Seeking Shade in Pathein

Pathein, a city located on the Ayeyarwady river delta in Myanmar, makes it into the margins of travel guides in footnotes about stops to make when traveling south to the beach, or in reference to the scattered workshops in the city that produce handmade umbrellas. It is the fourth largest city in Myanmar – a surprising fact given the calm low-density feel of the place (a sharp contrast to the bustling city of Yangon just 190 km to the east). Few buildings reached above three stories, and many facades proudly proclaimed mid-century vintages in dates elevated on their concrete walls.

When I found the first mention of Pathein in a tour guide, there was something that told me I needed to see it for myself. I don’t really know why, but I’ve had a long-term love for umbrellas. There’s something fun about them, I suppose: strong but delicate, functional but beautiful. I like the contrasts they present, the not-quite contradiction there is about them. A few photographs of these umbrella workshops sent me on a string of online searches for information. I quickly found that the city was a little bit more off the beaten path than I was used to, and if I wanted to learn more I was likely going to have to go there and see it for myself.

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The trip to Pathein was straightforward enough: I bought a bus ticket the day before, and only needed to arrive at the station a half hour before departure. Our bus pulled out of the station close to 10:30, a little later than the original 10:00 schedule. We made a few stops along the way to pick up passengers and took a half-hour long lunch break, but other than that experienced no delays. We arrived a little after 3:30, and I wandered along the Strand Road until I found a guesthouse to book for the night.

Wandering around was a nice way to spend part of the afternoon and evening, though it didn’t turn up much in the way of the mysterious umbrellas that brought me on this quasi-pilgrimage. Sometime after the sun had set, I started to feel a little bit dejected. I tried unsuccessfully to find the workshops I had dog-eared when the inspiration for this trip first struck, but none of the addresses were registered by my usually trusty Google Maps. (As a millennial, I am thoroughly dependent on my smartphone in more ways than I like to admit, so this was a horror and made me feel acutely betrayed by technology.)

New days bring opportunities for new runs and new adventures. I’m still working towards a goal of running 50 miles while on vacation (though Yangon has not been a kind city to run in), so I headed out first thing in the morning to explore some side streets and head out towards Kanthonzin Lake. The meandering route that I took led me past a line of Buddhist monks collecting morning donations, a local school, and a public playground. And then, suddenly, I was in front of the Shwe Sar Umbrella Workshop.

I looped back to Shwe Sar to see where the magic happens an hour later, after I had finished my run and taken a much needed shower. I was ushered in and promptly handed a cup of milk tea to welcome me to the workshop. The owner, Ko Min Naung, was happy to answer whatever questions I had and let me poke around and take photos of everything that was going on. He told me that umbrella making was a family trade, and that the business and workshop had been in his family for several generations. He traced the history of the craft to a forefather who worked for the royal family in Bagan, under the last king of Myanmar. Their workshop migrated first to Mandalay and then to Bagan, as the family fled from colonial troops expanding the reach of the British Empire in Asia.

The frame of the umbrella is made entirely out of bamboo, while the top and handle is crafted out of lathe-turned mango wood. The woodworking took place at one end of the workshop, where an enormous machine hummed and spun out curled wood shavings that lifted up in the air and stuck to cobwebs hanging off the corrugated metal walls. I’m sure that my old woodshop teacher would have been taken aback by the machine’s set-up: one part circle-saw, one part lathe, powered by a single cord that dropped from the ceiling and rotated a motor that revolved a rubber fan belt longer than my legs.

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These frames are threaded, and fabric coverings are later added over the ribs. Silks are used for parasols – a more delicate accessory, only intended to protect from the sun and not other elements. Cottons are used to make the canopies for more durable umbrellas, which can be used in both Myanmar’s rainy and dry seasons. The fabrics are painted with different designs – silk parasols were given delicate floral motifs, which Ko Min Naung told me made them popular among visitors from China and Japan.

The cotton umbrellas were decorated with traditionally styled graphic patterns in black and colored washes. I was most interested in these traditional cotton umbrellas for both their aesthetics and multi-purpose functionality – while I was looking around, a number were unfurled in the garden to receive a waterproofing wash, which ranged in size from child-size accessory to patio-sized coverings.

To waterproof these umbrellas, a paste is made from a local variety of a persimmon fruit. While persimmons of a Chinese variety are sweet, pulpy, and popular in various dishes and desserts, I was told that the local cultivars were bitter, firm, and not as frequently used for culinary purposes. The sealant had a slight golden color to it, which spread thin over the umbrellas and gave off a clean familiar smell that was not unlike wood stain.

I couldn’t resist buying one more souvenir (as thoroughly impractical as it will be to get back to Beijing). Ko Min Naung agreed that the blue one that I had been admiring was a good choice, and demonstrated a stoic faced pose for me.

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When it was time to say goodbye, he lit another cigarette and took a few minutes to find a guest book that had accumulated the signatures of a number of visitors to the workshop. He came back with not only the guest book, but also a pair of hand-carved bamboo drinking cups, which he insisted that I take as a gift. (Really, I’m running out of space, and now definitely keeping my fingers crossed that they don’t weigh my backpack at the airport.) Paging through the notebook, I saw a combination of notes in both Burmese and foreign languages – some that I could recognize, some that I couldn’t. I added my own email and my address back in the US, and I’m hoping to stay in touch.

As a final favor, Ko Min Naung insisted on making sure that I get back to the guesthouse without walking or paying for a taxi – so we said our goodbyes and I hopped on the back of a motorbike driven by a family friend who had been sitting around the workshop that morning. As we sped back to the Strand, I couldn’t help but think that it has been a weird, but wonderful, string of events that led me here.

I have to say that traveling to Pathein has undoubtedly been one of the highlights of my time in Myanmar. It gave me an opportunity to have conversations – and not just about umbrellas! As soon as I arrived, we began with easy small talk about how people around the world take their tea, and later about my education in Beijing, my travels thus far this winter, and Ko Min Naung’s family. I was shown a picture on a phone taken of an old photograph, a brother who had moved to America a few decades before and set up a business in Connecticut. I was told that I should visit, next time I was back in the United States. I was told to remember faces, to visit again, and that friends of mine would be welcome whenever they came. It’s wonderful to feel so warmly received, especially at times like this when I am traveling alone.

I’ve spent the last few days bouncing around Yangon, and hope to catch up a bit with writing some more about the places I visited & post some pictures soon. For now, I’ve been putting my finishing touches on this while in the airport, and I intend to post everything tonight when I arrive in my hostel in Ho Chi Minh City. While in Vietnam, I’ll be meeting up with a few more friends from my program, taking some cooking classes, and staying with my cousin Claire! So I’ve definitely got a lot that I’m looking forward to. 🙂

Until the next update, I’m sending you all the best,

Kristen

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