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Travel Photography in the Golden Land of Myanmar

Today, April 18th, is World Heritage day, as designated by UNESCO. So we thought what better way to celebrate than by looking at images of a country with many World Heritage sites. One you have the opportunity to journey to with us – Myanmar!

Myanmar is like a time capsule

Close your eyes and visualize a place arising from a time capsule, a rural nation of traditional values swelling with ethereal landscapes, awe-inspiring temples, and of course, glittering golden stupas.

From the bustling “want to be global and modern” spirit of Yangon to peaceful minority villages and hill tribes scattered throughout the country, Myanmar indeed allures the senses of even the seasoned traveler.

Burmese woman working textiles at Inle Lake Myanmar
Burmese woman working at the lotus silk weaving handicraft village in Inle Lake.

But more importantly, at the core of Myanmar, are the Burmese; friendly people always ready to smile back and lend a helping hand anywhere you go.

Unlike other countries in Asia, tourism has not fully developed in Myanmar. In fact just a few years ago, it was off limits to westerners, but today, with a democratic reform in progress, the locals are welcoming and eager to receive visitors.

No scams, no tricks, no rip-offs, the Burmese are thrilled to receive foreigners, engage in meaningful conversations, raise awareness of their cultural heritage and generally play a role in the global society.

If you have ever toyed with the idea of traveling and photographing in faraway exotic lands, this is the perfect place.

Myanmar is officially the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (it’s also known as Burma) a nation in Southeast Asia with more than one hundred ethnic groups. It lies along the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, sharing borders with India, Bangladesh, China, Laos, and Thailand.

A display of colorful Burmese umbrellas showing blue, green, yellow and orange umbrellas
Close up view of colorful Burmese umbrellas.

Mostly as yet undiscovered by tourists

Myanmar is a diamond in the rough, idling to be discovered.

So when it comes to documentary and travel photography, few other places on earth can host the vast diversity and opportunities that the famed golden land can provide for both amateur and professional photographers.

The photographic possibilities are what drew me there initially.

But the opportunity to reconnect with the Burmese people and see the changes in the nation for myself is what fueled my desire to keep going back since the first time I visited back in 2013.

So I returned last December and visited some of the same locations as my first trip and also new, more remote places that were off limits to visitors at that time. It was in part a scouting trip for my next photography tour with Digital Photo Mentor to Myanmar next year (February 2019).

a Burmese farmer in the afternoon sun near her village of Bagan Myanmar
Portrait of a Burmese woman, a farmer from a village in the afternoon near Bagan in Myanmar.

My experience in the country

Upon returning home from the trip, the first blog post I made from my notes contained the following words:

I was first here in 2013, and the beauty of the raw land and its people hooked me immediately. It was not long ago, but a lot has happened in Myanmar since then.

Back then the country had only recently started to open up to foreigners, with many areas forbidden or hard to reach.

Nowadays the changes are obvious;

I couldn’t help but notice the increase in traffic and flock of new vehicles filling the streets of Yangon.

The rush hour now bears traffic jams, the skyline is dotted with cranes due to the advance of new construction, there’s a shopping mall filled with internationally recognized brand names, and signs of progress and investment are everywhere.

Still, Yangon is a place where you can encounter modern bank facilities while looking to exchange U.S. dollars for the local currency.

Then next door you'll find another financial institution where dozens of employees are recording deposits manually in huge ledger books as if computers or technology were something out of a science fiction movie.

That’s pretty much Yangon, a place where modern collides with tradition and the past; a place where you can sink in the pool of a five-star resort just five minutes away from a traditional fish market where goods still trade in the same way they did decades ago.

Besides Yangon, the rest of the country (or the parts I’ve visited) remains mostly the same.

There is more and better infrastructure and services in the now more touristic regions, but most of it has not changed.

a temple over the plains of Bagan Myanmar
Temple over the plains of Bagan in Myanmar (Burma).

Since pictures tell stories far better than words, let's take a look at some photographs from the most iconic sites in Burma. I've compiled these pictures from both of my photo trips to the golden land.

I hope they give you a quick glimpse of the kind of places, people and cultural exchange you can experience on a photography trip to Myanmar.

Yangon

Yangon was the capital of Myanmar until it was relocated to Naypyidaw in 2006. Still, this city remains the largest and most important commercial hub of Myanmar.

This is the first place you'll see when you come to Myanmar, and where you will notice most of the changes and signs of modernization currently shaping the country.

I believe it's often overlooked and people just stop here in a rush to see other more popular regions.

