Sleepless in Myanmar: 10 Days in the Golden Land

I just returned from conducting a photography workshop in Myanmar. This beautiful and serene country has only recently been reopened to outsiders. The workshop was organized by Liza Politi, an incredible producer. She knows how to take care of both her photographers and, most importantly, the workshop participants, so it is always a pleasure to work with her. We first spent time in Yangon – the capital city. It is a dusty, old colonial city along the Yangon River that is somewhat nostalgic, but still possesses a certain charm and tranquility. From there we travelled to Inle Lake, Myanmar’s second-largest fresh water lake. This charming area is a place where time passes slowly. There are floating farms and whole towns on stilts inhabited by tribal peoples, all surrounded by mountains. Finally, we continued on to the central town of Bagan, which is home to over 3000 pagodas and temples. The town itself is a small, dusty place that, except for the plethora of ancient pagodas and temples, would be a mere dot on the map along the Irrawaddy River. We traveled by plane, bus, taxi, rickshaw, boat and even a little bit on foot, which made the 10 days a whirlwind of movement.

As is often the case during travels to Asia, jet lag was a constant companion. 3am wakeups were the norm, followed by hot hazy days – the kind that have a way of attacking everyone’s energy. Our days were long and filled with activity, allowing us the opportunity to be present for the entirety of the day, observing the sun rise and fall. This easygoing country, nick-named the Golden Land for its many golden temples and pagodas, made the seemingly constant movement during the visit feel effortless. Burmese people give an easy smile, have no pretentions and are open to outsiders. There is no sense that the recent opening of the country has created tensions. They are welcoming to a fault, almost too humble and deferential to others. Whether we were photographing on the streets, in people’s businesses and homes, or in the temples and pagodas, we were never turned away. Granted, this expedition was not about uncovering an issue or reporting on a major story. Rather, it was more of a travelogue that allowed us to observe, learn and record what we saw along the journey.

The spirited group of photographers I was engaged with stem from all over: The United States, Canada, France, Colombia and even included a wonderful Burmese photographer – YuYu Myint Dhan. While making pictures, doing critiques, and sharing our varied experiences, I was posting my work to The New Yorker’s Instagram feed.

A teenager waits by the dock along the Yangon River as dusk settles on this bustling and crowded capital city. Like the rest of the world, he’s on his phone instead of watching the beautiful sunset. Mayanmar is slowly opening up to the world after years of isolation under a military regime. The spirit and charm of the people reflect not only the calm culture but also the innocence of a time that is quickly fading from the face of humanity.

The Shwedagon Pagoda and temple, in the heart of Yangon, Myanmar’s capital, is not only magnificent, but historically a significant landmark in Buddhism. Here candles burn, newly lit by worshippers who are recognizing their ancestors or hoping for a good life.

Smoke and light in a temple in Bagan, where an old local lights up a fat spliff of local tobacco and allows for the magic of backlight to illuminate and otherwise commonplace scene.

The art of seeing, noticing the visual elements in my daily life. Walking down a hot, busy side street in Yangon, Myanmar, I noticed the diffused and cold fluorescent lit back of a man waiting. I don’t know what he was waiting for, but he held long enough for me to capture this simple yet resonant visual moment.

Commuter boats rock in the waves of the Yangon River, waiting to take commuters across to the calm of their homes, leaving behind the bustle of Myanmar’s traffic choked capital city.

Commerce, warm light and water along the Irrawaddy River.

Burmese kick volleyball, Sepak Takraw, played with insane agility and almost gymnastic ease, on the beach along the mighty Irrawaddy River in the town of Bagan in central Myanmar.

Boys being boys, even while in the midst of the magical and deeply resonant Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar.

Yangon’s railway system is a bit old and creaky but it certainly gets used by the locals, and given the onerous car traffic due to the expansion of car ownership in the past 3 years, the rail system can be a welcomed respite from the jammed streets of the city.

Tourists hug the steep steps and narrow walkways on one of Bagan’s thousands of temples and pagodas, waiting for another memorable sunset.

Traditional fishermen on Lake Inle, Myanmar’s second largest fresh water lake. As I subsequently learned, this tranquil scene, organized for the workshop, belies the environmental issues the lake and the communities that live and rely on it are experiencing. Inle Lake is a complex ecosystem. It is ranked among Myanmar’s top tourist destinations, but under a military regime spurned by much of the world, visitors were rare. Then, three years ago, when a civilian government replaced a half century of iron-fisted rule, change in Myanmar — and the lake — began to accelerate. Deforestation, excessive use of fertilizers and climate change are threatening Myanmar’s second-largest lake and its residents, making the situation an environmental catastrophe in the making. Overfishing, deforestation on its shores, an excessive use of pesticides and fertilizers and toxic waste and sedimentation are choking the lake, which forms a valuable ecosystem. The effects of #climatechange have worsened the situation. Now, a UN-funded campaign, is working together with the lake’s residents to reverse the damage.

Bagan is a dusty town along the Irrawaddy River famous for it’s more than 3000 pagodas and temples. In the early morning or late afternoon light it can take on the mythical, timeless and surreal feeling of a movie set. Myanmar is pushing to make it a UNESCO world heritage site, but due to the many earthquakes it’s lived through, including a major one a few years ago, the efforts to rebuild and maintain these incredible monuments to Buddhism and it’s rich past have created a problem. The use of cement and materials that are not original have made it quite difficult to gain the status one would think this magical place deserves.

The above slideshow is a small portfolio of images from my time in Myanmar. This edit was created from the 12 most-liked images of the 20 I posted during the weeklong Instagram takeover. This is a new way of approaching an edit for me, so I decided to move forward with it as an interesting exercise. Below is another slideshow of some of my other favourite photographs from Myanmar. This trip reminded me of the importance of getting out into the world and simultaneously observing and capturing moments. I normally use my work to document social, geopolitical or underreported stories – always with a kind of sharp edge or point to be made. It was refreshing to use photography purely for its unique form of expression: trying to capture moments, see light, learn about a place and ultimately record memories in a poetic and visually inspired manner. Photography continues to inspire me as a brilliant exercise that is sometimes pure joy, sometimes pure agony. The pursuit of this unique form of expression consistently challenges the meaning of life for this image-making soul.

From a hot, sunny day in Yangon.

Drinking in a bar in the Chinatown district of Yangon.

A young girl rides her bike through the streets of Inle.

Stylish hat-wearing women and an intruding man at a temple in Bagan, the place of temples and pagodas.

Tourists and their phones.

Sleeping dogs and passersby.

Girl on the shores of the Irrawaddy River in Bagan.

Inside a temple in Bagan.


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