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Travelling Through Myanmar

Burma, a Photographer's Guide by Jon Whitear, 2003


Perhaps better known by its old name, Burma, this is a country that conjures up the romanticism of colonial days, the beauty of an ancient civilisation's architectural legacy, and more recently, harsh oppression by a military regime. It has only recently opened up to the outside world after four decades of isolation, and there has been much talk on whether one should visit Myanmar or not. I don't intend this article to be a discussion of the politics of tourism in Myanmar, although I recommend you research the matter before deciding to go.

Planning

Myanmar is a difficult place to get around. If you're trying to keep as many of your tourist dollars away from the government as possible, Myanmar is a very difficult place to get around. Roads are poor, and vehicles depressingly unreliable. It's not unusual for a 10 hour bus ride to turn into an 18 hour nightmare because of four breakdowns along the way. It's therefore best to be conservative in planning your itinerary. Al and I spent four weeks there in June/July 2002, and comfortably managed to visit the highlights of the centre of the country: Yangon (Rangoon), Mandalay, Shan State, Inle Lake, and Bagan. It's worth noting that this time of year is the rainy season — Yangon is very wet, but further north is much drier.

Most people fly into Yangon from Bangkok. You'll certainly want to spend some time in this unique city, but I recommend that you keep it until last, and allow a few days at the end of your trip to soak up its atmosphere. Our first stop, as soon as we've worked out how to get there, is Mandalay.

Mandalay

For many, Mandalay typifies the romance of the Raj. In fact, it's quite a modern city: founded in the mid 1800s, it was capital for only about 30 years until the British took it in 1885. More recently, trade with China has become a strong influence. The city is laid out on a grid system, and sprawls a long way from the bottom of Mandalay hill, so getting around on foot is not really practical. This isn't a worry, as Mandalay's army of trishaw drivers are never far away.

Cyclist, Mandalay Nun, Mingun Tapestry workshop, Mandalay

Perhaps the first stop on any visit to Mandalay should be a walk up Mandalay Hill. At 230m, the summit provides a fine view over the city and its surrounding plain. Back in town, one of the best ways to get a feel for local life is to visit the Zeigyo, or Central Market, a bustling area of crowded alleys fairly close the main budget accommodation area. Some of the sights and smells are not for the faint hearted, especially in the "fresh" meat section.

There are a number of attractions in the city, but unfortunately many carry (relatively) hefty admission fees, of around US$5 per site. Mandalay fort is certainly in impressive structure: the four walls of this huge square complex each measure over a kilometre in length. However, the palace itself was a wooden structure, and was completely destroyed by fire during World War II, so there's not much to see from the inside. We decide to get out of the city, and head for what are arguably Mandalay's real attractions: the royal cities of Amarapura, Inwa, and Sagaing, and the massive Mingun Paya.

U Bein's Bridge, Amarapura Young Monk, Amarapura Young girl wearing Thanakha paste, Inwa

Mingun Paya Young Monk, Amarapura Nun collecting alms, Mandalay

Amarapura is the location of the famous U Bein's bridge, a teak walkway (the longest of its kind in the world) across Taungthaman lake. It has an atmosphere all of its own, as the late afternoon light illuminates the locals wheeling their bicycles home across the bridge. Nearby is Mahagandhayon Kyaung (monastery), where if you visit in the morning, you'll find several hundred young monks eating breakfast in silence.

Inwa was the royal capital (on and off) for 400 years, until it moved to Amarapura in 1841. There's not a great deal to see, since most of the buildings were either destroyed by a large earthquake in 1838, or salvaged for re-use elsewhere. However, it's the transport that really makes this trip — horse drawn carriages take you along the tree-lined tracks between the sights, our favourite of which is Bagaya Kyaung, a beautiful teak monastery dating from the 1830s.

Sagaing, just across the Ayeyarwaddy river, was capital for a short while before Inwa. These days it's primarily a religious centre, with a number of monasteries, and fine examples of Buddhist architecture spanning the last four centuries.

Amarapura, Inwa, and Sagaing are all close to each other, and easily visited in a day, especially if you find an enterprising local with a car! If you want to explore Sagaing thoroughly (there's a lot there), there are places to stay in the village.

