The Famous Lacquer Ware Craft in Bagan, Myanmar

Travelling to Bagan, you will be introduced its traditional lacquer craft. Bagan is famous for making lacquer ware.

Lacquer ware’s core (the inner parts) in Bagan has various types, from metal to wood, pottery, bamboo and rattan. However, the most special is the thin bamboo. In the past, bamboo was split like hairs, knit into paper-thin boxes. If people can not cut bamboo in to small fiber, they can knit it with ponytail and thin bamboo.

Today, ponytail is still popular to make thin products. The majority of industrial products are not knitted anymore. The people use glue to apply on bamboo in each ring, as seen in Vietnam. However, bamboo is still cut very thin, it is much thinner than products in Vietnam.

Then, each side of the bamboo box, both inside and outside, will be painted 18 layers of paint. Each layer of paint finish must be moistened in a dark room for 1 week to dry to be able to apply next layer. This means that after 18 weeks you can finish the painting on the lacquer ware, then polishing to complete the product.

The black box after the painting stage. After 36 2-sided painting, the box is still thin, flexible, elastic, squeezed, not distorted. Most impressive is that the box’s lid and box body are round and thin stick, fit each other perfectly. From small boxes like a betel nut, to large cylindrical boxes up to half a meter tall, they are perfect. That is not to mention inside the box, there are many round compartment, forming a multi-layer cage. These compartments are also fitted with each other perfectly. Especially the hundreds-of-year-old boxes still smooth, perfect, no cracks or scratches.

Burmese paint is taken from Melanorrhoea usitata - a wild peach species. People cut the bark to take the latex. I do not know if this resin has added anything but when used it is glossy black liquid. This paint is not as toxic as the paint, so workers use bare hands and rags to paint the paintings, and it’s not smelly too. It is still used for food, water, hot and cold.

After completing the core, people begin to make the motifs by using a knife carved on the surface and then rub the color or gold inlaid. The carved parts will stick to the color, which is similar to the technology of the H’mong in Vietnam.

After finishing a color, if they want to make a second color, then the surface must be covered with a glue layer to protect the color first, and then continue to paint the second spot color. When all layers of color have been removed, the glue must be removed so that the color is not shiny, the new image is deep and natural.

Engraved motifs of Myanmar are often extremely elaborate, and the pictures look dense with so many pattern. However, looking closely there are still motives in the Buddhist scriptures.

Between the boxes, they may look the same, but when viewed carefully each line is very different. The high artisans, each picture in thousands of pictures are refined, lively, beautiful face, perfect impeccable. The amateur ones can draw only decorative patterns. So, the two boxes may look exactly the same but the price can vary dozens of times. Small boxes made by artisans can cost up to a thousand dollars, but it is also logical – it takes a lot of effort in several months. The cheaper ones are usually decorated simply with geometric motifs, though they are also quite detailed.

However, that's all about the good thing. In the market, in the temple’s gate stores, most of the lacquer wares are fake, selling at a few dollars per item. They use industrial paint  which is only sprayed twice, very toxic and not beautiful. One of the best ways to check the good or bad paint is to use strong solvents such as acetone on the paint surface. The low quality paint will be partially dissolved and fade out the rag, the good paint will not fade.

We entered one of Bagan's finest paintings, but could not pick one. Things that are a bit pricey are expensive, but actually expensive though not really touched, because it is perfect, but missing a bit of soul.

At noon, wandering in Nyaung U market, suddenly stopped in an antique shop with hundreds of beautiful paint boxes, which are affordable, just under $ 300 a box. In fact, the owner is a famous antique collector in Bagan. He traveled around the country, went to monasteries and bought the boxes. Such beautiful boxes are almost nonexistent in the shops, but are offerings to the monastery. Monasteries stored the in hundreds of years, sometimes not used, so they sold the boxes.

He said he bought a lot, and sold a lot. There will be no thing left in the next two years. We wondered why they are nice but cheaper than new ones. He said that because the artists spent the whole year doing a thing. They make offerings, not to sell to people. No one spends so much time today, no one can pay the same wage anymore.

We asked him if he regrets to sell all. He said no regret. The most beautiful things are already in the museum, and good craftsmen still can mimic the similar ones. There is no reason for them to do so. Burmese people are not that sophisticated for themselves. People do not put all their minds to the Buddha anymore, and foreigners do not deserve it, nor can they afford it. No reason to exist, so it will not exist anymore, that's all.

We asked him why sell it so cheap, even he knows the value of such items. He said I do business and make profit – that’s enough. Although precious but no force to keep it. I was in big business before, but last year the store was burnt, lost most of the items, now it just started to recover, so can not keep it.

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