MYANMAR: BEAUTY AND STRIFE
It was a first for me: A trip with everything from serene, temple-dotted landscapes to colorful cities to dangerous pyrotechnic displays. In November 2018, my photographer friend Michael Sheffels and I spent two weeks traveling through Myanmar, a country formerly called Burma that borders Thailand, Bangladesh, India, China and Laos. Myanmar was one of the most captivating places I have visited, and I’m excited to candidly share my experience with you.
Photos, Story & Film by Toby Harriman
Story Edited by Kayla Frost
MYANMAR: BEAUTY AND STRIFE
While my photos and videos might make Myanmar seem like a beautiful place to visit, I want to pause and bring up a few points right off the bat. I know many people disagree with traveling to Myanmar and supporting this country — and understandably so. What is going on right now in Myanmar, and has been for years, is far from ethical.
As much as I prefer to avoid discussing the political side of things, as it’s not my strong suit, I want to address the crisis facing the Rohingya people of Myanmar. In case you’re not up to speed, here’s a very basic explanation.
The Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group, have for generations lived in the Rakhine state of Myanmar — a predominantly Buddhist nation. Primarily because of this difference in religion, Myanmar’s military regime has for decades persecuted the Rohingya, attempting to brand them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who are dangerous to Buddhists. Over the years, Burmese forces have stripped the Rohingya of citizenship and rights, forced them to work for the military, raped them and murdered them. United Nations officials called the Rohingya “the most persecuted minority in the world” and the situation a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
In 2017, sparked by Rohingya resistance, Myanmar’s military started systematically wiping out Rohingya villages — first murdering their residents, including children, and then burning everything to the ground. These attacks forced more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee to refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh. The Rohingyas who chose to stay in their homeland have faced travel restrictions and curfews, endured violence and humiliation, and struggled to access education and healthcare. These conditions are unbearable for many, and so the stream of refugees continues.
Knowing all of this before booking our trip, Michael and I questioned whether we should even travel to Myanmar. Should we support the country at all? We spent weeks thinking about this and came to the conclusion that we still wanted to go. We dove in, did deeper research and hired fantastic local guides who helped us work with local families, stay at family-run guesthouses and eat at family-run restaurants. We knew we couldn’t 100% avoid it, but we tried our best not to support anything run by the military or regime.
Everybody has to decide for themselves whether traveling to Myanmar is ethical; it’s not black and white. Some people boycott traveling to Myanmar because they don’t want to feel like they are endorsing or supporting the country’s brutal military. That’s understandable. Others, like Michael and I, consider benefits to traveling to controversial countries.
I’ve heard people say that traveling can be a form of “backdoor diplomacy” — a way for locals and visitors to talk, exchange ideas and try to understand each other. I personally agree with that and think this type of open conversation can bring positive change. Being isolated from the world is not going to help the Burmese people build a better society. Plus, isolation could actually enable Myanmar’s military to continue to persecute the Rohingya without consequence.
Michael and I also considered the fact that the tourism industry can alleviate poverty by creating new jobs and bringing much-needed income to locals. In Myanmar, approximately a third of the population lives in poverty, and tourism can help turn that around. On our visit, we found that many families are able to privately run their own shops, guesthouses, restaurants and other businesses thanks to the recent increase in travel to the country. Most Burmese people are just regular people who don’t support the military’s actions, and I don’t think it’s fair for them to suffer because of a tourism boycott.
I know that even with my explanation, there will still be people who disagree with me — and that’s okay. I strongly recommend doing further research from multiple sources if you’re thinking about traveling to Myanmar, or simply want a deeper understanding of the history and crisis.
We started our trip to Myanmar after an amazing four days in Hong Kong. (Be sure to check out my film and photo story from Hong Kong as well!) After we were guided through a million (so it seemed!) pagodas in Mandalay, we hopped on an overnight train heading southwest to the plains of Bagan.
We spent the first few days exploring this ancient city, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019. Every day we got up for sunrise, explored a million more pagodas and ate delicious food. Every evening we shot sunsets and backed up content at the awesome Ostello Bello Hostel, our home base during our Bagan leg.
On the banks of the Ayeyarwady River in central Myanmar, Bagan is home to 3,595 recorded temples, stupas and other Buddhist structures meant for spiritual practice. In its heyday between the 11th and 13th centuries, Bagan was the capital of an empire roughly the size of modern-day Myanmar.
