The Viewfinder Diaries: Myanmar, Part 2

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a two part series. Click here for Part 1.

Photographer Matt Owen continues his journey through the photogenic land of Burma

Bagan is wonderland of opportunity for anyone who loves photography. Like abandoned theme parks, one could literally go blind looking at this place through the camera lens.

More than 8,000 temples dot the flat plains on a bend of the Irrawaddy river and with a wealth of cheap hotels, pancake restaurants and bars, it s a little slice of backpacker heaven too.

It’s said you haven’t seen anything in Myanmar until you have visited Bagan. Some of my favorite temples were the lesser known or least visited, like the Nandamannya temple. Here 1,000-year-old murals adorn the walls and depict Buddha being tempted by nubile dancing girls. It was fascinating and I never even saw a single tourist here.

One day this country will be a major draw, so my advice is to go and capture it now, while it remains relatively untouched.

Night-time photo opportunities exist for those with big enough balls to drive the electric bicycles at night on the lightless streets. I highly recommend these E-bikes over traditional bikes, given the distances and heat.

There are three towns in the Bagan area: Nyaung U; Old Bagan and New Bagan. I suggest Nyaung U, which has the biggest collection of traveller amenities. Old Bagan is a bit more pricey yet has better location for the bigger temples, especially if night capture is your goal.

Transport in Myanmar takes a long time. I’ve travelled a lot and spend a fair percentage of my life trapped on buses in various states of disarray, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why buses here take so long! The road from Bagan to the capital Yangon is 627km long. It takes 10 hours. The roads are poorly maintained and the buses stop often.

Yangon seemed to be the complete opposite of Bagan in terms of humanity. A large city that is surprisingly spread out yet not shockingly so like other south east Asian cities.

It is also very colonial, with lots of stiff-upper-lip British architecture looking down on the Burmese street life. It is also baking hot as the dry season heat beats down unrelentingly.

There are not many ‘sights’ to see in Yangon, not officially anyway, yet there are still plenty of things to enjoy. We started with ten-pin bowling where the pins only occasionally come back down and a beautiful girl personally fills out your scorecard.
Despite the back wall containing more fans that a Soviet jet liner, the doors are left wide open and the heat is unbearable. It’s also shockingly expensive for Asia.

There is a peaceful slice of greenery in the north of the city that has picnic-loving people and couples kissing around a large lake. Cars line the shore with impossibly black-tinted windows and if the cars a rockin’, don’t come a knockin’! There are outdoor restaurants here to get beer and fresh fish, which comes covered in green chilli, amazing!

The boldest thing in Yangon, which is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the country, is the enormous and extremely ornate Shwedagon Pagoda. Made of what appears to be solid gold, it is the very epitome of worship excess. It is truly breathtaking and offers its soul for some amazing images, just as long as you have a wide angle lens to fit it all in.

Dusk is a great time to set up that tripod, which you will now be glad you brought. Drop that shutter speed down to really harness the swirl of people who encircle the complex in prayer. It’s a place worthy of time so if your travelling companions aren’t into photography, remember the old adage “no friends on powder days!”

About five hours east of Yangon is another remarkable place of pilgrimage. Kyaiktiyo is a giant boulder perched precariously on the edge of a cliff. It’s said to be balanced there by a single strand of Buddha’s hair. It’s an amazing place and had been on my travel radar since I was 10 and I read about it in a book.

Sunset from this rather chilly ridge is a mystical sight as the place has a large marble ‘floor’ built around the area where locals eat and sleep for dawn prayers. Kids kick balls around and families bond. The happiness of the Burmese is uniquely focused here, and it’s simply a magical place to spend time interacting with them. Sleeping up here rather then zipping in and out is highly recommended.

Back in Yangon, it wasn’t long before our time was up and we flew home. For photographers, and general travellers alike, Myanmar is a smorgasbord of possibilities that have been seldom harnessed yet. One day this country will be a major draw, so my advice is to go and capture it now, while it remains relatively untouched.

Click on any of the images below to open a slideshow.
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