Myanmar (formerly Burma), is truly one of the most enjoyable countries that I have ever photographed.  It's a beautiful land and people who have been cut off from the rest of the world for far too long.

(Note: see update below re Rohingya Ethnic Cleansing)

The country is now experiencing an explosion of tourism and investment. I decided, that after eight years, it was time for a return visit before the inevitable arrival of Starbucks and the Golden Arches begin to edge out all the golden temples.

My first impressions coming in from the airport in Yangon were that there were lots more cars on the road, and the beat-up and dented taxis, typical on my last visit (mainly cast-offs from the rest of Southeast Asia), had now mostly been replaced with smarter looking, more current models. The streets and shops we drove past were also definitely less shabby than the previous trip.

Most advertising billboards are still for industrial machinery or laundry detergent, but I’m sure they’ll be changing soon to display all the delights that increased western investment will bring.



The jewel of Yangon is Shwedagon pagoda, a massive 2500 year old golden temple complex situated on a hill that dominates the skyline of the city. The main pagoda itself is clad in actual gold plates, and the umbrella structure at the top is encrusted with thousands of diamonds and rubies. The very top bud is topped with a 76 carat diamond. Shwedagon is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda for the Burmese and is easily one of the most impressive sites that I’ve seen in all my travels. 

I arrived to photograph it in the late afternoon, intending to shoot as the light began to fade but was startled to see the masses of other people, both locals and tourists who apparently all had the same idea.  Definitely a big change from my previous trip when it was unusual to see other western travellers, now there were bus tours of people.


Fortunately I discovered that the complex opened at 4.00am and also remains beautifully lit up all night, so the next morning I returned just after opening time to a site almost deserted apart from a handful of devotees doing their morning prayers.

 I couldn’t have asked for more perfect shooting conditions and spent a couple hours in photographic bliss before returning to my hotel for breakfast.

On our previous three week trip, my wife and I had visited Yangon, Mandalay, Inle lake, Bagan and Nagapali beach so this trip we wanted to include some other locations that might be less affected by the recent influx of tourists.

One interesting possibility for that seemed to be the remote town of Mrauk U, which involved first a flight to the town of Sittwe on the north-west coast followed by a five hour boat trip upriver.

Sittwe itself, is currently in the news for racial troubles between the Buddhist majority and the persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority population. Despite not being a particularly pleasant town anyway, the political tension was palpable, so we just stayed one night and caught our boat upriver early the next morning.

The river trip was wonderful, chugging gently upriver on an aged boat surrounded by locals and their bundled belongings, produce, and the odd motorbike. We continued branching off into smaller and smaller tributaries, passing overloaded cargo scows, rafts of bamboo, and families paddling dugout canoes.

Finally arriving in Mrauk U, we gingerly disembarked over the slippery 2x10 gangplank and I soon found a tuk-tuk to carry us over the bone-shaking potholes to our guesthouse on the far side of town.






It’s hard to imagine today, but this remote little town with its many ancient temples was once the capital of a vast Arakanese kingdom, which stretched from the Ganges river to the Ayeyarwaddy river. Now anticipating a bit of a rebirth due to tourism, with its array of temples second only to Bagan, the tense situation in Sittwe and long journey required to get here is definitely keeping Mrauk U off the main tourist circuit for now.

All of which meant that I had the crumbling, temple-scape mostly to myself as I worked both ends of the few dusty days we spent exploring here. The dimly lit and maze-like interior passages of some temples house impossible numbers and endless varieties of Buddha statues around every deeper turn.  Indiana Jones, eat your heart out.

Not being far enough out in the sticks yet, we arranged for a boat to take us three hours up another nearby river to visit some villages in adjacent Chin state where some of the older women still have traditional spider web tattoos covering their entire faces. It turned out to be a bit too much of a set-up photo-op situation for me but the small boat ride each way along the slow moving river, watching people living their daily lives along the river bank, was magical.

 



Retracing our route back to Sittwe, we caught a plane through Yangon connecting on to the airport near Nyaung Shwe, the town at the north end of famous Inle lake.

 Inle lake is the second biggest tourist destination in the country after Bagan. It’s about 16 km long and only 5m deep at its deepest point, and that’s during the rainy season. During the dry season, the average depth is 2m. It’s home to a variety of ethnic peoples, mostly living in bamboo houses built over the water on stilts in several different villages all around the perimeter of the lake. The stilt villages have water “streets”, with shops, restaurants, businesses and temples sprinkled about as well.

