9 January 2020
The Burmese sand painter of Bagan
"Cheap price, cheap price," the hawkers would keep repeating this mantra every time we visited a temple in Myanmar. Truth be told, this is generally true of what happens around any tourist attraction around the world. Souvenir stalls lined up every temple entrance. When one knows there usually are four entrances to Buddhist templates (along each cardinal direction), it's easy to understand how those shops proliferate. "It's handmade," goes the claim. Yeah, right. Thousands of the exact same products (Buddha statues, boxes, paintings) are sold at every cultural attraction across the country. Thankfully I haven't yet come across a forgotten "made in China" sticker on those – even if the border with China is just a few hundred kilometers away.
It saddens me that none of the merchants try to be a little more creative when trying to attract customers, not realising those have already heard the same speech a million times. I can't blame them, they most certainly didn't get the business education to differentiate themselves. Or maybe they just sell anyway! What's for sure is that they wouldn't sell to me, since I'm not interested in clogging my life with things I don't need, objects I won't use, souvenirs I'll have no idea where to put away. As for gifts to others, that's a little different: if something catches my eye, then why not; but I no longer feel forced to absolutely find something for everyone back home.
Sometimes, rarely, I'll come across a genuine artisan or an authentic artist. I would sit down with them, strike a conversation, exchange contact details. It seems I’m not the only one to do just that, with the very same people. On that trip to Bagan in Myanmar, it dawned on me that I could possibly set up a website dedicated to all those people, vouching for their art (I would have seen them do it) and helping them sell it. The idea came to me as I met Zaw, a painter, who was drawing in the shade of one of the 3,000 temples spread across the historical site of Bagan. He was actually one of the only two or three sellers present in that temple, in sharp contrast to the dozens, if not hundreds, of sellers at other more renown temples.
There was something in his gentle approach that made me sit down in front of him; I listened to him before I asked him to repeat everything in front of the camera. He was kind and patient enough to comply. A couple of weeks later and after a few hours of video editing and website building, both video and website were ready. I honestly don't think many, if any, of his art pieces will be sold online: I know too well how what one creates gets lost in the very wide Internet web. Oh well, it only cost a little bit of time to put these together – and it's a nice memory of my trip to Myanmar.