Published in My Magical Myanmar 2014
For those wanting to get off the proverbial beaten track after spending a few days in the tourist mecca of Bagan, set aside a short trip to the small town of Pakokku. It’s just an hour’s drive away from Bagan, but aside from the odd abandoned temple decaying in Pakokku’s tobacco fields, the two places have nothing in common (except, of course, for the pounding dry heat common to central Myanmar).
Pakokku lies along the Ayeyarwady River in Magway Region and a recently constructed bridge across the river – which is the country’s longest – makes getting there a cinch. It’s also possible to take a scenic ferry ride to or from Bagan’s Nyaung U, or an onward bus to Monywa. My husband and I booked a driver-slash-guide in Bagan at a cost of $40.
The land surrounding Ayeyarwady River is exceptionally fertile: field upon field is used to cultivate tobacco, cotton, rice, chilli, peanuts and even sesame. Harvested tobacco is most often used to create traditional cigars, which are known as cheroots and emit a surprisingly pleasant aroma when lit. Visiting one of Pakokku’s bustling cheroot workshops, which are largely staffed by women young and old, is a must (for health reasons, the same can’t be said for smoking one…). Tobacco is Pakokku’s top trade item, along with an infinitely more expensive commodity: oil. The Yenangyaung oil fields were built in the 19th century during British colonial rule and have been operating almost continuously ever since. I say “almost” because a Japanese bomb destroyed the facility’s equipment during the Second World War, however it was up and running again almost immediately after the war’s eventual end.
Pakokku is also well known for its local variety of thanakha, which is a distinctive yellowish paste made from ground bark and widely available at its markets. It’s wildly popular amongst men and women alike, as even the least observant visitor to Myanmar will attest. Thanakha has been used for centuries as a cosmetic (it highlights the cheekbones more boldly than any blush), but it also serves a practical purpose: protecting the skin from sunburn. It is also worn at night because its ability to reduce excessive oil (that is, blemishes) produces wondrous results (I’ve gone through several tubs of it!).
Agriculture aside, Pakkoku produces beautiful rattan furniture and home wares, velvet slippers and traditional silks, with market prices being infinitely better value than those in Bagan. There are also a number of slipper making factories – the buildings are nondescript but you’ll know you’ve stumbled upon one when you see row upon row of soles laid out the front to dry in the sun. I visited a few of these workhouses and was distressed to see several children labouring away.
Pakokku has secured a place in Myanmar’s recent history that is unlikely ever to be forgotten. The dramatic events at Myo Ma Ahle Monastery in 2007 made international headlines and were arguably the impetus for fundamental political change in Myanmar. In protest against rising fuel prices, the monastery’s monks staged a demonstration, which ended in a violent crackdown by the authorities. Young monks retaliated by taking a number of government officials hostage, and when the deadline issued for an official apology from the government came and went, the number of protesting monks grew exponentially. Civilians in Buddhist majority Myanmar are highly respectful of monks and the affront to them led to nationwide protests. The monks’ demands expanded to include the release of all political prisoners, including global democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who was still under house arrest.
The entire movement was violently suppressed and democratic reforms were still half a decade off, but the courage of the Burmese people didn’t go unnoticed by the outside world. The reaction on social media sites led some pundits to claim that the Saffron Revolution gave birth to “open-sourced politics” in a wider sense. Paying a visit to Myo Ma Ahle Monastery is essential for anyone with a keen interest in Myanmar’s political reforms and its future. It’s possible to visit Myo Ma Ahle Monastery – having a driver will make locating it a whole lot easier than going it alone (as it’s certainly not the only monastery in Pakkokku!).
Our driver didn’t speak much English and left us at the gate – although we were slightly hesitant about wandering around (there were no other tourists in sight), we were warmly welcomed inside the temple by a senior monk and he was even good enough to pose with us for photos (but sadly, we didn’t know enough Burmese to have a chat). On our way out, I saw a monk on a wooden balcony above and gestured to ask whether it was okay for me to take a photo of him. He said a few words in Burmese and sort of waved at me before dashing back inside the monastery.
Just as I was saying: “I guess not…” to my husband, the monk reappeared. He was brandishing a smartphone and started snapping away at me! It was a nice moment.
For those in Pakokku during either late May or the end of the June, experiencing the month-long Thiho Shin Pagoda festival is likely to become the highlight of your visit to Myanmar. The pagoda itself is the most famous in Pakokku and was built 800 years ago by King Alaungsithu during the Pagan dynasty. Every year it comes to life with traditional forms of entertainment, such as the musical plays drawn from Buddhist scriptures known as zat-pwe and the nha-par-thwar, a dance and song performed as a duet.
Pakokku’s attractions are compact enough to be covered in half a day, but those able to spend a weekend there will be amply rewarded – its townspeople are extremely friendly and hospitable. However accommodation options remain limited, both in terms of quantity and amenities. At the 100-year-old Mya Yatanar Inn, guests can savour Grandma Mya Mya’s home-cooked meals, but less enjoyable is the fact that electricity isn’t available throughout the day (at best). Meanwhile, the pricier rooms at Tha Pye No Guesthouse include most mod cons, but the cheaper ones have been described as “cell-like.” Yet regardless of how much time a person is able or willing to spend in Pakokku, everyone is sure to leave with memories authentically Myanmar.