An alternative Bagan

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Man making lacquerware. (Ye Myat Tun, YMT Productions)

Brittney Tun visits craftsmen living around Myanmar’s famous ancient city. Photos by Ye Myat Tun, YMT Productions.

Having been to Bagan several times, I was curious to see the daily lives of local craftsmen and check out their hand-made goods. At the suggestion of our hotel staff, my husband and I called upon best friends and business partners Ko Kyaw Thu and Ko Pyae Sone. The pair grew up around the area, working in hotels and their own family businesses. They know the local craftsmen by name and offered to take us not only to their shops, but also to some of their homes.  

Yarn Skein at the Galonemin Nyi Naung Weaver’s Shop. (Ye Myat Tun, YMT Productions)

Ko Kyaw Thu first took us to Galonemin Nyi Naung textile shop. The shopkeeper chatted with him and nodded in my direction, then we were directed to a nearby bamboo house. I awkwardly walked through the gate, nodding to the weaver’s family while heading to the back of their property. Two ladies were manning looms, barefoot against the bamboo pedals. The process was slow and labor-intensive. They changed the thread color often, replacing the shuttles with new bobbins after about three or four passes of the weft threads. The rhythmic clinking and creaking was hypnotic. The only traces of this century were small stickers of actors Nay Toe and Hain Wai Yan on one of the loom’s posts.

A woman manning looms. (Ye Myat Tu, YMT Productions)

After purchasing a blanket and some hand-carved bobbins, we left for a nearby cigar shop, Khin Khin Ohne (Aung Tha Pyae). Once again, Ko Kyaw Thu beckoned me to follow him past the owner’s yard, through his house, and into the rear working area, where three ladies were seated high on a platform. Two were rolling sweet dried tobacco in large thanet leaves and one was tossing tamarind and lemon candies in a basket of raw sugar. As he passed their station, Ko Kyaw Thu helped himself to a lemon candy. My mouth watered, and I shyly smiled at the lady as she rolled them. She grinned and passed me one, too. The two women on cigar duty produced the cheroots at lightning speed, taking under a minute to roll, stuff, seal, and label each one.  

Next, we made the drive south along the Ayeyarwady River to the town of Salay—made famous as the home of Salay U Ponya, a renowned writer and poet of the Bagan era. Our first stop was the Yote Sone Kyaung Monastery, a lofty and ornately carved wooden monastery donated in 1868 by the wealthy Daw Pu, a local heiress with ties to the royal family. The government renovated the building in 2003 and now Myanmar handicrafts, sculptures, and relics are housed inside, including a wooden throne from the Pagan Dynasty.  

Antique trunk inside the Yote Sone Kyaung Monastery. (Ye Myat Tun, YMT Productions)

We proceeded to the Salay House, a colonial trading post dating back to 1906. Nestled along the banks of the Ayeyarwady, guests can enjoy a traditional lunch al fresco and experience the world of a prosperous British-colonial trading company. This restored warehouse is laden with period antiques and the upper floor houses the master’s bedroom in characteristic colonial Victorian style.

The Salay House Upper Level. (Submitted by Salay House)​

After dining on the piquant curries at the Salay House, we headed back to Bagan. While passing through Wet Kyi Inn Village, we noticed a large lacquerware shop near the road.  We were ushered in and toward the back door, where 12 workers were busy weaving, varnishing, painting, and finishing off intricate lacquerware pieces. They had only a few minutes of sunlight left, and were racing the clock. We were greeted by the owner, U Maung Maung, a smiling gentleman with a large mustache who founded Ever Stand Lacquerware in 1986. “Unlike many other places,” he said, “I allow guests to take pictures of my process.  I want them to feel the work involved and love it like I do.”

The next day, we stopped by Wine Toddy Palm Farm beside the road that leads to Mount Popa. Here we enjoyed watching the workers scaling the spindly trees to collect the sweet fruits. The owner’s wife was leading a confectionary line, and I purchased some toddy pralines and herbal moonshine rub said to relieve sore muscles. My husband got too close to a bull that was yoked to a mill grinding peanut oil and almost got kicked. No matter, we had some fine muscle rub.  

Tours to all locations mentioned above can be arranged by Bagan Zone Car Rental (95.943.199.306 and 95.940.164.3395).

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