Several years ago National Geographic photographer Catherine Karnow said, “Myanmar is the most photogenic place that I have ever photographed.”
While a lot has happened over those several years, nothing at all has changed regarding the remarkable plethora of photographic opportunities. This article takes a look through the lenses of two of Myanmar’s most decorated photographers, Kyaw Kyaw Winn and Aung Pyae Soe.
But first we take a look at why so many normally intrepid travel photographers are still shying away from the country and needlessly missing out. It’s been two full years since the terrible happenings in remote Rakhine State we are all aware of. But even while they were happening there was never any danger to tourists. Far from it. It was only the international news reports giving that impression. And so began a quick and precipitous drop in tourism under the false perception the country was dangerous to visit. In fact, then as now, Myanmar is one of the safest, most welcoming travel destinations anywhere on earth. The stats and anecdotes prove it. Surprised? Even petty crime against foreign travelers is rare, let alone violence.
The other reason most often given for not visiting, is the ethical one. Fair enough on its face. But one has to wonder if those with ethical concerns have really thought it through. Who is actually being hurt by such ethics based boycotting? Is it the intended targets on top, or the unintended innocent on the bottom? As usual is such cases, it’s the latter. It’s the little people who had come to depend on tourism to make better lives for their families. It’s the small businesses, weavers, craftspeople, freelance T-shirt sellers, guides, drivers, restaurant and hotel staffs, etc., who are suffering the brunt of the financial hardship. How is this ethical?
Safety and ethics aside, let’s get on to the photography! Photography Life readers might remember the 2016 article about Burmese photographer Kyaw Kyaw “K’K” Winn and his amazing Horatio Alger story. At the age of 10, in a poor rural village in central Myanmar, he quite literally embarked on a career as a professional photographer. At 10! Being given the only camera for many miles around, the very keen KK worked his way into becoming a veritable monopoly of local family portraits, weddings and other events. By 18 he had saved enough to hit the big city of Yangon to pursue both photography and a higher education. He struggled for years on the photography side, but since hitting his stride has gone on to become the only 3-Time Myanmar Photographer of the Year, and a Fujifilm X brand ambassador. He’s been published widely and has won hundreds of international photography awards, including Smithsonian Magazine’s Grand Prize. KK was also invited to take part in the exclusive “7 Days in Myanmar” multi-media photography project, which included the likes of Steve McCurry, Abbas, Bruno Barbie, Michael Yamashita, and Raghu Rai.
Aung Pyae Soe. “A.P.”, came onto the Myanmar photography scene from a completely different direction than Kyaw Kyaw Winn. For anyone who has been to Myanmar and traveled in a long distance bus, you have no doubt had a good dosing of the whacky comedies and comedy-dramas the Burmese love and laugh uproariously at. One of the main producers and directors of these TV shows is A.P.s father. But even with an open invitation to learn the business, A.P. could not be torn away from his love of still photography and insisted on traveling his own path. He struggled to make his mark for six or seven years while continuing to improve his style and execution, both with his first love – landscapes – and later with people and portraits. In 2010 he became a Hasselblad Masters finalist and was named the public vote winner. Doors began to open. He got opportunities to travel and photograph abroad. His last solo exhibition in Yangon sold out. He got deals with Samsung and Air Asia, becoming a brand ambassador for each.
Without further adieu, we present a variety of images from KK and AP, including some classic Myanmar travel work, street, landscape, cultural, and off the beaten path. We also share some insights gleaned while traveling with them recently, that we think will be helpful and/or interesting to photo enthusiasts reconsidering a photo adventure to Myanmar.
Long overdue, Bagan and its 2220 ancient temples has finally in 2019 been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Even though AP has been to Bagan many dozens of times, he still loves to come and take pictures. He says the temple grounds are so large that there is always a new subject, a different angle, or a change of weather and light to take advantage of.
While Myanmar’s largest city and former capital is quickly modernizing, it’s going to take decades to rebuild a city that was left virtually unattended since independence from Great Britain in 1949. While this isn’t good news for the city’s residents, it is for street photographers who love exotic urban decay as background to these vibrant, inimitable streets.
“Rangoon” was the bastardized version of “Yangon” that the British colonialists gave the city in the 1860’s when they took control. In fact the British renamed a lot of places around the country they could not pronounce to their satisfaction. You can still see British iterations of Burmese names used in various places and businesses around the country. If you are a visiting street photographer, you cannot go wrong wandering the ‘other side of the tracks’ into the intriguing and friendly neighborhoods of Yangon.
The Yangon Circle Train circumnavigates the rural outskirts of the city, and offers an amazing glimpse into Burmese life. You see all kinds of vendors and people hopping on and off the numerous stops, some of which have trackside markets like the one above at Danygone.
The intrepid photographer cannot go wrong spending days or weeks shooting both on board these slow moving trains, and off. Note that the old rustic trains with the mottled interior backgrounds are being replaced with newer ones. It should also be noted as KK explained, that the government is restricting markets like this for safety reasons, although the people are resisting. You might see this scene on a particular day or might not, depending on when the latest enforcement occurred.
If you go to Mandalay (and you certainly should – there’s a reason why Steve McCurry spends so much time there during his photography workshops) you can find similar unrestricted scenes at Thaye Zay Market Station. But please don’t tell anyone!
Kyaw Kyaw Winn regularly hosts his Japanese friends from Fujifilm who are crazy about old trains, not just in Yangon but around the country. They have already published one photo book centered on Myanmar trains and train stations in 2016, and are contemplating another.
Access to the most interestingly lit temple interiors is mostly restricted these days, so it pays to get an experienced local fixer with access to both temples and monks or others willing have their portraits taken for a small donation.
Unless near a river or waterhole or water-hose, summer heat can mean farmers have to cool their buffalo the old fashioned way. This buffalo is loving his late afternoon spritzer after a day’s work.
