Myanmar, Some thoughts for Photographers
I had some comments on the previous Myanmar blogs from Kirk Tuck who writes one of the most intelligent photography blogs around and is a daily must read for me. Kirk suggested that readers might be more interested in the 'Myanmar Experience' as well as the photos and I fully agree. It has always been my intent with this blog to inform and give some insight into the destinations as well as to talk about equipment and the technical side of getting the shots. Well here goes...........
Hmm, I travel a lot in Asia both on business and to feed my insatiable desire to photograph interesting people, places and cultures and for me Myanmar is by far the most interesting location that I have been to so far. Why do I say that? Well, firstly you have the diversity. Myanmar has everything from crumbling but colorful cities like Yangon, the mystical majesty of the temple covered plain of Bagan to the completely different, cooler and unique Inle Lake. Every type of photographic situation can be encountered; streets, markets, glorious sunrises and sunsets over thousands of temples and water born shooting of fishermen who have a totally distinct technique that hasn't changed for centuries.
Add to that the fact that there are very few tourists at the moment and its getting easier to get an entry visa, English is widely spoken, food and transport are cheap and you have a very compelling mix for the travel photographer.
I also find people in Myanmar to be amongst the friendliest and most amenable to be photographed of any of the Asian countries that I have visited and it would only take the purchase of one of the great value and extraordinarily high quality and original crafts on offer or a gift of some pencils and pads to kids and they will pose happily for as long as you want. Somehow or another there still appears to be a structure to the Myanmar society and it feels very safe to me and all of the places I visited were clean and had very tasty and nourishing food. Being close to the Indian and Thai borders, the food is very much based around mild but tasty curries and rice. Vegetables figure large and I have to say that I felt very healthy during and after the trip and even shed a few unwanted pounds from the waistline :)
Where To Go?
This is a little bit tricky to answer as this is very much a function of the time you have on your hands and the degree of adventurous spirit and travel experience that you have. So, lets assume that you are a first time visitor (as most people are) to Myanmar, what are the best locations to visit and what should you look out for?
For me there are four key locations for the first time visitor; Yangon, which is the international point of entry, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake. All of these places have good hotels, safe food and have a different and somewhat unique, aspect to them from a photography point of view. Lets look at these locations in turn and in particular focus on the most interesting locations to visit at each separate destination. Just before we do that though, a couple of travel watch outs that might catch out the unwary. First up, its getting easier to get a tourist visa to enter Myanmar but allow yourself at least a week before travel to get it and don't leave it to the last minute. In some cases a visa can be arranged on arrival but I would advise against this as it can be based on your nationality and could be whimsical. Secondly, be very careful with the cash you bring. Don't panic. I am not talking about theft, what I am referring to here is the age and condition of your notes. Bring crisp, unfolded US dollars that were printed after 2006 or your money will not be accepted and there are no exceptions.
Ok, having got these tips out of the way, lets look at the key locations I mentioned.
As I mentioned, Yangon is the point of entry to Myanmar and it has a nice clean and modern airport. Surprisingly for Asia its pretty quick and easy to clear customs and collect your luggage, just exercise normal travel diligence and you wont have any problems. Incidentally, always travel with a photocopy of your passport in your case and keep 2 passport sized photos with you. The must see location in Yangon is the fabulous Shwedagon pagoda which is visible from many points in the low rise Yangon city. Most photographers carry a tripod to capture the magical period between sunset and the golden temple being illuminated and there is no problem bringing or setting one up. It's definitely worth coming late afternoon and exploring the side alleys adjacent to the four entrances to the pagoda. Some of these are book sellers who specialize in Bhuddist texts and you will always find some monks hanging around. There is also a nice relaxed feel to these passages and a there is no shortage of subject material in the nice contrasty light.
The second location worth a visit is Botatuang Pagoda which is famous for its golden corridors and Bhudda hair relic.
The courtyard here is also open and is a nice place to wander around and if you shoot discretely its easy to blend in.
As ever in religious centers your manners need to be considerate and a degree of politeness is required as these are functioning Pagodas and not tourist sites. You may want to consider that its best to travel with very light flip flops that you can stash in your bag as footwear is not allowed inside the pagodas and its just safer to carry them with you in case they disappear.
