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Posts Tagged ‘Cultural Museum of Ayeyarwady Region

Mission impossible in Pathein

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A few weeks ago I posted a series of photographs from a recent excursion to Pathein. Following is one of the travel stories I wrote as a result of that trip, which was published in the September 29-October 5 edition of The Myanmar Times.


I was sitting in a minivan with three local friends, and we were prowling the streets of Pathein on a mission.

Pathein is the fourth-largest urban area in the country, the capital of Ayeyarwady Region and a lively port at the center of the delta’s rice trade. We were trying to get our hands on a copy of a particular Myanmar-language book that told its history.

We located a cramped bookstore near the Central Market. The owner was familiar with the book, but said no copies were available as the writer had passed away two years ago. Given that the invention of the printing press has, for the past 500 years or so, obviated the need for living authors to crank out freshly handwritten originals, we found this rather odd reasoning.

Still, we soldiered on. Our next stop was the city’s public library, which we found to be unburdened by printed material of any description. An underworked watchman in the lobby informed us that the knowledge-starved citizenry of Pathein had cultivated a habit of borrowing books but not returning them, thereby depleting the collection into nonexistence.

Our last hope was a mysterious cultural museum. It was not listed in the latest edition of Lonely Planet, but I had encountered a passing reference to it (sans address) online. One of my travel companions had heard about it too – from the friend of a friend. But none of the four Patheinians we queried were aware of there being a museum in their town.

Fortune smiled upon us when we noticed a bilingual sign for the Cultural Museum of Ayeyarwady Region as we passed its location on Mahabandoola Road, two blocks up from Strand Road.

The museum, established in 2012, held no books but did boast an array of colorful and copiously illustrated text panels crammed with useful information about the industries for which the area is famous, including paddy cultivation, salt production, mat weaving, halawar cookery and, of course, parasol making.

But the few panels dealing with “history” offered some questionable theories as fact, including the much-debated claim that the Pyu civilization extended into areas of southern Myanmar traditionally rooted in Mon culture.

Another panel sought to impose an ethnic identity upon a 40-million-year-old fossil found near Mandalay, ostensibly proving that “Myanmar started from Myanmar”. This grandiose and insupportable attempt to politicize archaeology dates back to the dark ages of junta rule, and should probably be consigned to the propaganda archives rather than displayed in a museum.

Okay, forget about the history of Pathein.

We departed the museum and decided to spend the rest of the late afternoon taking photographs around the city.

About three minutes after this course of action was agreed upon, rain began pummeling us from the sky and did not stop until 15 minutes after sundown, at which point we managed to get a few shots of the modest nighttime vegetable market along the river. We then retreated to a dimly lit restaurant for agreeably piquant steamed fish and cold beer.

Our goal for the next day was to visit Mawtinsoun Pagoda on the southwestern tip of Ayeyarwady Region.

It’s possible to get there by boat along the Pathein River at a cost of only K3500 for locals and foreigners alike. Such a trip requires an overnight stay near the seaside pagoda before returning to Pathein the following day, and local authorities will call ahead to arrange basic monastic accommodation for travellers.

Unfortunately, our group didn’t have time for an overnight trip, so we took our minivan instead. I had imagined this to involve a simple drive on a straight road through deltaic flatlands, but the outbound trip turned into a five-and-a-half-hour odyssey on a surprisingly twisty, hilly and increasingly bumpy road through the southern reaches of the Rakhine Yoma.

When we arrived at Mawtin Point, there was no town to meet us: The road simply ended at the grey unruly ocean.

The complete lack of facilities was made more surprising by the fact that 30 minutes earlier we had seen a Coca-Cola delivery truck heading back toward Pathein. Despite the bold claim on the side of the vehicle that it was the “real thing”, the mystery of where this delightfully refreshing apparition had originated remained unsolved.

Mawtin Point sports two golden pagodas: Mawtinsoun Pagoda on a hilltop overlooking the sea, and Phaung Daw Oo about 100 metres offshore. The latter is said to mark the spot where King Alaung Sithu – who ruled Bagan from 1113 to 1160, and was renowned for his wide-ranging travels – once berthed his royal barge.


