Road to Mandalay
29 days of traveling and almost 13000 miles in air, 300km on the Irrawaddy river and another 350km on the Myanmar roads from Bagan to Nyaungshwe. On the other side of the world. Southeast Asia. Myanmar, in the past known as Burma. And now it looks like, it was the last for a while.
Frankly speaking, it was not the No. 1 destination to go for me. But when opportunity came, my common mantra "why not to give it a try" prevailed. Before I went I didn't know anything about the country except former name and position on the map. Short research on web reminded me that I saw several images of Bagan and Inle lake on the social media and realised that this country could have a big photographical potential and this strengthen my morale and give the final "let's go!" call.
It is not a plan to be a travel blogger in this post, so I will upload some images from the travel and write some captions below.
Kuthodaw Pagoda lays under the famous Mandalay hill which is a nice place to go for sunrise or sunset, but honestly, no foreground to get a nice image. But it is true, I didn't do any research in advance. The Pagoda itself is a huge yard of small temples and in every each of it, there is a page of Pali's canon, the oldest buddhist script writte in the rock. It is the biggest buddhist book in the world. The lines for photography are amazing and I was lucky enough to visit it in the early morning (6.30 am) during the morning golden light and almost no people were here.
Rudyard Kipling, famous British writer and poet was serving some of his military days in Mandalay, while Burma was a colony under the crown. One of his highlights of his writing is a song, called "Road to Mandalay" which he dedicated to the always smiling Burmese girls. One of those was sitting in the front of the Kuthodaw pagoda and selling blossoming flowers for the buddhists. They believe that donation of flowers in the front of Buddha means good work and recommendation for the afterlife. Myanmar is probably one of the countries, where it is one of the easiest jobs to take portrait photographs. People are extremely friendly and always smiling. You point to your camera and smile, they smile back and allow you to take as many photos as you wish. A lot of people is wearing "thanaka" - creme from the thanaka tree bark which they mix with water and put it on the face. They believe it makes skin younger and it protect you from the sun.
Wedding ceremonies in Myanmar are not a big deal. Normally they happen in the morning, of course the family is invited, they have loud music but it ends around 11 am and people spread around to do their normal work. After the wedding ceremony, the couple travels to one of the famous and popular places in the country such as Kuthodaw, Bagan, Inle and they pose for the newlyweds photos.
Buddhist monks are a separated and very respectful part of the society in Myanmar. Most of the Myanmar people spent at least few days as monks and today it is also popular for the westerns to do so. Monks are thought by the grand master which uses the learning techniques which were brought by Buddha and with the help of them, they search for Nirvana. Monks are not allowed to work and earn money, but because they have to live from something, society invented a donation system for the food and money to support the monasteries. In Mahagandayon monastery in Amarapura, south from Mandalay, they form a famous morning ceremony where they eat the donated food from the society. Today it is forbidden to take photos from the first line as some photographers ended fighting (!) for their spot so the grand master put restrictions, but I was lucky enough, to meet the grand master itself and he let me to snap couple of shots from behind.
In Amarapura, there is a shallow lake of Taungthaman. It divides the village on two parts, so they decided they will build the longest teakwood bridge in the world. Built in 1850 it lays on 1089 posts and measures 1.2 kilometers. It is famous for it's sunset. Ask Lonely Planet cover for Myanmar book.
As said above, portraits can be one of the photographical potential in Myanmar. People don't mind if you take photos of them and most of the time they are happy to pose for you. Then it is up to you to find the spot and lighting for your image.
I found the city of Bagan as one of the greatest places ever. And I remember a bunch of photos from the famous travel photographers from this place. But Bagan is under UNESCO watch and now it is not possible to climb to some of the 2200 pagodas in the area to observe the best sunsets and sunrises in the area. In the past the most popular was Shwesandaw pagoda where most of the best images were made. Today, sadly, you have to go to small artificial hills with bad views, or this viewpoint tower, which is too far away from the main temples. It is what it is. Pity.
In Bagan there are also some monasteries, where you can witness the food ceremony.
