Myanmar is one of those rare places of allure — especially for a travel photographer — that is difficult to resist. It is without a doubt one of the most enjoyably photogenic places in the world, made all the more so for the fact that most Burmese like being photographed. What’s more, once you’ve been, it’s even more difficult to resist returning. Not just to get the shots you missed or discover more places, but because you miss the way it makes you feel, which really is something bordering on the magical. It is THE perfect place to participate in a photo tour workshop.
Not to worry, Myanmar is also one of the safest travel destinations in the world, despite it's very remote troubles. Please read this article for more information. And here’s a recent article from Luminous Journeys client Lisa DeSimone, which will let you know how most everyone who visits Myanmar feels about their experiences.
LJ’s Burma travel photography tours take full advantage of our award winning Western & native professionals to gain insider access to places and people no other tours can match. Each Journey is supported by the very best travel & logistics people in the country. In fact, our own Soe Soe Lwin ran Steve McCurry’s Myanmar photo tour every year for nearly a decade, before moving to found LJ in 2012.
For general travel photography info & images in Myanmar, just scroll down the page past the tour boxes.
Photographers Gone Wild – Jan 6 – 19, 2020
Photographers Gone Wild – Chin State Expedition is one of our 3-time Myanmar Photographer of the Year‘s favorite Burma photo tour itineraries. K.K. Winn is the ultimate Myanmar photography insider, who knows the light, locations and people of Myanmar like no one else.
The photo expedition includes Myanmar’s Big 4, highlighted by the photogenic Ananda Pagoda Festival in Bagan. The “wild” takes you to storied Chin State to help document the vanishing “tattoo tribes” living in the mountains. This is truly “one of the great travel photography tours of the world.”
Iconic Myanmar + Golden Triangle
Oct 25 – Nov 7, 2020
Iconic Myanmar – Golden Triangle Expedition… The inspirational brilliance of A.P. Soe returns to bring you the classic grandeur of his homeland, including off the beaten path & into the heart of The Golden Triangle and its colorful tribes during the rice harvest!
“AP Soe was magnificent. In all my wildest dreams did I ever expect to meet someone so kind and gentle who was so very gifted and knowledgeable.” – Mary Ann Schmidt, USA
PLEASE NOTE: While news reports of military action in remote Myanmar in 2017 were tragic, please understand that Myanmar remains one of the friendliest, most welcoming, and SAFEST travel destinations anywhere in the world. Safer than neighboring Thailand, even safer than the EU or United States. This is a fact. For more insight, including addressing concerns over the ethical question, please read the top section and conclusion of this informative article. And this one from a recent visitor.
Myanmar Photo Opportunities (in a nutshell)
HISTORICAL GRANDEUR & LANDSCAPES
By far the most important religious site in the country, Shwedagon Pagoda dominates the Yangon skyline. At 325 feet in height, the 2,500 year old spiritual center of Myanmar is covered in over 50 tons of gold and topped with thousands of precious stones. At least once during their lives, all Buddhists throughout the largest nation in SE Asia, do their best to make pilgrimage to the great Pagoda, said to have been sanctified in person by the Buddha himself. Getting perspective on Shwedagon is the biggest challenge for the photographer. This is most easily and best done outside the pagoda grounds, in nearby streets or from People’s Park. It’s there that its enormous size and beauty can be fully appreciated.
Perspective from inside the grounds is more difficult. It’s often helped near sunset time and blue our when monks scale the golden heights to clean. It should be pointed out however, that there is much to photograph inside the grounds that either don’t involve the pagoda itself, or use it in various ways as backdrop. This includes worshippers praying with burning incense, pilgrims pouring cups of water over Buddha figures, monks walking or in meditation, giant bells, and numerous pavilions with large Buddha’s and inlayed Buddhist art. One can spend many hours here and visit many times and still be captivated by new things and new, ever changing scenes. Myanmar was originally dubbed ‘The Golden Land’ because of the many thousands of gold pagodas, temples and shrines that are found all over the country. We would be remiss not to mention the second and third most holy (and golden) sites, which are the Golden Rock of Kyaiktiyo (4.5 hour drive from Yangon), and the Mahamuni Buddha in Mandalay. The former clings impossibly to a thousand foot cliff, while the latter was part of the spoils of war when the Bamar army defeated the Mrauk U Empire in 1684.
