Our Myanmar photo tours reflect what Katherine Karnow has said above, as well as the likes of Steve McCurry. In fact, our director, Soe Soe Lwin, handled Steve's Myanmar photo tours for almost a decade. 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. Trust us, this can still be experienced in the safe places we visit, despite the terrible events of recent years. Photo touring Myanmar is a wholly unique and rewarding experience.
We do have some good news following the early 2021 coup. The country is open and tourists have started coming back. One day Bagan and Yangon photo tours are again operational. A.P. Soe's 13-day Iconic Myanmar photo tour rane very successfully in 2023, and will be back Nov 4 - 16, 2024. Also returning is Photographer's Gone Wild with KK Winn, Jan 11 - 24, 2025. The warm and wonderful everyday people of Myanmar cannot wait to greet you! If you have safety or ethical questions please feel free to ask. We would not be operating if our tours were not in designated tourist safe zones. To check in with latest entertainment and dining happenings in Yangon, you can visit the online magazine, Myanmore.com
LJ’s Burma travel photography tours take full advantage of our major award winning Myanmar 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. As mentioned above, our director ran Steve McCurry’s Myanmar photo tour every year for 9 straight, before moving on to establish LJ in 2012.
Before the coup, Myanmar was one of the safest travel destinations in the world. For where we travel now this is still true, and general travel tours have been running smoothly since late 2022. Here’s a (pre-coup) article from Luminous Journeys client Lisa DeSimone, which will let you know how most everyone who visits Myanmar feels about their experiences.
For general travel photography info & images taken on our Myanmar photo tours, just scroll down the page past the tour boxes.
Iconic Myanmar - The Big 4
Nov 4 - 16, 2024
Iconic Myanmar – The Big 4 - The inspirational brilliance of A.P. Soe returns in 2023 to bring you the classic grandeur of his homeland, including as much off the beaten path as possible given the current situation. Experience the first and best Myanmar photo tour to return to operation. You will not only be safe, but have preciaous few tourists to contend with!
“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
Photographers Gone Wild
January 11 - 24, 2025
Photographers Gone Wild, with the great Kyaw Kyaw Winn, will indeed return in January of 2025. Due to current access restrictions, it will be similar to our Iconic Myanmar & The Big 4 in terms of its main destinations, but we are hoping to add an exciting off the beaten path destination as well. Stay tuned. One of the main highlights different than the Iconic tour, where we have often seen and chatted with Steve McCurry, is the Ananda Pagoda Festival in Bagan.
Myanmar Photo Tour 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; (off limits for now); 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. (off limits for now). Also worth mentioning, although not part of any publicly offered Myanmar photography 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 on our photo trips, 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 tours 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 photo workshop 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. The image to the right by LJ photographer David Lazar, graced the cover of Australian Photography Magazine some years ago.
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. Of course these days not mentioned at all. 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 has always been 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! We Myanmar travel photographers do our research, don't we?
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. Since most tribes are in more remote areas, it is not advisable to visit them at this time. Some though can be found in places like Inle Lake and Bagan, and we will find them!
STREET PHOTOGRAPHY IN BURMA
Not only is Yangon probably the friendliest major city in the world, (excluding the military, which is getting less visible now with time), but it’s also one of the great unsung locations for one of kind, striking street photography. While the city was 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. We have not taken a Burma photo tour group there as of yet. To give you some idea, see Nic Dunlop for his series of fantastic images made there a few years ago.