© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Pathein: the spirit of Irrawaddy

3 minutes to read

A lovely town with notable colonial spirit, Pathein would be worth a visit just for the generally relaxed feel. Then again, the same could be said about almost any settlement in Myanmar. But in addition to the usual temples, quiet streets and typical Burmese lifestyle, it is also the center of traditional parasol production, among other crafts. This is also the urban hub of the Irrawaddy delta, a wet, swampy region crisscrossed by channels and streams. A walk by the river is a good chance to observe its livelihood, centered on boat trade. The vicinity of Pathein is lush and tropical, with farmland and moist jungle replacing each other in a jolly pattern of greenery. One specific attraction just south of town is an elephant camp - once established for logging, nowadays converted into a tourist sight. 

Around the town

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

There is the usual assortment of Buddhist temples around Pathein. All are predictably beautiful and relaxed, some have historical significance, although none is exactly exceptional. The most interesting is probably Shwemoktaw Paya, resembling the great Shwedagon Pagoda of Yangon. Bonus: it is much older (according to unproven local claims, it was initially built by Emperor Ashoka, the famous Indian king and a devout supporter of Buddhism, more than two millennia ago), and free to enter, unlike Shwedagon. But while temples may contain Pathein's spirit, its heart - or at least its aorta - is the river Irrawaddy. Walk the length of the riverside promenade, and on, along the roads leading out of town, to witness its pulsation: barges unloading vegetables and loading freshly baked pottery, kids swimming under the overhanging banyan trees, men repairing and patching boats of every size and purpose in makeshift dry docks. Closer to the city center, a number of cafes with balconies overlooking the river offer cheap beer and snacks - a perfect place to watch the sunset.

Parasol making

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Like any town in Myanmar, Pathein is full of craftsmen's workshops, but one art is a local specialty: the manufacture of traditional parasols. Some of the families involved in this business have been making them for more than two centuries. Historically, parasols were made of paper, but nowadays, silk and even linen are occasionally used. The entire production cycle is manual, from cutting the bamboo or wood for handles to hand-painting the canopy. All types of parasols are created: plain - for daily use (although few people still use these, admittedly), red - for Buddhist monks, adorned with flowers and ornaments - for festivals. Most guidebooks, for whatever reason, point at Shwe Sar workshop, but in fact, there is no difference - just come to the artisans' quarter and visit them one by one. You could also buy a parasol, but they make rather bulky souvenirs and cannot be used as umbrellas - they are not waterproof.

Shwe Sar parasol workshop, Pathein
Shwe Sar parasol workshop, Pathein
QPRW+W8V, Koethein Ward, Myanmar (Burma)

Thitgatoeaing elephant camp

© Istock/Thirawatana Phaisalratana
© Istock/Thirawatana Phaisalratana

Irrawaddy delta plains around Pathein are thickly forested and used to be a prime logging area. This was done with the help of trained elephants. After the ban on teakwood logging, many of the elephant camps have been converted into tourist attractions. The nearest such place is Thitgatoeaing Camp, about an hour's drive from the town. The programs on offer are quite standard: posing with elephants, swimming with elephants, bathing the elephants, and of course, riding the elephants. While animal rights activists fervently brand this activity as unethical, claiming that the poor pachyderms are tortured to break their spirit, let's be realistic: tamed animals cannot be released into the wild, elephants are costly pets to keep, and penniless mahouts definitely cannot afford to have them for fun. With the logging jobs out of the picture, carrying tourists on joy rides (a much lighter burden than a felled tree) is the only way the animals can earn their living - otherwise, they are history, or more likely, ivory. 

Thitgatoeaing elephant camp
Thitgatoeaing elephant camp
RF5W+CW5, Pathein, Myanmar (Burma)

The author

Mark Levitin

Mark Levitin

I am Mark, a professional travel photographer, a digital nomad. For the last four years, I am based in Indonesia, spending here roughly half a year and travelling around Asia for the other half. Previously, I spent four years in Thailand, exploring it from all perspectives.

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