Second only to Shwedagon in importance, are the 2,220 surviving temples of Bagan, which is without question one of the great archaeological sites of the world. During its reign at the royal capital of a vast Southeast Asian kingdom, Bagan served as the world’s epicenter of Theravadan Buddhism for nearly a thousand years. When the light is good and the mist is rising, its templescape borders on the surreal.
Other photogenic locations include – the extraordinary and little visited Lost City of Mrauk U; the massive, earthquake split temple of Mingun first made famous by Steve McCurry in National Geographic; the all-white Hsinbyume Pagoda, also at Mingun on the Irrawaddy River; the largest teak structure in the world, the U Bein Bridge at Amarapura; the multi-colored vegetable and flower fields and old school farmers of Aung Ban; the rice paddies, wonderful Buddha caves and karst limestone formations of Hpa An; and the gorgeous mountain rice terraces of Kyaing Tong. Also worth mentioning, although not part of any publicly offered Myanmar photo tours because of their remoteness, are the 808 virtually virgin tropical islands of the Myeik Archipelago, and the rarely visited eastern Himalayas, where new species of flora and fauna are discovered every year.
MONKS, NUNS & MONASTERIES
Myanmar is unique in Asia in many ways. One of the most visible ways is the presence of Buddhist monks in and nuns of all ages out and about in everyday life. Early mornings across the country you will see and be able to photograph them on their alms rounds, when they are out collecting rice and other things in large black bowls. This might be in city streets, country lanes with temple backdrops, or along the berms of rice fields. Monks and nuns form single file lines according the height and rank, with the little novices towards the rear. Lines can be just a few monks or nuns, a dozen or two, and up to 1,000 during special events, such as the Ananda Pagoda Festival in Bagan.
The greatest number of monasteries and nunneries is in Mandalay, where there are more than 600. It’s here where you see them most often out doing mundane things, like perusing mobile phone shops or buying vegetables at a street market, or even kicking the soccer ball around.
Nuns in pink robes, which are found no place else, keep different schedules than the monks. Alms rounds are limited to once or twice a week, and they are more likely to have nunnery staff perform outside duties . While not seen on the streets as often as monks, you still see them often as each nunnery will have varying schedules and rules. We often visit nunneries and have good working relationships with them. They are perfectly happy to have us visit and photograph, and most of our participants walk away enchanted by the experience. Even the tough guys!
UNIQUELY MYANMAR – PORTRAITS IN THANAKA
Thanaka paste is quintessentially Myanmar. It’s made from the Thanaka tree, branches of which you will see sold at street and country markets throughout the country. Most people still DYI, but small, manufactured jars of the stuff are becoming increasingly popular. You just mix a portion with a little water and apply it however you like. Some just slop it all over, including their bodies, others do nice designs like Bodhi leaves. Moms have been known to paint Mickey Mouse on their kids. Getting some nice portraits or capturing scenes where Thanaka is involved, are one of the ‘must gets’ on the shot lists of excited Myanmar photo tour participants.
Wearing the paste serves multiple purposes, as makeup by girls, adornment for boys, sunscreen, and as claimed by teens, acne inhibitor! In case you’re wondering, monks and nuns do not wear Thanaka. It’s not a religious custom either, as resident Muslims and visitors of all faiths or none are welcome to wear it! In fact, the Burmese love it when visitors give it a go. Pick a style, any style!
