Saturday, June 27, 2009

Ananda Festival Market

The Ananda Festival draws hundreds of monks. People from villages all over travel in for the event. For most, this is the biggest gathering of people all year and they make a real event of the festival. Whole families pile into ox carts and move in for the week. Villages travel together and set up makeshift camps all around the Ananda temple. The place has a medieval feel to it.

This huge influx of people attracts business, of course, and a temporary market becomes the center of attention for the week. A large boulevard extends from the temple entrance. Shops set up on either side and the center is filled with mats upon which vendors lay their goods.

Branching from the central boulevard are several corridors of vendors neatly lined up on the parched grass and sandy soil. The stalls are made almost entirely of bamboo. Poles support woven mat walls and roofing. By mutual consent, the vendors extend their roofs over the center of the corridors to provide a shady walk for shoppers.
On the east side of the market, carnival rides and theatrical performances provide entertainment for all ages. Restaurants line the south side of the market, but food stalls are scattered here and there all around. There are numerous fruit and vegetable vendors on the west side, closest to the road.

All day, and well into the evening, villagers walked between their encampments and the market hauling water, purchases or supplies. The women typically carried their items balance on their heads.

The most popular category of mercantile goods is clothing. Everything from coats to underwear, from hats to sandals are on sale in scores of vendor stalls throughout the market. Many of the products are recognizable brands. They're mostly knockoffs but I suspect some are imperfect goods sent over from Thai, Chinese and Malaysian factories. Most of the t-shirts were emblazoned with English phrases; something I saw all over South East Asia.

The second most popular is manufactured goods, mostly kitchenware and farming implementation. Pots and pans and kitchen knives shared space with shovels and watering cans and oil lamps. The quality of the metallurgy was poor, but it got the job done for a price the locals could afford. I was quite surprised to have encountered one very large stall selling large electric appliances including air conditioners, generators and refrigerators.

Fabric vendors displayed assortments of brilliant cloth bolts and ever-popular terrycloth towels. Burmese women tend toward the more colorful patterns while the men stick with subdued earth tones. A few of the more entrepreneurial vendors had set up tailoring services beside the fabric stalls. Buy your cloth and have a longyi sewed while you wait. This enterprising young woman was kept busy all day at work on her sewing machine.

It was the locally produced items that interested me the most. Woven basket goods were the most predominant. Although labor intensive, the raw material is abundant. Whole sections of the market were packed with baskets, trays and boxes. The boxes were my favorite, although crude in comparison to the more elaborate items, I appreciated their simplicity and functionality.

Woven mats took up the most space. These were arranged by size and style, laid out in several vendor stalls.

The villagers took their time choosing the one appropriate to their needs. They'd roll them up and carry them off to their camp. They'd end up as flooring, walls or roofs.

There were also plenty of ceramic products. While I liked crude animal figurines and vases, the most spectacular sight was located in the north west section of the market. Hundreds of huge water cisterns were laid out on the ground. Each one was large enough to conceal a large man. I watched many men wander through the selection and taping the gigantic pots to identify the best one.

In addition to the "official" stalls located in the market, there were numerous freelance merchants hawking easily moved items. I noticed this young woman in several locations one day. She would lay out a small worn piece of nylon tarpaulin and lay out her supply of tanaka wood and patiently wait for a customer. After a while she'd pack everything into her little bag and move on to a different spot.

There were some rather curious things for sale in the market. Some I quite expected, like a couple of music shops - except they were selling cassette tapes. I had seen poster shops quite frequently and these prove a fascinating cultural window. To add some color into the homes of the locals, they buy posters of various sizes. They are typically portraits of Burmese movie stars or singers, but there are some curious anomalies.For some reason, tennis star Maria Sharapova and pop star Avril Lavigne posters were everywhere.

Of course the whole purpose of the Ananda gathering is to support the temple and the monks, so it's not surprising to see monks wandering among the stalls during the day. Occasionally I'd see older men with their heads bowed as they walked, and sometimes young monks in tow behind a solemn master. More often it was just boys being boys. I don't recall ever seeing any of them in the evening but they frequently visited the movie theater to escape the heat of the sun. I suspect that most of them had never seen a movie before.

Of course the festival attracts plenty of tourists, but not nearly as many as you'd expect. Most tourists explore the temples and pagodas and don't spend much time in the market. Tour groups do come in but they're usually led by a hotel guide. It was fun to watch some of the younger locals practising their English with the foreign visitors.

At the end of the festival, the villagers pack up their belongings and make their way home.

