#984. Myanmar Enigma

By John Shingleton | Travel Photography

Mar 27

Burma has always intrigued me and had been on my “must visit” list for many years. Sadly events conspired against me and it was not until 2012 that I managed to visit the country. It exceeded all my expectations and I made a return visit in 2018 which is the subject of this story.

I am taking a risk with this story. The very mention of Myanmar, as Burma is now known, rings alarm bells for many people. This is sad because although the atrocities against the Rohingya people in N Myanmar are appalling and whilst those responsible should be strongly condemned, in my view, it’s also also wrong to tag the whole 54 million population of the country with the same label.

Arguably Myanmar is the least well known and most misunderstood country in south east Asia.

It has had a very difficult history which continues today. The British colonised Burma in the 19th century and the familiar colonial pattern of paternalism combined with ruthless exploitation of the abundant natural resources followed.

Burma, during the period of British rule, was the wealthiest country in south east Asia. It was the first country to produce commercial quantities of oil. Along with the oil the British colonialist exploited teak and other timber products, tungsten and gem stones and up till WW2 Burma was the world’s largest producer and exporter of rice.

The enormous wealth from this exploitation did not, of course, flow to the Burmese but instead went into the coffers of British companies in London. What was invested back into Burma was a pittance compared with what was taken out.

Although the British established Burma as a unified country in fact it was far from unified and was an uneasy amalgam of more than 135 different ethno-linguistic groups whose differences have been manifested in numerous wars and civil conflicts. Even today the country is riven by deep religious, cultural and social differences and it has one of the highest levels of income disparity of any country in the world.

As the Japanese invaded Burma in the second world war the retreating British forces implemented a scorched earth policy destroying most of the infrastructure and the mining and other assets including the very important fleet of river boats-the dominant form of transport in the country.

So when Burma was hastily granted independence in 1948 the new government found a very bare cupboard-a dirt poor country with very little infrastructure and an almost totally uneducated population.

Sadly since independence it has been a very hard road for the Burmese. A corrupt military clique ruled the country for many years and pursued a policy of isolationism and actively discouraged tourism. Economic advancement was very slow. In an effort to encourage a transition to a more enlightened regime western countries imposed severe economic sanctions on the country for many years. It is only when a nominally civilian government was installed in 2010 that the sanctions were lifted and the country opened up to tourism and two years later I made my first visit when I travelled on a riverboat down the Ayeyerwady River-formerly known as the Irrawaddy-from Mandalay to Yangon. It was a wonderful experience but since then more luxurious cruising boats have been introduced and the Mandalay to Yangon run is fast becoming overrun with tourists. I was fortunate to enjoy it when it was an undestination.

This wonderful first experience and in particular the friendly, smiling Burmese had me wanting to go back to Myanmar this time in a setting well away from the tourist hordes. The ideal opportunity presented itself in 2017 when I had the opportunity to travel again on a small riverboat on a first “expedition” visiting small towns and villages on the Ayeyerwady Delta in the south. The expedition was actually in 2018 but to secure a place on the first exploratory sailing I had to make a booking and commit a year in advance. Unfortunately in the intervening twelve months the well documented atrocities against the Rohingya people is northern Myanmar took place. Myanmar was well and truly back in the sin bin and the peace credentials of Aung Sun Suu Kyi -the Lady-were in tatters.

This left me in a dilemma but after considerable soul searching I decided to carry on and make the trip because I realised my not going would only disadvantage the many local people who are now totally dependant on tourism for their livelihoods. They have absolutely no involvement with the atrocities in the north of their country. Indeed most of them have absolutely no knowledge of any events outside their immediate locality. The severe sanctions imposed by the western countries up to 2010 arguably only hurt the general population whilst the ruling junta’s army generals enriched themselves by sanctions busting and trading with the less than scrupulous neighbouring countries.

So in September 2018 I found myself again in Yangon -the major city of Myanmar. What a difference 6 years makes. In 2012 the Yangon traffic had been light-just buses, mini buses, motorcycles, bikes and trucks and a few private cars. By 2018 the traffic was as bad as Bangkok with thousands of private cars the majority of which are used cars from Thailand which means that as Thailand drives on the left-like Australia, NZ, the UK,Japan and Indonesia and many African countries -the steering wheels are on the “wrong” side for Myanmar where they drive on the right. This does not seem to bother the Burmese drivers at all. They have cheap cars and for them that’s all they care about.

There is also a building boom fuelled by Chinese money. Yangon has gone from quaint backwater to major Asian city in just a few years.

But soon I was on my way sailing away from Yangon as the small shallow draft riverboat putt putted its way slowly across the rich delta -still the rice bowl of Myanmar. Deltas are flat and usually featureless and that is most definitely the case with the Ayeyerwady Delta. Dozens of small villages and just a few towns are scattered over the delta with many only accessible by boat. My riverboat called in on a few of them-at least one village or town per day- and the rest of the time we gently cruised down the channels, observing the river life, trying not to cut through the many fishing nets laid across the river or running down any of the many small boats plying back and forth.

If you go to Myanmar seeking dozens of temples, palaces, forts and historic buildings then the Delta is not for you. There are plenty of temples as every village has one but who wants to come home with an SD card full of photos of temples? For me the biggest photo opportunities of the Delta are the wonderful people. I try, wherever possible, to gain consent from the people I am photographing. I manage to make my photographic intentions clear even if I don’t speak the local language and if the subject declines I don’t take their photo. It’s easy and suffice to say I can only remember one single instance from this trip of someone objecting to have their photo taken. I always try and show them the photo on the LCD screen and engage with them with a smile and a genuine thanks after I have taken the photo.

