Burma cottage industries – a few photos and descriptions from our Burma (Myanmar) tours.
Guide: “Ok, next I’ll take you to visit some people who make rubber bands”.
“Really?! And that’s interesting to see is it?” (It’s hot, the ‘roads’ are appalling and I’m carting around heavy camera gear.)
Guide. “Yes – everybody likes it”.
(Not convinced) “Errr ok then – so you always take tourists to see rubber bands do you?”
Guide: “Sure, it’s really good – have a quick look and if you don’t like it we’ll go somewhere else..”
The guide was under-selling the ‘rubber band experience’: it was fascinating! This was on Bilu Island, (Ogre Island), off Moulmein, (Mawlamyine) South Burma, renowned as a centre for traditional Mon culture and handicrafts and we’d already seen; the bamboo hat-making, wooden pipe manufacturing and the sort of slate-writing board fabrication your grandparents may just about have used at school, (if they’re really old!) The elastic bands were the best of the lot!
Admittedly we had know conception of how they were actually made, and to be honest prior to this visit, very little interest but what you see is the entire manufacturing process from raw latex fresh off the rubber tree to piles of brightly coloured bands – all in a family’s back yard. Furthermore, since this part of Burma sees relatively few foreign visitors the locals were still enthusiastic to show me around and you can then of course document the entire process from start to finish – if that is your photographic bent – and….there was absolutely nothing to buy!
Local handicrafts or cottage industries feature heavily on many Burmese destinations’ itineraries: the lacquer-ware of Bagan, cheroot rolling and silk weaving of Inle Lake and parasol making of Pindaya or Pathein for instance and some of these are pure commercial pretexts whilst at others, you’ll be completely incidental to a genuine work process. Broadly speaking the more popular a destination is then the more ‘packaged’ and commercial these things will be, (e.g. some of the silk makers of Inle now have VISA cards outside a/c showrooms), but at the end of the day it doesn’t mean they can’t still be interesting and no-one is going to force you to buy anything.
Many of these Burma cottage industries do utilise time-honoured methods to hand craft items or products that even in the rest of Southeast Asia are these days made in factories.
These visits are undoubtedly good for the local economy and even if you’re not buying anything you’re still paying a tuk-tuk driver to take you there or the noodle lady next door for lunch and in the case where they have nothing to sell the guide will still leave a small compensation for their time and patience. They can provide great opportunities for interaction with the local people as well as plenty of photographic possibilities, so don’t poo poo the rubber bands!