The Viewfinder Diaries: Myanmar, Part 1

Nothing was bringing me down

“Don’t drink the water!” she cried. But it was too late and I was having too much fun. Between sharing a can of Myanmar’s finest brew and that sip from some dude’s can in the heat of the moment, beer tasted pretty darn good right now and who cared where that guy’s had been.

This was Myanmar (or Burma as it used to be known) and I was dancing on the Red Bull stage on the last day of Thingyan. I had a beer in one hand and a water pistol in the other. I was soaked to the bone as the temperature nudged 40C, which was altogether not a bad place to be. I also had a new Canon 5D Mark III, a variety of lenses (like the 100-400mm USM Godzilla) and I wanted to really capture Myanmar like a pro. Nothing was bringing me down.

…licking girls, and generally indulging in anarchy

I landed a week too late in Yangon due to my spine muscles throwing a spasm somewhere, but decided to press on anyway. I landed in the middle of Thingyan, — the five-day Buddhist New Year celebration.

For those that don’t know much about Myanmar, it’s a tropical country bordering Thailand that celebrates the same festival, known as Songkran over the border. To the older generation it’s a solemn time for reflection on the past year and asking for future blessings. For the younger generation, it’s just an excuse to go wild. Spraying water hoses, binge drinking, getting wet, licking girls and generally indulging in anarchy. Make no mistake, for five days at the end of the dry season, kids rule Myanmar with water pistols, and it’s chaos.

I took the cheater’s path

I got myself to Mandalay via the cheater’s path — opting for a 50-minute flight rather than the 14-hour bus. It was a hot, flat dusty kinda town and didn’t outwardly appear to be very special or worthy of risking a wet camera for. I met my then girlfriend and for the next few days we explored Mandalay by the most expensive and only available method, given it was the holiday period.

Private taxis zipped us around in the blistering heat to U Bein Bridge, which is the longest teak bridge in the world and extremely photogenic. It is customary to take a boat ride, and the captains certainly know how to row for the camera. They know the best locations for those famous sunset shots and it’s the best US$10 you can spend.

It’s like being an alien landed on a distant world

Another noteworthy stop was the Paliek Snake Temple. It is seldom visited as we were the only tourists in sight, but the people really showed their true colours here. Burmese are full of smiles and have the most gracious and curious disposition you could hope for as a camera-toting tourist. The Burmese are wonderfully happy people, and walking around — unlike other $$ sign South East Asian countries — is akin to being an alien who has landed on a distant world. You are met with wonder and delight wherever you go — especially if you are 6’4”.

It was time to leave Mandalay, and given my back was still in a lot of pain, we elected for another private taxi to Inle Lake. It was a relaxing air-conditioned journey past all the buses we could have been trapped on. We crossed some mountains but taking photos from a moving car never does any countryside justice, so we just enjoyed the views.

I cursed that sip of beer — this wasn’t romantic!

We again opted for extravagance and booked ourselves into a resort called Pristine-something-something-Lotus. The description said it was on the lake, but it wasn’t.

Regardless, the room was an example of lushness and expense we were not accustomed to, and despite my vow to not let anything bring me down, I was wallowing most unhappily in the bottomless pit of Burma belly. I cursed that sip of beer with its obviously tainted Thingyan water. Damn it, this wasn’t romantic!

The next morning we hired a longboat to power us out on to the lake, and here I got to really see the power of my new 400mm lens.

Slowing down to capture the Intha men who row with one foot, I managed to get my shots without compromising crop. Myanmar might not be a tourist mecca yet but by George, these boat skippers know a thing or two about photography!

Onwards to the next adventure

For a few hours we explored the floating villages of Inle Lake and capturing all it has to offer — gardens growing out of the water, temples with jumping cats (sadly they weren’t jumping that day, just lying around like normal cats) and visiting the long-necked Padaung women. They work at a weaving centre and are happy to pose for photos, although you’ll need to have some wide aperture. There’s also a great shop here selling antiquities, but as I was already weighed down with camera equipment, I decided against buying that Chinese vampire doll head.

We made our way to the Heho Airport (to avoid the hell that is a 17-hour overnight bus with a spasming spine and dodgy bowels) where the plane banked starboard and on to the next photographic adventure; the ruins of Bagan.

The story continues in Part 2. Click here to read on, or click any of the images below to view a slideshow of images.
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