On this voyage I visited villages very rarely, if ever, visited by tourists. Everyone was curious about me particularly the children so having a camera and taking photos of them was very well received. Seeing how deprived the people are-Myanmar is ranked by the UN as one of the least developed nations in the world-it is always a surprise to me how apparently happy everyone is. There are smiling faces everywhere-not just for my camera.

Myanmar is very hot and humid most of the year and March when I visited was no exception. Fortunately we usually arrived late afternoon at a small town or village to tie up for the night and so I was able to photograph in the evening golden hour when many of the photos accompanying this story were taken. I used my Leica Q and I was so glad that I had just the one camera with a fixed lens and that I was not carrying a huge camera bag full of kit such as the very hot and flustered tourist I spotted in Yangon. I do hope that he managed to take some exceptional photos because he was certainly suffering for his art when I saw him.

As a postscript to this story in September of this year I am going to Myanmar again and this time to a really remote undestination.


​Never miss a post

​Like what you are reading? Subscribe below and receive all posts in your inbox as they are published. Join the conversation with thousands of other creative photographers.

  • Lad says:

    John, Thanks for this wonderful post! Your knowledge of the country is as caring and insightful as your photos of its people. I think you were right to go, although absolutists might condemn you, for all of the good reasons you supply. It’s hard to avoid unpleasant politics these days anywhere in the world. Your gear is just right for capturing these sparkling portraits. Thank you for bringing them to all of us who will never go to this interesting place.

  • Bob says:

    Wonderful photo essay John. I appreciate your succinct history of Burma/Myanmar and your honest assessment of how the country/people have suffered from foreign and home-grown political repression. I love your portraits and street photos. You never mention why so many people have mud on their cheeks? So happy to see the less traveled places before they become congested with tourists and cars. I look forward to your next entry. Thanks.

    • Bob, thanks for your kind comment. The white powder on the faces is a form of sawdust called Nap ka in Burmese or Thanaka in English. It is produced by rubbing the bark of certain trees and is a form of beauty treatment and also sun protection. You also see it in India and other Asian countries. Personally I stick to factor 50+ sunscreen.

  • jean pierre guaron says:

    A fascinating story, and the photos give us an insight into the lives of the people. Thanks for sharing this with us, John. I think you must have written this some weeks ago – the prospects of you returning to Myanmar in September this year are rather remote, sadly.

    • Jean Pierre, yes the story was written some weeks ago and Myanmar is off the itinerary for this year at least.
      I do fear for the Burmese people. They have many tourists including many Chinese tourists as well as Chinese workers. They may well have many undiagnosed cases of covid-19 in the country. The health system in Myanmar is very basic particularly outside Yangon. The WHO data on the pandemic does not show any cases for Myanmar but that may well be that the Myanmar government has chosen not to report any.

  • Thanks John for sharing your wonderful images and the story.

  • Bob Kruger says:

    John, Wonderful pictures. I also had a Leica Q for some period and found it to be the most intuitive and engaging camera I have ever used. I did find the 28mm lens limiting though.

  • Patrick says:

    Thank you, John, for bringing us the interesting information and nice photos of Myanmar and the people. The photos are unmistakenly Leica.
    Like Bob, I wonder why the people, some adults and most of the kids, have muds on their cheeks?

  • Nancee Rostad says:

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful informative post, John. I really enjoyed the images of the beautiful people of Myanmar which showed how resilient they are in the face of all they have to deal with. Hopefully you’ll be able to travel back there again soon.

  • philberphoto says:

    John what an interesting post! When thinking Myanmar, I think stupas in the morning, mist, Mandalay, the Lady. Yet you give us the “real” Myanmar, not the showcase tourists get to view -and shoot-. Thank you for that. And for your demonstration that not only fabulous spots lead to great images, at least at the hands of talented ‘togs!

  • Alan says:

    Nice, John. Photos of people are lots more work and yours are lovely.

  • This was a very interesting post for me. First, I liked the wonderful photos of all the smiling people. That is so nice to see for a change. And second, it reminded me of a couple of trips I made to the “outback” of the Philippines in the early ’60s. The first “trip”was on Luzon in conjunction with the Philippine army and we were in the jungle for a couple of weeks. A couple of years later I made another such excursion but for some reason I never knew for sure which island I was on. But, there were two main points that I remember: the people in the outback lived in what we would call extreme poverty. Thatched huts with livestock kept under the huts. Murky streams were the only water supply. It was awful watching children washing the supper dishes in one of these streams that I wouldn’t want to stick a toe in. But the people did bathe and they were very friendly and smiling people. On the second island there were still men wearing breechcloths and carrying blowguns or bows and arrows with broad head tips that looked like jagged crosscut saw blades. Thank goodness they were friendly and smiling, too. They still remembered WWII and were very pro-American. Point two: I was carrying a small viewfinder 35mm Agfa Sillette camera. It had a distance scale that I could only guess at, but it worked for me. And it had shutter speed and f/stop adjustments but no type of light meter. Didn’t matter because I only used Tri-X film and I had shot so much of it I didn’t need a light meter. I still have some of the pictures from that camera in a scrapbook. It was a simple camera but effective and I used it a lot in the field. A few years later it died in the heat and humidity of Vietnam and I replaced it with a Topcon Super RE with a 1.4 lens and through the lens metering system. I didn’t carry it in the field very much and I really missed my old Agfa. :))

  • lignumdraco says:

    Lovely photos. I visited for the first time in 2019 and found the people to be the friendliest I have met in my travels, so friendly. I learnt one word (mingalabar) and when said with a smile most people agreed to be photographed. I’d love to go back when all this current craziness in the world is over.

  • John Shingleton says:

    Thanks to everyone for the appreciative comments. They are very much appreciated and hopefully my story and photos will encourage some or all of you to consider visiting the wonderful people of Myanmar when the covid-19 crisis is over.

  • >