Until he was 18, the photographer and writer, Jai Jai Lao Mong, now 22, lived his entire childhood in the village of Da Lone in northern Shan State’s Mong Ngaw Township. Seeing no opportunity for work or education in his hometown, he, like many Shan youth, migrated to Thailand, where he worked as a gardener and a security guard. Later, he also attended a social justice education program on the Thai-Burma border. While there, he participated in a video and photography training led by the community-based Shan Youth Power (SYP) media team. He returned to his home determined to use these skills to document both the need for political change in Shan State and to create a historic visual record of his ancestral home through the seasons; Jai Jai Lao Mong remains the only resident of the village with a camera.
Located within the “Black Zone,” Mong Ngaw Township is not accessible to outsiders. To date, these are the only known published images of this quiet corner of Shan State known for its hillside tea plantations surrounding a valley of rice paddies.
Mong Ngaw Township is formed by 99 small villages, one of which is Da Lone. Most people make their living by farming: paddy fields take up one third of the township’s total area. In August, the height rainy season, the whole region becomes covered with green paddy fields. Two-thirds of Mong Ngaw is paddy land, known as Nar Nam Fa, meaning “the paddy waiting for rain water”; the land is irrigated by a combination of water diverted from the Nam Sim stream and from the annual rains, which last four months.
Karng Dong Pagoda—the “pagoda in the middle of the fields”—is a sanctuary for residents throughout the Mong Ngaw area, who are mostly Buddhist, with a small population of Christian and Muslim families.
At over 100 feet long and over 100 years old, Hang Hawm Bridge marks the edge of the township is an essential link across the Nam Sim stream and the only connection between the villages of Mong Ngaw and the larger town of Kyaukme in northern Shan State. Built by the British, it is the only structure remaining in the area from Burma’s colonial era. It is also one of the only existing bridges; there is little to no government-initiated infrastructure in the township.
Nam Sim stream starts in Nam Hsan Township, 45 miles from Mong Ngaw, before flowing into the Nam Du River in Hsipaw Township. Decades ago, the stream was the habitat of many fish species and was vital to the irrigation of half of Mong Ngaw’s farms. Now, villagers lament the lack of fish in the stream’s waters. Locals speculate that the disappearing life may be due to decreasing water levels and rising levels of sediment, which are linked to increasingly erratic flooding patterns.
The presence of sediment can be attributed to deforestation along the stream, as well as mining projects. The Nam Sim has attracted a number of gold mining companies who use heavy machinery to dig up hundreds of grams of gold each day, both upstream and downstream from Mong Ngaw.
This Buddha statue in Mong Ngaw Township has been constructed from bamboo. In Shan language it is called “Phra Inn Sarn,” meaning, “the bamboo Buddha made by an Angel.” The art of making Buddha statues from woven bamboo is a traditional Shan custom.
In Wan Lone, one of Mong Ngaw’s bigger villages, locals walk to the temple on a cold season mid-afternoon to make merit by donating household goods to monks during the Khao Wa period. During these three months, the monks do not leave the monastery in order to practice Dhamma, or the teachings of Buddha. The Khao Wa period ends with Og Wa, which falls on a full moon day, in October or November, and signifies the time when Buddha came down from heaven.
Starting work before sunrise, tea pickers end the day at sunset, and walk over five kilometres through mountainous terrain to bring their harvest to market, where it is weighed with traditional scales. They earn 1,000 kyats or one U.S. dollar per kilogram. On an average day, they can collect up to 15 kilograms of tea leaves. Usually, they can only keep half of these earnings, splitting the rest with the owner of the tea plantation.
The tea from northern Shan State is heavily consumed by people throughout Myanmar and is exported to neighboring countries, especially to India.
People call March, or the tea season, “Shwe Byi,” meaning “the golden season,” because it is a time of economic prosperity for the villagers. This added income allows them to buy goods which they would normally be unable to afford, such as motorbikes. Motorbikes have become extremely popular among the youth in the region, as they provide convenient transportation across Shan State. Many of the bikes were imported from the Chinese border, a 200-mile drive from Mong Ngaw.
In April, villagers pool funds so that their children can be educated in Shan culture, language and literature while the government schools—which only teach Burmese language—are on break. After two months of studying, the top three students from each village are selected to participate in the township level examination. As is the practice in other villages, this class in Mong Ngaw Township is taught by one of the local villagers, who is a volunteer, and it is held in one of the locals’ storage rooms. The schools are community-sourced and funded, bringing students and villages together and helping to keep ethnic traditions alive.
The Shan people play traditional instruments at times of celebration and in this photograph the villagers are celebrating the graduation of Shan students who studied lessons in Shan language and literature over two months—March and April—across 30 different villages. These instruments are believed to have a 2,000-year history and dating back to when the Shan people would play them to celebrate.
In Mong Ngaw, the year is divided by planting and by harvest times. Many local people do not follow a Western calendar, but a traditional Shan system, which is based on the phases of the moon. In November or December, before the celebration of the Shan New Year, the rice crop is cut, dried, and the grains of rice collected.
One obstacle farmers in Mong Ngaw face following the harvest is the redistribution of land. There are no clear boundaries in their land and some overlaps others. This is because the boundaries were originally cut in the shape of spider’s web. In the cultivating season, the boundaries are eliminated to maximize land use. Once the farmers have finished cultivating they re-divide the boundaries, meaning the shape of their land is always changing.
A stream runs through the middle of the field and is used for irrigation. In the past, many of the farmers took little notice of it, but in recent years, large dams have been constructed as government projects upstream which have caused the land to erode further downstream.
Huts like this one are used during the harvest season and are made entirely of bamboo. It has become a tradition for children to pass the night with their parents in the open-air structure before the harvested crops are delivered to their home. It is also the place where farmers’ families have their lunch together—sticky rice, pickled vegetables, and tamarind juice or lao, traditional Shan alcohol made from sticky rice and sugar cane.
In the hot and dry months of February through April, in the new year, some families take advantage of ownerless land and set up houses and hillside farms in the most isolated areas of Mong Ngaw and Kyaukme townships. This practice is not without risk: at this time, the surrounding forest is burned, either by people, or through natural phenomena, putting such homes in a precarious position. It is thought that burning the land makes it more fertile, and rice is then cultivated on the mountainsides. It is irrigated only through rainwater. The farmers do not earn any profits from their crops because before the harvest time they must take out debts from merchants in order to afford basic supplies. After the crops have been harvested, they pay off these debts. It is a cycle that does not end.
Despite the ongoing civil war in Shan State, the town of Mong Ngaw has been free from disturbances for three decades. But due to general political instability and fear of government authorities, villagers did not dare to display signs of Shan identity or nationalism. Instead they have relied on local monasteries to keep Shan culture and literature alive.
Today, in northern Shan State, symbols of Shan culture are becoming more visible. The entrance to this village in Mong Ngaw Township is signposted with a painted Shan flag with writing in Shan language.
By Jai Jai Lao Mong / Special Contributor to Shan Herald Agency for News (S.H.A.N.)