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Asia travel

Hong Kong explorer returns Burmese cats to Myanmar after a 70-year absence

A favourite of Western cat lovers, the breed is almost unknown in its native land, where it was confined to the royal palace and temples. A breeding programme at Inle Lake is part of a plan to reintroduce them to Myanmar

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 April, 2016, 12:30pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 April, 2016, 12:30pm

The pale morning sun warms dozens of chocolatey paws, making them shimmer like silk. Just after breakfast, the cats are locked in a deep slumber. Another one squeezes itself elegantly into the middle of the group. Amber eyes blink to welcome the newcomer.

Myanmar’s Inle lake is the backdrop to this synchronised, breathing knot of felines. Fishermen perch on longboats, rowing with one leg while they use their hands to dip wooden conical nets into the water to pull out the day’s first catch. Along with the lake’s stilt villages and floating gardens that burst with beans and juicy tomatoes, the fishermen are the biggest draw for tourists.

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On this warm morning, however, travellers ignore the fishermen and focus on the cats, whose shadows are getting ever shorter as the sun rises higher.

The sleeping bundle, and dozens more like them, are among the first Burmese cats produced under a breeding programme that has returned the pedigree breed to their native land.

Their stately shape, short, glossy coat in colours of silvery grey, chocolate and lilac, and affectionate, playful personalities make them one of the most popular cat breeds in the West. But in today’s Myanmar, hardly anybody knows of their existence.

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We Burmese have gone through so much, and this used to be part of our culture, our heritage. If we don’t protect our culture, who will?
Myo Su Borit

A thousand years ago, when a temple was being plundered by thieves, a Buddhist monk was killed as he tried to protect statues and deities. His sacrifice was honoured, according to legend, and he was reincarnated as a gentle, silk-furred cat. In this deeply Buddhist country, the feline reincarnation was seen as so divine that Burmese cats lived at the king’s palace, in monasteries and temples.

The country’s last king was said to keep about three dozen, but when Britain colonised the country then called Burma, the monarch was exiled, and the cats – driven away from their royal habitat – mixed with common cats.

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Soon after the country’s independence it was swept up in political turmoil that saw the rise of a brutal military dictatorship. It went from being one of Asia’s richest countries to one of the poorest. Amid droughts, famines and natural disasters, pedigree cats weren’t a concern. The Burmese cats were forgotten.

Wong How-man, a Hong Kong-based explorer, sought to change that. During a visit to Myanmar, he wondered why the cats that were so popular abroad were nowhere to be seen in their native land.

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The China Exploration and Research Society (CERS), a charity Wong founded, had already set up an elaborate breeding programme to save the Tibetan mastiff, a dog breed, from extinction.

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Reintroducing the cats to Myanmar, he thought, would be just another breeding programme.

He found a local partner in Myo Su Borit, a hotelier at Inle lake involved in conservation efforts. “At first, I didn’t even know what he was talking about. I didn’t even like cats,“ she said, laughing. But the more she learned about the cats, the more she realised that that wasn’t the point.

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At the time, the military junta was slowly loosening its grip, and step by step, the country and its people left decades of turmoil and misery behind.

The return of the cats to their native land had high cultural and sentimental value, Wong said.

“Even if a country is underdeveloped or poor, their national integrity and identity are important. I think the Burmese cat would provide some form of that identity and integrity to the Burmese people,“ he said.

Myo Su agrees. “We Burmese have gone through so much, and this used to be part of our culture, our heritage. If we don’t protect our culture, who will?“

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In 2009, seven purebred Burmese cats were flown in from Australia and the UK. Some have since been given to local people who understand their value, and about 40 live at Inle lake, on a piece of land and a small island, surrounded by a fence, that ensures mixed breeds won’t intrude.

In the past few years, political reforms have gone hand in hand with skyrocketing tourism numbers. Last year, 4.68 million tourists visited Myanmar, an increase of more than 50 per cent compared to 2014, according to the government.

With the cats, Myo Su got a taste of protecting local heritage. Tourism, she says, can help the local Intha people make a better income than they would as fishermen and farmers. But it also means pizza and burger shacks. Myo Su worries about the future of her country, the influence of Western culture and the disappearance of her own.

With the Inthar Heritage House, she is trying to hold on to traditions that might already be lost. Besides visiting the cats in their traditional teak home, visitors can tour rooms with displays of old furniture and wood carvings. A restaurant serves dishes such as green onions in fragrant banana leaves, cooked in claypots over an open fire.

The aquarium is one of the most recent projects. Turtles and fish species can be seen, including the Inle carp and 14 other species that can only be found in the blue waters of Inle lake.

But the cats remain the main attraction, not least because their calls for attention seem ever-present.

A British visitor shows no interest, though. He has come for the sake of his wife, he says. Then a confident, lilac cat jumps from a scratching post onto his back, curls around his neck and starts to purr.

“I prefer dogs.... But these little fellows are winning my heart,” he says, smiling.

In the guest book, comments about the cats’ friendliness and the beautiful island where they rest in miniature Intha houses show that, true to their heritage, the cats are once again being treated like royalty in their native home.

“I hope that I’ll be reincarnated,” one entry reads, “as a Burmese cat, here at Inle Lake.“

Three other pedigree cat breeds with exotic origins

Like the Burmese cat, other pedigree cats have curious stories of origin.

The Maine Coon, a large and popular breed, is said to have originated just before the French revolution, when Queen Marie Antoinette put the cats on a ship that was meant to save her from the guillotine and take her to the United States. Marie Antoinette didn’t make it, but the cats are said to have arrived safely in Maine.

It might be hard to picture a Viking cuddling a kitten, but, according to legend, the strong Nordic seafarers who lived between the 8th and 11th century held domesticated cats as pets. The breed is today known as the Norwegian Forest Cat, and has a waterproof coat that helps them weather the harsh Nordic winters.

Like the Burmese, the Siamese cat is said to have only been held by royalty and monks. At monasteries, they were used as guardian spirits.

The Egyptian Mau was thought to date back to ancient Egypt, where cats were worshipped and mummified like pharaohs, but DNA analysis has disproved that idea.