A pleasurable aroma of burnt incense fills the chill of a clear blue night. A myriad of brightly lit candles illuminate pathways and the hundreds of beloved figures around the gigantic stupa; covered with millions of tiny squares of gold leaf, it glitters. Devotees roam around and pray. It’s all familiar to me. I am in the most sacred place of Myanmar; this is the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, and this is my second time in the country. I was here first four years ago, and I am glad to be back.
I was first here in 2013, and the beauty of the raw land and its people hooked me immediately. It was not long ago, but a lot has happened in Myanmar since then. Back then the country had only recently started to open up to foreigners, with many areas forbidden or hard to reach. Nowadays the changes are obvious; I couldn’t help but notice the increase in traffic and flock of new vehicles filling the streets of Yangon. The rush hour now bears traffic jams, the skyline is dotted with cranes due to the advance of new construction, there’s a shopping mall filled with internationally recognized brand names, and signs of progress and investment are everywhere. Still, Yangon is a place where while looking to exchange U.S. dollars for the local currency you can encounter modern bank facilities, and next door find another financial institution where dozens of employees are recording deposits manually in huge ledger books as if computers or technology were something out of a fiction movie. That’s pretty much Yangon, a place where modern collides with tradition and the past; a place where you can sink in the pool of a five-star resort just five minutes away from a traditional fish market where goods still trade in the same way they did decades ago.
Besides Yangon, the rest of the country or parts I’ve visited remains mostly the same. There is more, better infrastructure and services in the now more touristic regions, but most of it has not changed.
I know that for some, these are questionable times for Myanmar. I’ve been asked, and I want to get it out of the way. The Rohingya crisis. I care, but I believe I am not the one to judge, and I don’t have all the facts and necessary background to do so. It’s a complicated world that we live in, one that I believe should be better, but Myanmar is not the only place of controversy. There is oppression in Cuba, there are castes in India, and so on. All these are places I’ve visited and will continue to visit. It doesn’t mean that I support or commingle with those activities and beliefs; to the contrary, I think that, as a photographer, I can contribute to making it a better place by sharing images and raising awareness for the real inhabitants and disappearing cultures of those places. Myanmar is full of wonderful souls and places that need to be shown, and I hope that I can contribute at least a little bit.
I was here scouting locations and opportunities for the upcoming Myanmar photo tour I’ll be co-leading with Darlene Hildebrandt for Digital Photo Mentor. With that, I wanted to find out about new places I didn’t see on my first trip, sites that recently opened up, and to access more remote, untouched natural settings, villages, fast disappearing culture, and traditions. I also went back to the classics, the ones you always stop at, at least for a quick view. Here I am talking about Inle Lake and Bagan.
In the far east of Shan State, set amid a picturesque mountainscape, a charming town envelops Naung Tong Lake. Somehow isolated from the heart of Myanmar, making it here was worth the effort. Aside from the traditional tourist routes, the town is tranquil and pleasant; you can really experience real country life and local living here. But beyond that, what sets the area apart is the rugged surroundings. The nearby hills are dotted with villages of different minorities and ethnic groups. Wa, Akha, Enn, Palaung and Lahu villages where not much has changed in centuries can be visited if you are up for a moderate hike. Most of them are just a couple of dozen basic shacks, with a few very welcoming families. I had the same reception in every village; as we arrived, amused kids ran towards us, happy to see us there. We were always invited to a home. We were invited for tea in every hamlet and had a friendly chat with the locals; the guide helped us to translate. For me, it will always be a memorable experience, but moreover, I am thrilled to know that next year I’ll be breathing the fresh air from the mountains again.
Inle Lake is the second-largest and one of the highest lakes in Myanmar. It’s a popular destination and part of the golden triangle. This was my second time here. Nevertheless, the photographic opportunities in the area are endless: the traditional fishermen, the floating villages, the notorious floating gardens, and of course, their people.
It’s hard to pick a favorite from Myanmar, but the plains of Bagan will always rank high. Bagan is an archeological site of around sixteen square miles with over two thousand pagodas. It’s an almost mystical place, with monasteries, villages, and it is rich in traditions. I’m not sure what it is, but the light is always magical in Bagan. On my last visit, I concentrated more on photographing vistas and landscapes. This time I wanted to focus more on people and portraits, and I had a blast.
I also visited here for the first time, and I am glad I did. This is indeed a remote area; in fact, the name of Mrauk U means “North Far”. This is Rakhine State. It takes long to explore and get here. You first arrive in Sittwe, the capital state, by flight, stay overnight, and then take a boat for about five to six hours to get to Mrauk U. Mrauk U was the ancient capital of the Arakan empire. When it flourished, it controlled an extensive territory, from Bangladesh to southern Burma, back in the 1400s. Like with every significant settlement the city grew, and many temples and pagodas were built. These are today the main attraction to the area. But in my opinion, the real gems of the area are some of the Chin villages nestled up-river. To get to them, you need another three-hour boat ride. Along the way, there is plenty to see. Along the Lay Myo River we encountered traditional fishermen, farmers, and locals collecting snails on the riverbank. Chin women are well known for their tattooed faces; legend says that during wartime young girls were tattooed so that the invaders would not take them away. New generations are not embracing this custom any longer, and just a few older woman remain today as testimony of the soon-to-be gone part of the Chin culture and tradition. I wandered in a couple of these villages and the guide helped us to interact with the locals; as in other parts of Myanmar they are always welcoming. Some of the women were shy, but after some time of interaction and with the help of the guide, they let me make some portraits. I felt privileged and touched; I knew that I was witnessing the few last people of a disappearing culture.
At the time of posting, I am still working on putting together the final itinerary for the next tour, but I know it will be around February 2019 and that it will be epic. If you want to join me, you can get on the wait list now and be among the first ones to be notified. Most of our groups are filled from the waitlist within the first week of the announcement, so I encourage you to get on the list by clicking here now.
For this trip, my primary camera was the Fuji GFX50s. The only backup I had was the Fuji X-100F, which I didn’t use. I had three lenses with me: the Fujinon GF 32-64mm F4, the Fujinon GF23mm F4, and the Fujinon GF 120mm F4. I also packed two flash units: the Godox V850II and the Godox AD200 along with the SMDV 70 collapsible Octa and the Basic Magmod Kit. For most of the portraits I ended up using the AD200 with the Octa, and for Inle Lake, I used the AD200 with the Magsphere mounted on an extension arm.
Hope you enjoy the photographs. If you have questions, reach out or comment. That’s all for now; more coming soon. As always, all my images are available for license and prints and as always, feel free to comment.