2015
06.03

TWANTE

More village life and more pagodas.  Exploring the vicinity of Yangon by motorbike with Tommy.   About a snake temple and a pottery village.   About gas prices and a potter’s income.

I crossed the Yangon River once more.  This time I knew the routine and was not surprised when I was approached by an English-speaking young man who offered me his services.  This time I even had a plan: I wanted to see TwanteBut this time my supposedly future guide and driver was just a middle man!  He tried to sell me off to another driver who did not speak English.  I refused and was rescued by Tommy, an English-speaking motor biker whom I chose to go with.

Twante is about a 45-minute ride from Yangon and it houses one of the more important ancient stupas I had studied about in a distant art history course with my beloved professor Virginia Kane.  I did not have great expectations as far as the “old” was concerned.  By now I knew that it would have been plastered over beyond recognition by layers and layers of new.  Why does it stand out in importance amongst the hundreds of stupas around?  You guessed it!  It contains yet two more hairs of the Buddha.  🙂

Perhaps I would have skipped it if it were not for two more sites along the way that interested me:  A snake temple and a pottery village.  So, if you suffer from ophidiophobia, you might want to stop right here.

In the middle of a small fishing pond sits the Mwe Paya, a circular temple approachable by four causeways.  The central temple is no bigger than 12-15 feet in diameter.  An artificial tree “grows” in the center and at first sight there seems nothing strange about it.  Beneath the tree you have your typical Buddhist sculptures seated in a circle, and a monk is present who accepts donations.  But then you look again, and in between the figures a huge anaconda snake has found a place to rest.  There are pieces of shed skin dangling from the tree, and the branches are covered with heads and tails and everything in between those 12-foot creatures.  And the more you look, you will find a small snake head sticking out from a blanket on the floor right next to the monk, and one who sneaked up into an open window and one who was going to make its way out of the door!  There were at least ten of them, lazy and slow moving.  Since time immortal, the monks have been feeding these snakes and they have become a fixture here.  Festivals are held in honor of these snakes and monks show off at special times with these snakes wrapped around their necks.  What a curiosity!

After a refreshing cup of hot and sweet milk tea, we went on to the Shwedagon, which lived up to every one of my expectations.  It was a slow day at the pagoda.  That made for a quiet, outer worldly serenity at the shrine.  There wasn’t a sound other than the birds, and since the spire was under construction there wasn’t even a jingle of the bells you typically hear from the top.  You could just get lost in the golden spires.  It was a sunny and hot day. The marble around the pagoda, which I had only experienced everywhere else as dangerously wet and slippery, today was boiling hot.  I ran from one shady spot to the next and could only wonder how hot these tiles would be in 45 degree heat [113°F] (today was only 32).  Why on earth would you tile the floors of your most important monuments with marble when in the rainy season that material turns into a death trap and the rest of the year it burns the worshipper’s feet?!  This is beyond me.  Usually, local materials make so much sense.  Who came up with this?

The highlight of the day was a visit in Oh-Bo village where four big bamboo sheds occupy the center of town.  Each of them is a pottery barn where several potters work with their assistants.  I arrived during midday when most of them had left for lunch, but I was able to observe a brother-sister team making pots.

Just for me, the potter showed off four of the smaller types of vessels he regularly makes.   This village supplies most of the region with offering bowls, flower pots, water pots and huge storage containers more than 2 feet in diameter and about 3 feet tall.

Of the pots you see in my pictures, he has to make 100 to be paid $5!  Speaking of wages: when you compare that to the $8 per hour, my trishaw guy was getting from me yesterday, you get a sense of the scam he was trying to pull when he attempted to double the hours on top of that!  A decent wage is about $3-5 per hour for manual labor plus expenses, e.g., gas in case of a taxi.  Gas by the way is nearly as expensive as in the States!  How anyone can afford it is beyond me.

For those of you interested in pottery, I will try to attach a video clip here.

VIDEO:

The wheel was actually lowered into the ground.  The potter himself would turn it slowly with his heel when he was applying decorative marks to the rim of a vessel, for example.  But his assistant would turn the wheel when he would first coil and then pull a pot.  His assistant also prepared strips of big coils for him which he used to start off a pot.

Clay is found locally and mixed with bamboo shards and some other solids (did the guide explain that right?) and water to create the right consistency.  Then a big “pie” is arranged on the floor from which the assistant forms the coils. Large areas of the shed are filled with the wood needed for firing.  A permanent and open kiln sits in the middle of the workshop and a slow-burning fire is kept going.  Pots seem to take a couple of days in the firing process, but I am not sure about that.  Our communication had its limits.

The potter and his sister were a well-synced and experienced team.  She had just the right amounts of materials ready for him to get going, carried the pots away to dry out, and turned his wheel when he needed it.  Together and on a good day they can produce upward of 150 pots.  That would give them combined a $7 wage for the day…

Humbled once again, I left, not without noticing the clay pile at the entrance of the workshop, topped with a tree branch:  An altar to the Nat who is watching over the craftsmen.

A huge rain shower grounded my driver and me in yet another tea shop.  I don’t mind.  Showers that come and go are good.  But there is another 10 day storm in the forecast where it is anyone’s guess if the rain will ever let go…  We shall see.

And so went another full day in Yangon.

Good night.