Tag Archives: myanmar

Myanmar: Ballooning over Bagan

While in Bagan we went hot-air ballooning with Oriental Ballooning.  I had never done ballooning before and it was an amazing experience, I can’t wait to try it again.  Bagan was the perfect venue as we ballooned over the plains where there are 2,200 temples, pagodas, monasteries etc.

We started early as the sun rose with a light breakfast as they prepared the balloons.  As you can see early on it is quite dark.

Click on the HD button in the bottom right to see an HD version of the video, you will be taken to the Vimeo website who host the video.

I hope you enjoy.

Myanmar: Bagan

The last leg of our trip is Bagan.  This is an ancient city in the Mandalay region of upper Myanmar.  From the 9th to 13th centuries it was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan one of the original regions that constitute modern Myanmar. During the kingdom’s height in the 11th to 13th centuries over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were built on the local plains.  Today 2,200 of these temples and pagodas still exist and are the main attraction for the area.

Our young guide Jo and his driver picked us up in a minibus from our hotel in Mandalay, for the 250km drive.

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Jo, our guide in Bagan, who was happy to model for us too!

We stopped at a few points of interest, like the temple at Paleik where the Buddha statue is surrounded by snakes including pythons.  But by far the most impressive stop was at Mount Popa, which is a volcanic plug that rises over 737 meters and onto which has been built a Buddhist temple has been built with 777 steps up to its summit.  To get a view of the temple we were first taken to Mount Popa resort which looks across to the temple and is itself a beautiful resort.  What we agreed to do in the end was that Mike and Keith would walk the 777 steps to the temple to see the great sights at and from the temple and the 3 of us less adventuring would sit and enjoy the facilities of the resort.

Mount Popo
Mount Popa

Bagan is completely different to Mandalay and Yangon which are cities with  high-rise buildings, but Bagan has a much more spread out green plains feel with large villages and the Irrawaddy River flows through the region.  We spent our few days in a lovely low-rise hotel with its own swimming pool and it was a very nice base.  We visited a lacquer workshop which was interesting, the famous temple of Schwezigon and its local market, we spent an afternoon on the a boat on the river Irrawaddy, but the main attraction was the plains and the thousands of temples that still exist today. There was no better way to get to see the plains and the temples than from the air in a hot air balloon with Oriental Ballooning

The ballooning was another highlight of the trip, something I had never done before but was very keen to experience and it was exhilarating.  We were up early waiting for the bus to arrive and found another party waiting their for another ballooning company.  They got a call to say that their trip had been cancelled due to the winds, so we sat their waiting anxiously wondering what was the story with our company.  The van arrived about 15 minutes late so we were delighted but somewhat worried, wondering why another company felt it was unsafe to fly.  What we discovered was that the prevailing wind was in the opposite direction to usual and because our companies balloon were smaller they were able to move their balloons to a different location so we could take off.  We had a quick breakfast and watched them prepare the balloons.

We gingerly climbed aboard our baskets which help 8 people and the pilot.  In each corner of the basket 2 people had a sectioned off area with the pilot, Chris in our case in the centre with his gas cylinders and equipment.  We gently took off and rose into the Bagan skies and what followed was an amazing trip over the green Bagan plains, the Irrawaddy river and the bright orange temples beautifully lit by the rising sun.  After a while I stopped taking photographs and just enjoyed the views.  Our landing was a little bumpy as we clipped a small tree, but it is an experience I loved and would love to do again someday, perhaps in Southern Spain around Granada, where I remember opening our hotel bedroom curtains one morning to see a hot-air balloon gliding through the blue skies over the Alhambra.

The only tacky part of the tour was a visit to a village which was obviously set up just for tourists.  There was some workshops and shops set up in barns to sell jewellery locally made, but the locals carrying babies came out, others smoked their local pipes but they were all looking for money for photographs. But I suppose you have to blame tourism for this and the locals are only looking to make a living and capitalise on the tourists that arrive there.

Our final night in Bagan was a lovely touch by the tour operator Exotic Voyages.  It started as a pony and trap tour through the Bagan countryside and interweaves through the rough pathways and by the smaller temples, where we stopped at one.  We disembarked and looked around.  Jo invited us inside and up the steps inside and we arrived on one of the outside tiers of the temple.  Laid out in front of us was a high tea of food and drink prepared for us by 3 servers.  It was a lovely location and we enjoyed watching the sunset while we ate and drank some lovely food in the company of our guide Jo who had looked after us so well on this part of the trip.

The final part of the journey was an internal flight to Yangon where we stayed one more day before flying home to Ireland.

