The Cigar Rollers of Inle Lake
By Stuart Danker
Out on Inle Lake lies a stilted hut with vast unending horizons stretching out before it, behind which scores of villagers’ homes stand in clusters over the waters. Inside this hut, a group of women from the fishermen’s village are hard at work. Sitting in groups, they each roll, sort, tamp and snip at the leaves and tobacco before them – a normal day’s work in this cigar-rolling workshop in Shan State.
The cigars here are locally made, and it’s great to finally see the other end of the production line. I’d seen them in the pursed lips of locals from the surrounding villages, and even during my time in Yangon, but it’s now that I finally get to witness what actually goes into making these unmistakably iconic cigars.
Upon stepping through the main entrance, I’m introduced to a group of women, each with a tray before them. On these trays are the different ingredients and contraptions needed to roll a cigar. These little aromatic cigars are also known as cheroots, a word derived from the Tamil language. Immediately, their skills become apparent to me. I have tried rolling loose tobacco before, so I can appreciate the speed at which these craftswomen are churning out roll after roll.
Those in attendance today are not representative of the entire factory’s workforce, as there are work-from-home arrangements for those who cannot commit to being at the factory for the entire day. For these women, they’ll visit the factory in the morning, grab any needed ingredients to bring back to their homes, then return later in the evening to get paid for their day’s tally.
These cheroots are made of tobacco that’s imported from cities such as Mandalay and Bagan. This is because it’s hard to grow good tobacco at Inle Lake, and going the other way around – that is, exporting the wrapping leaves to the cities – isn’t preferable as the leaves are brittle and would not survive the rigours of shipping. This is why the tobacco is brought here to be rolled before being redistributed to the rest of the country.
Other ingredients include corn husk and newspapers to make the filters; fermented essence from produce such as bananas, honey and mango for flavouring; and rice paste glue to hold it all together.
The flavouring part is especially intriguing, as these juices are fermented for close to a year before they can be used as flavouring. I used to think that cigar making was all about rolling tobacco in paper, but in reality, there’s so much more that goes into the process compared to what’s shown at face value.
At the other end of the factory, workers sort through the leaves used for rolling, and boy are they quick. With stacks of leaves in their hands, these ladies riffle through the various shapes and sizes of leaves and sort them accordingly, much like how an experienced banker would count his day’s float. It seems as though these ladies were doing their work through feel rather than sight, sorting about 3 sheets of leaves per second.
Back at the business end, the workers turn raw ingredients into end products without so much as a blink, and according to my estimations, the entire rolling process of a cheroot from start to finish takes 30 seconds flat. At this blistering pace, it’s hard to keep track of how many cigars they’ve rolled, so the women gauge their output by the number of leaf-packs – which are usually arranged in sets of 50 or 100 – they’ve used by the end of the day.
When asked how many each person can comfortably produce in a day, one woman says 800 to 1,000. This isn’t a surprising figure, seeing as how they seem to have everything down to muscle memory. Their hands never seem to stop even as I prod them with more questions about the cigar-making process. If that isn’t a demonstration of mastery of the craft, then I don’t know what is.
Of course, no enterprise in Myanmar is complete without the trademark “try before you buy” sales pitch. One of the ladies extends her hand towards a little box of cigars, each small compartment labelled with the corresponding flavour. I politely decline as I don’t smoke, but my tobacco-inclined friends snag packs of 10 for just a couple thousand Kyats.
I do not leave empty-handed though, as I come out of this visit that much more knowledgeable about the awesome industries that can only be found on beautiful Inle Lake.