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Welcome to Inle Lake. Photo by Chris Riou

An Inle Lake Pottery Adventure – Myanmar

a potter’s blog post by Dianne Turner

We take a long boat ride on Inle Lake, travelling serenely past floating tomato and gourd farms along a narrow tributary passing a writhing black mass of water buffalo having their afternoon swim, to our majestic hotel.

Inle Princess

The lake entry to Inle Princess Hotel is part of an environmental bird sanctuary. The motor is cut, before we enter the last leg of the boat ride, to minimise noise for hotel quests and the surrounding wildlife.

Arriving at the Inle Princess with our one-legged rowerOur captain stops to collect a local fisherman from a stilted bamboo hut.  He is in his senior years, brown and strong with a huge smile. He takes up the oar in the ‘one legged’ rowing style of the Lake Inle fisherman, renowned for their ability to balance on their narrow boats, rowing with one leg while catching and netting fish. It’s impressive to witness these skills up close.

The sound of the paddle in the water is mesmerising as we glide towards the jetty for the last 100 metres to marvel at the sunset as we disembark.

The Inle Princess Hotel is also home to an artisan’s village where local villagers can be seen practising their art form.

There is a sizable pottery kiln on location, potters wheels and a variety of large pots to view. The lacquer-ware practitioners and weavers are busy making ornate black wares and working looms. All artisans are keen to chat and share their knowledge.

By mid morning after a scrumptious breakfast of fresh eggs and locally made yoghurt, our rower and captain of the long boat await us as we head past groups of one legged fishermen and floating villages in the morning sun on Lake Inle and motor to our destination pottery village.

Kyauk Taing Pottery Village

At the northern end of the lake we disembark at Kyauk Taing Pottery Village, alongside other long boats whose occupants are loading stockpiles of logs, wood, limestone and sand, which most likely will be used as fuel or to build up the land of the floating farms along the lake.

Village life at Kyauk Taing pottery village on Inle LakeWalking into the pottery village, we see tethered Brahman cows, pigs, roaming geese, chickens and roosters. We are graciously welcomed into a family home and offered tea. Grandmother, mother, children and grandchildren are present.

The potteries in this village are family run businesses, which operate from the living quarters of their 2- storey wooden and bamboo houses. The lower floor is where the pottery is made and dried. The great grandmother matriarch of the family (89 years old) serves us black Myanmar tea in pottery cups.

The young grandmother demonstrates her pottery making skills on a wooden wheel placed on the ground in her home which pivots on another round block of wood.  The wheel is initially turned by hand or foot motions of the thrower but and as the pots get larger someone will take on the role of turning the wheel while another pots.

She deftly demonstrates how to make small wares such as ashtrays, lidded sugar bowls and jars, centering with one hand at times and finishing the small pot using 2 fingers to form a frilled edge.

The clay is a mixture of local river clay and sand transported by truck from the Sandstone Mountains of Myanmar.  Wedging is done by foot in large clumps with circular stepping motions, then by hand and kept in sacks for use.

Learning local techniques from Kyauk Taing potterI get to try my hand, sitting legs astride the wheel on a bench slightly above the ground and realize how challenging it is to turn the wheel while also throwing.  I learnt the method for making ‘curled edge’ pots, a useful skill I can later apply to my own pots.

My fellow travellers and I purchase some small wares such as those demonstrated by our host potter: sugar bowls, vases and small delicately hand painted (acrylic paint) clay figurines depicting the tribal costume of the many states and ethnicities that make up Myanmar.

The glazes used are mainly lead based and lime washes / slips for decoration; the ash from the wood fire does the rest of the decorative work.

The kilns at Kyauk Taing

I arrived in time to see the commencement of the firing of one of the village kilns.

Stoking the kiln at Kyauk Taing pottery village on Inle LakeThe dome shaped kiln is packed with pottery wares.  The entry to the kiln is sealed other than the window to feed the fire using fired clay slabs and old bricks and clay slurry.  The firebox is not a structure as such but is situated directly behind the sealed door and the stacked pottery. The wood is fed through the window in the door until the final temperature is reached, then sealed. The Kiln is domed shaped, covered by a bamboo roof and is dug into the earth but large (approx. 5 metres long).

The fuel for firing commences with semi dried bamboo, greener wood followed by hard wood, and for the last few hours dried bamboo is added again to raise the temperature to a hot fast burn. There is a lot of black smoke to start with. Taking three days to fire and three days to cool, the kiln is informally manned by the village families involved in pottery. There is always someone on hand to replace those who need a sleep and a meal and during the day children help and play near the kiln.

Breaking open the kiln at Kyauk Taing pottery on Inle LakeI witnessed the cracking of one kiln which was a treat. Initially a crowbar is used to break the seal and then carefully the door is dismantled. The heat was still radiating after three days of cooling. The success rate of pots in this village kiln is reportedly good with very few pots cracking or warping. This may be due to the fact that they produce smaller wares and have had years of experience using these firing methods.

Leaving the Pottery Village with a feeling of gratitude and awe, I muse about having witnessed such an authentic lifestyle in this day and age. Heading to the long boat, and passing villagers tasked with planting rice in the paddy fields, I felt like time had stopped still.

My thoughts lingered on the sustainability of this pottery village against all odds in our technological age. The pottery I purchased was wrapped in one of the children’s notes from high school. Hand printed notes written in English talking about environmental impacts. The children, like anywhere in the world may not stay around and become potters like their parents and ancestors, as educational and global opportunities reach to remote places like Kyauk Taing.

Inle Lake sunset fishing - photo by Chris RiouIt was a privilege to be invited to this village and to see how it really does take a village to make a community work. Moments in time like these will not be around forever, so now is a good time to see Myanmar.

The long boat ride back to the Princess Hotel is breathtaking, so no time to dwell on the future of the Pottery village as every aspect of the journey home is a picture postcard. Travelling back at sunset, the silhouettes of the one legged fishermen in their longboats against the golden sun and glistening water is a photographers dream.

article by Dianne Turner, Ceramic Artist

photos by Chris Riou, Travel Designer at Newport Travel

Dianne Turner and Chris Riou run Clay and Culture pottery tours to Myanmar – both hosted and independent – and will be hosting a tour from the 14th to the 25th of January, 2020. For more information visit www.clayandculture.com

Upcoming 12-day Deluxe Hosted Myanmar Pottery Tour – 14 to 25 January 2020

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