MAGICAL INLE LAKE
Other than Bagan, Inle Lake is Myanmar’s most talked about destination. And the most talked about at Inle among photographers is of course the inimitable Intha fisherman who ply a living from its waters. With their broad hats, one leg rowing style, conical nets, mirror like reflections and mountain background, it’s easy to see why. To fish, the Intha find a good spot, push their nets vertically to the lake bed by foot, and often pound the water with their oars to scare up the fish. Sunrise is the best time to catch them if you can, with the mists and ethereal light of December and January being the best time of year.
In addition to the fishermen, another favorite place for exploration and photography, is the hundreds of ancient temple ruins at Nyaung Oak, near the village of Indein. Indein is also home to the best 5-day market, where tribes form all over the area come down from the hills to shop and trade. If you like photographing markets and different peoples in various traditional garb, this is the best place to come.
On the lake itself “floating” Buddhist temples are numerous, as well as monasteries, villages built on stilts and floating gardens of assorted fruits and vegetables. Including 70% of Myanmar’s tomatoes! Cottage industries that can make for interesting travel photography, include cheroot rolling, umbrella making, rice pasta making, cheroot rolling, silver-smithing, and lotus silk weaving.
Complaints you may hear about Inle being over-touristed, are laughable. It’s a big lake and it’s easy to get lost among its endless canals and floating villages no tourist ever sees, where the heart of lake’s “magic” can be felt. Myanmar is a very under-touristed country for all it has to offer, which is all the more reason for photographers to come! Let the average tourists who choose not to understand how safe and wonderful and enriching the country is for travelers to experience, stay home. It makes is all the better for us! Photographers do their research.
MYANMAR TRIBES LIVING TRADITIONALY – ONE ON THE LAST BEST OPPORTUNITIES
There are 8 main tribal groups in Burma, with more than 135 offshoots or ethnicities among them. The main tribes are the Bamar, Mon, Shan, Chin, Kayan, Rakhine, Kachin, and Kayah. Others include the Wa, Naga, Lahu, Lisu, Palaung, Akha and En. To this day many still wear traditional dress and live much as they have for centuries. This is increasingly rare around the world, where even in places like Papua New Guinea where – outside the festivals – they are already wearing T-shirts with company logos on them! Myanmar offers an extraordinary opportunity for documentary and travel photographers to do what they love, while contributing to the general documentary archive of vanishing peoples.
These tribes can be found in many regions of the country, but only some are reasonably accessible within a limited time frame. Some are not accessible at all, except for the true adventurer willing to handle the hardships and risks. Most villages are very welcoming, but don’t try this on your own. A local guide or fixer who knows what they are doing is essential. First to locate the villages and get you there, then for making contact and seeking permission to photograph. They speak their own dialects, and many do not speak much if any Burmese.
Critical to the process is knowing when to show up. Try showing up at 10 am on a work day, and you may well find only a few elderly folks and toddlers around. All the more reason to Get Luminous, and let us do the heavy lifting.
STREET PHOTOGRAPHY IN BURMA
Not only is Yangon probably the friendliest major city in the world, but it’s also one of the great unsung locations for one of kind, striking street photography. While the city is undergoing a building transformation with new hotels and shopping centers going up, (along with numerous British colonial buildings being restored to their former glory), Yangon is still largely a decaying masterpiece for the street photographer, providing a rich tapestry of backgrounds and anachronistic settings. Within the settings are of course the diverse and welcoming people going about their daily lives.
Any town or village in Burma is great for street photography. It’s like stepping back in time and being able to photograph as if it were 100 years ago, with some modern exceptions. It’s all up to the frames you choose. Mandalay is burgeoning with street opportunities, and is second only to Yangon in that regard. Just walk the streets anywhere and you will see. But when you do, if you are sure to be open and engage, things will open for you in response. With some exceptions, it’s not a place to blend or hide and be unnoticed like a New York or San Franciso, and it’s impossible anyway! The people of Myanmar are remarkably warm and welcoming.
The new and modern capital city of Naypyidaw, with its massive buildings and wide boulevards, can provide a great contrast the streets of Yangon and Mandalay, as part of a photo essay. To give you some idea, see Nic Dunlop for his series of fantastic images made there a few years ago.