The events of the day unfolded in a way which to me, demonstrates the social and political problems Myanmar continues to suffer with an extreme gap between rich and poor. We met three families while exploring on ebikes, the first a painter and his son who lived in a bamboo house next to a pagoda. He invited us to look inside the pagoda which he had spent months restoring by painting the most beautiful artwork on to the ceiling.
I’m not sure if he was commissioned to do the work but it seemed like he had simply adopted one of the 4000 pagodas in Bagan and felt it was his religious duty to restore it to it’s former self. After climbing the makeshift ladder he had made I sat on top of the temple admiring the jaw dropping view of the plains below, reflecting on the simple life he led.
The next family we met was the Jasmine family who owned a lacquerware shop down a dirt track off the main road. Lacquer is a gooey paste from a lacquer tree and used to produce homewear and gifts. We had met the older brother who had given us directions to the family’s home after approaching us on his motorbike. He had explained that all the shops and restaurants on the main road were owned by wealthy people associated with the army or government and families like his were forbidden to advertise their business and as a result, struggle to make ends meet as their business goes undiscovered. In any other country I’ve visited on this trip I wouldn’t have taken the time to visit his workshop for fear of being pressured in to buying something but Myanmar is different. No one is trying to sell you anything here, people present goods without any pressure to buy and are thankful for your interest.
The Jasmine family welcomed us with open arms and provided us with a well needed bottle of ice cold water before teaching us how their goods are made. A small bamboo bowl is made up of several layers of bone dust and paper adds strength to the bamboo along with a couple of coatings of lacquer after each layer, each requiring up to a week of drying time before being polished ready for the next layer. This lengthy process takes seven months to produce one small bowl with the whole family playing a vital part in the process. The father and brother shaped the goods and applied the lacquer whilst the cousins and uncles polished it after drying. The women, mostly young girls under 20 with the youngest being 14, carved the incredible detailed artwork before colour is added using prestige powder from India.
It was amazing to see so much time and effort go into one tiny bowl and the whole family working together in one small house. If you happen to visit Bagan, please don’t visit the government-run shops on the main road selling “authentic” mass-produced goods but instead visit the Jasmine family at Myinkapar Village (directions can be found here). They will be happy to show you around and there is absolutely no pressure to buy anything.
We continued on our ebikes and followed some loud music down a driveway leading to a grandly decorated marquee. I wasted no time in finding out what the occasion was and learnt that it was in fact a Shinbyu, something I was desperate to see whilst in Myanmar. Buddhists in Myanmar are required to spend time as a monk in the monastery at least twice in their lives with the first being around the age of 12 which is celebrated with a huge ceremony. A Shinbyu is a big deal to Burmese people as it is when a young boy becomes a man. The father of this one little boy couldn’t wait to tell us all about his son’s Shinbyu, the most important day in his life, so much so the father and child refrain from doing anything which may hinder their health or ability to attend up to a year before the event.
The ceremony started with his son parading the streets on a horse whilst wearing traditional dress and make-up, much resembling a girl. Although it was his special day he was joined by his 10 or so cousins who were dressed in very much the same way. Many boys parade on pick up trucks, especially in cities or if really lucky, on an elephant but on this occassion the elephant hire place wanted over $2000 for the elephant so a horse was the next best option he explained as Buddha rode on a horse rather than a pick up truck. On the second day the children are required to sit on stage in their costumes while everyone eats and drinks until the monks arrive at noon. The father had prepared donations each worth $25 to all ten monks which included a bag filled with useful items like an umbrella and torch. Similar bags can be found throughout Asia and are given to monks as they rely on donations to live. The father told us about his time in the monastery and I learnt that the food and drink the monks collect at 4:30am each day is all they have to live on as after midday they are unable to eat or drink anything that has been cooked.
Come mid-afternoon the son’s head would be shaved and he would become a novice monk and leave with them to live in the monastery for a minimum of five days until forever if desired. Sadly we were heading to Mandalay the next day so would miss the main ceremony but the father invited us to the party that evening where he had hired a terrible traditional band. Having been up since 5am, paraded on a horse and now sat on stage in full dress and make up under bright lights for hours in what was still plus thirty degree heat, I was astonished at how well behaved they all were, even the toddlers.
The father took great pride in telling us how much everything cost having spent a whopping $38,000 on the occassion (he was obviously associated with the government!) with much of that being spent making sure over 2,000 people in the village were well fed, watered and having a good time. He explained that Buddhists believe that the more they give the better chance they will return to life as a human and that money should be spent or donated as it cannot be taken to the next life. It makes sense to me although I’m not sure I would fork out $38,000 for one ceremony!
Their house was about a half an hours ride back to our guesthouse so you can imagine me cursing when my ebike ran out of electric. We asked a nearby shop if they had a charging point but unfortunately the owner didn’t. The next thing we knew the owner of the shop had phoned the ebike rental company and had arranged for them to be collected and replaced with new ones. I’m not sure what happened during the next hour as it was all in broken English but in the end I was riding on the back on Daniel’s ebike while Jaimie borrowed the womens and James got a “secret” lift on the back of a guys motorbike (tourists aren’t allowed on motorbikes and three of our four bikes had ran out of power). It was astonishing that at half nine at night in our time of need, a gathering of strangers went out of their way to make sure we got home safe without the hassle of having to return our broken down bikes. Another example of the kindness of Burmese people.
A big thank you if you’re still reading this post, I’m fully aware it has gone on way too long but I have so much I want to share with you about the fascinating country of Myanmar.
Living life, loving travel,