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At the end of October, people across Burma will adorn their houses with paper lanterns to mark the end of Buddhist lent. The lanterns are kept up until mid-November when the Festival of Lights, or Tazaungdaing, marks the end of rainy season.
Traditional events such as robe-weaving competitions, the visiting of pagodas and the release of hot air balloons are then held to express thanks and drive away evil spirits.
The colourful lantern-hanging festival, known as Thadingyut, is Burma’s second most annual event after the Water Festival.
However, nowadays the handmade bamboo and paper Burmese lanterns are losing out commercially to factory-made plastic lanterns from China.
Htun Shein has been making lanterns for 40 years, and his products have long been popular across the country. But this year, he says, orders have dropped dramatically due to the surge in sales of Chinese-made lanterns which are less fragile, waterproof and cheaper.
“We make lanterns with paper, while the foreign ones are plastic,” he says. “Nowadays children are more interested in the Chinese versions with designs like Angry Birds.”
At Rangoon markets, Chinese lanterns have been on sale for the past three or four years.
“Chinese-made lanterns are cheaper, easy to sell, and prettier,” says Myint Myint Khin who works at a lantern stall. ”Both children and adults like them, and people prefer the Chinese lanterns for decorations.”
Since the process of making traditional Burmese lanterns is intricate and time-consuming, the cost is higher. Craftsmen have to smooth out the bamboo, cut it into shape, apply talc paper, and then carefully paint the patterns.
“Burmese lanterns are made of bamboo,” explains Myint Myint Khin. “So worms can destroy them and they don’t last long. If the talc paper gets pierced or torn it cannot be sold.”
Other lantern-makers worry that the falling demand for traditional lanterns will lead to fewer traditional craftsmen in the future.
“In the past, I made 5,000-6,000 lanterns to send around the country,” said a Rangoon artisan. “Now, I can only send 350 upcountry.”
But Htun Shein says he will keep making traditional lanterns as a hobby.
“I can’t live without them,” he says.