U Bein Bridge, Amarapura
When in Mandalay, it’s a given that most tourists will hire a car and driver for the day and head to Amarapura, one of the three ancient cities located on the city’s outskirts. Most pre-organised itineraries will deliver you to the eastern side of U Bein Bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world, around sunset, when foot traffic is at its peak, and the drowning light makes enigmatic silhouettes out of the bridge’s wooden stilts.
The day we visited Amarapura, it was particularly overcast (with torrential rain in Mandalay), so there wasn’t any such sunset to see. Still, the bridge, which is not only a minor engineering marvel but also a vital part of life in Amarapura, was spectacular to experience. For the best pictures, I recommend first walking the length of the bridge to the much quieter, western side of Taung Tha Man Lake. Once there, find a dugout boat to take you back across the lake. Boat drivers all seem to know the drill and will swing wide so you can get an overview of the bridge’s length, then happily hang around on the water until you get your desired light. Our driver even took us to some special vantage points: directly under the bridge, where we could peer through the teak stilts; and out by a lone tree that rises up from the water. Boat prices quoted on the lake’s western side are cheaper than on the eastern side (even for a one-way reverse journey), so don’t feel pressured to organise anything in advance with the boatman who will inevitably approach your car when you first arrive at Amarapura.
For a completely different angle on U Bein Bridge, ask a monk at the Mahar Gandar Yone Monastery to show you the (distant) views of the bridge from the back of the monastery complex.
Monks and Novices, Amarapura
There is something terribly irksome about crowds of tourists gathering to watch robed monks on parade – it’s the same situation as in Luang Prabang, Laos, where foreigners behaving badly have all but ruined the daily Morning Alms ceremony. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Another popular calling point on the grand auto tour of greater Mandalay, Mahar Gandar Yone Monastery is the country’s second largest – and it truly is a peaceful, sacred, and rather special place. When you arrive, you’ll notice a large placard detailing a set of rules for foreigner visitors. It’s there for your benefit, so make sure you read it.
Remember, you are a guest – a very privileged guest – of this Monastery, so you’ll do well to observe the same quiet reverence as the monks. Stand on the left curb of the passageway when the lunchtime procession is in action. Do not jump out to photograph monks up close like we saw people doing. Smile. Many of the novices here are very young, and I’m sure they appreciate seeing a friendly face among all the flashing and clicking lenses. If you’re snapping photos of someone in particular, offer to show them the photo on your camera.
After the procession is over, elder monks will often approach tourists to offer their services as a tour guide. Take up the offer – no one knows this place like the men and boys who live here, some of whom have done so for decades. In my experience, monks love a chance to practice their English on foreigners – but make sure you follow their lead and don’t raise any topics that could be unsuitable, i.e. politics.
The Goteik Viaduct, Goteik
Train travel in Myanmar is notoriously slow and painful – and our experience was no exception. Still, I wouldn’t trade our eventful ride through upper Shan State for anything, let alone another claustrophobic minibus trip. Passing over the Goteik Viaduct, Myanmar’s highest bridge, on the railway line from Pyin U Lwin to Hsipaw was one of the highlights of our overland travel experience. And considering one of our train’s carriages had already derailed earlier in the trip, it was exciting, too!
When the train from Mandalay runs true to schedule, expect to pass over the viaduct just before lunchtime. You’ll know it’s coming up when the train passes first through mountain passageways of solid rock, and then through Goteik Station. Keep an eye out before then too, as the train winds down the hill and the bridge whirls into view from a number of different angles. Reserve a seat on the left side of the train for the best vistas of the viaduct and steamy valley below.
Payas and Pagodas, Old Bagan
Bagan has to be one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever visited. Facts and figures about the area get thrown around all the time – 10,000 temples, pagodas and monasteries; surviving remnants of over 2,200 religious structures – but it’s actually quite difficult to get an overview, and thus an appreciation, for the true scale of the seemingly endless temple complex, which reaches far across the pancake-flat plains and spans three separate towns.
If you want a postcard-perfect snap of Bagan’s sacred landscape, Old Bagan is the best place to do it. This is where you’ll find the highest concentration of tall, climbable structures, as compared with Nyaung Shwe and New Bagan where many of the smaller payas are located. There’s no one formula for a great photo: Just choose a temple you like the look of, find a foothold and keep on climbing until you reach a comfortable spot. If it’s sunset or sunrise you’re hoping to capture, check the times before you leave your hotel and plan to arrive at least an hour before the blue hour. Bagan is one of the driest places in Myanmar, so thankfully inclement weather didn’t spoil our photos like in Mandalay.
If a temple has already been made ‘tourist proof’ (i.e. fitted with handrails and cement steps), there’s a good chance a big old bus crowded with eager visitors will be pulling up right before sunset. Avoid these spots if you can. Choose, instead, a less polished pagoda to climb – just make sure you can get up and down safely.