The other benefit of Botatuang is that it is adjacent to the main Jetty and I wish I had spent more time there in the late afternoon as you can get some great shots of the still manual process of unloading the boats. It's also a nice spot for the sunset and you are assured of some interesting subject matter.
As I mentioned, time your trip to the pagoda so that you can get to the jetty for the last hour of light, its only a five minute walk from the pagoda and you will encounter all sorts of interesting subject matter along the way.
I think that if you are on a shortish trip then Yangon should only get a couple of days of your time at either end of your trip, that gives you two evening shoots for Shwedagon and the jetty and a morning to catch either some street shooting or visit the railway station or Scott's market. Incidentally, one unique feature of Myanmar that you will quickly notice is that people wear a form of make up which is made from grinding a kind of sandalwood into a paste, its designed to protect the skin from the sun and has the benefit of making the subjects highly photogenic.
Finally on Yangon, I stayed on both of my recent trips in the excellent Traders hotel which is in a great location for all of the pagodas and next to the market and railway stations. It's also easy to wander out and quickly find yourself in fascinating street shooting territory.
I think that keen photographers of all types develop a thirst and style that aligns with the places, people and situations that interest and stimulate them. For me when I travel, I enjoy spectacle and grandness and I particularly seek out contrast and shadow, and above all, as a European, I am fascinated by the culture and people of Asia. This is why Bagan is one of my very favorite destinations.
Bagan is just such an intoxicating blend of grand landscape splendor and captivating pagodas and markets that I am convinced that if you come here you will wish you had stayed longer and will be itching to return. The range of subject matter is huge and it takes nothing more than a polite word, small gratuity or purchase to have people like this gentle old cheroot smoking lady patiently pose for you.
The vistas at sunrise and sunset are extraordinary and its so easy to find a vantage point from which to shoot.
These shots were taken from Myengon Pagoda or you can simply shoot at ground level to get some interesting silhouettes or backlit pagoda towers.
Somehow I like this simple shot more than some of the grander landscapes that are on offer. It was taken in the very last light of the day, handheld on the magical little Nikon V1.
There are three locations that you must visit in Bagan and the first, and my personal favorite, is Shwezigon Pagoda which has a long, grand walkway leading via market stalls to its lovely golden pagoda.
I would strongly urge that you try to make time for at least a full morning here as it has everything from the contrasty, pillared walkway to the golden splendor of its magnificent pagodas. Just ask any local and they will scare up the birds for you by throwing a harmless tennis ball onto the roof.
There is no shortage of interesting people to photograph either, just take some time, wander around in hunter mode and the shots will come to you. There is good advice about photography that you can do one of two things; find a great stage and wait for actors to come along onto the stage, or, you can follow interesting actors and wait until they are on the stage you want. This location lends itself perfectly well to either approach, I could happily sit for hours in the pillared walkway waiting for subjects to come into it or simply track down or follow one of the many fascinating people that you will find here.
The second must see, is Shwe San Daw where you will find the giant reclining candlelit Bhudda. A fisheye is a good idea for this one if you have it. I will come back to this later, but a fixer is pretty much essential for you on a first trip and they will easily organize some novice monks to pose for you to get the cliche shots. This is also a great location to climb the pagoda and shoot sunset so its probably best to leave this to later in the day.
Finally, of the three pagodas to see is the Htilominlo pagoda complex. I have a nice story about this when I left my camera bag, complete with passport and money on the roof of this pagoda only for the little girl in this photo to show up at the bus with the complete kit intact and untouched. I willingly bought the wind-chime from her for $20 and she was delighted. I also felt great with my faith in human spirit intact, so much so that I give the chimes a good luck ring every time I enter and exit my apartment. The chimes she chose for me were inscribed with symbols for my favorite days, Friday and Saturday.
The fishermen and people in this locality live in a simple little village on the river bank next to the hotel and it's a nice idea to take along some small gifts, torches, batteries, soap and any old clothes you have, and of course some pencils and pads and balloons for the kids. You will find this kind of gesture will be greatly appreciated and respected, and of course there is always the possibility of some lucky photographic karma to enjoy....
