Tuesday, February 23, 2016

When in Bagan....

View of sun set from Shwesandaw Pagoda.

When you are in Bagan, as a first time tourist, there are two things that you will most likely end up doing. One is shopping (and maybe buying) lacquerware and the other is seeing a sunset. We saw the sun rise over the plains of Bagan this morning so it just seems fitting that we end the day watching the sun set.

Miu and Win deposited us back at the hotel right after we had lunch which was traditional Burmese food cooked up for tourists.  Thankfully, there is plenty of variety in the food here so never eat the same meal twice.  Every cook has his or her variation on a dish so even the same *beef curry* doesn't taste the same from one restaurant to another.

Even well before lunch, the heat and humidity levels had reached uncomfortable levels.  Our daily itinerary in Bagan is following the pattern we had in Mandalay - we had a midday siesta to escape the uncomfortable weather.  Even local Burmese, who are accustomed to the weather here, retreat indoors in the middle of the day.

Back at the hotel, Ayşe went off to the hotel spa for her massage and Bro did a quick catnap.  Miu and Win would be back at 5pm to pick us up.

You know you're tired when you fall asleep with your iPad mini on your chest :-)

Shortly after 5p, we were getting out of the van and standing in front of a small shop. The sight of dozens of pieces of lacquerware, displayed on shelves, was enough to tell me where I was.

I have had my eye on Burmese lacquerware for literally decades.  The first pieces I ever saw were in the home of a former Burmese colleague of mine.  Over the years, she has gifted me several pieces as well so I have a few to call my own.

The art of lacquerware originally came from China in the 1st century AD and Bagan is considered to be the center of the craft in Myanamar.  Long before arriving into Myanmar, I had already decided that if I find something I like in Bagan, I will buy it.  You can imagine how excited I was to be coming to a workshop.

Miu handed us over to one of the salesgirls who took us on a tour of the place, educating us on the process of creating lacquerware, along the way.

Our tour of the workshop began in the basement.


The shelves were lined with dozens of bowls, plates, boxes, etc. that were all coated in something black.  These are pieces that are ready for the decoration phase.


Back upstairs, we started at the beginning of the process which is the coiling of strips of bamboo to create the shape of the object.  Traditionally extraordinary fine lacquerware bowls are produced with a combination of horsehair and bamboo to make them very lightweight and flexible.  I presume the knockoffs are made with plastic so I was glad to see the core of the lacquerware being made here was bamboo.



Next step is to apply the lacquer paste to the bamboo form.  This is done in several layers with each layer being allowed to dry completely before the next application.  The lacquer paste is a mixture of the sap from the Thitsi tree (Melanorrhoea usitata), that grows wild in the forests of Myanmar, and ash.  The sap is straw-colored but turns black on exposure to air.


The result are the pieces we saw on the shelves in the basement.  There they are allowed to cure for some period before the artists take them to be etched and decorated.

We then headed upstairs and paused  in front of some shelves where there was a display of cups in various stages of production.  The top shelf showed the stages of the lacquer paste application process.  The bottom shelf showed cups in the phases of etching and painting.


In a large but very hot and humid work space, men and women were hard at work etching and painting  pieces.


These poor folks were working, hunched over their pieces of art.  I can imagine how tiring this must be on your neck.  The steady control needed to hold the etching tool in place is something that reflects years of still.


In the photo below, it's hard to see the etched lines, against the black of the lacquer, but trust me when I say it's very fine, detailed work!


After the pieces are etched and painted, they polished to a smooth finish and placed on the shelves in the showroom.

After our tour, we were let loose in the showroom.  I was like a kid in candy shop.  Oh....so many beautiful pieces but I had to find something that was reasonably priced and that I could carry as we still have 10 days to go in Myanmar.  I had a hard time deciding what to get but I finally settled on a good sized, green, square shaped, shallow sided bowl that I figure I can use to serve cold food on.

A very simple but I think elegant pattern.

The sales lady did mention that the bowl can hold hot foods but I think I will only use my for cold stuff.  Of course, it is not dishwasher safe and I more than willing to handwash my piece of art.  I don't want to risk ruining it especially after having seen how much effort it takes to produce a piece like this. 

Ayşe also bought a small piece.  She, too, could not resist :-)  The only one that left the place empty handed was Bro and well, that was expected.  He hasn't bought anything on his travels since our trip to Guatemala in 2010.

Next, it was time to head off to see the sun set.  Miu took us to the most popular spot in all of Bagan - Shwesandaw Pagoda.

We arrived at the pagoda shortly after 6p and there were already dozens, literally dozens of people positioned on the west terrace.  There were quite a few of tripods set up as well.  While Bro and Ayşe opted to join the crowds, I stayed at ground level.  I was not keen in getting in with the crush.  Besides, I'm not all that great in taking photos of sun set and I was happy to just capture views from the parking lot.



I snapped a few photos of some of the lesser pagodas against the setting sun.




As the sun disappeared down the horizon, I was soon surrounded by a swarm of people - the tourists were leaving.  I walked back to wait for Bro and Ayşe to descend.  I spotted Bro and Ayşe was close behind him.


Back at the hotel, we took a short walk along the promenade that runs alongside the river before heading to the hotel restaurant for dinner.


The bungalows, situated alongside the promenade walk, had direct views of the river.  After sun set, the temperature drops to a very comfortable level and the porches on these bungalows would be perfect spots to just sit and relax.

Somewhere along this walk, I also *snipped* a twig of plumeria for Bro.  He jumped at the sound of the twig snapping as he was not expecting me to pick it.  I am feeding his habit.  I hope he appreciates it :-)


View of the river and beyond from our dinner table.  That speck of light in the far distance is the pagoda atop Mount Popa.

After dinner, Bro cut up a yellow fleshed watermelon that he had bought from a roadside vendor.  Sweet and juicy, it was the perfect dessert to end our meal with.



Tomorrow, we have a short road trip planned. It will be nice to get out of town for a day!

Goodnight from Bagan!