Burma (Myanmar) 2013

Our trip to Burma was a photography tour led by a long-time friend Dave Cardinal. I had not taken photos before, so when we decided to go on this tour, I got my first camera — a Canon Rebel. I am happy to report my photos improved over the trip.

Burma was temples and monks, city markets and small villages, Buddha statues — old and new, large and small. We saw sunrises and sunsets—golden red, piercing gold, or the palest of pinks shining through foggy blue mists. I photographed women and children and would show them the pictures on my camera causing lots of giggles and finger pointing. The women and children would smile and wave when I greeted them. In one village, the women wanted to touch my skin to see if it felt softer than theirs. They were just as curious about us as we were about them.

For the first part of the trip, there were 14 people including Will, our two kids, and me. We went to Yangon, Bagan, and Mandalay. For the second part of the trip, we took a boat up the Irrawaddy River to Bhamo which is about 25 miles from China in the Kachin State.

The women and children put a creamy paste called Thanaka which is ground from the bark or wood of a tree. At first, it looks strange, maybe exotic. After a while, you don’t notice it. It is a natural sunscreen.
The port in Yangon. The men carried rice and other goods off the boats on their backs.
The Shwedegon is a huge Buddhist temple complex in Yangon with gilded domes, towers, and walls. It is breathtaking with an explosion of color and glitter. It literally glows in the sun. The original stupa is hundreds of years old. The current complex dates from the 1700s.
We went hot air ballooning at sunrise in Bagan which has more than 4000 temples, pagodas, and monasteries – large and small.
River Bathing. One reminds me of a painting by Gauguin.
Many children become monks or nuns to get an education. Becoming a monk at a young age does not mean you must remain one all your life. Most boys leave monkhood after they finish school. More girls remain nuns. Monks and nuns eat twice a day – at dawn and lunch.  The local people feed the monks, who go out along the street or door-to-door to get alms. Each household saves a bit of their own meals to share with the monks. The nuns are given food and cook for themselves.  We hired some novice monks in Bagan to pose for photos. My best photos were the snapshots I took informally, rather than the posed photos.
I was on a photo tour.
Village life. We went to small villages and larger towns (as well as big cities).  As we moved away from tourist areas, the village people saw few if any white people and they were as interested in us as we were of them. They would come to doors and windows to watch us pass. I took photos of children and women who would meet my eyes as I smiled and waved. We also saw many different types of transportation – oxen-drawn carts, old trucks, bicycles, in larger villages motorbikes and some cars. No paved roads outside of the larger towns. This was the dry season and the dust was thick, I cannot imagine the mud during the rainy season.
We visited a school near Bagan. All the children and the teachers wear green Longyi. They learn to read and write English but not to speak it. The children in the boat  are being taken home from the larger town Shwegu to their villages at the end of the school day.
No way to count all the temples, pagodas, and monasteries we visited. Burma is filled with them. Local patrons build and restore these amazing buildings. In Shwe Baw Kyune monastery, there are around 7000 temples, stupas, and pagoda old and new, big and small, crowded together like too many flowers in a vase. And yes all the gold is real. The Golden Palace Monastery in Mandalay — a massive teak building with beautiful carving — was originally in the royal palace complex but was moved outside the palace area, reassembled, and converted into a monastery in the 1800s. Moving the building turned out well – the rest of the palace area was destroyed in WWII. We even saw the world’s largest free-standing bell in Mingun.
We went to morning markets and night markets and all-day markets. So much to see and hear and smell. Beautiful fresh vegetables, piles of chilies, banana leaves used to wrap flowers in. Men and women carrying everything and anything on their heads or on carts. Eggplants and cauliflower were in season.
We saw many types of traditional crafts – stone carving, casting, making gold leaf, silk weaving, carving teak, throwing pots. One place cast huge Buddhas which were sold mostly to people in China or Thailand. In another area, they carved mostly Buddhas out of stone. No electric wheels here – the daughter uses her foot to turn her mother’s pottery wheel. After all what are daughters for?
The U Bein Bridge in Mandalay at Sunset. No more needs to be said.

We spent the six days on the Amara II traveling from Mandalay to Bhamo on the Irrawaddy River. Bhamo is in the Kachin state and is about 40 miles from the Chinese border. We were in an area with very few tourists – our schedule had to be registered ahead. We arrived near Bhamo early afternoon and “docked” on a sand bar a few miles away. When we asked if we could go into town that day instead of waiting for the next, we were told the arrangement was for the next day. The captain and the owner of the boat would lose their licenses if we changed the schedule. So we waited.

Our boat was teak with five cabins each maybe ten by fifteen feet. Teak walls and floor and furniture. Sparsely appointed with views out each side to the passing river. Above is a large deck with a bar and lounge chairs and tables. Here we eat, rush from one side to the other taking photos, then edit them on our computers. They feed us well. Too well. The bell rings for meals and we come like Pavlov’s dogs, hungry or not. I get agitated not moving and run up and down the main deck to the amusement of the others. When we dock, they have a huge teak board for a gang plank and one staff person at each end holding a railing to make it easy to walk.

We stopped every day at a town or city to sightsee. During the day, the air was warm – but mornings we woke to fog and chilling wind. The evenings also cooled off and we put on our fleeces, covered ourselves with blankets.

We saw boats of all kinds – bamboo rafts carrying bamboo downriver, barges filled with teak, ferry boats left from the Japanese occupation, and fishing boats of all types.
From the river, we saw dozens of villages bejeweled with temples, wooden bridges crossing streams flowing into the Irrawaddy, and the busy and cluttered lives of the people who lived there.
Every day on the boat we woke to a stunning though sometimes foggy sunrise. And our day ended with an equally exquisite sunset. The last night, we were also treated to a full moon.
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