A Look Back at the Second "Un-Tour To Myanmar"
Five years in the making. One year of planning. 13 days of stories and adventures on one remarkable journey.
On those first trips I made to Myanmar more than 5 years ago, I remember thinking to myself, "Maybe if I don't write about the things here, I can have all of this for myself."
The feeling was fleeting, and since then I've always been interested in sharing the magic of the country, through my documentary work "This Myanmar Life," my photography, my writing, and my talks. After the first Un-Tour to Myanmar in October 2016, I knew I was on to something special.
Below is a small selection of what we experienced together, and a few snippets I published along the way (live to Instagram).
(My first two tours sold out. If you're curious to join the next tours in October / November 2017 & Jan 2018, click here to learn more.)
Our Journey Together in The Golden Land
We started our adventure in Yangon, what has recently been hailed as one of the best cities for street photography in the world. The former capital is abuzz with change, as new leadership has ushered in street cleaning projects and safety regulations to help the city grow up from it's past. But still, street food stalls with plastic chairs spill out onto the streets in the mornings and evenings as posh 5 star hotels are built right beside. It's a fascinating place to observe the old contrast with the new. Along with catching sunsets and delicious food, we learned the story of the protests that have led to the recent political shifts towards democracy through some of the people who were directly involved.
Off With Their Heads
Pigs feet, chicken bits, and fresh fish heads stacked in one stall after another. The street markets in Yangon are without a doubt full on. They are best experienced early in the morning, and if you sleep in just a bit, you'll miss them and all of the organized chaos.
If meat and fish aren't on your shopping list, you'll find just about everything else here to. Fruit, veggies, and nuts for your belly, and everything else you could possibly need including a new longyi to wear (a few of us bought new ones on the street here, including on-the-spot tailoring).
The sounds of the crowds negotiating the best prices, and the roar of a motorbike that decided to drive down the same road for some reason. The smell of fresh fish battling against the smell of fresh flowers in your nose. The sight of hundreds of people on their own mission through the crowds, working to get their shopping done. It's all pretty overwhelming, but leave the street and head one block over and it's a completely different (and thankfully more mellow) story.
Thousands of temples dot the plains of Bagan dating back 1000 years, and the world is slowly finding out about how amazing it is with UNESCO World Heritage status on the table for 2019. Fresh off an earthquake that had rocked the region only 5 months earlier, we had a unique chance to see how the rebuilding process was taking place, and how it differed from past rebuilding efforts under the military regieme.
All Smiles at Ananda
We've had the opportunity to share the Ananda Pagoda Festival. The event, which lasts nearly a month, peaks on the full moon day with 1000 monks gathering around the most important temple in Bagan to collect alms.
While the earthquake in August 2016 did some damage to the temple, it has remained open and managed to escape with minimal damage inside.
So when you look at this Buddha, he may not look like he's smiling... But when you take a few steps back, his mouth changes to a smile. And speaking for everyone attending the festival that I see, there are a lot of smiles around here.
New Opportunities in a New Myanmar
The days of oily curries dominating the headlines of travelers' Myanmar cuisine memories are coming to an end.
Really, they should have ended long ago. The quality of dishes here, especially the salads, can really be amazing. You just need to know where to look (ask any of my Un-Tour to Myanmar alumni).
Here in Nyaung U, an old staple from Yangon called "Sharkey's" is making a play for a modern twist on traditional cuisine choices. Known as being farm-to-table, his latest restaurant here has a garden out back where fresh herbs and veggies are picked in the moment for your dishes, and a farm 20 min away grows the rest. Peppercorns, chilies, and tomatoes are dried in the sun in the courtyard you walk past before you sit down on what was once the stage of the long closed local cinema.
He mixes the old with the new, including many of those traditional staples and new techniques in a state of the art kitchen.
And Sharkey hopes to give back more when it comes to his staffing. 18 year-old Wei Phyo Hlo was working a grueling job as a bricklayer only 4 months ago. Now she operates a $15000 coffee machine that looks straight out of a steampunk photo shoot. That's the sort of job opportunity that just didn't exist a year or two ago, but now is slowly changing with more social enterprises in Myanmar popping up looking to give those less advantaged a better chance.
