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Mandalay Diary: Burmese Carpenters

As the restoration of the Shwe-nandaw Kyaung (Golden Palace Monastery) moves ahead, we needed to shore up the west veranda. The “Shwe Kyaung” is made entirely out of teak and has highly decorative carvings on the exterior. The inside is gilded. It is a busy tourist spot particularly in the afternoon. Shoring requires a careful design that will support the veranda when the posts are removed, be flexible enough to allow the posts to come out and go back in, and aid access for the workers.

We hired a local carpentry crew to build the shoring. The head carpenter’s name is Maung Cho; he is a fine fellow, but he does not speak English. We would each sketch what work we wanted done while we had tea together in the morning—I showed him how I wanted the shoring built and he immediately changed it and made it better. But before we started I had to pay the caretaker $10 to build a shrine for the spirits and pray or else I was told that the work would not go well. I bought a Chinese Power drill ($19) and drill bit ($5) so that we could make the shoring connections. When I saw that they were intending to cut everything with a hand saw I also purchased a circular saw ($40) and additional blade ($6). I was told everything had to be purchased and on site before the spirit shrine prayer.

We visited the wood seller and I bought hard wood (but not teak) for the sum of $1,400. The seller and his wife ripped the wood on the spot from huge timbers using a diesel powered circular table saw. However the most exciting part was the cock fights being staged on the street in front of the lumber shop. The lumber was delivered on site the next morning and I had to inventory every piece. We sorted out the 4x4s, 2x5s, and 2x3s individually. Labor in Myanmar is cheap but materials are expensive so this was the biggest cost for the job.

We started assembling the shoring that afternoon. I had 4 carpenters and I found out the first day that they did not know how to use a circular saw so I was cutting everything for them. On the second day they started to experiment with it, and soon they were using it all the time.

One of the carpenters asked what day I was born on and visited an astrologer that night to determine my Burmese name. The next morning he informed me that my name was U Shwe Aung Win. U means Uncle and is sign of elder respect; Shwe is golden; Aung means successful; and Win means born on Wednesday. There are no Burmese family names. The carpenters started calling me U Shwe Aung Win and laughed in a good natured way every time they used it.

The Burmese carpenters are hard workers. They are either bare foot or wear flip flops. Our work has officially become a part of the tour and I am pleased to speak to curious tourists from around the world about the work. They are quite impressed and thank WMF for saving cultural heritage. Maung Cho nudges me when cute young tourists walk past and then raises his eyebrows. I guess contractors are the same everywhere.

WMF would like to thank the U.S. Embassy in Burma and the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation for their support of this project.