But Yangon not only boasts the most significant number of colonial-era buildings in Southeast Asia, it's also home to the most sacred Buddhist temple in Myanmar, the Shwegadon Pagoda. There are lots to see and photograph in Yangon and all around town: the circular train, monasteries, a unique fish market and the also famous Kandawgyi Lake.

Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon Myanmar
Architectural detail of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.
Karaweik Hall as viewed from Kandawgyi Lake in Yangon
View of the Karaweik Hall at Kandawgyi Lake in Yangon.

Kyaing Tong (Kengtung)

A charming, quiet town in the far east of Shan State, Kyaing Tong is set around Naung Tong Lake, with a picturesque mountainscape as its backdrop.

This little gem is not only far from the traditional tourist routes, it also hosts one of the easiest to reach hill tribes.

Photographing the sunset around the lake and walking around the market is without a doubt a unique experience. But what sets this location apart is the variety of hill treks nearby with access to Wa, Akha, Palaung, and Lahu villages where little has changed in centuries.

The treks are easy to moderate, but any effort expended is rapidly compensated once you reach the villages.

The hospitality of the locals is genuinely phenomenal; they will invite you into their shacks for tea and tell you any stories you want with the help of a guide.

Portrait of an elderly Burmese woman smoking
Portrait of an elder woman of the Wan Sai Akha Village in Kyaing Tong smoking.

As you can imagine, these are people in need.

They live with so little and the things we take for granted aren't common around here.

If you go, I recommend doing what I did, before heading to the hills, take a stroll to the local market in Kyaing Tong and buy some medicine and school supplies and take them to the villages. I suggest you buy it regionally because by doing so you are further helping the local economy supporting the shops there.

Getting back to picture making, if you are into landscapes and documenting the life of ethnic groups, this is your place.

rice paddies around Kyaing Tong in Myanmar
Rice paddies around the town of Kyaing Tong in Myanmar.

Inle Lake

Inle Lake is the second largest lake in Myanmar.

About 70,000 souls live around it, scattered in small villages all over the lake; they are called Intha.

Although this is a popular tourist destination in the country, the local culture remains the same. The homes are mostly straightforward; just wood and woven bamboo built on stilts.

So photographing and navigating the villages is a pleasing experience.

But Inle Lake is also famous for its fishermen.

They are well-known for a distinct rowing style which involves standing in their boats on one leg and wrapping the other leg around the oar to move it; needless to say, their fishing nets are also unique and worth seeing.

Fisherman of Inle Lake, Myanmar
Fisherman of Inle Lake, Myanmar.
Group of farmers harvesting sticky rice in the countryside of Shan Province Myanmar
SHAN PROVINCE, MYANMAR – Group of farmers harvesting sticky rice in the countryside.

Inle Lake is remarkable for photography.

There is also a five-day rotational market, floating vegetable garden, and both cigar and lotus weaving factories.

I've been there twice, and I can assure you that you'll never get tired of discovering new things in this area.

Best of all, Inle Lake is fun. You'll spend your days moving around as the locals do, by long tail-boat.

Man collecting mud and weeds from the bottom of the lake to build floating gardens in Inle Lake
Man collecting mud and weeds from the bottom of the lake to build floating gardens in Inle Lake.
Typical house built on stilts in Inle Lake, Myanmar
Typical house built on stilts in Inle Lake, Myanmar

Bagan

Bagan is perhaps the most mystical place in all Myanmar; an ancient city that is pretty much an archeological site. The area is only about 16 square miles but it is dotted with over 2000 Buddhist temples and pagodas.

Sunrise over the famous temples and pagodas showing the golden light of Myanmar
Sunrise over the famous temples and pagodas in Bagan in Myanmar.

In Bagan, you can start shooting at sunrise, finish well after sunset day after day, and yet still never get tired of it.

Beyond the temples, there are plenty of villages and monasteries you can visit. Bagan is also a very spiritual place and so monks are a very common sight.

Monks sitting around candlelight on a temple in Bagan, Myanmar
Monks sitting around candlelight on a temple in Bagan, Myanmar.

Monks inside a temple reading a book around candlelight on a temple in Bagan.Young monk peeking through a window in the village of Shwe Kun Cha Hpaya close to Bagan in Myanmar.

Like everywhere in Myanmar, people here are friendly and welcoming. So beyond the postcard-like landscape to capture, you can also arrange to photograph the monks and the people from the villages.

Farmers driving cattle back to their villages in the afternoon near Bagan
Farmers driving cattle back to their villages in the afternoon near Bagan in Myanmar.
Burmese woman with a basket full of rice
Burmese woman with a basket full of rice.

