3 Weeks in & around Myanmar

Back in 2010 I had a 6 month trip through Asia; India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Malaysia.  Money was tight, and the Myanmar border crossing even tighter, so didn’t include in that itinerary. Still, on returning, I bought a travel book, and over the years researched the country further.  Life and other destinations got in the way, so it took 8 years to get back to Asia to visit the country.

For me, this trip was always going to be focused around the people who make Myanmar. Yes, they have white-sand exotic beaches, ancient temples, thick jungles, and mountains topped by pagodas, but for me; it’s the people; who make the experience.  

The country opened its doors to tourism in 2010, and still today, in comparison to bordering countries receives very few foreigners.  This leaves the country innocent from tourism, and western influence, they are proud of their heritage and culture with 135 registered ethnic groups.

myanmar pagoda temple bagan travel photography 1

When previously taking travel portraits on other trips, I found the experience very one sided; I would talk and communicate with people and ask to take their photo, but I was always very aware that they would get nothing really out of it, other than a bit of chat from myself.  I wanted to change this, I wanted a way to give back something to those I met and photographed along the trip.

After doing a little bit of research online I found a hybrid Instant and Digital Camera; the Instax SQ10 - you take a shot, view the photo on the digital screen on the back of the camera, you can print the image but also save it to print at a later date, or multiple times.  One can also put a filter on the shot, which immediately gives so many options - instead of buying a variety of films with different effects, its all in camera! 

This trip had two purposes; I wanted to see and experience the sights; meeting locals as I traveled around, but I had also found out about a community in North Western Myanmar, in Chin State where the elder women within the tribal communities had tattooed faces.  I wanted to explore this further, I wanted to find out more about the culture and tradition. I was already aware that younger generations were no longer doing this, and wanted to meet and document this community/tradition as it was my belief that this element of their culture in the not too distant future would die out.

The Trip:

I started the trip in Ngapali, a beach town on the Western coast of Myanmar.  A white-sand beach, decorated with palm trees, and old, rustic fishing boats, and vivid turquoise water, where every night night the sun sets into the ocean.  I arrived on April 14th - which happened to be Day 2 of Thingyan, the Myanmar New Year, the busiest time of their annual calendar, and still the beach was quiet.  There was a fair amount of local tourism but only a handful of other Westerners to be seen. My four days in Ngapali resulted in minor sunburn, lots of reading, lots of relaxing, sunsets every day, and exploring the neighbouring fishing villages.

Myanmar instax Ngapali travel photography 1

A short plane ride and a 3 hour bus ride later I arrive in Mrauk U, a small town home to a series of temples and Pagodas that was the capital for an independent Artakan Kingdom from 1430- 1785.  Because of its remoteness and how difficult it is to reach there, very little tourism reaches there, especially in the low season which was when I was there. I spent a couple of days exploring these untouched temple ruins, still in very good condition.

Myanmar temples of Mrauk U sunset travel photography 1

In the local area to Mrauk U, it is possible to make your way to a series of Chin Villages along a river - none of these villages have road access, so we hired a boat and a guide, and took off 1.5 hours up the river with the aim of staying in one of the villages.  Chin state is made up of 8 prime ethnic groups, but over the years these 8 groups, have been split further, so now they estimate there are 49 ethnic groups within Chin State, of which they would make up around 300 villages and small towns. This area is nearly all off grid, there are very few roads, and the population live off the land - local farming, foraging, hunting, etc… Each village will be home to a tribe, each tribe have their own traditional dress for men and women (though only in some areas do they still wear it on a daily basis).  Depending on the village they will be either Aminist, Christian or Buddhist.  Up until around 1930 all of the tribes in Chin were Aminist, at which point Buddhist and Christian missionaries came into the area and converted the majority.

Chin state village myanmar rakhine

Each ethnic group, as well as their own traditional dress, would have their own style of tattoo which was compulsory for all of the women of each tribe (unless allergic).  One women recited her memory of being 9 years old and terrified when having hers. Though in most instances the women are very proud of their tattoos and culture. In 1962 the Military Government came into power and made this element of their culture illegal, I later found out that the very few wealthy families would still get their tattoos as they could afford to pay off the government officials.