There are also an ever growing number of hotels around the lake, also constructed on stilts, each one usually composed of a main building with various walkways connecting to the individual bamboo guest bungalows. Our delightful bamboo bungalow gently moved with the breeze and waves of passing boats, making tripod use from our porch somewhat challenging.

 To transport the locals & tourists everywhere around the lake, there are a rapidly increasing numbers of long-tail boats, powered by big, un-muffled, single cylinder Chinese diesel motors, and carrying up to 20 passengers, all sitting single file. Depending on where your hotel is situated, it can sometimes sound like Friday night at the Harley races with all the boat traffic going by.


 

You can easily spend two or three days by boat just exploring all the sights around the lake, with its variety of tribal markets, craft making villages and pagodas.

One of the most interesting sites that I definitely wanted to return to was the stupa studded village of Indein, about 7 km upstream from Inle lake itself.

On my previous visit there it was a quiet and atmospheric place. This trip, with Inle definitely on the tourist map, I made sure to be there early for the morning’s first light. We were the first boat to arrive and had the place to ourselves for an hour or so.

Indein village extends back from the bank of the river, and there is a covered walkway from the village that rises almost a kilometer up to the temple and main grouping of stupas. There are old crumbling ones with trees growing out the top, blinding white ones, and sparkling gold ones topped with bells tinkling in the gentle morning breeze. What to shoot first and how to frame the unframeable? Truly a mystical place and I was reluctant to eventually leave.

 

By the time we finally returned to our boat, our boatman was playing cards with some other drivers and the long-boat parking area was now chock full of multi-coloured boats, even wedged in wherever they could fit much further down the bank. The souvenir and cold drink stands were busy and it was obviously going to be another busy day in Indein.

 For the following day, we had booked an early start with our now familiar boatman to take us for a journey south of Inle Lake to a village called Sankar.

It’s about a 40km trip each way along a meandering waterway. The route led past endless stilt villages, pagodas reflecting in the water, villagers loading firewood onto oxcarts and families paddling dugout canoes.

Occasionally our boat would almost get hung up, pushing through a lily choked, impossibly shallow portion, more like a flooded field than waterway, but then always finally breaking free into the deeper water just beyond. At times, with arms outstretched like a kid flying, I was actually misty eyed at the pure joy of the scenery and the experience and the 3 hours passed quickly.

 


Arriving in the next lake, the village of Sankar is partway down and first appears at a grouping of ancient stupas rising from the water near the shore. I was flashing on “Apocalypse Now” and half expected to be greeted by a crazed Dennis Hopper. Reality though, not quite so psychedelic and the first person we met on arrival was a friendly monk who spoke English well and gave us a tour of his adjacent monastery and Buddha statues. Sankar turned out to be a peaceful and quiet little village and in not much time we’d strolled the length of it, exploring the overgrown ruins with only the occasional oxcart passing by. I’d probably file it under “the journey, rather than the destination”,  but the journey there and back was definitely magic.

On the trip back upstream to Inle Lake we passed a few other boats of tourists heading south but so far, the trip to Sankar doesn’t seem to have made it onto the main tourist itineraries.

Apart from our time spent on Inle Lake itself, we also spent a couple of nights in the town at the north end of the lake, Nyaung Shwe. Though it had definitely got busier than our last trip, the town still has much charm and an excellent market. There are now many more guesthouses, hotels and restaurants than before and accommodation is vastly less expensive than the places out on the lake itself. Just a bicycle ride north of town is a photogenic old wooden monastery with oval windows where you can see young monks at their studies.

 

Another short flight brought us to our last stop and the country’s top tourist destination, Bagan.

Situated on a vast plain adjacent to a bend in the Ayeyarwaddy river, Bagan is an immense archeological site strewn with some 2200 temples of varying size, age, and condition.

Bottom line is that it is jaw-dropping to behold the first time one sees it, and the place still instilled awe as we arrived for our repeat visit. Any of the main temples viewed individually would be an impressive attraction anywhere else, but the sheer scale and number of them here is truly spectacular. As Marco Polo himself described it,” They make one of the finest sights in the world, being exquisitely finished, splendid and costly. When illuminated by the sun they are especially brilliant and can be seen from the great distance”

You can explore the dusty tracks between them by car, oxcart, or rented bicycle, but without doubt the ultimate view is from the basket of a hot air balloon.