This beautiful landscape also happens to be on a seismic fault, and has suffered damage from many major earthquakes over the ages — most recently in 2016. On August 24, 2016, a magnitude 6.8 earthquake hit central Myanmar and wreaked havoc on Bagan. This time almost 400 temples were damaged, including the popular Sulamani and Myauk Guni (North Guni) pagodas; videos show billowing clouds of dust and tumbling rubble.
The wreckage brought attention to temple restorations conducted between 1995 and 2005 by Myanmar’s military regime. It turned out that the weakest parts of the temples were typically the newest parts. For instance, Sulamani’s reinforced concrete tower broke free during the earthquake and plummeted down the pagoda’s side, damaging ancient construction and eventually crashing into the roof.
Even before the earthquake, these shoddy renovations were hotly contested. Led as a “beautification” effort by the government, more than 1,800 temples and monuments were renovated or rebuilt in an attempt to catapult Bagan into an international tourist destination. Some locals defended the renovations, explaining that these temples are still used for Buddhist practices today and must be maintained as spiritual pilgrimage sites. But critics worldwide, including archeologists and historians, condemned the efforts, appalled at the painfully obvious use of modern materials and lack of concern over preserving ancient architecture.
Adding to the controversy, the government paved a highway, opened an 18-hole golf course, and built an obstructive 200-foot viewing tower in close proximity to these sacred structures. Plus, the military allowed 25 hotels to be constructed in Bagan’s archaeological zone (called Old Bagan) during the late 1990s.
For years, these controversial restorations and tourist amenities, as well as bungled development plans, allegedly prevented Bagan from becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Myanmar first tried to get the ancient city added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995, but it wasn’t until July 2019 that the World Heritage Committee announced that Bagan had finally claimed the designation.
According to Frontier Myanmar, UNESCO consultant Kai Weise told the publication that “if the government wants Bagan to stay on the list, it will need to meet strict conservation targets, the implementation of a comprehensive management plan, and remove hotels from archaeological sites.” And with this new designation, Bagan locals (who live not in Old Bagan but in surrounding areas) hope that their voices will be heard in the process of conserving their cultural heritage.
Riding High in Hot Air Balloons
Before traveling anywhere, I always research ways to fly for my aerial photography. As much as drones can be useful, there are tons of areas you just can’t fly in. And with Myanmar at the time, it was a 50/50 chance of being able to fly over any particular place. Typically, if I’m not using a drone I’m in a helicopter or small plane, but Myanmar didn’t have those options. What else could we do but splurge on hot air balloon flights!
We set up flights with Oriental Ballooning in Bagan and Inle Lake. With all the flying I do, this was a bucket list item to finally fly in a balloon. These flights were amazing and allowed us to travel a decent distance and get to a pretty high elevation. Back in the day, they used to be allowed to fly close to the pagodas, but tensions with the government prompted restrictions. Both flights had talented pilots, and upon disembarking, they had a table set up with champagne. We also got a little gift bag with a flight certificate, hat and other small momentos. Oriental Ballooning definitely went above and beyond, and were glad we got to experience these tours.
In Inle Lake, our flight actually got canceled our first day. We were all set up, but the wind died and we didn’t get to launch. They called it off and we raced to a sunrise location by boat so we could get some drone shots of the floating gardens and anything else we could before the sun rose too high. Two days later, we got the call to go back out for the balloon tour.
We got up this time! Depending on the weather, they usually land on a double boat platform after your flight. But the winds were up and it took us miles away from the lake, so we landed on a local farm. I felt bad, but the farmers all came to help until the company’s chase vehicles showed up to pack it all up. When they got there, they set up the little champagne table right on the road — it was funny. Then we had to move because a truck needed to get through. But we just went with the flow, figuring this was fairly normal. But who knows!
Mount Popa and Taung Kalat Monastery
We briefly visited Mount Popa and ate locally before heading to Sat Sat Yo village.
Mount Popa is an extinct volcano near Bagan that’s almost 5,000 feet high. It’s a pretty special place to me, personally, as some of my favorite inspirational films were shot here: “Samsara” and “Baraka” by director Ron Fricke.
