© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Traditional pottery in Kyaukmyaung, Sagaing Division

3 minutes to read

Few countries can boast as many perfectly preserved traditional crafts as Myanmar. Despite the rapid modernization, many commodities are still produced by hand there, using age-old techniques. Pottery is among the most prominent of those - there are large artisan communities in every corner of the country. And the pottery factories in Kyaukmyaung, Sagaing Division, may be considered double-traditional. In essence, not only the process is entirely manual, but the wares made are also old-school: large water jars, used in households with no plumbing. While easily accessible from Mandalay, the manufactures are never visited by tourists. Burmese people are deservedly known for their hospitality, however, and in off the beaten track locations like this, natural curiosity enhances it. Come and see them at work.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Too good for commerce

The demand for Kyaukmyaung jars in Myanmar is high enough to support four large co-operative manufactures and a changing number of small private workshops. Curiously, one of the main factors undermining this demand is the superior quality of the jars. They are sturdy and durable enough to serve a family for generations, with no need to purchase new ones. It makes you reconsider the common Western policy of making every commodity item a bit flawed and not easy to repair so that you would have to replace it soon, does it not? It is sufficient to say that the pottery business in Kyaukmyaung was on the decline in recent decades (plastic vessels and plumbing contributing to this as well) until the Cyclone Nargis arrived in 2008 and shattered enough of the old jars and newly built piping to kick-start the sales again.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Red and yellow

Pottery craft in Kyaukmyaung has been preserved and developed for centuries. Two types of clay are combined to produce the jars: red from the bottom of Irrawady River, and yellow from a separate natural deposit. The process of manufacturing the vessels is sophisticated and entirely manual. First, half of the jar is thrown on a wheel, usually by two people, since the jars are too big for one man both to spin the wheel and reach into the rising cylinder of clay. Next, it is dried, often by putting hot embers inside the vessel to augment the heat of the sun. The process is then repeated to complete the jar. The glaze is applied with a brush once the clay dries. Finally, the ready items are placed in the kilns and fired with wood. About 80 jars can be fired at once, but since they take a long time to finish, 4 big kilns cope well with the load.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Practicalities

Getting to Kyaukmyaung is relatively straightforward: take a bus or a train from Mandalay to Shwebo town, also in Sagaing Division, that has a few simple hotels. Stay the night, then hire a motorbike taxi to take you to Kyaukmyaung, or hitchhike there. Work in the pottery factories finishes in mid-afternoon, making an overnight stay in Shwebo preferable, but if you have your own wheels, it can be managed as a day trip from Mandalay, too. The artisans are friendly and curious, they have not seen many Western tourists yet, so you can wonder around freely even if you do not speak Burmese - and if you do, they may share a few secrets of their traditional craft.

Kyaukmyaung, Sagaing Division
Kyaukmyaung, Sagaing Division
Kyauk Myaung, 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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