If one were to take inventory of the many colorful towns in Myanmar and rank them in order of their physical character, Kyaukme would sit very near the top. This large town is one of those uncommon places that is worth visiting for no other reason than the place itself. All of its varied parts intermingle like clockwork, with no one aspect any more or less outstanding than the next.
Despite the overall lack of any specific site or destination, everything in Kyaukme compliments everything else. There is no single anomaly of siting or design that throws off the balance. Even the newer buildings seem to have been built in consideration of those that were erected a century before. Suburban sprawl, chief denigrator of all urbanism, does not exist.
A street lined with shop-houses just a few blocks from the train station.
At the center of Kyaukme is the old market, a low slung wooden structure taking up an entire square block. From this commercial core the town pushes out into a high density grid. The buildings, while diverse in age and style, have a uniformity of scale that runs through the whole town. Everything seems accessible. Everything very human. The scale of its streets in relation to the size of its buildings; its steady commercial buzz and busy street-life, sans the gridlock and pollution induced by cars.
Kyaukme owes at least part of its past prosperity to being on the train line, the primary economic lifeline in centuries passed. But where most Southeast Asian towns that were built up along a train line have outgrown their original confines, in Kyaukme they seem to have changed very little. Add to this thriving human scale environment the flourishes of antique architecture in good condition and you have a living piece of history. A very special place, to say the least.
The U San Baw Building, one of several ornate old department stores in the center of town
A nice old building near the train station.
As in much of Myanmar, the well preserved structures of Kyaukme were not necessarily preserved out of intention. Years of economic isolation has meant that the financing needed to replace old buildings with new was often absent.
Kyaukme, like a number of other cities in Myanmar's ethnic states, has the added obstacle of war in the surrounding rural areas to further stifle investment, freezing the townscape in an unintentional time warp.
While war and disinvestment make for an ugly combination, the effect of the two on Kyaukme's physicality - aesthetic, functional, what have you - has been a boon, ensuring a well preserved stock of buildings and the accompanying culture that makes use of them.
Old department store
One of Kyaukme's many understated structures
View from the steps of the temple on the hill.
What would a well preserved Southeast Asian town be without a cinema to document? The silly but true answer is it wouldn't be one that you'd hear about on this blog. We like to stick to our proverbial guns here at The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project. Fortunately, Kyaukme still has The Sein Aung Win Cinema, the existence of which gives me a bit of licence to boast about the town in general.
Elevated view of The Sein Aung Win Cinema in downtown Kyaukme.
With a synoptic description of the larger town in mind, it should come as no surprise that Kyaukme's lone theater is too a bit of honey for the eyes. But that's true of most of the theaters in Myanmar. The unfortunate thing is that said theater, The Sein Aung Win Cinema, is no longer a contributing to Kyaukme's steady din of vitality, having been mothballed since 2012.
Multicolored louvre windows highlight the central tower of The Sein Aung Win. A golden star with a red outline sits at the top.
Sein Aung Win means "Victorious Diamond"
Perforated, decorative blocks comprise the central strips in the theater's cornice.
A poster case behind the concession stand decorated to resemble a diamond.
The Sein Aung Win Cinema was built in 1957, at the height of Myanamr's movie theater construction boom, which dated roughly from 1947 to 1962. Politically, the period corresponds to the brief window between independence from British rule and the ascension of General Ne Win's military dictatorship. That short democratic interlude saw an explosion in the arts in Myanmar, then Burma, as post-World War 2 rebuilding kick-started the economy.
In the realm of design, The Sein Aung Win is a bit of a puzzle. Not the typical Art Deco or Art Modern that characterized a large portion of Burmese cinema architecture of the era. While I'm no architecture expert, I'm also no rookie, but this has got me scratching me head. I can only conclude that this is some sort of composite.
Pilasters and weeds
The date of completion, 1957, is molded onto the side cornice, now obscured from view by a newer structure. The only way I was able to find it was thanks to a tenant in the neighboring building who led me up to a second floor balcony so I could take this picture.
From its heyday in the late 1950's to its closure 4 years ago, The Sein Aung Win Cinema saw a gradual loss of viewership until running it proved too much for 75 year old U Kyaw Aung, owner of the theater. The Kyaukme native picked up the reins from his father, who opened it 59 years ago.
When asked what he thought the future of the theater would be, U Kyaw Aung was not very hopeful, expressing doubt that it could ever be made operational again.
"I'm too old, anyway," he said. "There needs to be a younger generation to do the work."
For the time being The Sein Aung Win stands in a lull. Mothballed, presumably, until some investor makes a move on it. Hopefully that move will be in line with Kyaukme's immaculately well preserved character. A rare example of a Southeast Asian town that has managed to avoid, whether intentionally or not, the trappings of progress and the piecemeal destruction of history which it so often brings.