Near the base of the mountain, there’s a large rock spur that acts like a pedestal to a Buddhist monastery. Taung Kalat monastery is truly a sight to see from afar, as it appears to jut out of the lush landscape like something out of a mythical story. To reach the golden monastery, visitors have to climb 777 steps — a popular pilgrimage. On the way up, you’ll pass offerings of flowers and incense as well as groups of mischievous Rhesus macaques (monkeys). Nearly 2,000 macaques essentially control the steps and entrance area.
I could have stayed for hours watching them play around, jumping and eating bananas that locals give to them. Nonetheless, it was a bit gross seeing them pee and poo, knowing you are walking barefoot around the monasteries; it’s customary to leave your footwear outside of every temple. The monkeys can also be a bit dangerous and scratch you if you get too close or stuck in the middle when they’re chasing each other.
Sat Sat Yo Village
My favorite parts of traveling are interacting with the local people and experiencing some of the culture and daily life. Getting to see hundreds, if not thousands, of pagodas and monasteries was incredible, but getting away from the tourist spots to visit local villages topped our list of memories.
On our way back to Bagan from Mount Popa, our guide drove us miles on a back road to visit Sat Sat Yo village, a small community in the Nyaung-U township not far from Bagan. The children in Sat Sat Yo are known for sporting a traditional hairstyle called Sanyitwine — the bottom third shaved, the middle third cut a couple inches long, and the top third tied in a knot. Before Myanmar was colonized by the British, this unique hairstyle was the standard for all Burmese children, but now Sat Sat Yo is the only place they still wear it tied in this ancient fashion.
The cream-colored paste on their face, called thanaka, is commonly seen throughout Myanmar. Thanaka is made from ground bark and water, and is traditionally applied to the face and arms in circles and other designs. Thanaka is applied to soothe skin and help prevent sunburn.
Before our trip, Michael and I both picked up a Kodak Polaroid camera knowing, or hoping, we would have moments to pull them out and connect with locals. The kids loved them and practically clicked through all of our paper. It was pretty cool having backups saved to a microSD card so the kids could keep the small paper prints and we could keep the digital versions.
INLE LAKE AREA
After our epic time in Bagan, we headed to the small Nyaung-U Airport to board a short flight to Heho Airport so we could spend our next few days at Inle Lake. For this part of the trip, we opted to avoid staying in the main town, Nyaung Shwe, which requires a bit more travel to get to the lake each day. As the prices were pretty affordable when splitting a room, we decided to stay right on the lake at Ann Heritage Lodge Hotel. It was pretty amazing and it seemed like we were essentially the only guests at the time.
After landing and on the way to our hotel, we stopped and ate in Nyaung Shwe at Sin Yaw Restaurant, which ended up being one of our favorite meals of the trip. We went with their recommended Traditional Shan Set Meal Platter so we could get a taste of everything — eight different Shan State foods served vegetarian or with meat (chicken and pork), with a fresh local seaweed salad, tofu, fresh tomatoes from the floating gardens and other surprises. It was really delicious food and great service.
Continuing on, we jumped in our boat for a 30-ish-minute ride to our hotel on the lake. The boats of Inle Lake are beautifully colored, long and pencil shaped. On that short ride, we knew instantly we’d have an amazing few days. We already had incredible views of local fishermen, choreographed fishermen looking for tips, the famous floating gardens and the floating villages — and of course more pagodas! Over the next couple of days, we hired a private boat to take us around and sight see.
The present and future of Inle Lake
Inle Lake, in Myanmar’s eastern Shan State, is a UNESCO biosphere reserve known for its floating gardens and villages. The lake’s Nyaung Shwe township is populated by several ethnic groups including the Intha people, or “lake people,” who live their daily lives on the water. Inle Lake is Myanmar’s second largest lake and, according to UNESCO, is home to more than 2,000 recorded plant species, 43 fish species (16 endemic), 267 bird species, 75 butterfly species, and much more.
Floating gardens flourish over the surface of Inle Lake, established side-by-side in tight lines. From the air, they look like groups of green pipe cleaners. Farmers construct these gardens through extensive manual labor, gathering huge numbers of weeds from the lake’s bottom or nearby marshlands. These weeds are transported by boat to the hydroponic farms, and then fashioned into beds and anchored with bamboo poles. Typically, tomatoes are grown for local and Thai markets. Though Inle Lake’s floating gardens boomed in the 1970s and peaked in the early 2000s, many are still around today.
