BURMA PART 1: YANGON

I'm proud to announce that my book on Photographing Burma is now available for download at the iBooks store.  It's got over 140 pages and 120 images, and includes information on everything I know about photographing in one of the most amazing countries on earth. 

We'd been planning the trip to Burma for almost a year, and during that time had looked at hundreds of photos of different parts of the country as we attempted to plan out an itinerary, but nothing could have prepared us for the reality of the country. By the time we left, we were both convinced that it was without a doubt the most beautiful country we'd ever seen, populated by the warmest, most graceful people we'd ever met.

Our first view of the country was from the plane as we flew in from Bangkok. Looking down, the country seemed incredibly rural, full of fields and woods, and every few kilometers, scattered with golden temples. The stupas, covered with gold leaf, are dotted everywhere throughout the landscape, and they were to be a repeated motif throughout our journey across Burma. The place is deeply religious, and in one of the poorest countries in South East Asia, the people still dedicate so much of their time and meagre wealth to building and maintaining the temples.

Trying to see a country like Burma in 2 weeks is pretty much impossible, but as time was limited, we pretty much threw ourselves into it as soon as we arrived. As I said in the previous post about Bangkok, we didn't want to spend too much time in cities like Yangon and Manadalay looking at temples and museums, but there are obviously certain places that you can't really miss. I particularly wanted to see the reclining Chaukhtatgyi Buddha, and that was our first stop during our time in Yangon.
It makes a fascinating contrast to the reclining Buddha at Wat Pho in Bangkok, which is covered in gold and housed in a beautiful ornate temple building. The Chaukhtatgyi Buddha in Yangon is actually quite a bit larger and not golden…but it's not this difference that's the most striking. Instead, it is the huge warehouse-like structure in which it is housed. There's nothing fancy here, it looks almost like a storage facility with it's naked steel girders, and for me it was this contrast that made the whole place so fascinating. I spent a while trying to frame the buddha's face amongst the metal framework of the building's structure, enjoying the contrasts that it created.

Another major difference between this site and what we saw in Bangkok was the number of people who go there and pray. There are no tourists, just local Burmese people who drop in to worship there, kneeling to pray on the dirty, dusty carpets.

After Chaukhtatgyi we headed over to Shwedagon Pagoda, certainly the most iconic place in Yangon, with it's 100 meter tall gold stupa surrounded by countless other temples, the whole complex is massive. Entering from one of the four huge gates, each located at a cardinal point of the compass, we walked up the stairs and emerged into the vast temple area, and just lost ourselves in the sights and sounds of the place. It was getting towards the end of the day, and the golden temple was being illuminated by the last rays of sunlight.
It's an amazing place, full of people worshipping, or just visiting to see it from other parts of the country. We spent the late afternoon just wandering around, speaking to people, and taking photographs.

As night fell, the temple became even more atmospheric as it was illuminated by lights. We were approached by a monk who was eager to practice his English. He asked us where we came from, and when we said Portugal, he said "Ah, Jose Mourinho"….apparently even Buddhist monks as far away as Burma have heard of the "special one"!
We watched people lighting candles and praying in the many tiny buddha filled alcoves, and by the time we left, we felt overwhelmed by the vibrancy and spirit of the place. A great way to end our first day in Burma.

The next morning we got up early and headed over to the central train station, which was just a few blocks north of our hotel.
One of the most rewarding parts of traveling is getting to see and experience different peoples and cultures living their lives. In my experience, you don't really get to see this if you stick to the tourist locations described in guide books. Market places, railway stations and downtown areas are the places where people spend their lives, and to get a taste of how people live in different countries, it's places like this that you have to see.
Yangon train station in the morning is full of commuters who travel in on the circle line, a slow train that rambles through the different suburbs and neighborhoods of the city. Making a living from these people are the kids who inhabit the station platforms, selling cigarettes and newspapers, performing carpentry and renting the use of telephones, it's an amazing collection of characters. We spent some time just wandering around, talking to people, and asking their permission to photograph them. I'm not a huge fan of paparazzi style portraiture  and feel that it's much more rewarding, and the results are far better, if you actually engage with people and ask if they mind having their photograph taken. Of course some people prefer not to, but in Burma we were always met with smiles, and when people didn't mind us photographing them, they were always happy to see the results on the camera's LCD screen.
It was a fascinating morning, challenging, humbling, and ultimately uplifting to scratch the surface of people's lives just a little.