See more photos here!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Bagan Monastery

I didn't want to go back to Nuang U, knowing they had no power, and I didn't really want to go romping about the temples during the mid day period. I asked my horse cart driver where else I could go to take photos. He suggested a nearby monastery and I gladly accepted his suggestion. Despite seeing more than a lifetime's supply of monks at the Ananda festival, I figured I could get some great shots of monks at their studies. I didn't see a monk anywhere near the place. Presumably they were all at the festival.

Of course what I did see was vendors. Vendors seem to inhabit every corner of Bagan and this monastery was no exception. No sooner had I crawled off the horse cart when three teens ran up to show me their selection of shirts for sale. They were lovely hand-made shirts made from a fabric that looked like course linen. It always breaks my heart to say no to them because I know how few sales they make. Furthermore, their crafts are nearly always delightful and really are wonderful souvenirs. I begged off the girls and made my way into the monastery.

The floors of ancient structure were worn smooth by generations of bare monk feet. The teak walls, banisters and beams were intricately carved with patterns and monkey, bird and floral motifs. Those areas exposed to decades of relentless sun were badly worn, the grain distinctly raised, though the carvings were still quite apparent.

The interior was fairly typical in that it consisted of a few large open areas. The monks would typically gather around the Buddha image in the center or go off to the various corners to study. I found it curious that the builders had taken the time to carve some of the crossbeams supporting the ceiling but the vertical timbers remained untouched.

In one area I saw several lacquered and carved caskets whose purpose remains a mystery.

Back outside, I decided to wander around in case there were other things to see. I knew I was near the river and noticed a large staircase platform, no doubt leading to the bank. As I started toward it, my teenage vendors spotted me and rushed over to see if now I was ready to buy a shirt. "No. Thank you. I don't need a shirt." I walked down to the river and did a double take when I discovered the old paddle wheel steamboat (see Baking in Nuang U). The girls followed me all the way down and waited for my return. "Aren't you afraid you're going to miss a customer?" I asked them. They assured me that I was the only customer today and that they had no sales and only wanted small money. Sigh. They continued their pitch as we climbed the stairs.
Once I had convinced them that I really didn't want a shirt, they decided that I should buy one for a family member. I assured them I was an orphan. Wife? Girlfriend? I told them I was single but I was looking for a girlfriend. "You want to be my girlfriend?" I said with a grin and wagging my eyebrows for effect. They laughed but one of them quickly found the chink in my armor.

"OK! I be girlfriend for you. You buy shirt and give to me!" she squealed in delight. Hoisted by my own petard!
This carried on until we were back to the monastery. I told them that I did want souvenirs but I had to travel light and that I didn't want to buy so many things. I explained that I took a lot of photos and at one point I likened it to souvenirs that were free. My "girlfriend" lit up at this and said she would give me a good souvenir. She picked up a small stone from the ground and solemnly handed it to me. "Ah, this is very valuable, yes?" I asked. She nodded and the other two laughed.

They wouldn't give up with the shirts no matter what I did. Finally, I decided I'd throw them a low-ball offer, five dollars. They'd started the negotiations at fifteen or twenty dollars but figured they'd settle for ten. There was no way they'd go for five. When I announced my offer they all grinned and nodded in agreement. Oh well, I guess I could use one more shirt. I settled on a black short-sleeve shirt that looked like it would do well in a hot climate. It turned out that I was to wear that shirt a lot during my journeys. It was one of the best purchases I'd made on the trip.

When I got back to the horse cart, I had a couple more vendors waiting to pounce. Presumably my driver had been gossiping to the local gem dealers. He had seen me looking at a ruby at our last location and assumed that I was in the market for a gem. I had turned down the previous guy and did so again to these fellows. I know nothing about gems and knew that I was going to get ripped off no matter what. It's much better to just walk away. They continued with their sales pitch while I made arguments against the purchase. They had two cut and polished stones. "I don't know if that rock is valuable" I insisted. They assured me that it really was valuable. I remembered what I had in my pocket and pulled it out. "I'll trade you this valuable stone for that valuable stone." They looked at the stone given to me earlier, looked at me and then looked at each other. "Is valuable. Sure!" They gave me a lopsided smile and continued to extol the virtues of the rubies.

