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The biggest Ingyinn tree in the forest

The Zee Oh Thit Hla junction

There is a village by the name of Zee Oh,about 12 kilometres off the main Bagan-Kyaukpadaung Highway. And an old growth forest beside it. A sign posted at the entrance will point the way for inquisitive visitors. This clump of trees is known as the Zee Oh Thit Hla Protected Forest and under the protection of the Forestry Department. But it had been under more powerful guardians than a government agency for centuries it seems. It is under the more powerful protection of two brother and sister nats since the Bagan period!

Zee Oh village

As legends go there was a very beautiful girl, Pan Mya Yin, who live on the territory of the Bagan Kingdom. News of her beauty had spread far and wide inside the Kingdom and the King of Bagan became interested. He summoned her to present herself at his court to be crowned Queen. But the girl was interested in religious pursuits only and do not want to wed the King. So she and her brother, (U) Aung Tin Hla, ran away, came to this place and lived secretly, afraid of the King’s fury if he ever found them. Regrettably, they were eventually found by the King and executed. So they became nats and made this clump of old growth forest their home in their supernatural plane of existence.

Mt. Popa at sunset

This forest right in the middle of the central dry zone is unique. It is green and cool with towering trees rustling in the wind under the shadow of Mt.Popa, a stark contrast to the cactus-dotted perimeter. Creepers dangle from many trees, trees that only grow in places where there is much more rain than here. There are even huge banyan trees that only flourish in the wettest regions of the country. The creek beds are moist and cool although there is no water in them. Birds chirp in the high branches. A truly unimaginable place in the hot, dry environment.

The road to Zee Oh village

There is a village nearby with the same name, Zee Oh. A typical Myanmar village engaged in traditional agriculture; sesame, groundnut and other cash crops typical of the dry zone. The villagers are simple, friendly, and most of all, both religious and superstitious.

At the entrance to the forest is a rudimentary nat shrine for the two nats but no statues. The villagers explained that the nats do not like to have any statues of them, no elaborate offerings too, just some desert flowers would suffice. Many footpaths criss-cross the forest floor. People from surrounding villages use them to get from one village to another. But all will reverently take off their footwear on entry into the cool shade of the forest with a customary kowtow and a silent incantation in the direction of the small rickety shrine.

But what had preserved this old growth forest from destruction and degradation is because of the two nats. The villagers dare not take even one twig out of the forest or break a limb off a tree and offend the nats. If they need firewood they ask for permission to gather the dry branches from thenats. If they need some timber to erect a pandal for an occasion like a wedding or a merit making ceremony they ask the nats’ permission to use the produce from the forest. And they must put back every unused parts at the end of the ceremonies. A more powerful and followed edict than any of the rules and regulations enacted by the Forest Department!

Another curious belief of the Zee Oh villagers is that as the young lady natwas so disgusted with the behaviour of the King and his troops she just hates to see any kind of improper behaviour between the genders inside the forest. Couples scrupulously refrain from such acts when they are inside the forest lest they become victims of their ire. Also the nats do not tolerate any offensive language, either inside the forest or even in the village. One villager retold how his hut burned down without any reason after he had quarreled with his parents-in-law the previous night after a drunken bout and used foul language.

Many attested to the author that they had actually seen a pagoda inside the forest when they became disorientated and lost. But later cannot find the way back, as if it was like in a dream or an illusion. The village elders all agreed that despite the vicious battles fought between the Japanese and Allied Armies around this area during WW II and during the civil war that followed in the wake of the country’s Independence in 1948, their village was spared because of the supernatural powers of the nats.

Also there is a huge tree in the Zee Oh village, split in the middle and large overhanging branches touching the ground that the local lore tells as being the work of giant elephants that roamed here during ancient times. Now this huge tree and its branches are supported by concrete pillars, courtesy of the Archeology Department.

Zee Oh village is accessible from Bagan by off-road vehicles only. The road follows the deep ruts of the cart tracks, so only vehicles with high ground clearance can drive on it. Visits to the Zee Oh Thit Hla Protected Forest and Zee Oh village are day trip programmes from Bagan.

“It is alright for you to keep your shoes on in the forest because you are visitors”, the village Abbot assured us when we visited. Our guide also mumbled a soft apology to the guardian nats“These are but ignorant visitors with tender feet. Please allow them to have their footwear on when entering your area”. Apparently, he received an okay because he nodded his head but nevertheless, we took off our footwear lest we offend the nats. So step carefully if you ever visit the Zee Oh Thit Hla Protected Forest!

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