BURMA PART 7: NGAPALI

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.

Ngapali, in Burma's Rhakine state on the west coast of the country, was our last stop on our trip around Burma.  We'd chosen it because we thought that after 2 weeks of traveling around Burma (as well as Bangkok) it would be great to just unwind on a beach next to the ocean for a few days.  

It wasn't just about doing nothing though.  We'd chosen accommodation at the very southern end of the long beach right next to a local village, giving me the opportunity to photograph the fishermen and villagers bringing the fish in at sunrise and sunset.

The flight in, on perhaps the smallest plane we went on throughout the trip, took us over huge swathes of the forest of Rhakine state.  It's a fascinating, but troubled part of the country which has seen conflicts between the state army and local separatists who've disputed this area for years.  The area is also home to one of the largest undisturbed forests in south east Asia, which runs for almost a thousand kilometers to the border with Bangladesh in the north.  

Due to the troubles, much of Rhakine state is off limits to foreigners, but the area around Ngaplai remains open to travelers and is a wonderful place to see a little of this beautiful part of Burma, as well as relax and take it easy after the sensory overload of places like Bagan, Mandalay and Yangon.

We landed a little before lunchtime and then made the short trip to our hotel through the forested road that runs alongside the beach.  As we entered our room a gentle sea breeze blew through the room, gently moving the curtains that covered the large doors to the balcony. The view out across the deep blue water of the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal was utterly lovely and it was impossible not to smile. This was going to be a wonderful place to relax for three days. 

We spent our time here taking it easy, strolling along the beach, swimming in the sea and eating some absolutely fantastic fish which was caught at the village of Gyeiktaw next to our hotel.  After lots of rushing around from location to location, early morning shoots and plenty of traveling, the plan for Ngapali was simply to slow down and catch our breath before the long flight home.  There was still plenty I wanted to photograph though as Ngapali offered a different aspect of Burma to the previous places we'd visited.  The villages on the beach are famous for fishing, and I wanted to spend some time photographing how local village life revolved around bringing in the local catch.

So the next day, after a wonderful nights sleep, we got up not long after the sun had risen and wandered along the beach to see the fishermen coming back after a night spent fishing. The entire village seemed to be down on the beach waiting and preparing for the boats to return.

e arrived around the same time as the fishermen came back with their catch.  The boats aren't particularly big as the ocean is relatively benign here.  Each of the boats is a different colour and seems to belong to a specific part of the beach, and as they get close to the shore, the fishermen jump into the water and carry baskets full of fish up onto the beach.

Whilst most of the men seem to be on the boats, the rest of the village, the woman and children stay on the beach and then sort the fish.  First they are spread out on these huge blue mats, and then as the fish dries, the woman go through them sorting them out into baskets which are then carried back into the village, where they are either sold on to restaurants or other merchants.  It's a massive operation and everyone seemed to be working non stop.  

The blue mats themselves made for a striking background for the silver fish and the woman with their conical hats, and I couldn't resist taking lots of images.  The early morning light was wonderful and much of it was gently filtered by smoke from the village which was hidden behind the palm trees.

As ever, the people there were incredibly friendly and were perfectly happy to be photographed, always smiling for portraits.  

The beach was packed full with boats, some for bringing in fish, an others covered in light bulbs to attract squid.  The range and colour of the boats was amazing, and it was impossible not to photograph them.

The morning had been fascinating, watching the activity on the beach, but soon we were hungry and in need of breakfast.  We returned along the sand and then spent the rest of the day relaxing on the beach, eating lots of great food and swimming in the sea.  It was actually New Years Eve and the hotel had prepared a huge meal for the evening.  It was one of the best meals we had during our time in Burma, every kind of curry and noodle dish imaginable…we were stuffed and fell asleep way before midnight, only really seeing the new year in the next morning.

We spent much of the day pretty much how we'd spent the previous one; relaxing on the beach, swimming in the sea and eating local fruit.

As the afternoon moved on, we decided to walk along to the local village again, this time to photograph in the warm light of late afternoon/early evening.  At this time of day the activity was much calmer than around dawn, and I spent time taking photos of the local villagers packing up the mats and equipment that had been used to sort out the fish throughout the day.  

The light was wonderful and I took the opportunity to photograph some of the local kids with in the last light of the day.  Like everywhere else in Burma, the kids were more than happy to be photographed, and really enjoyed seeing the results on the back of the camera.  I shot a little video as well (something I did throughout the trip) and the kids loved seeing the playback of this.  The final shot here is of a group of kids who were so happy to have their photograph taken that they knocked me over in their enthusiasm to see the results.  It was a great moment, and a final reminder of the warmth, friendliness and openness of these people who have so little but are so happy.

After three days relaxing in Ngapali it was finally time to finish our trip to Burma and come home.  There was just the small matter of four flights over 36 hours before we got back to Lisbon.
It was hard to tear ourselves away from the beach knowing that we were heading back to European winter, and it was harder still to leave behind Burma.  We've travelled to some beautiful places on different continents but nowhere had ever touched us as deeply as Burma did.  The whole experience had been wonderful, the incredible places, the truly wonderful people who'd made us feel so welcome, it was what traveling should always be like.  An adventure, new experiences, seeing things that are totally different to anything we'd seen before, and leaving with a piece of the place inside us, feeling that we'd actually learned something about ourselves.

We made the trip to the tiny airport with kids waving to us as we drove past savoring every moment, and then a short flight later we were back in Yangon, closing our circuit around the country.  We had quite a while to kill before our next flight so we took taxi into the town centre to have lunch and a wander around the famous Scott's Market.  Then it was back to the airport and on to Bangkok, then Dubai, before finally landing in Lisbon a day and a half after leaving Ngapali.  

Our next trip is already planned, we're heading to northern Chile in August to cross the Altiplano all the way up to Titicaca in Bolivia, but Burma had woken a need to return to Asia in both of us, and in the weeks and months since we returned to Portugal we've been slowly researching and putting together a month long trip to Indonesia for the summer of 2015.

I already can't wait….