Five years in the making. One year of planning. 13 days of stories and adventures on one remarkable journey.
I call it Myanmar Magic... these opportunities that just happen to come your way if you don't try too hard and you're open to them. For years, this has been the Myanmar that I've known while working on "This Myanmar Life."
It was for this reason that I decided to create the Un-Tour to Myanmar: to share this culture, these stories, and the people who I have met along the way.
Below is a small selection of what we experienced together, and a few snippets I published along the way.
(My first two tours sold out, but if you're curious to join the next tours in October / November 2017, click here to learn more.)
Our sold-out tour began in Yangon, the fascinating former capitol city currently struggling with a stifling traffic problem. Of anywhere in Myanmar, Yangon gives us a view of the old and the new in a very in-your-face way... with giant new construction projects with million dollar condos going up beside wooden shacks. You're never far from a mobile phone shop as they dot the streets up and down, where almost none existed just 3 years ago.
Where History Went Down
On Day 2 of the Un-Tour To Myanmar, we met with Ko Shell, an organizer of democracy rallies since the original student uprisings in 1988.
Shell has sacrificed massively since then, being jailed as a political prisoner 3 separate times for a total of 14 years between 1988 until he was finally given amnesty and released in 2012.
As he took us around town, he spoke of the catalyst of the original protests that took place on August 8th, 1988 at 8am, and the violent backlash from the military and the police that left hundreds dead and injured in the streets.
His story is so incredible, our amazing guide Honey Soe was noticeably stunned, and everyone in our group couldn't help but be moved. "Hero" was one way he was described by members of our group.
While Shell's story is incredible, it's one of many when it comes to the depth of sacrifice some people have made for their country here. It's one thing to read about events like this in books, and another to hear it from the source while standing where it all happened so many years ago.
You can read more of Shell's story in my documentary photography project "This Myanmar Life."
Future UNESCO World Heritage Site of Bagan was next on our list. More than 2000 temples dot the plains of Bagan, some dating back 1000 years. It's a spectacular site, and one of many highlights of our journey as we watched the sunset over the plains, coloring the scene in hues of pink, blue and green. Bagan was unusually green for us as the rainy season (one of the biggest in decades) was coming to a close.
A Greener Bagan
In all my times in Bagan, I've never seen it this lush and green. A much larger than average amount of rain, and cyclones late in the season have left Myanmar's "dry zone" surprisingly wet.
For photographers, it's a really pleasant surprise. Lush green vegetation matches perfectly with the red brick stupas and the white-wash pagodas. Add in some blue sky and you have an amazing combination.
A large earthquake rocked the region in August, and that gave us a unique view of the old and the new here as well. While many of the temples here are nearly 1000 years old, many have been rebuilt over the years, albeit in a much poorer manner. These newer "renovations" performed in the past two decades handled the quake more poorly than the original building materials, and we were fortunate to see the difference between the old and the new building methods. It's true when they say "they don't build them like they used to." With the help of the international community, the new government plans to look for foreign support to help with the rebuilding process.
Timing is Everything
On our first day in Bagan, we learned how light design was used to help build and showcase temples and buildings more than 800 years ago. Sometimes this was done with strategically placed "windows" to showcase light on Buddha images, or for the painters working in dark temples, by reflecting sunlight off of bright metal surfaces into the building.
Centuries later, we used these same designs to light an epic photo shoot, including this shot with Lee and our fearless guide / interpreter Honey Soe.
Shan Hills - Kalaw
As we made our way east to the Shan Hills, we walked through ethnic Palong Villages near the Hill Station town of Kalaw. The region known as "Pineland" is decorated with beautiful forests that cover the rolling hills and mountains.
Stopped on the Tracks
You can make all the plans you want in Myanmar... But that doesn't mean it'll happen that way.
After completing 1/3rd of our 4hr journey on the train in the Shan Hills, our already slightly delayed train stood at a standstill well after our stop should have ended. Unsure of what was up, we soon found that another train was heading on the tracks in our direction, and we needed to wait for it to pass.
It made for a great chance to stretch our legs, meet the local oxen grazing on the long grass beside the tracks, and watch downloaded Facebook videos of Myanmar supergroup "Iron Cross" on the mobile phone of one of the engineers.
