay. U Bein, with its 984 teak poles and its 1.2 kms in length, is the longest teak bridge in the world.


RIGHT: Going nowhere: rowers at work, Kandawgyi Lake, Yangon. The golden stupa of Shwedagon Pagoda is seen in the background. ABOVE: The Karaweik, a modern brick replica of a royal barge, is a famous feature of the Kandawgyi Lake in the heart of Yangon. Karaweik , sanscrit word for garuda , is Vishnu s mount, the water bird of Indian mythology.



The fisherman, Ngpali Beach, Rakhine State formerly Arakan , Myanmar. A strong Indian influence is still felt in this State, on the Bay of Bengal, where ancient royal cities, like the famous Mrauk U, are not yet very popular with mass tourism.



On the beach of Ngpali, Rakhine State. Ox-carts are driven by local fishermen to carry the hay used as mattress in the fish drying process. Dried seafood in general is an essential part of the diet in Myanmar.


ABOVE: Red peppers in the Akha village of Kokyin. RIGHT: Colorful umbrellas from Pathein, Myanmar. The saffron ones hanging on top are waterproof and are normally used by monks. The others are parasols.



High on the Shan plateau, Inle Lake is a voyager s dream. Its calm waters, the sleepy villages miraculously preserved against time, the silent monasteries, the slow motions of its fishermen and the unique sunsets reflect, as in a magic contemporary replica, the surreal atmosphere of a legendary kingdom: Suwannabhumi. RIGHT: Monastery at Inle Lake, Shan State, Myanmar.


Monasteries built on stilts dot the coastline of Inle Lake. The villages are inhabited by the Intha people, an ethnic group that migrated to the lake area from Southern Myanmar. The industrious Inthas produce sublime silks, make the best cheroots in the country, fish, cultivate vegetables and grow flowers on floating gardens anchored to the bottom of the lake with bamboo poles.



Some modern Intha drive motor powered boats in old canals. But most fishermen still row the light canoes with their peculiar one-legged technique. When they move about the cultivated portions of the lake, the Inthas put their weight on the stern of their delicate craft and, by raising its bow, glide gently over the floating gardens kyun myaw . When fishing, they stand on the bow to be closer to the catch.



Rows of stucco and gold chapels line the shores of Inle Lake.



Sunset at Inle Lake.


LEFT: The last catch of the day. Fisherman on the bow of his canoe at Inle Lake.

RIGHT: A closing sunset at Inle Lake.


The Kandawgyi Lake at sunset.

The Buddha of Botataung Pagoda, Yangon.

“Nothing in this world is single, all things by law divine in one spirit mix and mingle, why not I with thine?� Percy Bysshe Shelley 1792-1822

Kinnara and Kinnari : Romeo and Juliet of the East.


Printed in Italy September 2006 Copyright © 2006 Fondation Cuomo - Monaco ISBN-10: 2-9525938-0-9 ISBN-13: 978-2-9525938-0-9

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