A visit to Mingun is a separate day, since it's further up the river and only accessible by boat. The trip takes about an hour from Mandalay, and it's best to go early in the morning, although you'll find the light can be harsh even by 9am. If construction had finished, Mingun Paya (built by King Bodawpaya) would be the world's largest zedi (or stupa — a religious monument.) However, work stopped when the king died in 1819, and the 1838 quake caused significant damage to the progress so far. Nonetheless, it's still 50m high, and 70m on each side.

Shan woman, Hsipaw Selling mangoes, Hsipaw Burmese road sign, Hsipaw

Mandalay makes a convenient hub for travel to Shan state to the west, and Bagan to the east. We make two separate trips into the highlands of Shan state, the first to Pyin U Lwin and Hsipaw, and the second to Inle Lake. While it may seem a roundabout route to go back through Mandalay in between, it's a lot easier than travelling within Shan state itself. The trip from Mandalay to Inle Lake is an arduous bus journey, especially when you're plagued by the ever-present breakdowns.

Shan State

Pyin U Lwin is a welcome respite from the heat of the planes, as it lies 1000m up in the Shan hills, which is why it became so popular with the British in the late 19th century. Its main attraction is the beautiful botanical garden, occupying over 200 acres just outside town. However, staying there can also be half the fun — we stay at the Candacraig, a teak mansion built for employees of the Bombay Burmah Trading Company in 1906. It's a real throwback to the colonial era, and we have the entire place to ourselves. Another relic of the British days are the horse-drawn enclosed carriages that are the town's taxis. The combination of the two — drawing up to the gates in a candle-lit carriage at night — takes you back 100 years. Pyin U Lwin is also home to a military training academy — don't even think about photographing the many soldiers you see around town.

Shan couple with their ox-cart, Hsipaw Shan hats for sale, Hsipaw market Marionettes, Bagan

The Candacraig, Pyin U Lwin Carriage, Pyin U Lwin

Hsipaw is a quiet town further along the road towards China. It has become somewhat of a backpackers hangout, partly due to the cool climate and relaxed atmosphere, and partly because of the town's fame as the home of one of the last Shan Palaces. Built in the 1920s, it is remarkably reminiscent of an English country home, and was the seat of the last sao pha (Shan prince) until his arrest by the military regime in 1962, and subsequent disappearance. Twilight over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess, a memoir by Inga Sargeant, who became the sao pha's wife in the 1950s, makes interesting reading.

Another long and uncomfortable bus ride takes us back to Mandalay, where we recover for a couple of days before the trip to Inle Lake. The town at the head of the lake, Nyaungshwe, is the main base for trips onto the lake itself, via a channel that runs through the town. There are plenty of boat owners who will happily take you onto the lake for anywhere between a couple of hours and a day. I also recommend paddling around the quieter channels for an hour or two, visiting some of the kyaungs that lie a little way off the beaten track.

Paddling the canals, Nyaungshwe Shan man, Ibein market Fisherman, Inle Lake

Buddha, Nyaungshwe Fisherman, Inle Lake

On the lake itself there are a number of attractions — the defining image of the area is an Intha fisherman rowing with one leg as he looks over the lake at sunset. There's also a monastery where the monks have taught cats to jump through hoops (when asked why, one monk apparently responded "Because we were bored!") A visit to one of the area's markets is an interesting trip across the lake — they change location on a rotating schedule.

Bagan

For many, Bagan is the highlight of a trip to Myanmar, or indeed Asia. More than 2000 monuments, dating from between the 9th and 13th centuries, cover an area of some 40 square kilometres in a bend of the Ayeyarwaddy. What you're be able to see depends on how much time you have, but Al and I spend three days there, and manage most of the major sites. It's easy to hire bicycles to cover the ground, or even a guide and car.