Life still lives on near the tracks in Myanmar, even if the train travels at a fraction of the page that a car does. The tiny village came alive as everyone emptied off the train and into the tiny train station.
So that hour and a half delay wasn't so much an inconvenience, as it was another example of an opportunity to connect to the place you happen to be in... Wherever that might be.
Inle Lake - Taunggyi
We took the train out of the mountains and down into the valley towards Inle Lake. One of Myanmar's true gems, this shallow lake is not only home to dozens of villages dotting the shores and marshes around the lake, but on it as well. We watched the sun shine a golden tint on the lake just after it peeked above the mountain ridges to the east, coloring our landscape in beautiful soft color.
It's pretty rare in Myanmar that someone had just a single job. It seems like almost everyone has some sort of side job or project to help pay the bills.
The fishermen that make up some of the most iconic shots on Inle Lake are no different.
Thar Htun is a fisherman by trade, but in recent years, has hung out near the entrance to the lake to pose for both local and foreign tourists as their boats go by.
It earns him a bit of money, 3000 kyat (~$2.50 USD) in tips on an average day, which helps supplement the 2000 kyat (~$1.40 USD) he makes fishing.
But don't think he's not legit. He pulled a fish right out of the water with his hand when we were chatting with him, and caught another in the net, the latter too small to keep.
Either way, he knows what he's doing.
The area is a wonderful place to eat with so many vegetables grown near by, we ate home-cooked, farm-to-plate meals and traditional meals that I can almost taste as I type this. (Good thing I'm going back...)
And who could forget the Fire Balloon Festival in Taunggyi for Tazaungdaing. The answer to that question is "no one." This festival which takes place just once a year is unlike any I have ever witnessed.
Nine meter (30ft) tall balloons hand made out of paper are filled with hot air thanks to giant bamboo torches drenched in fuel and set ablaze. Once filled, a bamboo skeleton as long as the balloon is high and decorated in colored candles is attached. As the balloon lifts into the sky, we see it's a picture, or a word.
The other balloons are different, carrying a payload of thousands of handmade fireworks.
Tazaungdaing and the Fire Balloon Festival
This was my third year in a row experiencing the Fire Balloon Festival in Taunggyi.
Imagine a handmade balloon made of paper, 30ft (9m) tall. Next imagine filling it with hot air via bamboo torches doused in gasoline and set ablaze, placed below and just inside the balloon to allow it to inflate. Once it's filled with air, imagine attaching a bit of "fuel" inside to keep the blaze going.
Now, imagine a pallet, five feet high (1m), and on it 5000 hand-made fireworks. Attach it to the balloon, and once it has enough lift, imagine the fuse being lit on the fireworks.
Now imagine yourself running, because that's what you need to do next. As the balloon takes off into the air, if all goes well, fireworks will begin shooting from it in a few seconds, spraying outward and below. This fireworks show in the sky lasts several minutes as the balloon slowly heads up and away, lighting up the sky.
It's a sight unlike any you've seen before. But until you see it with your own eyes, at least for now you can imagine it.
We wrapped our journey back in Yangon, visiting the most important Buddhist site in Myanmar, the massive Shwedagon Pagoda, reflecting on our time together and what we all took away.
Of course, this is just a tiny sample of our experiences, many of the highlights being the people we met along the way.
Special thanks to my team in Myanmar: Honey Soe, Aung Ko, Laminn, Ko Myo, Tha Zaw, and all of the incredible people who shared their time and stories with us.
The People Make the Journey
With the first Un-Tour To Myanmar wrapped and a bit of a rest for myself in the bag, it's back to work on photos and writing about it all (and more).
We had a fantastic group of adventurous folks with a keen interest in connecting to the country, its history, and its people. Since my first trip here 5 years ago, I've been trying to decode the rubik's cube that is Myanmar, all while finding myself on adventures daily.
It was great to see that same spirit in our group. It reminded me of the curiosity and need for adventure that drives me. And how much I love to share experiences.
So a quick shout out to the curious out there, those that push their boundaries just a little bit each day, and those who love to live life.
You're my people.