e left for Golden Rock in the afternoon, and that whole trip is going to get a separate blog entry, but at the beginning of our journey we had the chance to see some more of the outskirts of Yangon. We’d hired a driver to take us all the way out to Kinpun, because a shortage of time had made using public transport unreasonable. The outskirts of Yangon aren’t like any capital city I’ve ever seen. You don’t have to go far before it feels incredible rural, with the houses being made out of wood, and trees and planted fields surrounding the road. I shot quite a bit of video which I’m hoping to cut together at some point, and that really gives an idea of what the edges of Yangon are like.

We briefly stopped for petrol and I noticed a group of guys playing a ball game in a field next to the road. It looked a lot like volleyball, but played only with the feet and the head, and with a small rattan ball. The skill of the players as they volleyed the ball backwards and forwards across the net was incredible, and I spent 15 minutes capturing them as they played (along with some portraits of the crowd of spectators who had gathered). I later learned that the game is called Chin Lone, and that it’s one of the most popular sports in South East Asia. We saw it being played many times after this during our time in Burma, but I don’t think we ever saw it being played quite so skillfully as by these guys at the side of the road in Yangon.

Yangon's nightlife isn't really something it's famous for, and that's no surprise as the city seems to go to bed a little after 9pm.  Despite that though, it was still fascinating to see the city after dark, the flourescent lights illuminated the local cafes and street stalls.  I took all the shots below just on the street behind the hotel.

One of the things we most wanted to do when visiting Yangon was go to a monastery. I'd seen so many great images of Buddhist monks and nuns in their colorful robes before going to Burma and was really curious to find out more about how they lived.  I spoke with a few people on reception at the hotel we were staying at in Yangon, and they told me that there were quite a few monasteries in the Sanchaung township, a neighborhood in the west of Yangon. I asked about the possibility of going there to photograph, wondering if we'd need to organize something in advance, but they assured me that anyone can just walk into a monastery.  "They are always open to everybody."

This seemed a little too good to be true, but as we were going over to Sanchuang in a taxi, the driver told us the same thing.  He took us to a small nun's monastery called Daw Nyana Sari, and when we arrived, went inside with us and introduced us to one of the teachers there who spoke English.  She was happy to show us around, and invited us to come back a little later when the nuns would be preparing their lunch and then sitting down to eat it.  

We decided to spend the hour before lunch wandering around the neighborhood around the monastery and taking photographs. Unlike the downtown area where our hotel was, Sanchuang felt like a really lived in neighbourhood, and we were surprised at how green and leafy it was.  In all the time we were there, we didn't see a single other foreigner, and every person we spoke to was friendly and curious…probably wondering what these two strange westerners were doing in their part of town. 

Anyway, we arrived back at the monastery just as the nuns were preparing their lunch.  The sister we spoke to kindly invited us to stay and share lunch with them, an offer which we found incredibly touching.  We'd turned up on their doorstep unannounced in a place where they clearly see very few foreigners.  They have so little, and yet they were willing to share with us…we found the whole experience incredibly humbling.
We watched the nuns cooking their food and organizing the dining room, the whole place was a whirl of the beautiful pink of their robes and the noise of their chatter as they prepared for lunch.

After the preparation, the nuns gathered from all over the monastery to eat, forming lines outside the dining room waiting to go in.  The nuns chant while they enter the room, the older teachers are taken in first and sit at the front, and one by one each num files into the room and takes a seat on the floor at a low table.

We sat and ate with them, finishing off with delicious ice-cream, and afterwards we were taken around the monastery and told about the founder, Daw Nyana, who set up these monasteries all over Burma.  The nun we spoke to had been there for 8 years and had even done a Masters degree whilst there.  She told us that Buddhism and meditation made it easier for her find peace whilst living with so many people in such a small place.
We made a donation to the monastery, and thanked them for letting us join them.  When we left, we both felt so warm inside, it had been a wonderful morning, one that we felt incredibly privileged to have had.  
It was a great way to spend our last day in Yangon, and although we were sad to leave the city, we were excited to be heading to Lake Inle.