It was another fascinating trip with great friends that will give us memories for years to come to be filed away with our previous trips to South Africa and Cuba.  As a photographer there is nothing better than taking photographs at great destinations with other photographers.  Travelling with friends and family is great but it can be very frustrating for the photographer and the family and friends when the photographer wants to take photographs.  There is a tension there that just doesn’t exist when travelling with fellow photographers.  Fellow photographers are working alone and together to get images they want and they completely understand the process and what takes the time to get the image they want. So now I look forward to our next opportunity to fly somewhere different for great images.

Myanmar: Mandalay

From Heho airport we headed to Mandalay, the second largest city in Myanmar and another old bygone Burmese capital.  It is the economic hub of upper Myanmar with a population of over 1 million and on the east bank of the Irrawaddy River.  It is a relatively young city being founded in 1857 by King Mindon, from 1885-1948 it was under British Colonial control and it was devastated during World War II and invaded by the Japenese.  Subsequently it deteriorated and indeed destroyed by extensive fires in the 1980s which significantly changed the physical and ethnic make up of the city with a large Chinese influx. So it has a quite modern if run down feel to its architecture.

There was still some great sights for us to visit.  We visited a nunnery where we were served lunch by the nuns, some amazing pagodas, monasteries, markets, lacquer and other workshops and small local villages.  One interesting trip involved a very short boat trip across a river where we were met by a few horse and small carriages to take us through the country side. While we sat waiting on the carriage to take off a little girl came up to us and tried to sell us some local trinkets.  She was a lovely little girl, quite insistent and with her few words of English would say “you remember me, I remember you!” which sounded very funny and nearly like a threat.

But we thought “aw well we will be on our way soon, and she will be gone, and can’t pester us again!”.  Eventually the drivers mount up and we head off and we wave bye-bye to our little selling girl.  Only for about 2 minutes later we hear a bicycle bell and the now familiar chant “Hi, you remember me, I remember you!”, and she followed us all the way to the wooden Bagaya Monastery.  Fortunately, she wasn’t allowed in the grounds of the monastery, but after our visit and we mounted up, and each carriage was again chaperoned by our own personal persistent trinket sellers!

While we were in Mandalay there was one of the regular religious lunar festivals.  The Buddhist religious communities rely on alms and during these festivals thousands of monks come to some of the more religious pagodas and the local communities give alms and gifts which can vary from small amounts of food, to money to electrical appliances and in one case we saw a decorated car being driven for donation at one of the festivals.  Mike and Keith got up very early and our guide brought them along and it apparently it was an amazing sight to see.

One of the greatest sights of Mandalay is the legendary U Bein bridge, built in 1782, and it spans for 1.2 km across he shallow Taungthaman Lake and it is said to be the longest teak bridge in the world.  We were taken out by boat on the water at sunset and it is an amazing sight to see as the son sets down behind it.

Our final destination was Bagan, but this time it was a minibus drive of 250km to our next destination.

Myanmar: Inle Lake

From Yangon we headed to the airport for our internal flight to Heho in Shan State and part of the Shan Hill, an hours drive from Nyaung Shwe gateway to Inle Lake.  At the small domestic airport we met Min Min our next guide for Inle Lake.

Our plane to Heho
Our plane to Heho

However, before arriving at Inle Lake we first stopped at a teak monastery of Shweyanpyay.  We were supposed to have a quick stop here for about 15 minutes, but poor Min Min had a hard time getting us out after two hours.  It was a great start to our trip to Inle Lake.  The monastery made of teak was lit just beautifully, there were plenty of monks both young and old and it also happened to be a local festival where there were many local tribes present for the procession around the main monastery.  We had a great afternoon photographing the monastery, monks and the locals.  Min Min was just brilliant he asked locals and the monks if we could photograph them and also helped with getting them to pose for us. Although we only met him less than an hour before hand we could already tell he was going to be a great help but also great fun.

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Min Min our Guide at Inle Lake

Eventually we moved on and headed to the lake.  Inle lake is 45 square miles, with an average depth of 2.1m which increases by 1.5m in the rainy season.  We boarded our two boats for our 1 hour trip across the lake to our hotel on the lake.  It was a beautiful day and headed out across the lake.  It was amazing to see the local fishermen using their unusual rowing and fishing techniques.  Others were removing weeds from the bottom of the lake which is used as fertiliser.  The houses and little villages are built on stills in the lake and vegetables  like tomatoes are grown on the lake as floating gardens held in place by bamboo sticks.  Around the lake are small towns, pagodas, stupas and monasteries.  Here is a short video of us arriving and some time on the lake.

We arrived at our hotel which was stunning, 6 chalets again built on stilts on the lake, but each beautiful appointed our best hotel on the entire trip.  It was also a training hotel, the Thahara Inle Heritage, the staff were very friendly the chalets fantastic and the food at the restaurant there just amazing, again the best food of the tour.

