Three sets of striking tables and chairs sit unassumingly outside a restaurant on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River. Each set is raised about a foot from the ground and carved from a huge root of a felled tree. Look closely and wild animals emerge from the tawny wood; scaled fish, birds proudly sporting ornate plumes; a procession of lions.
The intricate furniture could fit snugly into a scene of Tolkien characters quarreling over a ring. It is intricate, delicate, an expression of the forest itself. But far from being moved by his own creations, the carver has almost had enough of his craft. He is tired and all the dust from the wood has given his health grief. He is far from home, here in Myitkyina, and he has been here for six years.
“It’s not that I necessarily enjoy my work, but I keep doing it because I am good at it and it provides for my family,” says U Thaung Hlaing. Forty years of carving and he has dwindled the time it takes to complete a piece of furniture to four months of working eight hours every day. The result is a touch of master craftsmanship that sells for US$400-$500.
“My design will vary according to the root because this is the way I was taught,” he says. U Thaung Hlaing was taught in Yangon, although he is originally from Paw, a town between Thaton and Mawlamyine in Mon State. He moved his family to Myitkyina Park on request of the restaurant owner, who employed him full-time to make furniture.
His two daughters now live in Mandalay, where one studies and the other works in a hotel. His two sons have stayed with him and his wife. One is in school and the other helps out his father. “I don’t think I will become a carver,” says this son. “I am not as good as my father.”
U Thaung Hlaing, who is pushing 60, described his process, starting with sourcing the roots on the highway “after the government cuts down trees to make the roads bigger.” He uses a chainsaw to form a rough shape in the root, but he says the excess dust made during this apart is why he has allergies. Eventually he employs small chisels for the minutiae of the design.
“Since this is an art, I have to put a lot of thought into it. But it can be difficult because I have to do everything by myself,” he says. His next project is on the other side of the river and more orders are coming from locals in the area, meaning U Thaung Hlaing will be busy for some time.