Thursday, March 18, 2010


Academy Award nominated documentary

I was happy to see that BurmaVJ was nominated for an Academy Award for documentary. The movie follows the protests by Buddhist monks in the dramatic days of 2007 against a repressive and brutal regime. A military dictatorship has ruled Burma with an iron fist since it overturned the vote of the people that elected Aung San Suu Kyi. She has been under house arrest since 1990. Burma, or Myanmar, is an extremely poor, but very diverse nation comprising 135 ethnic groups. The U.S. has sanctions in place against Burma to push the government toward liberalization, but this has not been effective. The country is rich in resources such as timber, oil, and gems, with China as their major trading partner. For many years travelers have been asked to avoid Burma travel to pressure the regime to make positive changes. We feel that personal interaction, even in countries like Burma, can only help rather than hinder progress. Travelers can be good ambassadors. For this reason we decided to see the country for ourselves in 2001.

When visiting Burma over a century ago, Rudyard Kipling thought it “quite unlike any land you know about.” How right he was!

We have purchased Burmese antiques and artifacts for our Denver Design District showroom for many years. Burmese artisans create wonderful objects, many of which are used for religious ceremonies and are prized by collectors around the world. This year we visited a fabulous Burmese exhibit at the Asian Museum in San Francisco, acquired from Doris Duke’s private collection. The picture above shows red-lacquered hsun-oks, or offering containers, on top of decorative gong circle panels.

We started our adventure in Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon. The Governor’s Residence Hotel by Orient Express, was built in the 1920’s. Burma still contains more colonial style buildings than anywhere else in Asia. A pool is a must after a hard day of traveling as it is brutally hot and humid!

The most sacred Buddhist Pagoda in Burma is Shwedagon. It is an absolute wonder of construction and design. The foundation stone was said to be laid by the Mons over 2500 years ago. The crown is covered with over 5400 diamonds and 2300 rubies. On the tip is a 76 carat diamond. The stupa is covered in gold plates.

Burmese people are very religious and practice Theravada Buddhism like Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Sri Lanka. Nats, or spirits, are worshipped along side Buddhism. Astrology and numerology are very important as well. No shoes or socks are permitted in the temple.

We were very lucky to witness a series of novitiate ceremonies at the Shwedagon Pagoda. Every Burmese boy between 7 & 13 is expected to enter the monastery for a period of a week, months, or even years. The ceremony is the most important day in a boy’s life. Notice that many men and women are wearing traditional “longyis” or sarongs.

A young novitiate is carried by his family into the temple. The boy’s cheeks are decorated with thanaka, which is a powder ground from tree bark. It is commonly used by men & women as a sun protection, decoration, and to cool the skin.

We traveled to Bago, a city colonized by the Mons. The reclining Buddha at the Shwethalyaung temple is the longest in Burma at 179 feet.

A young girl sells watermelon.

During auspicious temple ceremonies villagers arrive with their ox carts. The ox cart is like a Burmese SUV. People are taking a respite under their carts from the unrelenting sun.

The first thing you notice while traveling in Burma are the friendly, smiling people. I was amazed at how happy and curious they were by our presence.

Smiling boys in the market.

A vendor suggested that Marla should put on some thanaka.

Marla commanded quite a crowd.

An outdoor meat market in Bago.

The monk was lost in thought as he finished gathering alms for his monastery.

An elephant comes to town!

Young children at the playground with thanaka on their faces. Note the circular style of the Burmese writing.

A young monk returns to his temple with his lacquered alms bowl. The fan is used to protect from the hot sun.

A Mon handweaver works on cloth for a sarong.

I hope you enjoyed this journey to a most unusual country. Please join me next week as we search for interesting & exciting products to sell in our Denver showroom from around the world. In the weeks ahead we will travel to rural Japan searching for tansu chests, cold warehouses in Holland, attics in France, markets and artisans in Bali, Thailand, and Laos.

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” Martin Buber

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