Around the gardens, buildings on stilts dotted the waterscape, forming villages only accessible by boat. Every home seemed to be open and active, with families out and about and doing chores. The kids who weren’t playing with friends and neighbors were learning how to balance and paddle with their foot, like their parents and ancestors do. The weirdly satisfying puttering sound of boats echoed in every direction and a loudspeaker in the distance was blasting a call of Buddhist prayers and chants.
All of this might sound like paradise, but Inle Lake is facing increased development and environmental degradation, threatening life on the lake and the lake itself.
For one, pressure to the floating gardens as fertile as possible is driving farmers to profusely apply chemical pesticides and fertilizers, which easily leak into the lake. Many of these chemicals, such as the insecticide Cypermethrin, are extremely toxic, poisoning fish and affecting access to clean water.
But the floating gardens aren’t the only things to blame for pollution. The tourism boom in recent years has inflated the use of motorboats and encouraged the rapid development of new hotels along the lakeshore and in the surrounding township. Unfortunately, some of these hotels are pumping waste directly into the water instead of disposing of it in a safe and responsible manner.
Hopefully the lake’s designation as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve will help ensure sustainability is a priority moving forward. According to UNESCO, “Each [biosphere] reserve promotes solutions reconciling the conservation of biodiversity with its sustainable use. Biosphere reserves are ‘Science for Sustainability support sites’ — special places for testing interdisciplinary approaches to understanding and managing changes and interactions between social and ecological systems, including conflict prevention and management of biodiversity.”
The Nam Pan Market
The Nam Pan Market, also spelled Nan Pan, is a five-day rotating market and the largest market on Inle Lake. This market wasn’t on our radar, but we were lucky our guide added this to our list.
It was pretty cool seeing the crazy numbers of boats come in and out of the market. It was one of those moments as a creative: I totally forgot to spend time in the market itself and immediately went to find a safe place from which to launch my drone. Capturing the action from above and at different angles was a definite plus there, and it was amazing to see.
For my last shot, I left the drone in tripod mode and took a six-minute video, which I was able to speed up into a timelapse effect in post to get a short 10-20 second clip showing the boat traffic. I wish I filmed it for another six, but regardless, I was really happy with the results.
It was incredible seeing the online response to the aerial timelapse of the market and boats. I never would have imagined how viral one 10-second clip could get, but it was cool seeing how others interpreted my work. A ton of people thought the boats were pencils on a table or even bacteria viewed through a microscope. I guess at first glance, I could see why they thought that. But after personally spending eight or so hours a day on those boats, it was hard for me to picture anything else.
These shots are some of my favorite aerials — shots I envisioned getting someday, but I just figured it would be in Vietnam or something. It ended up being a surprise and less planned.
Afterward, I met back up with Michael and our guide, and we toured the inside of the market before heading to our next location. We were not in the mood for shopping — mostly because our bags were 110% full already, but in the market you can find local, handmade goods, carvings, ornamental objects, textiles and cheroots. And of course, even if you don’t want to shop there’s always food!
A Balancing Act: The Real & Performing Fishermen of Inle Lake
It’s an iconic image of Inle Lake: a fisherman balancing on one leg at the end of a tiny boat, his other leg outstretched and possibly wrapped around a wooden oar, and a large conical net in hand. This is sold to tourists as a traditional fishing method that is still used today.
But it felt kind of bittersweet even taking these photos, knowing these people are not fishing but only “performing” for tips. Back in the day these conical, basket-like nets were used, but now fishermen use a different method as seen in my embedded video. They set up nets and then row to a different area while scaring the fish back toward the nets. However, most fishermen still row with one leg, as traditionally done.
With the performing fisherman, you see super clean “costumes,” and they are only around tourist areas and hotels. They can also be hired through a guide. It was funny: when you are photographing them, they literally come closer and put the net in front of you so you can take the classic shot — so I did.
In any case, It was still cool to see, and they are still locals doing a job — just a bit less standard than the typical work or real fishing and daily life you see around the lake. I also heard that these performers are actually helping the real fishermen by keeping the tourists, and their noisy boats, away from them.