Local children, Mandalay
Cheeky, playful and inquisitive, Myanmar kids are absolutely gorgeous. I would never go around photographing children willy-nilly, and I still don’t feel completely comfortable with the photos of young people I did take, but I am fond of this image, captured in Mandalay. I like to think it’s a little anonymous insight on an uneventful moment of play.
The Dancing Fishermen, Inle Lake
Our first encounter with Inle Lake was a moment of pure ecstasy. We had just finished the three-day trek from Kalaw, and arriving at the lake’s southernmost tip with a beautiful, barefoot boat ride ahead of us was a feeling I’ll never forget. Too exhausted to take any photos, I kept my camera stowed away until the next day, when we hired a boat and driver for the morning.
It was with some anticipation that I waited to photograph one of the lake’s famous ‘dancing fishermen’ – “what if there’s no fishing today?”, “what if we can’t get close enough?” – but my concerns, it turns out, were completely unwarranted. As we ran through our itinerary with our guide, the fishermen appeared as a spot on his mud map of Inle, as if they were in one place, perfectly positioned, all day and everyday. Well, that’s exactly how it is. These humble fishermen are Inle Lake’s biggest draw card, and there’s absolutely no way you can miss them (your boat driver will see to that).
There are a couple of different ‘types’ of fisherman. The first man we pulled up alongside was legitimately catching fish – an authentic fisherman of Inle Lake. He was demonstrating the technique of paddling with armpit and ankle whilst using his free hands to untangle his net. Quite impressive. The second fisherman, with his giant basket net, was definitely not fishing, but obviously putting on a show – dancing for tips, if you will. As we saw him approaching in the distance, boat after boat cantered up alongside his canoe as he mechanically repeated the gesture of artfully balancing on one leg. When it was our turn, we pulled in close enough so that he could reach a hand to us and whisper “money.” We offered him a few bills in return for his performance, because that’s just what you do.
A little strange, yes, but did the rehearsed theatricality of this encounter really bother me at the time or detract from the magic of this encounter? Not really, no.
Floating villages, Inle Lake
Looking through other people’s photographs of Inle Lake, this building seems to turn up time and time again. I can’t remember where exactly the beautiful old monastery is located, or which floating village it belongs to, but if your boat takes the usual tourist path across the lake, it will be difficult to miss. What I like about this building in particular, and the reason why I think so many tourists choose to capture this scene over other, similar vistas, is the contrast between the derelict teak structure and it’s peaceful, shimmering reflection. The building’s mirror image is almost more beautiful than the monastery itself.
The way the building is stumbling into the lake, sinking at an imperceptible pace, is a beautiful metaphor for Inle Lake itself; a gentle reminder of the fragility of the lake’s ecosystem, and the responsibility we all share as visitors to protect this place – not for the benefit of future tourists, but for the sake of the Inwa people who have lived here for generations.
The Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon
Myanmar’s crowning glory and the most sacred Buddhist site in the country, the Shwedagon Pagoda grows out of Yangon’s crowded, dusty metropolis like a gilded oasis. Rudyard Kipling called it “the Winking Wonder that blazed in the sun,” and because of the way the light catches the exterior and bounces dramatically off the top of the stupa (which is apparently encrusted with 4,531 diamonds), there’s really no right or wrong time of day to capture the pagoda on camera. We were lucky enough to visit the Shwedagon on Thadingyut, a full-moon day and the End of Buddhist Lent, when up to 300,000 pilgrims come to pay their respects at the temple complex.
Rice, tea (and cabbage) fields, Upper Shan State
If you choose to trek through Shan State (which I recommend you do), make sure you take your guide’s advice and start your days early. Exiting each morning from the small hill villages where our homestays were located was an incredible experience, especially when we got to see productive fields shrouded in an other-wordly mist. Shan State is the country’s largest administrative district with a culture of it’s own and an incredibly diverse, spectacular landscape. When trekking, don’t make the mistake of seeing everything through your viewfinder, but do make sure you stop for a photo every now and then – even when you’re exhausted, up to your knees in mud and praying for the next rest stop.
Thanaka, Ava (Inn Wa)
Thanaka paste is worn across Myanmar, mainly by women and children, as a beauty product and method of sun protection. This lady was our unofficial ‘tour guide’ through Ava (outside of Mandalay), and boasted a particularly creative thanaka design on both cheeks.
Myanmar is often touted as a photogenic country, and capturing little parts of it on camera was a fun and satisfying experience. If you’ve been wanting to do a trip sans camera, don’t do it here.
I’m no professional photographer, so if you’re interested in seeing other perspectives on Myanmar and gaining more tips, I recommend having a gander at Chad Osko‘s Instagram account (look back through the archives), the Nomadasaurus blog, and photographer Julie Hall‘s website. I also look forward to seeing Anna Swain‘s new book, which is dedicated to Myanmar (even though she still refers to the country as ‘Burma’). What is your favourite image of Myanmar?