Worth mentioning is the hot air balloon flights.

Whether you go for it or not – I strongly recommend it!

Or if you prefer to watch them rise from the rooftop of a temple, this is a sight that you'll never forget and of course, you can get epic photos of the experience.

Balloons fly over Bagan in the early morning light
Hot air balloons flying over the plains of Bagan in the early morning.
Hot air balloons getting ready to fly
Hot air balloons getting ready to fly – early morning in Bagan.

Recommended Photography Gear

Myanmar is a developing country, but it’s pretty safe if you don't go to areas of conflict.

Just like in every other part of the world, use common sense, and you won't have any problems. I never had any issues on either of my visits; on the contrary, I always felt secure.

When it comes to equipment, you can take as little or as much as you want and you can carry anything that you feel comfortable with in either a shoulder bag or a backpack.

In Myanmar you're mostly going to be shooting landscapes and portraiture, so you'll need lenses to cover from wide-angle to mid-telephoto.

Sunrise over Inle Lake villages
Sunrise over Inle Lake villages.
NOTE: For clarification and to ensure that things don’t get complicated, I'll be talking about focal length for full frame, so if you have a camera with a crop sensor or another format, just know that you need to convert for your system.

Go light

If you want to travel super light, at a minimum, you may want an all-purpose lens.

I call this a travel zoom, like a 28-300mm or equivalent.

With only this lens you'll be able to cover most of your needs and be able to travel super light.

If you want to throw in something else to the bag, add a wide-angle lens, like a 14-24mm or similar focal length.

The only downside with this setup is that generally speaking, your “travel zoom” will have some limitations in low light situations and you'll have to compensate with a higher ISO. But I am mentioning this because you'll be shooting a lot indoors and temples are generally dark. In fact, in many situations, you'll be shooting under candlelight.

Woman lighting incense in a famous Yangon landmark, the Shwedagon Pagoda
Woman lighting incense in the Shwedagon Pagoda, a famous landmark in Yangon.

Trifecta of lenses

If you can afford this and can carry it all, I'd say the ideal lenses to take to Myanmar are the so-called trifecta:

  • a 14-24mm,
  • 24-70mm,
  • and a 70-200mm.

These lenses are normally professional grade with a fixed aperture of f/2.8, so you'll gain a sometimes much needed extra stop of light. Of course, from there you can get as complicated as you want and also take a fast prime, a second camera body, etc.

If you are familiar with the use of flash and are used to using one as fill off-camera, I also strongly recommend that you carry it along.

Portrait of an Enn tribe family at the Pan Ian Village
Portrait of a family at the Pan Ian Village, Enn tribe also known as Eng or Black Teeth around Kyaing Tong

Don't skip the tripod

Lastly, you'll need a tripod.

This is a must-have because, in Myanmar, you'll be chasing light every day. You'll shoot epic sunsets and sunrises, so you'll need a tripod to do that perfectly.

Ah, and of course remember to carry lots of memory cards and extra batteries!

Experiencing Myanmar through photography is a fantastic experience and is a trip you'll never forget. What I love the most about travel photography is the way it helps me to slow down. I become more observant and connect with the locals in a way that is not possible otherwise.

Portrait of Burmese man cooking and selling food in the streets of Yangon at night
Portrait of Burmese man cooking and selling food in the streets of Yangon at night.

Honing my craft and creating lasting memories at the same time is truly unique. When you throw in the mix an exceptional location, the resulting experience is very satisfying.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Myanmar is remote, mystic, and cultural. Therefore, taking pictures in the golden land should be on the wish list of every travel and adventure photographer, and in my opinion, the time is now.

The country is opening up to the world and is rapidly changing.

Sadly, some of the millenary local traditions are disappearing as the younger generations are leaving their villages and moving to the bigger cities in search of a better future. It is understandable, but customs and rituals are fading as a result.

Merchant in the streets of Yangon webbing a fishing net in his storefront
Merchant in the streets of Yangon webbing a fishing net in his storefront.
Typical house built on stilts in Inle Lake, Myanmar
Typical house built on stilts in Inle Lake, Myanmar

I can't wait to be back in Myanmar!

If you want to travel with Darlene and me to this fantastic land, check out our upcoming tour in February 2019. I am confident that you'll have a tremendous experience with learning opportunities and lots of fun.

Even if you don’t have the opportunity to visit Myanmar I hope these stories and images have inspired you to create something. Get out shooting close to home and see how creative you can get.


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