Yandabo Pottery Village, Myanmar

Yandobo potter with finished works

One of my favorite stops on our Irrawaddy riverboat cruise was Yandabo, a village known for pottery production. Yandabo is cleaner and more prosperous looking than many of the villages along the Irrawaddy. The government is assisting with funds to build a river wall (erosion being a big problem along the Irrawaddy) and the locals organized to clean up trash (another big problem along the river and in the villages). We were impressed to learn that the entire family of potters we visited had university degrees. Sadly, though, they could earn more making terracotta pots.

Corn cobs and husks are used in pottery making. Corn husks are also used to roll cigars. The kernels are exported, mostly to China.

The pottery-making process was interesting and impressive, in part because the methods and equipment are so primitive and labor-intensive. The potter’s wheel is powered with the help of an assistant manning foot pedals. Pots are shaped and stamped by hand, each decorative pattern indicative of the family who made the pot. We see the distinctive-shaped pots everywhere on the many water stands provided free to all by families who establish these stations as a way of obtaining good karma. Clay pots are also the preferred cooking vessel in Myanmar, metal said to give certain curry dishes a dark color.

Stamping the family design onto a pot (This lady has a degree in history.)

As always, we found the locals to be exceedingly friendly and welcoming. A boy of twelve or so gave me a tiny clay dog figurine. Unsure if I was expected to pay, I asked our guide, but he assured me it was a gift and nothing was expected in return. Later, after demonstrating the making and decorating of pot (and also how to carry three at a time, one on each arm and one on the head, see the top photo), our main hostess did offer small pottery souvenirs for sale, but there was absolutely no pressure to buy.

In Yandabo, we lucked into arriving while the village was preparing for the sticky rice celebration. These celebrations were taking place all over Myanmar because of the full moon. We’d gotten a kick out of joining a sticky rice street party in Mandalay where a mob of young boys danced to blaring music around big paella-style skillets of cooking sticky rice, but this was different. Unlike sticky rice in the city which is made by machine in factories, the village makes its communal sticky rice with a large pounding mallet-like contraption requiring the efforts of five people.

Preparing for the sticky rice “festival.” The celebrations take place on the full moon. Once the rice is poured into the stone bowl (which serves as a sort of mortar), the girls to the right will provide the pounding action while the young man reaches in between beats to pull and turn the glob of rice. The women to the left are making the sticky rice into balls.

We found the process as interesting as the scheduled pot-making. I couldn’t help but snap several photos of a beautiful little girl dressed in emerald green finery for the celebration. Looking no more than three or four, she was pensive with expressive little hands as she crouched or stood by her mother who was one of a small group of women rolling balls of sticky rice as it came from the mallet-machine. She wore a gorgeous emerald green blouse and longyi, her face made up with ever-popular thanaka. This little beauty is the focus of some of my favorite photos of the trip so far.

Although everyone around her was laughing and chattering, this little one remained serious and quiet.

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