Tranquil morning scenes like this are not uncommon in rural Myanmar. In fact these monks from a small village monastery cross this bridge daily on their early alms rounds.
There is much to photograph on Lake Inle for the more intrepid photographer, beyond the classic one legged rowing Intha fishermen. Rarely visited floating villages and gardens abound. Out of the main boat lanes the lake is incredibly peaceful, some say magical. Spend a day in a dugout canoe with a local guide and you will be very well rewarded, with both unexpected inside access and a deep sense of tranquility. Pictured above a laundress is removing women’s longyis and folding them after drying.
Actually most of the various tribes of Chin State are not vanishing, but the women who wear the face tattoos are. The practice began centuries ago when the tribes were often warring with each other, and kidnapped women as part of the spoils of victory. The branding of women therefore became a way to prevent this, or at least allow for identification at a later date. No one knows for certain how the women originally felt about it, but in time the tattoos became sources of pride and adornment. The practice was outlawed more than 50 years ago, and while most Chin women still bearing the tattoos are in their 70’s and 80’s, there are some as young as their late 30’s. They can be found in small towns and villages in the mountains of Chin State, as well as some border areas in Rakhine.
This image of a nun under umbrella was captured near Mandalay on Yankin Taung Mountain. Once you reach the top there are a series of Buddha caves and pagodas. Mandalay and Environs is home to hundreds of monasteries and nunneries, the most in Myanmar. The Buddhist nuns in Myanmar wear very photogenic pink robes, which are unique to the country.
Even today accessing traditional Naga villages in the mountains of remote Myanmar near the border with India, is extremely difficult. It requires a true adventurer’s spirit and days of trekking. There is a relatively easy way to find them though, by attending the annual Naga Festival which happens in rotating Nagaland small towns every January.
The Hpa An area about 5 hours’ drive east of Yangon is often overlooked but is a very worthwhile photographic destination. It has numerous Buddha caves and limestone rock formations, vast rice fields, lakes, and rivers running through it.
Mandalay is full of artisans and craftsmen of many types, but the most interesting light belongs to Buddha Street. The street is festooned with marble Buddha figures and the many shops that make them. The makeshift roofing in some sections – often using torn blue tarps – shapes and even colors the light, while the marble dust increases its visibility.
The January Ananda Pagoda Festival in Bagan is a gathering of pilgrims (many arriving in covered wagons) from around the region, along with a thousand or more Buddhist monks and nuns. Essentially it’s a time of special alms and blessings and to commemorate Bagan’s most famous and ornate temple pagoda, Ananda. What you will not find here is beer stands, bands, and massive crowds hindering your way. Nevertheless, the level of joy and festiveness is palpable. It’s a terrific multi-day photographic opportunity that KK brings his photo tour groups to every January.
A different look from AP in one of the often photographed entry halls of pillars leading to Shwezigon Pagoda. While monks are the usual subjects here, you see all types of local people.
The Padaung (this is somewhat pejorative Shan name for them, not what they call themselves) are one of Myanmar’s vanishing tribes, an offshoot of the Kayan called Lahwi. Kayan Lahwi women often practice the ancient tradition of apparent neck elongation. This is achieved not by stretching the neck itself, but from a young age adding concentric copper rings that keep the color bone in place. Similar rings are also worn on the lower legs. The Kayan Lahwi are native to Kayah State and many can be found in the capital city of Loikaw, about 5 hours’ drive from Inle Lake. To reach them in their natural environment though, takes another several hours on rough roads from Loikaw. These remote villages are rarely visited. In fact on a trip with KK we found one village where not a single person, even the old folks, had ever seen a foreigner before! They were quite warm and welcoming.
Portrait of two young Akha ladies during the rice harvest, which only happens once a year in the Golden Triangle, in late October or early November. The mountain rice terraces are especially beautiful in the days just before the rice is harvested, when they appear a yellowish gold. The Akha are one of 10 tribes who still live traditionally in the Kyaing Tong region. Others include the Lahu, Khun, Wa, Shan, Palaung, and the mysterious En.
Myanmar is most well known for its people, culture, street, and temple-scapes, rather than as a pure landscape destination. While there are some terrific landscape locations, many of them are arduous to reach because of the lagging road infrastructure outside of major cities and tourist zones.
Thanaka paste is uniquely Myanmar and can make for some very interesting cultural portraiture and scenes. Made from the fragrant Thanaka tree, it has been used in Myanmar for more than 2,000 years. The paste serves as a natural sunscreen, skin coolant, acne treatment, and as a fashion statement. Designs and amount of paste used vary widely. The most common design is circular patches on each cheek and a line down the bridge of the nose. Other designs include well defined Bodhi tree leaves and Mickey Mouse ears. It’s usually worn on the face, often the arms as well, but sometimes those who work in the sun cover all their exposed skin. Men do wear Thanaka, but it’s more commonly worn by women and children. Monks and nuns do not use it.
Monywa is a very interesting town little visited by foreign travelers. It sits on the eastern banks of the Chindwin River about 90 miles northwest of Mandalay. The Maha Bodhi Ta Hataung monastery is the home of two of world’s largest Buddhas, a 380 ft. standing Buddha, and the 295 ft. reclining Buddha pictured above. The nearby Po Win Daung caves, carved from sandstone, number more than 900 and house some of the best preserved 14th – 18th century Buddhist murals in the world.
The 325 ft. tall Shwedagon Pagoda, layered with over 60 tons of gold, dominates the Yangon skyline. Shwedagon dates back to the time of the Buddha some 2,500 years ago, and is the spiritual heart of Myanmar. The photography, whether from afar or inside the ornate pagoda grounds wear people practice various forms of homage, is always full of opportunity.