Myanmar children are fast catching up on the toys of the present age, such as fire-spitting guns, battery-operated cars and TV games. In the more remote villages the toys may not be high tech but still they are no longer the traditional folk toys, which by now have entered the realms of folk art. However, children still do appreciate the traditional toys to add to their collection. They too seem to sense with all the innocent instincts of childhood that such things are no longer as common as in their parent's youth.
The simplest of toys that farm children still enjoy is what they call the "Coconut-palm leaf cow." A crescent of a coconut shell is tucked inside a split end of the long leaf of the palm. The upward carving shell looks like a pair of horns, and the fluffy other end of the leaf is effectively the cow’s tail. A string is attached to the ‘head’ and children pull it along, clucking at their cows to be careful and don’t get into the bushes and sometimes to race against one another. Nursery rhymes and songs sometimes feature this boon companion of children that can be constructed in a few minutes. Another simple toy is made on the spot when people in villages gather around a bonfire on cold nights to eat baked palm seedlings. The inedible stem is in translucent folds, which grandparents weave into simple animal figures for the children.
As an agricultural society, cattle are treated with affection and many refrain from eating beef not because of any religious influences, but because they feel that creatures that worked hard to produce the daily rice should not be so cruelly treated.
In pagoda stalls red and white papier mache cows of all sizes are the most popular. A mold carved out of wood is covered with scraps of paper wetted with glue, allowed to dry in the sun, and then cut free. Painted in swift strokes and with the eyes drawn in classical lines, the toys have a whimsical look to them that have survived through decades. Other papier mache animals such as zebras and giraffes are more exotic but by now, through these toys, a normal part of a child’s paper menagerie. Giraffes are not native to Myanmar, but early 19th century records on palm-leaf manuscripts stated that a pair of giraffes was sent as gifts to the Myanmar king, to the great wonder of all who saw them. Presumably the toys of these beautiful animals must have been most popular during that time.
Elephants of papier mache or carved softwood are also favourites, as the elephant is a noble animal to the Myanmar, especially white ones. Softwood very much like pine is cut into figures of tigers, cocks and horses, and coloured with water-based organic paint in rough brush strokes that gives them a lively look.
Another papier mache toy is the Po Wa, or Little Fat Boy, the figure of a pageboy who served in the palace. They have hair tied in two bunches, a gold necklace and medallion around their necks, and around their plumb little bodies a sarong tucked up into shorts. Clay group figures based on Buddhist stories teach the children about Buddha’s life and the moral lessons to be learnt from those stories.
The children in the palace in the olden days had little play pots and bowls made of gold or silver. They also played with puppets fashioned out of silk scraps by the handmaidens who were skilled at sewing. These play puppets called Yamin dolls were roughly made but with gorgeous costumes and were stringed so that the Royal tots could play puppeteer. In the palace, the king, queens and nobles all were patrons of separate puppet groups, so this culture tradition was something the little princes and princesses were familiar with. Some of these old Yamin dolls can still be seen in museums overseas but probably the collectors did not know they were toys, as they were categorized as ‘roughly made puppets’.
Little girls whether living in palaces or not, love to play at cooking, or pretending to be market sellers, so there are tiny pots and plates made of glazed ware, with small scales woven from bamboo to weigh their vegetables. Another glazed ware toy is the Jaybird whistle. The other popular bird, the owl, always comes in golden coloured pairs and they are more to bring good luck to a shop or home and not for play.
Pagoda stalls also sell toy musical instruments of drums and cymbals, but they really do make sounds. The brass cymbals are most musical or noisy, depending on who is playing and who is listening.
Some places in Myanmar are famous for producing special toys. The Shwe Sar Van pagoda north of Mandalay celebrates its festival every March and stalls selling bird and fish toys woven from palm leaves stretch for whole rows. A pagoda in Mandalay celebrates an annual ‘play pot festival’ where tiny pots and pans of baked clay are sold not only to children but to adult collectors. A trip to the Kyaik-hti-yo Golden Rock pagoda of the south is never complete without buying some bamboo toys for the children. Sections of bamboo are decorated with burnt designs, and formed into crocodiles, snakes, chameleons, guns, etc.
Of all the toys, one that catches the fancy of not only of children but of adults and which give them spiritual strength is the papier mache Pyit Taing Daung: a knock-a-bout egg-shaped toy with the face of smiling serenity. It is fun for the kids to roll about and see them always stay upright, and for adults, the lesson they show is never to let anything get you down. The resilience and serene nature of the people is surely reflected in this toy.