It was a sunny day in Pathein, the capital of Ayeryawaddy division, and the small city was very busy. The area is famous for Chaung Thar Beach, Burmese people favourite beach, which is located just an hour drive away from the city. But Pathein is also famous for a very specific local product, which is well known not only in Myanmar, but internationally as well: Pathein Umbrella. The making of umbrellas in this city is a handicraft art that have been passing from generation to generation for over one thousand years and the production of Pathein umbrellas is still very active.
The reason why it is called Pathein Umbrella is of course because it is mostly produced in Pathein area, but also because the Crown bamboo needed for the make of these handicrafts can only be found around Pathein city. The make of umbrellas in Pathein is a heritage left by craftsmen to the city and to Myanmar as a whole, since it is one of its beautiful symbols.
I have always been very curious about how to make them, but I never had the chance to witness the craftsmen skills. So, in order to learn more about it, I went to visit Myat Kyaung Taw Pathein Umbrella workshop, which is the oldest and biggest Pathein Umbrella Workshop in Pathein.
As I entered the workshop, I found many people active at building these beautiful pieces, all of them taking care of one step in the making of the umbrellas. Can you imagine, there are no less than fifty-four steps to make them! That is much more than your usually industrial umbrella I believe. And since there are so many steps to making Pathein umbrellas, the workshop needs around 100 workers and requires a lot of team work teamwork. I can’t remember all but, the essential raw materials they need are bamboo, fabric, glue and thread. They also need a wood called Ma Oo for the main body of the umbrella and crown bamboo is used for the rest of the parts.
In order for the bamboo to be fit for umbrella production, it needs to be five to fifteen years old and the bamboo is stored for six months after begin cut, in order to draw out all the sugar and bacteria from the bamboo. When the bamboo has rested for six months, it is cut into the appropriate size and boiled into tamarind water in order to get a strong color before the bamboos are smoked.
After this process is finished, it is made sure that the bamboo looks perfect. The workers then start to work the bamboo to create the outline body of the umbrella using Ma Oo wood and bamboo. It requires time, skills and patience, as the piece of bamboo has to perfectly spaced in order to create that unique shape that made Pathein Umbrellas famous. After shaping the body of the umbrella, another person has to apply glue on the ribs of the umbrella and stick the fabric on top of the body. Once again, the process takes time, as the fabric has to be perfectly taut when stuck to the bamboo. When the fabric is properly placed, the umbrellas are left outside in the sun for the glue to dry.
Once the glue is dry, the decoration process can start. Of course, you could get a Pathein umbrella without drawings or patterns on its fabric, but the beautiful designs is also what has brought fame to these handicraft products. Two types of decoration can be made, either thread is sewed to the top of the umbrella or drawings are made with painting. Sometimes, it is even a combination of both. There are many different designs that could be made, some of them very classical and done for many years, and some more modern, made according to the year and the trend.
When the decoration is finished and the painting dry, special oil is applied to the top of the umbrella in order for it to be waterproof. With the strong rainy season we have in Myanmar, it better be watertight. When the oil is dry, the Pathein Umbrella is finished and ready to be used. But there are plenty of little meticulous steps on the way to make these umbrellas such as tying the ribs of the umbrella together and making the open-close mechanism smooth.
If you ever go to Pathein, it is really worth visiting one of its many workshops. as you will witness an art that has existed for over a millennium already and that is very unique to the region and which is fully part of Myanmar culture. You will be amazed to see how these umbrellas are made without a single piece of metal or spring, everything in the mechanism is just bamboo and threads to keep everything together.
There are about 18 types of Pathein umbrella. Monks and nuns use Pathein umbrella on a daily basis, but many people place the umbrellas in their living room as decoration, or in restaurants and shops where you can sometime see huge standing Pathein Umbrella. It is used at weddings and other traditional ceremonies. but can also be donated to monasteries.
But if you don’t have a chance to visit the city, you can definitely buy an umbrella as a souvenir or as a gift from your travel. Pathein umbrella are sold all over the country, in markets and unfortunately often in touristic areas, so try to get an idea about the price you want to pay and negotiate to get the best price for a magnificent and unique umbrella.