Chalet at the Thahara Inle Heritage hotel.
Chalet at the Thahara Inle Heritage hotel.

Without a doubt I would revisit this magnificent Lake, although I do hear that tourism is having a detrimental impact on the Lake itself.

Over the next couple of days we visited many of the sights on and around the lake.  The people were really nice and didn’t mind at all being photographed and they were good fun.  One trip in particular I recall where we visited the village of Maing Tauk on the lake which on that day was holding the travelling market, called such because it rotates between five different villages around the lake.  From here we travelled up the surrounding hill to a Holy Retreat.  It was extremely hot and getting close to mid day.  On the way we met local tribes people who were returning home from the market.  The had left there village which was many miles further up in the mountain at about 4am and carried down with them the produces they had grown and were selling.  They were now returning home with what they had bought at the market.  It was a very strenuous trip for them that they took weekly.  But they were very good natured referring to the three males amongst us as 1 baby, 2 baby and 3 baby due to our portly statures. I won’t be saying who was whom!

When we eventually reached the retreat/monastery, exhausted and  boiling hot, it was another photographer’s dream, where we spent hours taking photographs. Min Min had taken two younger guides with him to help us along and who cooked us a great meal at the retreat.  What was amazing about these young guys was their knowledge with regard to British soccer.  Apparently most Myanmar men spent much of their nights watching soccer from Europe.

The following morning we headed out for sunrise on the lake and although photographically speaking it was a little disappointing with the cloudy skies.  Still we stopped in the middle of the lake to take photographs.  After a little while the same young guides came along in their own boats with our morning breakfast which was a lovely touch and we enjoyed a quite morning drinking tea and biscuits on the lake, very sophisticated indeed!

Heading back to the airport when we left was also interesting.  Min Min had suggested that we eat at a restaurant a couple of minutes from the airport, the receptionist would take our baggage and passports and check us in and instead of sitting at the airport for two hours we could enjoy a good meal.   Which we did, however, we took a little longer than we have.  When we arrived at the airport the airline staff were at the door rushing us in to the airport we were rushed through security with all sort of alarms going off which were ignored, then I was asked for a boarding card at the door to the tarmac, which I didn’t have but they said “just go on”.  We raced across the tarmac ran up the steps and found ourselves seats.  I would say that from the time we got out of the minibus to the time the plane took of it was only about 7 minutes. As Mike said better than any private plane service you would get.  So now we were off to Mandalay!

Myanmar: Yangon

Yangon the beginning and the end! Our trip started and finished in Yangon a former capital of Burma. However, before I start, one of the dilemmas I had before even leaving home was deciding what photography gear to bring. I had recently changed to Fuji X series (an X-E1 my first purchase and also an X-T1 which I love). But I still have a Nikon D800 and some good lenses another system I love. At the time the Fuji system didn’t have the great array of really good lenses it now has. I had tried a few other “small” size cameras including the Nikon 1, but they just didn’t do it for me the way the Fuji X series does. I wanted the smaller form factor that the mirrorless offered with the same functionality of a DSLR, which is ideal for travel. In the end I went with the two Fujis and a few lenses. The XF56mm 1.2 is a brilliant portrait lens and I was very happy with the Fujis and lenses. 

 

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Michael Lin our guide in Yangon

So back to Yangon, it was the capital and it is still the largest city with a population of 5 million people. We arrived in the afternoon to be met by our guide Michael Lin and driver. He was a lovely guy and very helpful, we were so keen to get out and about that after checking in he agreed to meet us on his own time that evening to show us around the city centre and to go for a meal.

So we headed to the port on the river to take some photos.  It was time for people to head home and the port was full of boats laden with people.  There were stalls there too for people to buy some groceries and other items on their way.  It was our first view of the culture and people of this huge city and I felt it was a great start for taking photographs.

To me the city came across as a bit run down and a bit Soviet looking and not very Asian or oriental in style, but very functional. There is a lot of colonial style buildings reflecting its past British influence. It was a busy city with plenty of cars, taxis and buses. More modern than I expected but run down.

The people were friendly and didn’t mind being photographed. In fact at the port I thought I was being briefly followed when I realised the guy only wanted me to take his photo! Michael showed us around the street and brought us to a street full of restaurants where we ate a nice meal sitting on the street side.

The next day our tour began in earnest. We visited the Schwedagon Pagoda one of the most sacred in Myanmar. It was truly an amazing site to see with all its ornate structures and gilded stupa which is 99 metres high. It is a part of the tradition for worshippers to adorn their statues and pagodas with gold leaf and these grow considerably over the years and decades and the original statues to be unrecognisable.