One of them took the ruby and held it against a large flat rock on the ground. He hefted a grapefruit size rock and smashed it down on the ruby. It was no delicate knock but a full-out bash. The ruby pulverized part of the rock but was unblemished. OK, even not knowing anything about gems, I was impressed. They had started out at around a hundred and fifty bucks for both gems, but were down to fifty by now. "Ten bucks" I said as I started to put my gear in the horse cart. They dropped to thirty-five then thirty then twenty-five then twenty. Maybe I could have gotten it for fifteen, but twenty seemed like a reasonable price for a couple of rubies even if I was getting ripped off. I wrapped them in a piece of paper and stashed it in my camera bag. A few weeks later I showed them to a dealer in Laos. He said they were worth about fifty bucks there. Hey, not bad!

Just before I left, another lone tourist arrived. "Listen," I told him. "When the girls show up to sell you a shirt, offer to trade this for one." I handed him the stone the girl had given me. He looked at me quizzically. "Trust me, you'll get a huge laugh from them."

See full size images here.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Rickety Ferris Wheel

The Ananda Festival market has all the trappings of a carnival with beer halls and side shows and cotton candy and towering above it all, a Ferris wheel. It didn't look like much during the day, but it gave me ample opportunity to see how it was put together. I'm glad it's not bigger than it is; I noticed a crucial piece of equipment was missing.

Arriving after sunset, I was pleased to see the whole thing lit up. It made for some interesting shots like this one (made with multiple images stacked one upon the other).

They really get the thing going fast, but this time exposure makes it look like it's about to take off.

I estimate that the wheel is a good ten meters high at the top. Not bad for something they haul around in the back of a truck. I could find no marking to indicate the age of the device, but it was certainly bordering on antique status.

What really piqued my interest was the lack of a drive mechanism; it had no motor. I couldn't figure out what they did to get it turning. When I saw the wheel in action that evening, the solution was obvious. Half a dozen young men climbed up into the framework and crawled out to one edge of the wheel to counterbalance the people getting on. That would get it started. They'd jump off and join their friends on the ground pushing the wheel as it went by.

Stopping the wheel was simply a matter of letting it slow down. If they didn't have customers right away, it was easy enough to get the first few people off, but then the wheel wanted to swing around. This required the boys to hang on until the next few people got off. They certainly had their work cut out for them!

No, was not the least bit tempted to go for a ride.

See larger images here.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Nomadic Movie Theater

One of the big annual events on the Bagan plain is the Ananda Festival (more about this in another post). It draws villagers from all over, therefore it also draws vendors from all over, to an ad-hoc market. One of the more interesting makeshift market structures was an enormous hall made entirely of bamboo polls supporting woven matting. It towered above the regular market stalls. It was obvious what it was as the sides of the building were festooned with movie posters. At the entrance, a display provides a list of the various movies being shown. I didn't see any indication of the time each movie was being shown, but people were coming and going through the entrance.

I was very curious to see this woven bamboo mat theater from the inside. Seeing my camera equipment, the doorman waved me though and stepped through the light baffling entrance-way. Inside, a domestic TV crew had just finished taping a story.

My eyes soon adjusted to the dim light and I could clearly look around the interior. It was most certainly not dark inside, but the overhead matting cut out enough light to allow the movie projection. A few large vinyl movie posters hung on the inside wall helped reduce the light filtering through the bamboo structure near the screen. The patrons sat on floor mats and watched the screen.

The movie was a locally produced drama. It was surprising well done from what I could see. It had the same production values as the TV shows I had seen.

Looking around, I knew the place could not cater to a blockbuster movie (although it would hold a lot of people). Of course, it wasn't supposed too. I read about how back in the fifties people used to go to movies just to escape the heat. This place is pretty much the same thing. People here were just getting out of the sun and lounging. While most people watched the screen, some spoke quietly or even read the paper in the dim light. One monk used the occasion to play his hand-held game.

After watching for a little while, I was determined to see the source of this moving picture and went through another light baffling system to get to the projection room. Here, three antique movie projectors were mounted on a platform raised about three feet from the ground. As they clattered away, they projected the movie through small holes cut in the matting. Wires connecting the sound system and the power ran every which way.The technicians operating the system would lounge for several minutes then pounce on one of the projectors to make adjustments to it. They required a considerable amount of attention.

Ever inspired by this land of working antiques, I tried to find some information on the projectors. The oldest model is labeled "The Regal Kalee Type NL" while I could not make out the more recent projectors. I know the Kalee model was used in the second world war and would not be at all surprised if this unit had been used to entertain the troops in those days.

On the way out, I took some time to see how the place was actually constructed. The builders used a series of booms to hold up the cross braces supporting the ceiling. There were no nails. Everything was held together using strips of bamboo twine. An impressive feat for those of us all to familiar with prefabricated structures.

See larger photos here.