These pagodas teem with activity during the annual Mawtinsoun Pagoda Festival, held in the week leading up to the full moon of the lunar month of Tabaung (February or March). But during our visit we had the wild, beautiful coast to ourselves.

I was tempted to curse the lousy weather as my efforts to take photographs were complicated by ongoing struggles to control my wind-whipped umbrella with one hand while wielding my camera with the other.

But conditions weren’t to blame. It was a pleasant day for walking, and the rain was only annoying insofar as it threatened to ruin my electronic gadgets.

The reality was that I would have enjoyed the pagoda experience to a much greater extent had I not felt obligated to commemorate the experience with my camera, and had I granted myself the freedom to relax, get wet and register the moment in my own memory instead of on an SD card.

But I kept snapping away, at the behest of my 24.1-megapixel slave master, pausing only to light some candles at a shrine under the curious eye of a deaf, elderly pagoda attendant who was happy and helpful in a way that is rarely seen outside of Myanmar.

We descended a steep, narrow stairway from Mawtinsoun and waded out to Phaung Daw Oo along a concrete walkway that was slippery with algae. The footing was rendered even less sure by the steady assault of waves rolling across Mawtin Point from two directions at once – the Bay of Bengal on one side and the Andaman Sea on the other.

Before we departed the coast, we stopped at the lone restaurant onsite, a modest hut with a dirt floor and one item on offer: steamed rice and fried eggs. Our bellies full but unsatisfied, we then hastened back to Pathein at all possible speed, inspired to make the return journey in less than five hours by the promise of a decent dinner and a few bottles of beer.

Our last day in Pathein dawned sunny and bright. As we ate breakfast on the rooftop of Htike Myat San Motel, we could see dozens of white egrets roosting in an expansive tree near the river.

We took advantage of the good weather to buzz around town collecting the photos we had missed on our first day: serene Shwemokhtaw Pagoda, the forest-green façade of St Peter’s Cathedral, the crowded Central Market. At the riverfront, we watched women haul rocks from a barge while men sat nearby playing games.

We also dedicated an hour to wandering around the delightfully surreal environs of Royal Lake Park. Near the entrance were pavilions erected by various government ministries aimed at flaunting their good works to the public. In a strange way, the setup reminded me of the exhibits at Disney World’s EPCOT Center, but less rooted in reality than the dreams trapped inside Walt Disney’s cryogenically frozen head.

I was not disappointed to see that the mouldering government displays were completely ignored by visitors, and that the porticos in front of each pavilion had been commandeered instead by young couples snuggling and whispering behind strategically deployed umbrellas.

Other items of interest at the park included a sculpture of a battle tank made from discarded cans of insect spray; the Bay of Lovers, consisting of a decrepit boardwalk arcing toward a statue of a naked mermaid endowed with bountiful golden breasts; a waterlogged mini-golf course; lakeside cabins from which emanated the banshee wail of daytime karaoke aficionados; and a whimsical graveyard of half-sunken, duck-shaped paddle boats long past their prime.


And of course, we couldn’t leave Pathein without visiting the famous Shwe Sar parasol workshop. Monsoon is the slowest period for the industry, and only a few parasols were being made at the time of our visit. Still, the proprietors went out of their way to accommodate our efforts to photograph their masterful work.

They were also keen to relate the long history of their enterprise: how U Shwe Sar had been the royal parasol maker to King Thibaw but was forced to escape Mandalay after the city was taken over by the British in 1885.

He had fled south along the Ayeyarwady River, eventually settling in Pathein and reestablishing his workshop in his backyard. At first, U Shwe Sar made parasols in exchange for rice, but he later expanded the enterprise into a more viable business that has been passed down to the current generation.

It was a fine, adventurous story that added vitality and context to our workshop visit. The best guidebooks to Pathein, it seems, are still the people themselves. We bade farewell to the city with our photographs taken and our notebooks full, departing for Yangon just before the afternoon rain began to fall.