Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Myanmar Memories

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Sunrise at the Shwe San Daw pagoda in Bagan begins  with balloon flights over the temples.

Sunrise at the Shwe San Daw pagoda in Bagan begins with balloon flights over the temples.

The last time I visited Myanmar most people still called it Burma. I was there in May 2008, not long after Cyclone Nargis hit the country, killing over 200,000 people. I’m on the board of a small NGO called Global Community Service Foundation. We supported two orphanages that were right in the path of Nargis and we were anxious to see if our staff and the children were OK.

Fortunately they were.

It was a tough job. The government was checking people at the airport and I would have been stopped if I brought my professional equipment. Instead, I carried my Canon G9, a small but powerful point and shoot camera that a tourist might use. I was able to document the damage to our projects, which helped raise money for repairs.

Tourist photographs the famous Reclining Buddha in Yangon, Myanmar.

Tourist photographs the famous Reclining Buddha in Yangon, Myanmar.

This past winter, National Geographic Expeditions sent me back to Myanmar to lead a photo tour. The decaying colonial structures were still there, recalling the time when the British controlled what they called Burma. But the place was bustling. Energy and opportunity were in the air. Where in 2008 there were few hotels, now new luxury hotels had sprung up like mushrooms after a rainstorm. On the streets, everyone seemed in constant motion, trying to take advantage of their government’s 2012 decision to relax restrictions and open the country to foreigners.

This new Myanmar reminded me of Vietnam in the 1990s. In 1994 I did a story on Ho Chi Minh City for National Geographic. At the time the city was rundown, still damaged from years of war. Yet when I returned 10 years later, the city glittered with the chrome and glass towers characteristic of many prosperous Asian cities.

With all of this change, the group I led was eager to see the historic side of the country. Fortunately, many of Myanmar’s important sites like Bagan have been made into reserves, with development restricted.

Of course, tourism like Myanmar is experiencing brings economic opportunities but also the risk of overdevelopment and loss of historical culture. However I was pleased to see that many of the areas we visited still conveyed the feel of what I remembered from 2004 when I visited the country for the first time.

Young Burmese dancer at Bagan

Young Burmese dancer at Bagan

The Burmese are very welcoming. Whether photographing people or temples its a photographers paradise. At one point after we saw several temples and monasteries, I took my group off the bus and we started walking through a village. The residents must have found this very amusing, but they greeted us warmly. We left with lovely pictures of people working the fields, making bricks and feeding their cattle along with memories of wonderful interactions. On a walk through another village my group got invited to an initiation. Several young children were going to enter the monastery for a month or two and the village came out to support them. We were asked to attend and enthusiastically agreed. We got memorable pictures of the ceremony as well as children dressed in ceremonial garb being led on horseback to the monastery.

Fisherman collects his net on Myanmar's Inle Lake.

Fisherman collects his net on Myanmar’s Inle Lake.

Timing is the foundation of many successful photographs. I arranged our group’s schedule to improve our chances for making the best possible pictures. I made sure people had the option to arrive early in the morning or later in the day to capture the warm directional light that coats the world just after sunrise and just before sunset. Getting on site early also meant that we didn’t have to compete with too many other visitors wandering into our carefully composed pictures. Not everyone wanted to sacrifice their sleep, but those that did were rewarded with wonderful images.

Myanmar is filled with stunning scenery and warm friendly people. Each time I visit, I discover new places and learn new things about this amazing country. I hope people will join me and make their own discoveries about Myanmar when I lead a photo expedition there from November 11 to 23, 2014. You can learn more at: http://www.nationalgeographicexpeditions.com/expeditions/myanmar-photo-tour/experts

Back in time for Thanksgiving!!

Written by kasmauski

June 30, 2014 at 11:45 pm

One Response

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  1. Hi Karen,
    beautiful pictures as usual.

    Joseph McGrath

    July 1, 2014 at 7:17 am

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