Our journey to Magway Region started with an hours flight from Yangon to Bagan, the world heritage site full of impossibly romantic vistas and ancient stupas. In Bagan, we arrived on the dusty plains and met Mr Zu, a driver we organised through Trip Advisor back in the UK. Mr Zu informed us that a long car journey lay ahead, and that he didn’t really know where we needed to go. Going off piste to find May Zun Chit and her family who weave the upcycled baskets we stock was not going to be easy, but an adventure nonetheless.
Although Mr Zu did not know of the exact location of the village, Morgan had been in touch with May Zun Chit using Facebook Messenger. Her instructions to meet at a crossroads were not the most promising. She had given further details that she would be on a motorbike wearing a pink shirt. Market day at the crossroads had brought out several women in pink on two wheels. It took some time and several short telephone calls before the guide finally spotted a woman waiting some distance off the junction, in blue, and she motioned for him to follow.
The end of the road: a dried riverbed
After following May Zun Chit and her friend away from the crossroads, the bumpy road soon ran out. May Zun Chit took a left and passed through a wide and beautifully ornate gateway painted in red, cream and gold onto a narrowing sandy track. It marked the route to an ancient temple, and some way beyond that lay May Zun’s village. The road was more used to bullock carts and motorbikes than Mr Zu’s car. Our journey came to a halt, a steep bank of soft sand and vast impassable dry river bed lay between the car and the village. May Zun Chit summoned help as our driver manoeuvred his pride and joy out of the way of the farmers waiting patiently with their livestock. A small fleet of motorbikes appeared as if from nowhere and we were carried onwards, skidding our way to May Zun Chit's family and village on the sandy track.
The village consisted of several woven bamboo structures all built around a central courtyard. It was amazing to finally see where our baskets were produced and meet who had a hand in their making. The family all came out to introduce themselves, not quite believing we had travelled from England. One of the huts, made of woven palm leaf panels with a thatched roof, housed us all for lunch and we tucked into a delicious meal of tempura mango fritters, rice crackers the size of dinner plates, pickles and freshly brewed local green tea. May Zun Chit's uncle, a survivor of polio which he contracted when he was a small child, sat beside us working on one of the traditional black and white baskets. He deftly wove the off-cut pieces of pallet banding, while taking part in the conversation unfolding around him.
The women were very happy to see pictures of our customers with their baskets. Morgan explained in Burmese about our shared roots and showed them photographs of her grandmother who was from nearby Shan State. They repeatedly gently pinched her arm, laughingly calling her 'nu deh', Burmese for soft and white! After a liberal application of Thanaka to protect Morgan’s ‘nu deh’ skin from the hot sun, May Zun Chit took us through the processes of making a basket, from the weaving to the addition of wire at the top to strengthen them. Her hands, and those of her family members, all bore calluses from working with both the incredibly hard wearing pallet banding and from making the bamboo and palm panels used in their homes. May Zun Chit explained that they were proud that their baskets were better quality than many available as they wove them under tension, and fed the strips back on themselves to ensure they wouldn’t unravel. Making the baskets, she said, was their only means of supporting themselves financially.
Morgan and highly skilled basket weaver Daw Neh.
May Zun provides a basket making demo.
A finished basket: Original Grey + White.
Home timeWith the sun going down and Mr Zu nervously anticipating the drive back to our hotel in a fading light we reluctantly left the village. May Zun Chit had one last treat left for us, a visit to their local temple built in the 14th century. Looking at the delicately carved panels of Buddhist prayers that had stood for over 600 years, which had been looked after by the villagers for generations, was a truly humbling experience. We had made new friends, shared common bonds and had just a tiny insight into their lives. We thanked May Zun Chit for allowing us to visit and of course for all the fabulous baskets she and her family had made for us! We stay in touch with May Zun Chit on Facebook and keep her updated on where her baskets are sold, we can't wait to visit again soon.