Just to close out on Bagan, there is also a very nice working market at Nyaung U where ancient buses lurch through the town which has local crafts, 'wet foods' and every conceivable necessity on show without the usual tourist tat you will get elsewhere in Asia. At the end of a hard days photography, for dinner and evening entertainment I can strongly recommend the delightful Queen House restaurant complete with cultural music and dance show as the perfect way to round off your day.
Mandalay was one of the ancient capitals of Myanmar and was of course immortalized by Rudyard Kipling in has famous 'road to Mandalay' poem. It's a short and easy flight from Bagan and its main point of interest for photographers is the U Bein bridge which is most frequently shot at sunset from a boat on the Ayeyarwarddy river. In all honesty, I have never spent a great deal of time there and, given that it is the main centre of industrialization in Myanmar, I would advise not hanging about and giving it a day of your time only. There is no doubting however that the U Bein bridge is a very interesting photographic location, problem for me is that many other people think likewise and it is probably one of the most iconic and photographed locations in Myanmar.
The bridge itself can be shot in a number of different ways and I have included a few here. It's also possible to go underneath the bridge to photograph the lone tree on the other side but you will pay the penalty of having to find a good position for the sunset when you get back to the other side. The other locations in Mandalay that are worthy of a visit include the Mahagandayon monastery where you can photograph the hundreds of monks and novices queuing and then eating their dinners.
There is an interesting protocol about all of this in that apparently the monks wont speak to each other and its forbidden to look at anyone else's food. Full focus should only be on your own meal and these manners are strictly observed.
As usual, its also worth wandering about and getting away from the main activities, this will more likely reward you with more interesting shots and a better opportunity to talk to the monks, some of whom speak excellent English and have a thirst for learning. I had a great laugh with a monk who asked me to explain what 'Lovely Jubbly' and 'Trouble and Strife' meant !!! He had apparently been listening to some BBC radio where these Cockney terms were used.
Incidentally, it's also worth hanging around at the kitchen areas as there is always lots of activity and I was lucky enough to get this shot on a previous trip there. Just make sure you don't get in the way and remember at all times that this is not a theme park and most of the people there will be mystified as to why you find these mundane tasks so fascinating.
Having visited the monastery, the other location I would recommend is the U Min Thonze cave temple at Sagaing Hill. Inside the temple is a startling row of Buddhas and the lighting is nice if you can get the right subject. I had a very near miss with this shot as I stopped shooting at this point not realizing at the time that one more shot frame would have got me a nice reflection of the monk in the mirror on the wall. These little details are what makes a photo different and unique for me and I continually search for them to try to make my photography that little bit different and unique from all of the others that will shoot the same location.
Finally on Mandalay, I stayed at the Ayeyarwarddy River View hotel and again learned the lesson of always keeping a camera handy. I took the V1 with me to a very early breakfast in preparation for the flight to the last destination at Heho (Inle Lake) and saw one of the kitchen staff having a quiet moment on the balcony. It's a nice serene shot in the morning dawn light and it seemed to me to evoke an atmosphere that is often missing from my shots. I am so glad that I carried the little V1 everywhere. I really like the negative space of the sky and I know that if I took this to a photo critique I would get advised to 'loose the empty space' which for me would destroy the tranquility of the shot.
This is the final recommended destination for a first time trip to Myanmar and for me its a close second to Bagan for interest and photographic opportunity. It's again a short domestic hop from Mandalay to Heho and then on by bus to the head of the lake. One nice thing about places like this is that the light is generally wonderful and, given some decent blue sky and clouds, you will be guaranteed some fantastic shooting opportunities. En route to the lake you can stop off at Shwe Yan Pyay Temple which is famous for its oval windows which are usually shot with novice monks framed in them. Unfortunately, I have been there twice and the light has been far too harsh to get this shot and its no great loss as its one of the very cliched Myanmar shots and I am very doubtful that I could have added any new interpretation to it.
You can however mingle with the monks as long as you don't overly disturb their studies and its possible to get some nice relaxed shots of them once they are used to your presence. The head monk also makes an interesting subject and I have shot him a few times. I quite like the most recent one from this trip for that rather nice context of the table, books and bell and his contemplative posture.