Part of the tour was a short trip on the circular railway that runs around Yangon and can take up to 3 hours to compete the circuit. We were looking forward to getting photos of the locals on these old run down carriages, but were the disappointed to end up on a relatively modern carriage with no real photo opportunities. We visited a market which we were taken to on bicycles with side cars. We also visited the 65 metre long reclining Buddha at Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda where the Buddha statue is the size of a blue whale.

The amazing sights of the pagodas were in stark contrast to the city. They were bright colours, beautiful buildings highly revered by the people, ornate and well looked after.

 

 

Next we head off to Inle Lake in the interior of the country.

Myanmar: introduction

It has been a long time since I last posted here, but I’m now relaxing on holidays and it’s a good chance to catch up. I’m going to start with a few blogs about our trip late last year to Myanmar the former Burma.

Five of us from our local camera club decided it was time to get away again, following our previous trips to South Africa and Cuba. So after a lot of research we settled on Myanmar and headed out late October 2014 into November. We were concerned about the political situation but many more people are travelling to Myanmar these days. Lack of good medical facilities are also a concern, the best advice being to have good insurance and get to Thailand as quick as possible for any serious issues. Given we would be taking 3 internal flights this too was a worry. As it happened we need not have worried. We had excellent travel agents looking after us. Here in Ireland we made all our arrangements with a really good agency from Cork, Discover Travel. They looked after us very well, helping with visas, accommodation, transport, guides, internal flights and they were very reasonably priced. The agents that looked after us there was Exotic Voyages and they were excellent. Great guides, a good itinerary, good accommodation and they looked after us very well. On a daily basis the guides made sure the food and water we had was safe and we got regular calls from their head office to make contact with us to make sure we were happy with everything. This is not anything we had experienced before and it made us feel very safe and well looked after.

So for the trip itself, it was for 11 days in four different parts of the country and previously mentioned it required 3 internal/domestic flights between regions and one drive for 250km. We had four different guides and drivers as we had a minibus or boats at our disposal in each location. Each day we had an itinerary of sights to see and visit although this was very flexible.

We began with a couple of days in the old capital of Yangon to where we flew via Amsterdam. A flight took us to Heho in the centre of the country and a drive of an hour or so to our final destination of Inle Lake, which for me was probably the highlight of the tour. After a few days here another flight from Heho to Mandalay before a bus trip of 250km to our final destination of Bagan. Our last internal flight was back to Yangon before flying home.

Each destination had its own highlights with some amazing places to see. Our guides knew we were here for a photographic holiday and they were really helpful in getting us photographs of places and people. They were also very patient as a group of photographers can get very intense once they start taking shots and getting them to move on can be a challenge.

So before I cover each place we visited, just a few thoughts on my overall impressions. The people were very friendly, quite laid back and they appeared to have no problems with being photographed apart from one tribe in Inle Lake who were returning from a market, but more on that later. We were prepared for the fact that as a country that had only recently been opened up to tourists that it would not be very advanced from a technology point of view. But we were surprised to see that many people had mobile phones, some cars looked quite modern and new, there were a few “technology” stores, the Internet service although not brilliant was quite useable in the hotels. We stayed in some really nice hotels but it was also clear that with growing tourism more hotels are needed. The little airports we visited were small serviced by smaller planes but although somewhat chaotic they were well enough run. We were surprised that with such a politically troubled background we saw very little presence of either military or police. Having said that we were aware that certain destinations were off limits and our guides were really good at managing this. The food was reasonable with influences from India, Thailand and many of the hugely diverse ethnicities of Myanmar. Buddhism is a huge influence on the country with monks and nuns in abundance, so too temples, monasteries, pagodas, and other religious structures and monuments. The people have a very gentle and friendly way partly due to their religious background. Nearly all Buddhist males spend some short time as monks even at very young ages from six or seven years of age, although some will only spend weeks at a time as monks. They rise early for their breakfast, spend the morning looking for alms before their last meal of the day which is at noon. They may take drinks or some sweets during the rest of the day. They are not allowed cook for themselves and the afternoons are periods of religious reading or learning.

The girls, unlike the boys are not required to become nuns but many do. Because for the girls it is a choice it is more likely that they will stay as nuns. They similarly live lives dedicated to Buddhism, although unlike the men they do cook for themselves.  They too have shaved heads but wear a pink shroud.

We had a marvellous trip and a great time. It is a truly amazing country and well worth a visit, I hope you enjoy the other postings and images here. I’ll next cover each destination separately. See also a quick summary here in the Adobe Slate feature.

Finally here is the gang: Viv, Lynn, Keith and Mike