Buddha image with gold leaf, Sulamani Pahto, Bagan Seated Buddha image, Sulamani Pahto, Bagan Bagan at sunset

Ploughing the fields, Bagan Illuminated zedi at dusk, Bagan Drinking water pots, Bagan

Bagan is serviced by Myanmar's airlines from Mandalay and Yangon. The flight from either is around an hour. If, like us, you're travelling by bus, it's an all-day ride. The two accommodation centres are Nyaung U to the north, and New Bagan to the south. We stay at the former, where we find plenty of good value budget accommodation.

Bagan skyline at sunset

If you're visiting Bagan towards the end of your trip to Myanmar, you'd better hope you've got plenty of film left! The light's obviously at its best at the start and end of the day, when people gather at some of the taller monuments to watch the sun rise/set over the Bagan skyline. In recent years, some of these structures have been closed, ostensibly for conservation reasons, so your choice of spot has become a little more limited. During the day, you'll find plenty of detail in the magnificent pahtos (temples) and stupas to keep you busy.

Yangon

Our last stop on the trip is Yangon, where we spend a few days exploring before we fly back to Bangkok. There's a huge difference between the two: while Bangkok seems to be solidly in the fast lane, Yangon has a rather more relaxed feel, combining faded colonial grandeur with gilded stupas. Unfortunately, when we arrive, the rainy season is in full swing, and Yangon's decrepit drainage system isn't really up to the task. Being ankle deep in rainwater isn't so bad, but it's worrying if you happen to be in a taxi at the time.

The highlight of any trip to Yangon has to be Shwedagon Paya, the most sacred Buddhist site in the country. The central gilded stupa rises 98m above the base, and can be seen glittering in the distance from much of the city. Though it's a pretty busy place, it still has a peaceful atmosphere.

Buddha image, Yangon On the busses, Yangon Architectural detail, Shwedagon Paya, Yangon

There are many other payas around the city, and the markets are well worth a visit, but you really get a feel for the place just by walking around the streets in central Yangon, and joining the locals for a cup of tea in one of the many tea-shops.

Photography

Film-wise, you'll want to bring it all with you. I've heard people saying that the Burmese customs will only allow you to enter the country with a small amount of film — we had about 40 rolls, and passed through customs without a hitch. Hand checks were also provided without a problem.

You'll soon discover that the Burmese are a gracious people, and usually happy to be the subject of your photography. It certainly helps to greet people with a "Mingalaba!" and ask their permission first.

Further Reading

This article by Joyce Morgan is entertaining, and gives an insight into the politics of tourism in Myanmar.


All text and images copyright 2003 by Jon Whitear. If you'd like to see more photos of Myanmar, visit my Myanmar Photo Gallery. Many other destinations are featured at my travel photography site.

Article created 2003

Readers' Comments


Add a comment



Jose Carrion , April 27, 2003; 01:48 A.M.

I'd say this is a nicely written guide with many excellent photographs. It is unfortunate, however, that you can't click on the thumbnails and see a larger version.

John Jacobs , May 07, 2003; 04:34 P.M.

A quick visit to www.khrg.org will make it clear why any and all travel to Burma is a very bad idea.

Nathan Gates , May 12, 2003; 07:46 P.M.

...yes it is true that the Government/Human Rights situation in Burma is terrible. But that is no reason to avoid going!...By going, and going out of your way to purchase services & goods from the local people it is helping their situation greatly...I spent a month there, and can not tell you how appreciative the Burmese people are, and how desperate they are to trade with tourists to earn money...From what I saw and heard from the locals...without tourism they would be far worse off. And for me, one of the most fantastic experiences of my life! Take LOTS of film>>> http://angelchild.intothefake.com

Chris Birmele , May 24, 2003; 06:17 P.M.

I like the pictures very much, but the guide seems to regurgitate material found in the "Lonely Planet" guide - even the order of the section headings are similar. In addition, I for example can not confirm that travelling in Myanmar is difficult. Uncomfortable? Having travelled widely in Asia, can't confirm that either - may be I was lucky during two visits to this beautiful country. More Myanmar pics

Jon Whitear , May 25, 2003; 08:36 P.M.

You'll notice that the order of the headings matches the order in which I visited each place. Many people visit the same places in the same order, which I imagine is why the guidebooks also use the same order.

