In Bagan, Child Guides Eke Out a Living for Their Families

By Zarni Mann 28 September 2013

BAGAN — “Please do not record my voice or take photos of me. If they catch me I could be arrested and fined. But if you want to know the history of this temple, I will explain it to you for a bit of money,” says Aung Aung, a 10-year-old boy, as he quickly approaches a visitor to Manuha Temple.

He is one of dozens of young children who hang out at the major temples of Bagan Archaeological Zone, such as Shwezigon, Manuha and Lawkanandar, where they hope to offer their service as unofficial guides to foreign tourists and local Buddhist pilgrims.

Persistent, cute and armed with snippets of knowledge about the 11th to 13th-century temples of Bagan, an ancient Buddhist city complex in central Burma, the children manage to regularly convince visitors to pay for a guided tour of a temple.

If they succeed, their small fees will support their impoverished rural families, who struggle to eke out a living on the hot, dry plain on which Bagan’s numerous temples were built. Many youngsters dropped out of school after only two or three years of primary education.

“Since my father passed away, I have to quit from school and have to work,” explains Aung Aung, adding that his mother is partially paralyzed and can’t support their family of six. “Before, I worked at a lacquer ware workshop and painted. But I didn’t earn much so I learned about the history of the temple and tried to become a guide,” he says, “We learned it by heart from the village elders.”

Aung Aung says he and his 8-year-old brother usually earn between US$2 and $8 per day from explaining the history of the 11th-century Manuha Temple to visitors, allowing them to make a significant contribution to the family’s meager daily income.

He is among a group of five children, aged between 8 and 12 years old, who hang out at the temple, where they wait until Bagan Archeological Zone employees are out of sight before approaching visitors. The little crew of tourist guides has to be careful, as authorities prohibited child guides from working at the temples in 2011.

“They said we are disturbing the pilgrims. That’s why we are not allowed to come here in the morning. Even now, if they see us, they would arrest us and detain us for two days,” says Aung Aung, adding that he once had to pay a $5 fine to temple guards after being caught.

At the 11th-century Lawkananda Temple, however, the temple guardians are more relaxed in their attitudes towards the urchins. “We allow these children to work here as we understand their hardships. But the only thing this, they mustn’t approach the visitors like crows fighting for a piece of food,” said one of the laymen at the temple.

Although Burma’s nascent tourism industry is growing rapidly following the opening up of the country in the past two years, the children at Bagan have not yet mastered enough English to offer unofficial temple tours to foreign visitors. Instead, their focus is on local Buddhist pilgrims, whose numbers swell as Buddhist Lent draws near in the month of October.

“The foreigners, they are not so interested in us, so we are always looking for chances to explain the history to the local visitors,” says Kyaw Ko Ko, a 10-year-old boy, whose little face is covered in Thanaka, a yellow paste made from ground Thanaka tree bark that is a popular Burmese skin conditioner.

At most temple grounds, children are allowed to sell souvenirs and postcards. But Kyaw Ko Ko says, “This is not very good business because locals never buy them. Even the foreign tourists, they are not so interested to buy from us. That’s why I just want to work as a guide.”

Although the work that the children do supports their families, some local social activists are taking steps to end the practice as it is considered harmful for the children’s development.

“Most of the children, they have no enthusiasm to go back to school again as they know they earn some money to support their family, as well as for themselves,” said Zaw, one of several teachers from the Bagan area who are trying to bring the children away from the temples and back into the schools.

“If we want them to be in the class room, we need to educate their parents first. It seems that we need to support the family in order to substitute the earnings received by their child,” he said, “We still have a very long way to go.”

Zaw is also concerned about the spread of harmful habits among the children working at Bagan’s temples. “Sniffing glue is popular among the youngsters and some of these boys have habits of stealing and pickpocketing,” he said.

San San Nu, a 12-year-old girl who works at Lawkanandar Temple, said she didn’t mind the daily work she does there, although she hoped to one day become an official tour guide who can explain to foreign visitors the history of her country’s famous temples.

“If we have spare time, we can play together and I’m very happy to work here,” she said. “But if I have a chance to go back to school again, I want to learn English and other languages to become a professional tourist guide, so I will… have a chance to explain the history and I will be able to go around every temple of Bagan.”