These villages I visited were all from the Lai Chin tribe, of which their facial tattoos are distinct, and are described locally as ‘spider’s web tattoo’.  All of these three women below had nice little Instax momento’s to put up on their walls :)

Next stop on my Myanmar adventure was one of the countries biggest tourist attractions; Bagan - 2000+ temples dotted over around 100 square KMs, some of which are over 1000 years old. Without too many rules and regulations you can explore these temples.  They are set on vast plains, so with a good vantage point one can see green lush bushes with temples peaking out for as far as the eye can see. It's a truly magical place!

Bagan Myanmar Sunset Grass Temples 1

After 2 days in Bagan, I left for Mandalay, the 2nd largest city in Myanmar.  Usually I avoid large cities in foreign countries; but there was a place I had set my eye on to visit; Mingun Pagoda.  About 10-15 years ago I found an image that I fell in love with, it had no details of where it was or who it was by, later I would find out it was taken by Steve McCurry - one of my favourite photographers and big inspirations, and taken at the Mingun Pagoda in Myanmar.  A young Monk helped me create some images I am super happy with and as a little thank you I used the Instax to take his portrait and create a similar photo for him to keep.

A couple of days in Mandalay was enough city for me, so I took an 8 hour overnight bus south to Kalaw, arriving in the early hours.  Kalaw is situated around 1300m above sealevel - it’s a chilled hilltop town, very rural, within 30 mins walk you’re thick in farmland.  I met my friend; Dan, and joined a small group of others with the aim of trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake, it would be 3 long days, with 2 nights sleeping in homestays in the villages enroute.

Walking through these small villages who predominantly farm tea, I met this family, the grandfather sat outside smoking his cigar, we made eye contact and smiled, I greeted him with “Minglabar” (Hello), and he returned the gesture.  I took his portrait and passed it to him, and together we watched as the film developed in front of our eyes. I could tell he was amazed by what he was witnessing. He passed it through a window to his wife, daughter and grandson who also reviewed, and found it all most amusing!

Later on that day we walked along a railway until we reached a small village where the locals had picked fruits, vegetables and flowers to sell to the oncoming train, most days between 2 and 3 trains pass through.  The buzz created as the sellers ran between the different windows trying sell their goods to the passengers felt so intense at the time, knowing that these few minutes before the train departed was all they had to make their daily wage.

That night we stayed in a families house in a small village, and were up bright and early trekking by 7am the following day to get going before the heat of the sun became to strong.  At some point during the day, I met a farmer and his son walking through some fields. He showed us a river with a bridge that we could jump off (unfortunately due to the sheer excitement I didn’t get round to taking any shots of that!).  

Father Son Portrait Kalaw Myanmar Farmer

A day later we arrived at Inle Lake; home to a fishing community with a unique style of fishing where they balance on the end of their boats while balancing a basket in their air between their arm and their leg, throwing it down into the lake capturing the fish and scaring them to swim into the net which then becomes loose so get tangled within it.  I first saw images of these fishermen about 10 years ago, and since it had always been something that I really wanted to witness myself and photograph.

inle travel photography fishermen 1
Inle Lake reflections Travel Photography

I spent 24 hours in the Inle Lake area, which was enough for me.  I had less than a week left to my flight back home, and so far the highlight had been venturing into Chin State, so I decided to make my way back to Chin state but to a different area to learn more about another tribe within Chin.  I took a couple of busses (18 hours of travel) to Mindat, where I made arrangements to visit 3 villages the following day; all from the Mon Chin Tribe, and I was also told there was a woman in Mindat who was from the Dai Chin Tribe (last in the series below).  

This pretty much takes me up to the end of my Myanmar experience.  For me, the people make this country; their friendly attitude, helpfulness, warming nature and curiosity was stronger than anywhere else I have visited.  The rich culture throughout the country amazed me particularly within the Chin communities.  I'd love to return to focus all my time in documenting the people of Chin; as I mentioned previously there are 49 sub-tribes of which root from 8 core tribes - I'd love more time to explore and document all of them...maybe a trip for early 2019!