As an added bonus you may be able to get some of the novices to pose for you in the old pagoda which is adjacent to the main monastery, it's small but wonderfully colored and detailed. Please leave a reasonable donation to the monastery if you do this, it will be small money to you but mean a lot to sustain them.
Once you arrive at Yuang Shwe town its very simple to charter a long tailed boat down the lake to your destination. On the way you will confront all sorts of shooting opportunities as the daily life of the lake unfolds for you. Keep your camera on hand at all times set on a high enough shutter speed to give you half a chance of a steady shot from the fast moving boats.
I commented on a recent post on the blog that DP Review had suggested that the V1 was the ideal camera for 'soccer mums' hmmm, well if you are a soccer mum zipping along on Inle Lake in a long tailed boat you will be very happy that you brought a V1 as its snappy focus, lightening frame rates and stellar stabilization system absolutely shine in this kind of shooting environment.
I stayed at the Sky Lake resort hotel which, like the other hotel I stayed in on a previous trip, is a series of chalets on sticks perched on the lake. These hotels are pretty basic but have a real charm about them and the setting is simply extraordinary, I am sure you wouldn't be disappointed and its hardly roughing it.
Get your boatman to take you up the side canals and as the afternoon light comes up you will get really nice reflections and textures. I am particularly fond of the white, wispy marsh grass that looks amazing with the sun lighting it. It's not easy to frame your shots as you whiz along on the long tail boats which are very fast and anticipation is, as usual, a very valuable photographic skill in these situations.
Once the day starts to come to an end try to get close to some of the fishermen and for a small gratuity they will maneuver into a sunset position or simply look for the more natural shots on offer as the fishermen ply their trade in the late evening light when they seem to step up their efforts.
I like to get shots the way I want them in camera as opposed to spending time in Lightroom or editing so I will sometimes play about a bit with the white balance and I found the 'shade' setting on the V1 produced very nice light golden tones on the lake at sunset.
Here is a different tone with a more daylight effect, shot on a G3 that I was using in parallel with the V1 but with the lovely 20mm prime.
As usual, never stop shooting until all of the light is gone, it's possible to get some very atmospheric shots as the last remnants of twilight fades and you can of course hold a fisheye steady at ridiculously low shutter speeds anyway.
The other aspect of shooting on the lake is to catch the earliest light as well as the latest. Mornings on the lake are usually misty and this of course is as much of an opportunity as it is a drawback. If you tail some of the boats on the lake you can usually catch the trailing gulls. Just be very careful as you will probably need to stand up to get this kind of shot and it doesn't take much to tip these shallow boats so it's usually best to ask the boatman to slow a bit and warn your fellow passengers about what you are doing so that they don't move while you are up.
Finally from Inle Lake, always remember to look behind you, there is nearly always something just as interesting there as in front. I got several very nice shots of my boatman who was spectacularly well color co-ordinated with his boat !!!
Lets be clear about my intent here, I am trying to share some insight into what I find to be a fascinating country to visit and show some examples of how you might want to approach some of the locations and subjects with one or two useful pieces of advice thrown in. This is not Lonely Planet and I am not into the minutiae of every city and location, I have unfortunately only spent a couple of weeks in the country myself so do not feel qualified to go into that kind of detail.
What I can do is give some advice to the photo traveller who is considering a visit to Myanmar:
1. It's best to go as part of a structured, specialist photography trip for your first visit as these guys will know the best locations to shoot, value for money places to stay and eat and very importantly will always have a local guide who can arrange any scenes or subjects that some of these photos simply don't work without. It takes all of the logistic thinking out of your first visit and leaves you free to shoot in this photographic paradise. The best people I know for this kind of trip are Singapore Trekker and Eyes on Asia they are both run by the nicest people you could hope to meet and both will give you a hassle free and insightful trip.
2. Best time to go is probably around January to get the best weather and least tourists (although its hardly overrun by tourist hordes)
3. Food is very good and just exercise the usual travel basics and you will be fine. I personally liked the cuisine very much and its a much more healthy diet than you will encounter in the West being predominately mild vegetable curries with chicken and fish. A bit of a hybrid between Indian and Thai as you would expect from the location. It goes without saying, drink only bottled water and avoid ice.
