Myanmar (formerly Burma), is
truly one of the most enjoyable countries that I have ever
photographed. It's a beautiful land and people who,
because of their repressive military regime, have endured a mostly
isolated existance from the rest of the world for decades.
(Note: see update below re Rohingya Ethnic Cleansing and coup)
However, due to the release of imprisoned leader Aung San Suu Kyi
in 2010, and "democratic" elections, up until the current situation
regarding Myanmar's brutal treatment of its Rohingya people, the
country has been experiencing a newfound growth in optimism,
tourism and investment. In 2014, when it seemed as if the country
was finally emerging from its dark past, I decided that it was
time for a return visit before the inevitable arrival of Starbucks
and the Golden Arches began to edge out all the golden temples. My
visit had been in 2006.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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”.
* * * *
* * * *
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.
Rohingya Ethnic Cleansing, Genocide, 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
population is so horrific that it has changed my position
re travel to Myanmar.
The Rohingya, who've lived in Myanmar
for generations, have been rounded up by the military, stripped of
their citizenship and forced into internment
camps. Their businesses and some 390 villages have been burned,
and their population raped and slaughtered.
Myanmar has also
blocked all United Nations aid agencies from delivering supplies
of food, water and medicine as well as banned journalists from
covering the situation.
The Associated Press discovered evidence
that hundreds of Rohingya had been massacred in August 2017 by
Myanmar's military and buried in several mass graves.
Burmese Reuters reporters who uncovered the story were sentenced
to seven years in jail for divulging state secrets. After intense
international pressure, they were eventually released after
serving more than 500 days in jail.
According to U.N. estimates, around a
million Rohingya have now fled this systematic ethnic cleansing
and genocide, crossing the border into Bangladesh where they now
fight for survival in squalid conditions in the world's largest refugee camp.
At the time, Myanmar’s de facto leader,
Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and past human
rights advocate once regarded in similar esteem to Nelson Mandela,
came under fire by the international community for her emphatic
denial of government atrocities, even to the International Court
of Justice in the Hague. Despite being urged to action by fellow
Nobel Laureate Malala, the Dalai Lama, and even Pope Francis, she's denied the slaughter,
suggesting that terrorists have been misinforming the world about
the situation, even proposing that the Rohingya have burned
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 full support of the government's anti Rohingya actions.
In recent developments, Aung San Suu Kyi's National League
For Democracy party won a landslide victory in the November 2020
elections. On February 1st, 2021 the military again seized power
in a coup, citing election fraud. Suu Kyi and her government
officials have been rounded up and detained. It seems unlikely that the
political situation in the country, let alone for the Rohingyas is
going to be resolved any time soon.
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