Friday, August 18, 2017

Business, religion and relaxation

Daw Than Nu sells 'Wat Myay Sar Ou' with her daughter. Seng Mai/ The Myanmar TimesDaw Than Nu sells 'Wat Myay Sar Ou' with her daughter. Seng Mai/ The Myanmar Times

They say that religion and politics shouldn’t mix, but in Myanmar there’s no such reticence about religion and business. This was particularly evident when I visited Shwesettaw Pagoda Festival in Magwe Region’s Minbu township last month.

For the residents of Minbu, a dry and dusty region on the west bank of the Ayeyarwady River, the festival – which this year ran for almost 70 days, concluding on April 17 – was a veritable goldmine.

The festival site, located about 400 miles (640 kilometres) north of Yangon, is home to several pagodas, including Ahtat Settaw Yar, which is reputed to contain a footprint of the Guattama Buddha. Another footprint, called Eyunt Settaw Yar, is housed in a pagoda at the bottom of the hill beside Mann Creek.

At least 10,000 pilgrims attend the festival each day, making it the largest in central Myanmar, according to pagoda trustees. To cater to the needs of the pilgrims, hundreds of local families relocate to the banks of Mann Creek for more than two months of the year, setting up temporary businesses selling cotton blankets, bamboo mats, thanakha, stone and iron utensils, traditional foods, textiles and local and imported toys. Of course, there are also many restaurants, teashops and guesthouses, which are in the form of small bamboo huts.

Hundreds of bamboo huts line Mann Creek. Seng Mai/ The Myanmar TimesHundreds of bamboo huts line Mann Creek. Seng Mai/ The Myanmar Times

“This pagoda festival is the best place to do business for us because we can sell a lot of our regional products, far more than we can normally sell in our home towns. We sold about K10 million (about US$11,000) worth of blankets at last year’s festival and expect to better that figure this year,” said U Aung Lwin, the owner of Shwe Galone Minn, which sells hand-woven blankets.

“We run the blanket shop in our hometown of Magwe but demand is normally very small. We rely on this festival for our business, even though it is only for a few months each year,” he added.

When U Aung Lwin first started running a shop at the festival six years ago he purchased a small plot of land for K100,000 but the majority of businesses rent land from the pagoda trustees.

The rental fees can be surprisingly expensive, which forces large restaurants to charge three times more than vendors so they can cover not only rent but also wages and electricity costs.