 


On our previous trip we had booked a sunrise flight with Balloons Over Bagan, then the only company that had amazingly secured permission to fly hot air balloons above and amidst this wonderland of priceless pagodas and archeological jewels.

 They’ve been operating in Bagan since 1999 and when we flew with them in 2006 they flew 3 balloons, each with 8 passengers plus pilot. The huge increase in visitors obviously has business soaring and for 2014 they now have a fleet of 10 balloons, with seven of them each carrying 16 passengers plus a pilot.

Despite the lofty ticket price, they apparently can’t keep up with demand and recently a second company, Oriental Ballooning, has lifted off in competition.

Luckily, we’d booked months in advance. My memories of that first flight still rank as one of my top five travel experiences and especially for a photographer, the opportunities for stunning images are arrayed in a panorama of perfection everywhere you look.


 


We were picked up around 5:30am at our hotel in an antique bus and driven in the dark to the launch site, previously determined by the day’s wind direction. After some coffee and croissants, and a safety briefing while watching the balloons inflate, we boarded, and like the orange ball of the sun peeking over the horizon, slowly rose into the misty morning sky.

Apart from the occasional roar of the gas burners, it’s amazingly silent, with only a distant dog barking far below, whispered “wow”s of our fellow passengers, and the sound of shutters clicking.

 This time there were a total of nine balloons, including ours and we were the first to lift off. Every flight is different according to the winds, but our flight, through the growing sunrise, and our route, at times drifting low among the ethereal assortment of misty temples, was ideal.

Floating, silently suspended over the thousand year old scene was like being suspended in time itself and our gentle landing on a golden sandbank of the river came far too soon

 

And, like our flight, our trip had also ended far too soon. Sometimes going back to a favourite place never lives up to your memories, or things have just changed in a way that make you wish you hadn’t returned. This trip wasn’t like that. The Burmese people are still wonderfully friendly. They seem increasingly optimistic about their political situation and genuinely happy that the outside world is now discovering their remarkable country. The changes as the country accelerates to catch up with the rest of Southeast Asia will be dramatic for a place that’s been frozen in time for so long and I worry about the effect that will have. As our balloon pilot quipped when I raised this subject, “with democracy comes French fries”.

 

 
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Burma or Myanmar?

Burma was renamed to Myanmar in 1989 by the military regime in control of the country since 1962. In pre-colonial times, before it became known as Burma under the British, the country was called Mranma or Myanma, depending on pronunciation. There is apparently archeological evidence of the use of the name Myanmar inscribed on a Bagan stone from the eleventh century. There is much political debate over whether the regime at the time had the legitimacy to change the name, but the reality is that other previously colonial countries such as India are also reverting to pre-colonial place names such as Bombay/Mumbai and Madras/Chenai. For simplicity, I’ve decided to refer to the country by Myanmar, the name that the United Nations has also accepted since 1989.







Update:  Rohingya Ethnic Cleaning and Travel to Myanmar

 I usually have a rule not to mix politics with my travel photography but the current situation in Myanmar with the government’s violent ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority population is so horrific that it has changed my position re travel to Myanmar.

The Rohingya minority, who have lived in Myanmar for generations, have been stripped of their citizenship  and have been rounded up by the military and forced into internment camps. Their villages and businesses have been burned, and their people have been raped and slaughtered. Myanmar has also blocked all United Nations aid agencies from delivering  supplies of food, water and medicine to these thousands of desparate civilians now at the centre of a bloody military campaign against them.

Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and a past human rights advocate once regarded in similar esteem as Nelson Mandela, has been a profound disapointment  to the international community for her lack of action or comments on this dire situation. Despite being urged to action by fellow Nobel Laureate Malala, the Dalai Lama and even Pope Francis, she has denied the slaughter, suggesting that terrorists have been misinforming the world about the situation, and even proposing that the Rohingya are burning their own homes.

I personally witnessed this virulent anti Rohingya campaign and the government’s expulsion of international aid workers, and NGO’s such as Doctors Without Borders, during my last visit to Sittwe in Rakhine state. It seems that the government doesn't want any international witnesses to what they are doing. Even more distressing is that during my travels throughout the country it would seem that the majority of Burmese are in support of the government actions.

Though as a photographer, Myanmar has long been one of my favorite travel destinations, for the above reasons I’ve decided not to return. I would also encourage others to seriously consider the above when deciding where to spend their travel dollars.


Continue to  Myanmar Slideshow


All images copyright Michael Sherman Photography MSPHOTO 2017