Traditional Burmese culture in Pakokku

Mark Levitin | Live the World

November 23, 2022

For most travellers, a minuscule backwater town Pakokku serves only as a stopover between Bagan and West Myanmar destinations, such as Mrauk U( Mindat) or Mindat. Rather typically, this is a big mistake since little towns in Myanmar are always packed with concentrated traditional culture. The old, exceptionally cozy center of Pakokku hosts a number of cheroots (Burmese cigar) manufacturers and some imposing old temples. Even a smaller settlement of Pakhangyi nearby has one of Myanmar's best examples of traditional teakwood architecture, and a sandy bank across the river is the site of an annual spirit worship festival. Pakokku was also the focal point of the "Saffron Revolution" in 2007 when a rebellion of Buddhist monks against the merciless ruling junta fit for a Shaolin action movie had sparkled a movement of reformation all over the country. 

© Mark Levitin

Pakokku old town

The old center of Pakokku feels even more rural, peaceful, and medieval than most Burmese towns. Half of the buildings are wooden, many streets are unpaved and overgrown with tropical greenery. One could shoot a historical drama here without much preparation. Temples, markets and workshops are spread randomly through the town, and the riverside displays the usual activity - cargo boats, fishermen, women collecting water. One temple of note is Thiho Shin Pagoda, famous for a large annual paya pwe (festival) in May or June. Shwe Ku Pagoda has rare pieces of old woodcarving and a very relaxing stupa garden. For impromptu lectures on politics, modern Burmese history and survival in a totalitarian state, talk to monks or visit Mya Yatanar guesthouse (officially closed, but sometimes an ultra-cheap room can be arranged). Pakokku is where the "Saffron Revolution", a quick, forceful shift towards freedom from the oppressive regime, had started in 2007 when a number of monks were injured during a demonstration of protest. Mya Mya, the gregarious and well-educated owner of Mya Yatanar guesthouse, may share a few stories of those violent times if she is free.

© Mark Levitin

Cheroot making

Traditional crafts still remain the backbone of the Burmese economy, and Pakokku is no exception. It has an unusually large thanaka (cosmetic paste, local skincare solution made from the bark of a specific bush) market, but the main local specialty is tobacco. Remember that line by R. Kipling? "Burma girl a-settin', a-smokin' of a whackin' white cheroot..." This is where they make them in little factories and private yards. Cheroots, Burmese cigars, come in dozens of varieties: white, green and brown, huge and tiny. Everything is done by hand (no, Burmese women do not roll cigars between their thighs, this is not Cuba - although they actually do not do it in Cuba either), it is fun to see, and if you are a smoker, do not miss the chance to try a few samples.  

© Mark Levitin


The only "official" sights in Pakhangyi, a small town 20 km away from Pakokku, are a totally destroyed ancient monastery and the nearby archaeological museum. Both are, in fact, of little interest, but a short jaunt out of town will bring you to Kyaung Dawgyi Monastery, a fine example of old-school Burmese teakwood architecture. The monastery is sadly rather unkempt, visibly falling apart, with does not prevent it from being an active center of Buddhist practices. A beach and a grove across the river from Pakhangyi house one of the country's most interesting nat pwe (spirit worship) festivals. This festival usually occurs around February and is dedicated to Ko Gyi Kyaw, the patron deity of undeserved easy life, gambling and alcoholism. Like many on the nat (spirits), he used to be a human, a nobleman, before his post-mortal ascension to a divine status. Unlike most of them, he was not a great scholar, a ruler, or a warlord, but a drunkard and a hedonist. Defying the binary moral standards of sin and righteousness, reward and punishment, so intuitive to a Western person, this festival is an ideal insight into the pagan mentality and the funnier side of traditional Burmese culture. Expect lots of gambling, cross-dressing nat kadaw (spirit priests) spreading the offerings of rice whiskey between the worshipers, and a lot of general drunk revelry.

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