I guess travel in Myanmar can be comfortable or uncomfortable, depending on how you do it! A bus ride that is supposed to be all day (12 hours), but turns into 20 hours because of four breakdowns, when you have no leg-room because of all the boxes that fill the aisles and gaps between seats, falls into the uncomfortable bucket as far as I'm concerned.

Lastly, there is much discussion as to whether one should travel in Myanmar or not. As far as the treatment of Karen refugees is concerned, then we'd better not visit Thailand either, because the Thais' treatment of them receives much criticism (I have worked in the camps on the Thai side of the border, so I understand why.) The majority of Burmese with whom I discussed the issue were pro-tourism, because (a) it brings in an income, and (b) it makes the goverment reduce some of the practices that foreigners find disagreeable, such as forced labour for road building.

Cameron Davidson , May 26, 2003; 06:12 P.M.

I liked the authors commentary on travelling through Burma. I shot a story on Burma for Smithsonian last August and loved the country - hated being followed (they pretty much figured out I was a journalist) - stayed at a great hotel in Bagan and enjoyed the people very much.

Here is a link to the Smithsonian story.

http://www.smithsonianmag.si.edu/smithsonian/issues02/dec02/burma.html

The author is right on the money about difficult it is to travel in Burma. I could have easily shot another 100 rolls of film and spent two more weeks wandering.

Great place - not so great leadership - sweet people.

Cameron Davidson

Alan Chan , August 06, 2003; 07:36 A.M.

Jon, your article makes good reading with some very good photo, I would agree with you that Myanmar is a good place for photographer - most places maintains their traditional style and more importantly native people are so friendly that you have to make sure you bring plenty of films . I would like to share my experience with you and other readers with my own photo album in Myanmar taken in 2001 at http://www.chanlun.com

Sam Stearman , November 25, 2004; 03:11 A.M.

5 stars.

I completed an 8 day private tour of Myanmar in October 2004, which entailed flying from Yangon to Bagan, on to Mandalay and to Heho, with a return to Yangon. It is a large country, and a well-planned tour is the best way to go - as there is so much to see. I read the article, Myanmar Travel Guide, before my trip and found it very informative. Great job. Other comments and links posted were also useful, but it is impossible to fully describe the experience without seeing it for yourself.

Myanmar is truly a mystical, magical land of beauty and wonder. My visit included remains of its golden past (Bagan); the last royal residence (Mandalay); its serene capital city (Yangon) and land that time forgot (Inle Lake), plus Amarapura, Mingun and Pindaya.

I have done a lot of travel in the last few months - this is without a doubt my favorite country. My travel experience is posted on my website at www.samsays.com/myanmar.htm. If you get a chance to check it out, please drop me a note on feedback page.

Sam

andreas rynes , May 12, 2005; 07:20 A.M.

it's a very nice articel about myanmar. i've visited myanmar few month ago and invite everybody to see some images from there on my website www.rynesonline.com. furthermore i'll give a slide show/speech in vienna in june, 24th 2005 about this country (in german)

bye, Andy

Yully Sebayang , March 22, 2007; 11:32 P.M.

I am going there next week, Yangon - Mandalay - Bagan your site gives me a lots of information, thank you for sharing Yully

Yully Sebayang , April 21, 2007; 08:14 A.M.


JON, Thanks for your post about travel to Myanmar, which i read before i travel to myanmar. It was really helpfull... I just came back from Myanmar. My visit to The Mahagandhayon Kyaung (monastery) in Amarapura was amazing, i witness hundreds of monks eating breakfast in silence, as you wrote. Thank you very much for the advise. Above is the picture i took in the monastery. Yully

Chris Groenhout , December 30, 2009; 09:51 P.M.

Great article, well written and a very reassuring reference for any photographer travelling to Burma.

We just came back after a couple of weeks there and had no problems with officials - even with us carrying a laptop, two Nikon D700's and a number of large 'pro' lenses.

It's a truly amazing place (both in travel and photographic terms) made even more wonderful by the friendliest, nicest people we've ever met. Can't wait to return!!!

Anyway, here are some pics from the trip - hopefully I'll get around to editing more.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/28373517@N03/sets/72157623064649710/


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