In November 2017 I participated in a photo workshop trip to Myanmar, led by Les Picker. There were four other participants in the workshop. All were very experienced photographers and world travelers. We were extremely fortunate to be guided by A. P. Soe, a native of Myanmar, very talented photographer and experienced guide.
The trip to Myanmar was very special. I had no idea what to expect and was surprised in many ways. As the trip commenced I was very concerned about the conflict involving the Rohingya people in Rakhine State, western Myanmar. I continue to be very distressed about that situation, but fortunately, it did not affect our trip. Indeed, if we did not know about the crisis prior to arriving in the country, we would have been totally unaware of it during our stay.
We visited five cities – Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay, Kengtung and Inle Lake. We spent time in the cities and in the country side.
The people were the most striking experience of the trip. They were friendly, quick with a smile, not only to us but with each other. They are busy and industrious. Rarely, did you see anyone standing around. They seem to be always working, playing or on the go. Motorbikes are everywhere, and they transport just about anything on them including whole families.
The people clearly take pride in who they are and their appearance. Even in the fish markets, people were dressed in colorful, clean clothes. There were clothes hanging out to dry everywhere. Most people had well attended hair. As you will see in my photos, (link embedded below), many of the people cover part of their face with a yellow colored paste, Thanaka. It is made from the root of the Limonia acidissima tree and is reputed to provide protection from the sun and be a skin conditioner.
We visited a three Buddhist schools: an orphanage for young boys, a nunnery for young girls, and the Kat Tat Kong Monastery school in Mandalay. The Kat Tat Kong school was impressive in its size and organization. It is a school for future monks and also has many students, both boys and girls, from the local population. The attention the students displayed in class was impressive. We entered a large classroom with perhaps a hundred students. Every student was focused on the teacher and they did not flinch as we moved around the classroom and took photos. Once outside the classroom they interacted like regular students on a playground – talking and fooling around. The monk who heads the school indicated what they need most is native English-speaking teachers. They are looking for anyone willing to come spend some time teaching. They teach English, but their locally trained teachers are not as proficient as they need to be. If anyone knows of any possibilities, I have the contact information.
The markets were quite amazing. The quantity and variety of fresh produce and fish that moves through the markets is very impressive. Goods arrive and are carried in all manner of vehicles and on peoples’ backs and heads.
Cars are an anomaly. They drive on the right side, and almost all the cars have steering wheels on the right. This creates many dangerous situations. This unusual circumstance exists because most of the cars are used cars imported from Japan.
Except for the hotel in Kengtung we had great hotel accommodations and we had good food throughout the trip. No one in our party got food related sickness.
There were lots of tourists in many areas, but it is not yet overrun with tourists. In a few of the rural areas we visited, we, as tourists, were somewhat unusual. The people, particularly kids, were a bit fascinated by us and of course our cameras.
All the above said, it is a desperately poor country. Their dwellings contain only the absolute bare basics – pots and pans and pads for sleeping. The one anomaly is that satellite dishes are everywhere in the cities.
We saw virtually no one begging. In the rural areas there were people trying to sell small trinkets they made to sell to tourists.
Overall the trip was a great experience; yet the political situation and the problem in Rakhine State is deeply troubling. Hopefully the international pressure will have some impact over time.