Dhammayangyi temple is the biggest temple in Bagan. Near to one of the sunset places, this huge brick temple was built by one of the most cruel kings of the Pagan empire. They say he murdered so may people, he wanted to build the biggest temple to pay off all his sins for the afterlife. The bricks are so close together that even a needle can not penetrate between them. In case it did, while they were constructing the temple, the worker lost both of his hands.
As I mentioned above, Bagan now misses a spot for the sunrise/sunset. Amazing scenery with so many temples, but not possible to see it except if you have extra 300 dollars to go for the exclusive hot air balloon flight above the places. One of the places for sunset is near the Dhammayangyi temple and if the conditions are okay, you can get an OK image. But it can not compare with the image of Bagan from Shwesandaw pagoda. Sad.
As soon as you leave the common ways of tourism, for example, you leave Kalaw and take a trekking to the lake Inle, you can find some old fashioned ways of farming, transport and living in general. Rice terraces, fruit trees, old way of farming and beautiful landscape are just some of the highlights. You can try some local food, get some ginger directly from the field and enjoy the view on traditional villages.
And finally, you reach the famous Inle lake. Not by the lake itself as lake is nothing special except its villages, built on the water itself, but because of the traditional fishermen. Of course, today, fishermen are catching the fishes with the motorboats and on a modern way with improved fishing nets, but there are still some families exist, that practice the old way of fishing, mostly for posing to the photographers and other tourists, where they also earn some extra money.
Here are some of my favourite images from the fishermen:
Ngapali beach is one of the finest beaches in the country. As I was descending with the plane to the Thandwe airport I saw an interesting rock formation near the place I was staying. Realising this is just near "coconut island" I took my gear and hiked up to the peninsula, crossing small inflow stream of water to there. At the beginning, it was nothing special, but I soon realized, it will get better as the sun got down and the tide started to rise. I waited for a while and the conditions got very nice. On the way back I got shocked. The stream, I was passing on the way to the peninsula was now much higher because of the tide and no bridge was near. It was getting dark fast so I had to cross it somehow. Crossing it the water went deep up to my chest and had to put all my camera gear and backpack over my head. Photo well worth.
Yangon has a nice old city line of train which goes through the town in circle. It is fun to go on board on the main railway station and drive for a couple of stations. You can see Yangon people in their everyday mood. Some of them go to work, some go to visit their friends or families, some go to the farming area. In between, there are children on the way to school, and a lot of sellers from water to tangerines... Fun place to watch and get a snap or two. So many stories on the faces of the local people.
The place to visit in Yangon is Swhedagon. The biggest and tallest pagoda in the country and the most sacred place for buddhists in Myanmar. Surrounded by many small pagodas and shrines, this 99 meter tall stupa, covered with gold leafs is visible from all around. This was the only place, where they checked our body temperature and we had to wear masks. It is impressive how many buddhists come to this sight in the evening at the sunset and pray their daily routine.
At the beginning I said this was not my No.1 country to go photographing. Now, month later, when I came back, I'm happy and grateful that I had a chance to see it. And maybe, in the future, I might organise a workshop there too. There are so many places to visit in the country. In this blog post I represent just a few. But there are some beautiful pagodas near Mandalay, Golden rock and a giant Buddha statue near, crazy landscape in the coast of Mon state and not to forget, the Myanmar Himalayas in the north of the country. Hope I will have a chance to visit those places in the future too.
To all the gear freaks out there, here are some info, what I was using. I packed my f-stop Tilopa for carrying my laptop and everyday stuff, and medium ICU bag inside which I had an X-T2, three lenses (10-24mm f/4, 18-55mm f/2.8-4 and 55-200mm f/3.5-5.6) Next to, I took my Manfrotto Befree travel tripod and Kase filters K9 set with polarizer and ND16 grad and reverse filter. I used all the lenses evenly, the only thing I used only twice was the tripod in the Bagan and Rakhine sunset. All other photos are taken handheld. In case I had low light, I raised ISO up to 3200.