Sunday, January 24, 2010

Craft workshops of Inle Lake

While the people living on Inle Lake primarily fish and grow vegetables, there is a thriving crafts trade as well.

One of my favorites is silk spinning. Much of the raw silk is brought in from China (and possibly Thailand). On the lake it is dyed and woven into scarves and shawls. The silk weaving shops are easy to find; the sounds of the large looms can be easily heard from the canals. Once you've heard the rhythmic wooden clack of the loom, you'll not forget it. The weavers also tended to be in large wooden structures (as opposed to the more prevalent bamboo buildings found everywhere on the lake).

Young women typically operate the looms while the crones spin the dyed silk on to spools (note the old bicycle wheel).

Inle has another type of silk - lotus silk. The stems of the lotus flower are cut and a fine silk thread is pulled from its core. The resulting result is a brownish thread that, when woven, looks like fine burlap. The texture, however, is that of raw silk. This fabric is typically used to create monks robes or ceremonial wraps for the Buddha images.

I was rather keen to posses the fabric - I could imagine myself in a lotus silk monk's robe - but they had none in stock. They did have simple scarves, however. Once I learned the price (over sixty dollars), I decided to go with a tasteful silk design (as modeled by the shop clerk here).

The village of Ywama, in addition to its famed floating market, is home to a number of cheroot shops. These rough looking green stogies are individually rolled by young women sitting on straw mats.

The cut tobacco is placed in a shallow basket on their laps. They take the green wrapper, rolled in white paper, and stuff it with the loose leaf before tamping it down, trimming it with industrial-strength scissors and folding over the ends.

The finished cheroots are packed into bundles of ten, fifty or even a hundred, then sent off to market.

The non-touristic cheroot shop is a very relaxed set-up, with women sitting haphazardly. The tourist cheroot "factory" is quite orderly with walls lined with souvenirs and fancy wooden boxes stuffed with row upon row of stogies.

I have to admit that the tourist shop had much better lighting conditions for the photographer, if not for the workers.

I see boats of all sorts in South East Asia. Most of them look like they've been around for decades (if not centuries!). So it was a surprise to find a shipyard (to use the term loosely) that built longboats for Inle. They start with long logs about a foot in diameter. A team of men, one above and one below, saw the logs in to rough but straight planks. Different carpenters carve the planks and form them into a boat. The unpainted craft is splendid. It's a pity they're all painted black (although some have red or green trim). It never occurred to me to ask why all the large boats on the lake were black.

Another common craft on the lake is silver-smithing. There are a few in Ywama village. The shop I visited specialized in an articulated fish (intended as necklace, charm or earring). These shops are also the best place to get money changed. The shops are usually one quarter smithy and three-quarters display case. The pieces are typically rich in filigree - and set at prices for tour-group tourists.

One of my favorite crafts of Inle is the old fashion blacksmith. I saw no full-size forges on my travels, but the market usually has one stall set up with a true smith. The bellows consists of two bamboo cylinders with plungers made of chicken feathers. By moving them in rhythm, the bellows produce a steady air flow into the small furnace where the smith prepares his metal. His anvil is a cylinder of steel wedged into a log.

While walking near the lake one afternoon, I heard the distinct putt-putt-putt of a single stroke gas engine. It sounded like an ancient fishing boat, but I was too far from the water. Making my way through a bamboo grove, I discovered a small sugar mill.

Hand cranked cane juice extractors can be found all over South East Asia, but this was the first time I'd seen an industrial process like this. The sugar water was fed into a series of bamboo vats. The liquid boiled in the first then is routed to the next in a cascading series. Once it's reduced to a certain degree, the thin syrup is poured into a metal drum.

The whole process is powered by the dried out remains of the crushed sugar cane. A metal pole is used to shove the fiber into the small furnace that boils the liquid.

There were so many more craft workshops to visit, but there simply was not enough time. On my next trip I intend to see the straw weavers, potters and wood carvers at work.

See more photos here.

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