The Magic of Myanmar: A Photo Essay

Editor’s Note: For a few weeks in March of 2014, Jay took a tour of South East Asia to the newly opened country of Myanmar. Here is some of what he saw.

A Burst of Life and Color

This little girl spent the better part of an hour blowing bubbles and giggling, while we drank hot rice wine and nibbled on fried fish skeletons at a dusty roadside stand about an hour’s walk inland from Inle Lake.

Balloons at Dawn

Perhaps the most ubiquitous image of the modern day Myanmar experience, but no picture could ever truly capture the magic of spending the early morning hours watching dozens of hot air balloons liftoff in the pre-dawn darkness and fly up and over the temple strewn fields of Bagan.

Brothers & Buddies

These three were orphaned children in the rural outskirts of Inle Lake, with nothing to their names but the clothes on their backs and smiles the size of skyscrapers.

Coke Kills

Maybe my scariest glimpse into the crystal ball of Myanmar’s future occurred at the Botataung Pagoda complex in Yangon. An official Coca-Cola canopy was set up INSIDE the temple, and with temperatures as high as they were, not a single hand went empty. I witnessed the sweet, syrupy, Western influence dripping down Burmese throats, many for the first time. This is the dangerous downside to wider doors opening to Western travelers.

A monk returns to his monastery with the Indian style thermos containers full of rice and vegetables, while his companion watches. The thorn in the idyllic side of this image lies in the hands of the monk in the background; from what I saw in other monks, he was likely using that smartphone to cruise Facebook or play music videos of Gangam Style set over scrolling images of Miss Myanmar in her sash and bikini. This discovery led to some vigorous debates amongst my fellow traveler friends about exactly what falls under the vow of monastic celibacy, those guys do spend a lot of time all by their lonesome...

A monk returns to his monastery with the Indian style thermos containers full of rice and vegetables, while his companion watches. The thorn in the idyllic side of this image lies in the hands of the monk in the background; from what I saw in other monks, he was likely using that smartphone to cruise Facebook or play music videos of Gangam Style set over scrolling images of Miss Myanmar in her sash and bikini. This discovery led to some vigorous debates amongst my fellow traveler friends about exactly what falls under the vow of monastic celibacy, those guys do spend a lot of time all by their lonesome…

Double Tap-

Equal part effective fishing tactic and tourist pleasing photo opportunity, this method makes me regret having never really done much fishing. If it always involved bonking my dinner on the head, and preferably came with a case of cold beer to keep me company in my handmade canoe, I would consider taking up fishing as a full time occupation.

Floating Gardener-

The floating gardens on Inle Lake were fantastic, in the truest sense of the word. This woman was tending to her stalks of beautiful and bountiful tomato plants while balancing in her canoe.

The childlike wonder I felt in catching this local fisherman in the act soon faded once I realized that he was maintaining the pose for tourists. Traditional fishing in Inle Lake does involve an incredibly well-balanced ballet performed by young men in their canoes, but witnessing this particular fisherman hold the pose until our driver motored us close enough to tip him took away a vast majority of the magic.

The childlike wonder I felt in catching this local fisherman in the act soon faded once I realized that he was maintaining the pose for tourists. Traditional fishing in Inle Lake does involve an incredibly well-balanced ballet performed by young men in their canoes, but witnessing this particular fisherman hold the pose until our driver motored us close enough to tip him took away a vast majority of the magic.

Patience and persistence finally paid off with this shot, by far the best night lighting I've ever been able to capture. Due to extreme heat and the daily patterns of lighting changes, most of the temple gazing in Bagan takes place at dawn and dusk, with gems like this waiting to be plucked by those photographers willing to get there a little early, and stay a little late.

Patience and persistence finally paid off with this shot, by far the best night lighting I’ve ever been able to capture. Due to extreme heat and the daily patterns of lighting changes, most of the temple gazing in Bagan takes place at dawn and dusk, with gems like this waiting to be plucked by those photographers willing to get there a little early, and stay a little late.

The O.G.

The people of Myanmar, like people in many developing countries, use a lot tobacco products. In Inle Lake I was lucky enough to tour the “factory” (read: floating cabin) where several young girls and old women would each hand-roll up to 500 cigars a day. There were two main varieties, the strong and the sweet, both with a pleasant head lift and aftertaste, both of which I’m still slowly enjoying at home. When you can easily buy 25 for the equivalent of 2 US dollars, they strike a good souvenir bargain for even the cheapest backpacker with a taste for the smoke.

The Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon is essentially the Burmese Vatican, with jaw dropping opulence standing in defiance after thousands of years of South East Asian heat and rain, and emanating a dizzy, mesmerizing energy. You can easily lose yourself for hours while navigating the hundreds of gold tips and towers, all the while dodging children, pilgrims, and monks to create an overall spiritual experience smorgasbord that I'll likely never forget.

The Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon is essentially the Burmese Vatican, with jaw dropping opulence standing in defiance after thousands of years of South East Asian heat and rain, and emanating a dizzy, mesmerizing energy. You can easily lose yourself for hours while navigating the hundreds of gold tips and towers, all the while dodging children, pilgrims, and monks to create an overall spiritual experience smorgasbord that I’ll likely never forget.

Touching Down #2

In the course of one dusty dawn in Bagan, I went from having never seen a hot air balloon in person, to feeling like I had a detailed understanding of their mechanics. Watching a hot air balloon land is a truly awkward yet somehow graceful procession, especially in a setting that would give even Indiana Jones a travel boner.

Watergate, Myanmar Style

I snapped this shot of the floating gate and its reflection while zooming through the floating garden grid in the middle of Inle Lake. What amount to basically suburbs are littered carefully around the lake, to such a well engineered extent that it wouldn’t have shocked me to see the postman cruising hut to hut on a canoe delivering the daily mail.

The Road Home

Caught these two monk children on a riverside stroll on a hot afternoon in Inle Lake. The image is equal parts innocence, shyness, boyhood tomfoolery, and a well timed gust of wind.

Yangon Highrise

Yangon is like the Havana of SE Asia, to make a rough comparison, in that the dilapidated buildings permeating the city simply ooze with color and history, and stand as if relatively unscathed by the ever increasing pace of development and Westernization in neighboring capital cities.

SideBar: If you want to check out more pictures from Jay, visit his instagram account @justtheletterj

 

Author: Jay Donnell

When you have a tattoo that reads “YES!” on the inside of your bottom lip, it's probably a good sign that you're up for an adventure. Jay Donnell is an amateur photographer, veteran flashpacker, adrenaline addict, and overall life enthusiast. He spends nine months a year sharpening the minds of future lawyers in plastic, fantastic Newport Beach, CA, and the other three as far from that as possible, both geographically and philosophically. He can usually be spotted in third world dive bars, both of the scuba and grungy variety, and his exploits occasionally grace the front page of Reddit. You can see more of Jay's photos on his instangram account at @justtheletterj

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