To me, it’s no different than me wanting to be an artist instead of working another type of job. Everyone has to do something. Work is work. And just as fishermen discovered a way to harvest and sell fish, other people have found a way to entertain and sell an act. What can rub me the wrong way, though, is when other photographers spin the shots as authentic fishermen instead of being honest.
The Long Neck Women
After visiting the market, we traveled southwest on the lake through floating gardens and villages. Our guide took us to a small village near the lake, Ywama, and we ended up at a little house established for tourists. In the house, a few Burmese women were weaving colorful souvenir scarves and bags, and showing off their “long necks.”
Though they’re often called “long neck women” or “giraffe women,” these women don’t actually have long necks. The heavy brass coils spiraled around their neck compress their shoulders, collarbone and rib cage, creating the illusion of an elongated neck.
This traditional practice originates from the Padaung tribe, native to the hills of Myanmar’s Kayah State. Brass coils are wound around the necks of girls as young as five, and more coils are added as they grow. Padaung women typically end up with 21 to 25 rings on their neck, which can measure up to a foot tall and weigh up to 20 pounds. These coils are rarely removed.
This style is considered beautiful and has been passed down through generations of Padaung women. Many of these women are proud of their rings, as they carry the classic look of their culture. Nevertheless, the style is fading. Many of Padaung women are abandoning the practice, thinking it antiquated or not in line with their modern beliefs.
The women I met in Ywama were no longer living with their tribe, as Inle Lake is in the Shan State. The oldest woman was very friendly and wanted us to get pictures with her. We also got some shots of the younger women weaving on large looms.
If you visit these women, make sure to treat them respectfully and not like animals in a zoo. Yes, their looks are unique and they’re working in the tourism industry, but remember that they’re just people trying to share their culture and make a living.
Pindaya Fire Balloon Festival
We took a couple of days off from the typical tourist path to visit Pindaya, a cool town of approximately 80,000 people northwest of Inle. Michael and I decided to stay at the Pindaya Farm House for a night. This is where I had the best food of the trip: homemade Shan noodle soup, the most amazing soup I’ve ever tasted.
After that, we were just hoping to relax and catch up on backing up our photos — but then our fixer, Ko Ye, called to let us know about the town’s hot air balloon competition that was about to start. No way we were missing this! Our local guide, Ko Nyi Nyi Zaw, rushed over to grab us and we headed off.
This Buddhist balloon festival occurs every Tazaungmone: the eighth month on the traditional Burmese calendar, which typically corresponds to November. As this month marks the end of the rainy season, there are festivities all month long, but Tazaungmon’s first full moon is particularly celebratory. This is the night of the Tazaungdaing Festival, known by tourists as the Festival of Lights or the Fire Balloon Festival.
The biggest Tazaungdaing Festival occurs in Taunggyi, the capital of the Shan State. With approximately 380,000 residents, it’s the biggest city in eastern Myanmar. Thousands of people flock there during Tazaungdaing to experience dazzling (and dangerous) displays of light and fire unlike anywhere else in Myanmar. The town we were in, Pindaya, was hosting a smaller version of this festival, and we were the only two tourists there.
It was a pyromaniac’s dream! We were right in the middle of it all, at one point literally having fireworks launched straight at us as a balloon rose over the crowd. It was hard to avoid flinching or even getting hit. We were in the line of fire.
Essentially, townspeople would launch one balloon at a time, and they’d get progressively bigger. Fireworks were rigged to a basket on the bottom of each balloon. When launching the balloon, someone would light a wick of some sort, and the flame would travel down a post holding the basket. That’s supposed to give the balloon enough time to float high enough that the fireworks wouldn’t light until the balloon was a few hundred feet above the crowd. Supposed to.
That method didn’t produce consistent results. One balloon’s fireworks were triggered very low, launching into the crowd. One went a thousand or so feet before triggering. But the final balloon — made traditionally with paper and holding the largest load of fireworks — was the worst.
Their method was to fill the balloon with air by holding lit torches underneath the opening. While the balloon was inflating, the paper ripped — but the wick was already lit. All of a sudden it got quiet for a second, and then it was a rush of everyone sprinting away and yelling, “Run!” The entire fireworks basket started going off from the ground, since it never lifted off. Fireworks were shooting in every direction and hitting people. Michael and I ran away in time not to get hit, but I was able to find a good place to take cover and try to capture videos and photos from the scene. It was an intense moment.