Kalaw & The Shan Hills
Taking a break from the warmth of Bagan, we headed east to to the former British hill station of Kalaw. Known for it's lovely scenery and cooler temperatures, we took in local markets and walked through ethnic villages shortly after sunrise to see how crops are irrigated on the steep slopes. In the evening, we bundled up and took in a private dinner with Kalaw's top chef.
The Thing With Water in Myanmar
The seasons run a little differently in Myanmar, with monsoon rains running from June through early October. And when it stops, it will barely rain for 6 months. The country slowly dries up, turning from green to yellow. Dust accumulates in the air (and everywhere else) as it gets hot and drier.
So water needs to be harnessed in the rainy season, and kept for those dry times. That's what this farmer does, here halfway through the dry season in rural Shan State. You couldn't tell by the look of his crops.
Here in the mountains of southern Shan State, reservoirs have been created higher up the mountain to keep the water for irrigation throughout the drier times. The trenches are dug by hand with shovels weaving down the slopes. As it gets further and further from each rain, every drop counts.
Inle Lake / Nyaungshwe
We took the train out of the mountains and down into the valley towards Inle Lake. The lake means a lot to those who live here, as much of the food, transportation, and life are all weaved together thanks to its waters. Home to dozens of villages dotting its shores and even on stilts over the lake itself, you're just as likely to see a child paddling to school in one village as you are to see one walking in another. We watched the sun rise on the lake before retiring for the day for a delicious home-cooked meal.
Traditions of the Lake
Everywhere around the world, traditions come and go, while others are preserved for the future. From horse-drawn carriages around New York City's Central Park, to traditional dress being worn for celebrations... we all have them.
And one of these that is slowing falling out of use is the more traditional method of fishing for the Intha people on Inle Lake. Like many ways of doing things, better methods have come along that are faster or more efficient.
But like many others have found before, there is a value in keeping these traditions alive. Some fisherman on the lake are taking the opportunity to do that by displaying the classic fishing method, which in my opinion makes the lake doubly special, as you can now see both the old methods in action on the lake. And that's double the photographic opportunities.
A View From Above
Perspective means a lot, and it's good to have a few different ones at your disposal to truly understand a place. This can mean a lot of things, but when it comes to photography and getting the feel for a place, I try to find better angles to unlock the secrets.
Sometimes, that getting down low to see the world moving in a different way. Sometimes that's visiting a location at multiple times of the day.
And sometimes, you just need to get higher.
While Bagan is famous for hot air ballooning, flights over calm Inle Lake are a completely different experience. With only a single balloon or two in the sky, floating down the valley over the lake above villages on stilts gives a completely unique feel.
With a few of our guests in tow (basket?), we took flight with an experience over the lake I'd never had before in all of my years visiting the region.
Seeing the sun peek over the eastern ridge and begin to blanket the valley bit by bit in golden light made for one of the most photogenic sunrises I've witnessed. The vegetation on the lake glowed a stunning yellow, shifting quickly over the course of about 10 minutes as the sun quickly rose. Everyone agreed that the 4:15am wake up call was worth it.
Back in Yangon, we had dinner at a teak mansion with a unique place in history before visiting one of the most important Buddhist sites in the world: Shwedagon Pagoda. Here we saw first hand what the pagoda means to people and their families, as we reflected on our own journey here in The Golden Land.
Reflections on another Un-Tour to Myanmar
A few days ago, I said goodbye and sent off the last adventurous group to have joined my unique "Un-Tour to Myanmar" after 2 weeks of experiencing The Golden Land together.
When I lead people here, it has always been my goal to share the Myanmar I know, through the people, the culture, the food, and the stories of people's lives.
But I didn't first come here years ago, or continue to come back again and again (and again and again...) because of this. It was my own curiosity... How does this place work? What does the future look like? How can the people navigate change in a responsible and sustainable manner?
I'm so honored to have been able to share the Myanmar I know with such a group of adventurous, curious, open-minded people from around the globe.
Special thanks to my team in Myanmar: Honey Soe, Aung Ko, Laminn, Ko Myo, Axel, Mr. Kim and all of the incredible people who shared their time and stories with us.
The people make the journey and I'm fortunate to be surrounded by so many incredible humans.