Discovering Myanmar: A Photo Essay

March 20, 2018

Words and photography by Max White


I’m a 21-year-old travel/documentary photographer from England, UK.  I first got into photography in 2015 during a trip to one of my favourite countries to this day, South Africa. Although I knew little about cameras or how they worked, I wanted to document my time there as best as I could. Just a few days after returning home to the UK, I boarded a one-way flight to southeast Asia with my friends where I found myself falling head first into my new found addiction, photography. I spent the vast majority of my waking hours exploring the incredible hidden gems of what southeast Asia had to offer me, trying my best to capture my experiences. Trigger happy and tens of thousands of photos later, (of which many weren’t worthy of sharing), I returned to home to start a degree in film.  A year went by, followed by another half, but the drive to get out and document the people and places around me wasn’t going anywhere.  It continued to eat away at me until I’d finally had enough and made the decision to leave university, with no plan, nor goal, other than to capture the world through my lens. My latest trip took me back to southeast Asia where it all began, and to a country I had heard so much about, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

The following series of images are some of the experiences I was able to capture whilst in this magical country.

School Children Of Dala

I immediately noticed upon landing in Myanmar the different pace it holds to the rest of the Asian countries I had visited. My time there seemed far more relaxed and the locals were forever curious of where I was from and what I was doing.  This first shot was taken in a local school in the village of Dala. I was certain I was walking into a local pagoda but accidentally walked into a maths class, yet instead of being told off I was welcomed for half an hour to teach the kids some English. You can take the local ferry for free across from Yangon, Myanmar’s capital until 2006, to Dala where you will almost certainly be free from any other tourists.

Evening drinks over Kandawgyi Lake

It is illegal to ride a motorbike or bicycle as a tourist in many parts of the country and it took us a good hour scouring the streets to find someone that would rent us a bicycle. We got lucky and cycled out to Kandawgyi lake to watch the sunset over the famous Shwedagon Pagoda. Cheap drinks and a rose-tinted sky, you can’t lose with that combination. When light falls the main stupa and the 64 smaller stupas of the Shwedagon pagoda emanate a soft golden glow into the evening sky. A sight truly not to be missed in Yangon.

A Stroll From The Past

This photo was taken on U-Bein Bridge, a short ride from the center of Mandalay. I arrived of the night bus from Yangon and headed straight here for sunrise. Whilst the clouds didn’t give the sunrise I was hoping for, it was one of those serene experiences you can’t put in words. Just me, my camera, and a couple of monks with the rest of the world yet to wake.

Gokteik Viaduct

There are definitely faster ways to reach the northern part of the Shan State than the 12-hour train between Mandalay and Lashio but the Gokteik viaduct, which lies shortly before the stop in Hsipaw, is an experience you shouldn’t pass by. It’s only wide enough for one train to cross at a time, meaning you can be waiting for an hour or so for the oncoming train to cross first. It is truly terrifying yet beautiful all at the same time as the train crawls over the valley below and it’s a struggle to complain about the wait when you’re graced with a view like this.

Harsh realities

I set out to photograph the waterfall in the background, but instead, it was this image that has been stuck in my mind ever since. An hour into the trek I came across this waste site with two locals searching for anything of value within the rubbish. It’s was one of several I had seen throughout Myanmar but the contrast with the immense landscape surrounding it pressed home a harsh reality. Many people are making steps to reduce their own footprint on the planet and it’s the easiest smallest, easiest things like saying no to plastic straws and having a reusable coffee cup that add up to reducing scenes like this all over the world.

Portrait of a female monk

This portrait was taken on a guided trek when passing through a monastery just outside of Hsipaw. A massive part of photography for me is the interactions it generates with others; even though we knew nothing about one another, and words couldn’t even be exchanged, we were able to connect through just a photograph. Being able to turn my camera around and show this girl her portrait and watching her face light up with joy is a moment I won’t be forgetting anytime soon. Tourists from the UK, and other English speaking countries, have a very easy time travelling around as 90% of the places we find ourselves in will know some basic English, but it’s somewhat refreshing to visit places like this where communication is nothing but a series of gestures and facial expressions.

Inle Fishermen

Fisherman on Inle stand on one leg in order to allow them to paddle with the other, leaving their hands free to pull up their fishing nets. Whilst largely still an authentic scene, Myanmar’s booming tourist industry has led some fishermen to pose for photos and then request a small fee to make an income. Nonetheless, being on the lake is as peaceful as it looks, however, the grandiose nature of the lake’s surroundings is hard to show in a photograph, so if you make it to Inle, I recommend hiring a bicycle for a couple dollars a day and riding around its shores. From villages to natural pools to hundreds of hidden temples, there is plenty to explore, and when you reach an appropriate point you can pay a local to ferry you and your bike to the other side of the lake on one of their boats.

Bagan

Bagan is one of those places you see in photos but never really believe exists, it’s not until you arrive on a night bus and rent a bike just in time for sunrise that the vistas littered with thousands of temples start to become a reality. It’s scale is hard to imagine without being there and no lens I have can truly convey it. Because the land is so flat, the temples provide great vantage points for you to sit back and watch as the storm clouds coast past, allowing the occasional light rays to pierce through and illuminate the vast array of temples as they go. If Bagan isn’t on your bucket list it definitely should be.

 

Myanmar’s tourist industry is still in its infancy having only opened its doors to the rest of the world in the last decade. Whilst much is still out of bounds for foreigners, what is open showcases beautiful landscapes and people with the willingness to grow and adapt to the changes that continue to evolve within this complex country. Whilst I had nothing but positive experiences with its people it’s military government is rightfully being disgraced across media platforms for its treatment of the Rakhine population which continues to be brutally pushed out of the country. I can only hope that my experience of its progressive and loving people finds its way to the problem areas and finds a way to end this horrific conflict.


To see more of Max’s work visit the following places:

i: @maxbwhite

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