This is actually not an uncommon occurrence. These festivals are known to be unpredictable and dangerous, and injuries and burns are accepted as a possible part of the event. Deaths have occurred as well, particularly when balloons crash into the crowd. But the show goes on.
Beyond a few scares, this was definitely a highlight of our trip and one of the most welcoming experiences we had with a local community. As we ran around with our fancy cameras amongst the locals, they would literally grab us and push us through people to get us closer to the action and get better shots — sometimes too close. Everyone wanted to interact with us and know where we were from, and they definitely wanted us to dance with them and celebrate the occasion. I won’t forget the sounds of their hand drums and instruments, the local music and pretty much everyone in sight filming the event on their phones. The whole scene was full of so much energy, it was amazing.
The next day, we headed back to Heho Airport to jump up to Mandalay for the last leg of our trip.
Back in Mandalay, we decided to stick with what we knew and stayed at Ostello Bello’s Mandalay location. We liked it so much in Bagan that we knew we’d feel comfortable and safe. Although we had amazing experiences at the family-run Ann Heritage Lodge Hotel and Pindaya Farm House, those types of stays can feel a bit secluded and quiet.
It was nice to mix things up, and we were extremely pleased with our experience at the Ostello Bello hostels in Bagan and Mandalay. You get that younger, adventurous crowd and a super welcoming vibe. You don’t feel like you are the only one staying there, and that was a good change at times. At the hostel, you feel welcomed to go sit and work on your computer and use the Wi-Fi, have food and beer, and converse with other travelers. These would be great places to stay when traveling alone, and they offer a ton of tours and trips as well as many other helpful services.
For our last few days we had goals of seeing Mandalay Hill and getting shots of it from different viewpoints, and we wanted to spend sunrise and/or sunset at the U Bein Bridge. We usually try to visit a spot multiple times to ensure we get visuals we’re really happy with. We had one epic foggy morning above the Kuthodaw Pagoda and the Shweyattaw Buddha Pavilion on Mandalay Hill. https://www.instagram.com/p/Bq53EeeBVgf/ If you know me, you know I love my foggy scenes from San Francisco, so getting this incredible pagoda peeking through the fog was a special way to wrap up an incredible trip.
Touring factories in Mandalay
We visited a few local factories in the Mandalay area. This was probably higher on Michael’s to-do list, and definitely off-the-beaten-path and far from the typical tourist tour, but I am always up for different types of experiences. Essentially, we talked with our guide about our interest in seeing more of the “industrial” side of Mandalay and Myanmar. We knew this would be a tough ask and could lead us nowhere, but our guide was a champ.
I’m pretty sure he biked around on his own time and talked with various local factories to see if we “two photographers” could come to tour their factory the next day. Who really knows what happened though, between the language barrier and explaining our unique interests — we would take what we could get. We were lucky and his hard work paid off.
We were able to get into a local cracker factory. The factory had a few motor belts and automated features, but all of the packaging was done by young girls around a few tables upstairs. It was impressive to see how fast they worked.
We got denied at the next factory — but I knew right as we drove up that we would. I saw the Unilever logo on the workers’ shirts. Unilever is a giant corporation that probably has stricter regulations on visitors, especially when they want to come with cameras. I am pretty sure we got permission to enter but no cameras were allowed. So we moved on to the next one, which our guide had set up the previous day.
It was a local slipper (flip-flop) factory. Everyone there was super welcoming and friendly. They had multiple floors and made a few versions of their slippers — a cheaper, more automated design, and a handmade and cut leather shoe. The workers ranged from young girls to middle-aged males to older women. They were so nice and even gifted Michael and me one of their higher-end handmade pairs.
U Bein Bridge
The U Bein Bridge spans the Taungthaman Lake in Amarapura, just south of Mandalay. Built around 1850 and three-quarters-of-a-mile long (1.2 kilometers), this bridge is thought to be the oldest and longest teakwood bridge in the world. Over the years, the integrity of the bridge has degraded and many of the 1,086 teakwood pillars have been replaced by concrete.
