Welcome to Burma, with a thousand golden temples, 500,000 monks and a million smiles.
I've always wanted to travel to Burma but felt uncomfortable visiting a country renowned for its cruel military dictatorship. However, with the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and several hundred political prisoners, coupled with the reforms introduced by the new government, I decided the time was right. My wife, who travelled to Burma previously in 1987, accompanied me on this Asian adventure, and we expected to see a country that had changed like the rest of south-east Asia. How wrong we were; it was like stepping back in time.
Travelling by road is pretty tough and our backpacking days are behind us, so we opted to fly between destinations. The itinerary included the capital Yangon, formerly called Rangoon, Inle Lake, Mandalay and Bagan.
Yangon is considered to be the safest capital in southeast Asia and, given that most of the population is Buddhist, we found this to be true. Mass tourism has yet to arrive in Burma (in fact there are not enough hotels to satisfy the demand), so the local people are happy to see tourists and, better still, very willing to have their photograph taken. This made a refreshing change. Yangon is home to the Shwedagon pagoda, the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Burma. At sunset the gold-plated Stupa shines out like a beacon and is surrounded by hundreds of smaller, highly decorated temples. Walking clockwise around the Stupa, people leave offerings at the many shrines. It is a colourful, utterly compelling sight with extraordinary images to be had in every direction.
On to Inle Lake, with its floating villages, leg-rowing fishermen and dazzling temples reflected in the calm water. Set at 900 metres, the quality of light is excellent. The fishermen make wonderful subjects as they maneuver their dugout canoes skilfully through the narrow waterways and fish using long, wicker fishing baskets. Our boat tour took us to forgotten temples, floating gardens, villages with stilt houses and a beautiful teak monastery, famous for its leaping cats; yes I did say leaping cats. Monks have trained cats to jump through hoops, which they do willingly for a snack. I guess monks must have a lot of time on their hands.
Mandalay, like Timbuktu or Casablanca, conjures up romantic images of a peaceful, serene setting, but sadly it is none of those things. However, nearby lay photographic gems which made up for it easily. U Bein Bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world, is, in my opinion, one of the best photographic locations in the world. Sitting on a boat at sunset, capturing villagers on bicycles and monks holding umbrellas whilst they cross the bridge, is an experience that should be treasured for a lifetime.
Nearby is Sagaing, a complex of hundreds of pagodas that sit on hilltops overlooking the Ayeyarwady River. This is a place for monks and nuns to relax and to get away from the day-to-day strain of their lives. They are very happy to have their photographs taken and the colorful temples make perfect backgrounds. At 11 o'clock every day, over a thousand monks queue for their lunch (the last meal of the day) and parade into the monastery. Tourists are allowed to witness this event and photograph the monks at will. At first, I felt invasive, like the paparazzi, as if witnessing something private. However, I was informed that monasteries rely on donations for upkeep, so they welcome tourists with open arms and the monks encourage people positively to interact with them.
We saved the best until last: Bagan, with its thousands of red-brick temples and golden pagodas, has to rank as one of the world's great treasures. You can lose yourself for hours among the endless temples, either on bicycle or by horse-drawn carriage. I became friendly with a monk who was happy to pose for me, in return for a small donation, of course. At sunrise I photographed him praying high up on the side of a pagoda, and during the day, when the sun was high in the sky, we spent time inside one of the temples, home to a huge reclining Buddha. The red gowns are very photogenic, especially in front of the whitewashed pagodas. If you are feeling affluent, you can take a balloon ride over the temples at sunrise or, in my case, set up a tripod on top of a suitably high viewpoint and photograph the landscape, backlit in the morning mist: fantastic!
At the time of writing, there are no cash machines in Burma due to the US embargo, so it is essential to carry US dollars or euros. The notes must be in perfect condition to receive the best exchange rate. Crisp new $100 dollar bills are the order of the day, so our shabby, secondhand $10 & $20 bills didn't go down too well. You can obtain money with a credit card but only in a couple of high-end hotels at a jaw dropping 15% commission. For those of you who are tired of seeing everyone on their mobile phones constantly, Burma will provide a refreshing break; there is no mobile ‘phone service. So far, the government has restricted the speed and availability of the internet, which means it is not possible always to check e-mails. This may be unthinkable for some people but I found it very relaxing to have a few days away from cyberspace. It made me wonder how they managed to communicate, but somehow they do: all our travel arrangements were spot on.
I recommend visiting Burma sooner rather than later. Despite the country’s turbulent past, there is still purity among its people and a genuine welcome that is becoming harder to find in the world today. The Chinese have been investing heavily in Burma in return for oil, gas, teak, jade and heroin and the best roads lead to China. To date, this has had little effect on tourism but I fear that it is just a matter of time before we see an impact. Groups of Chinese are starting to travel around the country, which is taking its toll on the already overloaded infrastructure. For the moment, Inle Lake is a peaceful haven but, with more and more hotels under construction, the lake soon will be very busy and polluted no doubt.
I went to Burma with no expectations but quickly fell in love with the country. I have travelled extensively in Asia and, with the exception of Bali, have never felt so at ease. Photography is the driving force behind my wanderlust but sometimes it becomes a lot more than capturing beautiful images. I left Burma with a genuine affection for the people and was overcome by the beauty of the stunning architecture. I'm a bit of a food lover, so I cannot finish this article without mentioning the cuisine, which is a mixture of Thai, Chinese and Indian: it is delicious. I'm returning to Burma in December and already am excited by the proposition of getting another chance to photograph this incredible country.
Read this article, and many more, in High Definition, inside Issue 17 of Landscape Photography Magazine.