February 2012

BURMA (MYANMAR) NEW TOUR 3-15 December 2012

5 countries, 30 days,15 flights, 30°C to -10°C, 50 Gb of Raw files……..it’s nice to be home!!

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The year started with 17 days in Burma, a country I’ve always wanted to visit. Now that Sui Kui has been released, there is a feeling of cautious optimism. ‘This government is better’ everyone kept saying. You wouldn’t know that Burma is ruled by a military junta when you are traveling around. I was concerned that carrying 2 cameras and lots of gear would arouse suspicion and put me in the journalist category but soon realized that this is not the case at all. I hardly saw a soldier or policeman. The country is one of the safest, if not THE safest I have travelled in.

With over 500,000 monks and a population that is 89% buddhist, you could leave your wallet on a table and it would probably be there the next day. So it is safe but what about traveling around. We chose to take internal flights to save time which was a good idea. The planes were brand new and were all on time with much better service than some operators in Europe I could mention. The top end hotels aren’t that cheap but are very well organized, despite the fact that the government has restricted the speed of the internet which is haphazard at best. Making a phone call is equally unreliable. It’s amazing the travel agents manage to make reservations at all, but somehow they do.

Only crisp new dollar bills are acceptable to change in banks and hotels. The slightest blemish and they will be refused. Since the embargo, credit cards are not yet accepted, except in some high-end hotels at a jaw-dropping 15% commission. Alternatively, you can change money on the black market but be careful of the tricks. We had no problems though.

The people are incredibly friendly, perhaps because mass tourism hasn’t arrived yet. They have not been corrupted like their neighbours and are curious to meet foreigners. This is great for people shots. They are happy to smile and be photographed which makes a refreshing change.

Traditional farming methods are the mainstay with only the occasional tractor. Manual labour replaces machinery. This was particularly evident for the road construction. Large rocks are smashed with a sledge hammer and laid by hand. The tar is mixed in buckets and laid on small sections of the road. Bearing in mind that Burma borders China where, in order to keep the population working, buildings are constructed and then sometimes destroyed afterwards this seems a bit crazy.

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Unlike Vietnam which I visited in 2011, most of Burma’s temples and pergodas are still intact and many have been renovated. Bagan is home to nearly 3000 pergodas and temples that make an extraordinary subject to photograph, especially when viewed from the top of a temple at sunrise or sunset – a sight to rival any in the world. Oxen pull old carts laden with hay; a line of monks in their dark red robes pass in a line on their way to the monastery; women walk by carrying baskets on their heads. Life hasn’t changed much in the countryside and offers the photographer an opportunity to capture a rural world that is not yet threatened by modernisation.

Inle Lake, located about 3000 feet above sea level is home to thatched wooden stilt houses that can only be accessed by dugout canoes that are propelled forward through the shallow water by long sticks. Sometimes you can see the fisherman using the old style long nets that look like cages and are lowered into the water, then they ram a stick up and down inside the net and finally lift it back out. This rather laborious method didn’t appear to be that effective but the rhythmic movement is almost balletic and provides an opportunity to make wonderful images. Every day, there is a floating market at one of the villages around the lake. Here, the local people carry their produce by dugout that are laden with fruit, vegetables, flowers………

Mandalay, like Timbuktoo or Casablanca, summons up romantic images of an exotic, mystical place. I wouldn’t go that far but what surrounds the city certainly doesn’t disappoint. Nearby is Sangaing, home to over 40 golden pergodas and colourful temples, perched high up on the hill. Near to Amarapura village lies U-Bein bridge, the world’s longest teak bridge. This was a major highlight with people constantly walking or cycling to and from the village – an exceptional photographic experience!!

So come to Burma before it changes. The people are warm and friendly; it is safe; travel is easy; the food is great; the hotels are very comfortable and most importantly from a photographer’s point of view, it hasn’t yet been photographed to death!

Dates for the new tour to Burma are 3-15 December 2012 with the Cambodia extension 15-19 December. Please contact me for details.

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