We were lucky to see the U Bein Bridge during a clear and beautiful sunset. As the water level was fairly low in Taungthaman Lake, the pillars jutted high into the air and framed a setting sun — a scene we captured from a boat.
To get a variety of shots, we also visited the bridge at sunrise, during which time we had another one of those “fake” fisherman moments. Their method was a bit different than Inle; here, they cast big nets in hopes of catching fish when they pulled them back in. I believe this method is still slightly used, and the paid, performing fishermen do actually fish.
One paid fisherman boat was casting nets for a group of tourists in a boat next to us. It was one of those moments you really see and realize what is going on — the falsehood that is being portrayed and sold, and that we were also a part of that. The group next to us was a workshop or tour group with a head photographer/instructor. There were probably a dozen of them, all lined up with tripods.
The instructor was yelling and conducting everyone on what to do, and asking the fishermen to get in different positions. At one point, the instructor boated over to another tourist group to convince them to get out of his group’s way, suggesting they instead go to shore to see a “better view.” He didn’t want them in their shots, which is understandable, but also just an unlucky moment because he had 10+ paying people depending on him. He got them onshore and out of the way, only to find out they did the shore view the day before and wanted to be on the boat. In my opinion, he definitely did not give photographers a good name.
As a photographer, I feel a responsibility to capture what I see but also talk about it honestly. This was actually my first trip to a country like this, and was my first time experiencing situations where you can pay to get the best shot — or at least to get that “typical” shot. These days, everyone seems to be after the same thing, or what their friend did, or where your tour goes and what your guide tells you. Sometimes you just go with the flow without even fully understanding what you’re getting yourself into.
When doing my research into Myanmar, I knew right away — based on photos and information — that I wanted to see and photograph the Buddhist monks, the prestigious temples and the famous fishermen. It wasn’t until my emails back and forth with our fixer that I realized everything is somewhat staged and costs a small fee. I got responses like, “We can schedule you a fisherman,” and, “We can schedule monks inside a temple, but we may also need a permit,” and it just hit me right away: “Oooh, that is how this works.”
Those classic, award-winning shots you see with a monk standing perfectly in that epic beam of light that’s shining right onto his book probably aren’t candid. You can definitely catch monks in beautiful, almost staged situations, but the bulk of the shots you see are all set up, just like a typical portrait session you get for your wedding. You will see a group of photographers all huddled around the monks, asking them to move slightly that way, look slightly the other way, hold the candle gracefully in their hands, and someone throws a little sand into the air to create a moody scene with precise beams of light like they do in Antelope Canyon.
These are those moments I started asking myself what I was actually doing and what I am actually documenting. It’s definitely those moments that caused me to think for quite some time, questioning right versus wrong, questioning everything about my actions and my portrayal of a country I found so captivating.
I have no real answer. At the end of the day, the locals and businesses that have been set up in these countries cater to people like me. It has become almost a game of sorts. But ultimately, it still takes someone with an eye to create that vision, to create that photograph and that moment. It may not be 100% authentic, and it may not be as “journalistic” as we want, but it is still part of their culture. For some Burmese people, it’s how they make their living — and it’s how we photographers make ours.
I personally wanted to experience all sides of the Myanmar tourist experience, from staged to candid. It was a learning experience I won’t forget, and I will use what I’ve learned to further my exploration in other countries. I hope these photographs can inspire people to go and experience something for themselves — to see a new country, meet new people, explore new cultures and bring economic growth to places that desperately need it. For me, I am just happy to have been able to travel to Myanmar and spend time interacting with people from a totally different place, culture and belief system.
Myanmar // An Aerial Journey (Film)
COLLECTIBLE FINE ART
Purchase & Collect Art from Toby Harriman.
Direction, Cinematography & Story by: Toby Harriman
Story Edited by Kayla Frost
Music: (Licensed on MusicBed)
Long Distance By Luke Atencio
Aura By Kollen
Collecting Sounds Around the World By Max ll
The Key to Your Heart By Dario Lupo
Visitors on the Bow Wave By The Echelon Effect
Clair de Lune By Svvn
Around the Sun By Steven Gutheinz
Roke Hotel By Neon
Countless By Kollen
DJI Mavic 2 Pro
Canon 5DS R
Canon 1DX MK II
iPhone XS MAX
Polar Pro ND/Polarizer Filters
Shimoda Explore 40
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