4. This might be a little controversial but make sure you leave your politics behind, you are here to take photographs and gain some insights into a fascinating blend of cultures. You will do neither yourself or the local people any favors by agitating in any way. This is a mantra of mine, I seek to show what I see and my understanding of these countries, their people and cultures and I leave my politics and religion out of it. My experience of Myanmar was far superior to that of many other countries in Asia that are not perceived as having political strife and at no time did I feel unsafe or at risk of robbery. The people I met welcomed me and treated me very well and that should be reciprocated. It's easy in Asia to make a career out of showing people in poverty and in desperate situations, like bad news this is often much more stimulating to people and 'sells more' however, I personally prefer to see things my way and show the more positive aspects of life if I can. To me Myanmar is about color, the light, diversity, the deeply religious life that people live and the fascinating places that are, as yet, largely unspoiled. This is not a cop out, if I see something that has to be shown as a reality then I will do so, but my primary aim is to immerse myself as much as I can to show the country and people as I see it and I would urge you to do likewise.
5. Travel light, by that I mean take only what is essential to your photographic approach or style. I do not carry a tripod unless I know in advance that it will be essential to have one for a particular location or shot. My standard travel kit is a Nikon D3 with 24 & 50 f1.4 lenses although I took the tiny and lightweight Nikon V1 twin lens kit on my most recent Myanmar trip and only once or twice missed the D3 and very fast glass. The reason for this is that I knew from experience that many of the shooting situations in Myanmar require a longish zoom or telephoto because of your shooting position. This is particularly the case when shooting the vistas on Bagan plain, the magnificent U-Bein bridge at sunset and fascinating fishing and village scenes at Inle Lake, you simply wont get the shots you want without a well stabilized longish zoom.
This is my standard travel kit and pretty much what I took on my first visit to Myanmar (you can read my thoughts on this kit here if you are interested D3 travel kit ) It all fits very nicely into the Think Tank bag and is reasonably portable - thats all I have to carry. What I did notice was a bit of a change in my shooting style with the V1 but I did get the shots I wanted - horses for courses? I found the V1 made me look at things differently and I used it to get shots that I normally wouldn't take which is great. If you are going to Myanmar on any kind of itinerary similar to the one I suggest then you wont go wrong with a V1 or M4/3 camera with a stabilized zoom that gets you around 250 - 300 mm equivalent. Apart from that, unless it's intrinsic to your style, I would leave the tripods, flashes, filters and all behind and stay unencumbered, learn your camera and push it beyond what you think its limits are :) One of the reasons I urge you to stay light is that to fully explore Myanmar you will do a lot of internal, domestic flying and these smallish turboprop planes have minimal storage space in the cabin and its a real pain to cart a lot of gear through these small airports.
Here is a quick summary of the locations and suggested hotels which are the ones I used on this trip which was organized by the wonderful guys at Singapore Trekker
Yangon: This is the best point of entry for International flights and we spent the first and last nights here in the very comfortable and well located Traders Hotel which also had the luxury of an albeit very slow internet connection. Incidentally, there is almost no mobile coverage outside of Yangon and even there you need to buy an expensive SIM and rent a handset - I would give it a miss and revel in the luxury of being out of contact :)
Bagan: Traders Hotel in Yangon is not far from the airport and we caught a short internal domestic flight to Bagan on Mandalay Airlines (all domestic flights on same airline) and stayed at the Bagan River View Hotel which is really well located and very nice. Breakfast in particular is a real treat on the river bank.
Mandalay: Another short flight takes you to Mandalay and we stayed at the Ayeyarwarddy River View Hotel which was good value.
Inle Lake: We stayed at the Sky Lake Resort Hotel which was basic but very well located and friendly.
I hope that this post was helpful to anyone considering a trip to Myanmar and hopefully it will stimulate some thoughts on how to approach it photographically. I am personally planning to return and if possible visit the coastal region which I have not yet been to.
You can read on the blog about similar experiences in Bali, Lombok/Gili Meno, Chiang Mai along with some views on travel photography equipment and I also have plans to visit Central Vietnam in February so keep an eye open for that update.
Finally, I make no excuse for finishing by another vista from the magnificent Bagan, hope you enjoyed this and found something of use.