When Myanmar opened its doors to the outside world in the early 1990s, both many spectacular natural and man-made discoveries came to light to both the locals and the tourists. With the opening of its doors, ice-capped mountains and white-water rivers now became accessible, as did pagoda complexes hidden deep in the mountains and forests that for centuries had been living places of worship for the local Myanmar nationals living in the area, unknown to local Myanmar nationals from other parts of the country.
To discover places like this, such as the Kekku Pagoda Complex, seems almost like a miracle. For many years, the remote area inhabited by the Pa O race has been inaccessible to the outsider. Previously, few people knew about the Kekku Pagodas in this region, and even the people of Taungyi, the nearest big town and capital of the Shan State, were unaware of it. People who have heard of this story of thousands of pagodas lost in the forests thought it as a myth and legend. Some actually believed it existed but few knew where it is located. The Pa O are a hard-working, religious, simple, good hearted and honest people. They are also very traditionalist, as they still adhere to their own customs and costumes. Their clothing is distinctive and most elegant, with long skirts for women and loose trousers for men, all made of dark blue wool. Both men and women also wear long sleeved jackets and turbans loosely wrapped around their heads, either of hand-woven cotton or colourful towels. Their livelihood is mainly farming and they are prosperous so their houses are large and well built, but of natural materials and not of concrete. Their land is beautiful with rolling green hills and clumps of tall bamboo.
Kekku is 28 miles south of Taungyi. Green fields stretch for miles on each side of the road. A long row of tall, thick-leafed trees, in pairs, disappear over the far hills: it is a shady road with trees planted by a monk to connect his village to a pagoda at the other end. Two hours by car from Taungyi, a turn in a corner into a valley leads you straight to this wonderful sight of thousands of small pagodas clustered close to each other, surrounding a bigger spire set on a rise. Everything is still: the huge trees nearby cast their shades on bees and butterflies fluttering in the meadows. There is no village nearby and it is like a lost paradise discovered. The architecture of the pagodas looks like they were built in the 16th century but the locals believe them to be centuries older. The Pa O legends say the number of the pagodas is 7,622; almost all of them decorated with floral designs or figures of celestial beings or bird-men climbing up the sides, created out of stucco. Unlike other pagoda complexes in the region, a red additive in the stucco gives the figures an almost natural flesh-tone. The ground between the temple is cleared away regularly by the guards who live in a huge pavilion near the gate. One can wander in the silence and the peace and almost feel the spirits of past devotees come and go. The Kekku Pagoda Complex may have been only recently discovered by the outside world but for centuries the shrines have been the personal, intimate place of worship for the Pa O people. They call it the Kekku Mway Daw Pagoda, believing that a holy relic of the Buddha Gautama was enshrined under the main spire.
Every year in March three days before the Full Moon of Tabaung by the Myanmar lunar calendar, the Pa O Pa O women The Kekku Pagoda Complex may have been only recently discovered by the outside world but for centuries the shrines have been the personal, intimate place of worship for the Pa O people. They call it the Kekku Mway Daw Pagoda, believing that a holy relic of the Buddha Gautama was enshrined under the main spire celebrate the pagoda festival, and tens of thousands of pilgrims come from all over the region, by cart, by river, or by walking through the woods. Hundreds of monks gather to recite the sutras on the morning of the Full Moon Day which is attended by thousands of devotees. These devotees offer food to the monks and bring candles and cakes to place at the shrines and wrap the images in small saffron-coloured robes. They camp just outside the pagoda compound, cooking and sleeping there, and shop at the many bamboo stalls set up at the festival market. There are daily traditional performances by dancers and musicians, professionals or village groups, which the devotees sit and enjoy for hours. After the full moon of Tabaung the festival is over and as suddenly as they had arrived, the devotees are gone leaving the place deserted and Kekku settles back into this magical and serene silence.