I spent even more time sharing on Instagram in 2016 than in years past, with images coming from Myanmar, Iran, Canada, USA, and Thailand.  As we step into 2017, I thought it would be a good idea to look back and see the cream of the crop (at least decided by good, old-fashioned "likes") that rose to the top.

For the second year in a row, the top pics of the year all came from two unique destinations: Iran and Myanmar (Burma).  My Myanmar project "This Myanmar Life" has been going on for ~5 years now and had its first exhibition earlier this year.  The book is due out in Q3 of 2017.   

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#10 Sci-Fi Iranian Mall

The Kashan Bazaar (Iran) looks like it's straight out of a Mad Max film
© Dustin Main 2016

The bazaar in Kashan looks more like a desert complex from a sci-fi film than a bustling market with history going back nearly a thousand years, at least from the outside.

In fact the view from the roof, if you can get your way up, is incredible. While the vendors below are selling carpets and drinking chai down below, you can be crawling over the earthen roof above. And in case you forget that you're essentially on top of a working 'mall,' just peek down the little holes to see all the action inside.

Just be careful where you step...

 

#9 Under the Blade

A young novice monk has his head shaved before he enters the monastery for a week in Yangon, Myanmar.
© Dustin Main 2016

I went out looking for an abandoned amusement park in Yangon, and ended up at novice ceremony instead.

The event holds great significance for the Buddhist families in Myanmar. Its a social and cultural event, sort of a "coming of age" sort of thing.

It's customary for the novice monks to have their heads shaved before they head to the monastery for a few days or a week.

And in typical fashion, the music was loud, the families were smiling, and the hair was falling.

Smiles all around, except the kids under the blade.

 

#8 Myanmar On the Mind

Five-sided Dhammayazika Zedi illuminated at shortly after sunset in Bagan, Myanmar.
© Dustin Main 2016

While I'm half a world away, I'm still living and breathing Myanmar even if the sites and smells around me are more of skyscrapers and New York City subways than pagodas and humid Yangon nights.

I'm currently in the final selection process for my first gallery showing, "This Myanmar Life" opening in June. 5 years of photos from the country are currently being sorted through and picked out for that show. It's a daunting task... choosing 15 images from thousands that each have their own story to tell.

I'm also closing in on the final details of the two exclusive Myanmar tours I'll be hosting later this year. No prices or exact dates have been set, but somehow they are already 20% booked. More details on that in a few weeks.

But 6 months from now, I'll be watching the pagodas in Bagan light up at night once again. Until then, I'll just have to use the images in my laptop, the words in my journals, and the memories in my mind to take me back.

 

#7 Dreaming of Bagan

Framing pagodas in Bagan, Myanmar.
© Dustin Main 2016

It might seem a bit strange to hear now, but I didn't actually visit Bagan until my 7th or 8th trip to the country.  Since that first trip to the Bagan plains, this magical place has certainly gotten under my skin, and I have returned time and time again to photography and hear the stories.

I've been working on another book here in Bagan that I hope to release in late 2017.

 

#6 Head Down in Work

A novice monk by candlelight in Myanmar.
© Dustin Main 2016

I'm back in Canada after 5 months away, just trying to stay warm while sorting out the mass of projects in front of me. Some days, it's daunting.

The work I love to do is in the field... hearing stories, capturing photos, and leading people to incredible experiences. On the other hand, the work I'm doing here is in some ways the opposite of that. It's computers, e-mails, websites. It's sorting photos, the masses of information I've gathered and organizing sales and galleries to pay for it all. Not nearly as exciting (for me at least), yet it's still an important part of the process. In fact, one can't exist without the other.

So while my head is too often fixated on the glowing rectangle in front of me these days, I try to keep in mind that it won't be too long before I get back into thick of things, where my heart is pounding around every corner and the smiles pour out of my face.

 

#5 Going to Market

Woven baskets are carried from the boats by the Chindwin river and delivered to the market in Monywa, Myanmar.
© Dustin Main 2016

Goods here in Myanmar don't necessarily all come from China. Many everyday items are still made in the towns and villages in this country of 55 million.

Take these baskets for example. They are weaved on the other side of the Chindwin River, and brought across by boat to be sold at the market in Monywa.

They're nothing special, typically used as a garbage bin that is put out on the side of the road every few days. With these, the money stays in the community, and they're not made of plastic. On the other hand, that also means they don't last all that long.

But they're cheap, and that counts for a lot when there isn't a whole not of money going around as it is.

And for this man, who is carrying 2 rings of 10 baskets each on his head like the world's largest hat, it means that there will always be more and more to carry to the market.

 

#4 The Dry Zone

A yellow and hazy sunrise dotted with hot air balloons well into dry season in Bagan, Myanmar.
© Dustin Main 2016

The plains of Bagan weren't always this dry.

It's February now, and the summer season is about to begin. It hasn't really rained anything substantial here since November, so you can understand why it has gotten so dry and hazy in the past few months.

But what I mean is that Bagan used to have more trees. Trees to keep the unbearable summer heat that reaches 48°c at bay. Trees to hold water in the soil and prevent erosion. And like a lot of successful societies, they cut the trees for firewood and to build... Until there were almost none.

Something similar happened in Petra (Jordan). If you visit now, you'll be hard pressed to find more than the odd tree, but at one time, there was quite the forest there. The success of the society killed the trees, which in turn helped lead to the society falling apart.

In Bagan now, there is a greenification program taking place, reintroducing trees that have been lost over the years. It's a slow process, but an important one. Trees are certainly more than just shade, but if you have ever been in the heat of Bagan, it's a good enough reason to start.

This also happens to mark the third year in a row that a Bagan sunrise makes the top 10.

 

#3 A Simple Equation

A trekking guide continues walking after sunrise on the famous Kalaw to Inle Lake trek in Myanmar.
© Dustin Main 2016

Featured story in This Myanmar Life

Up until a few years ago, Kyaw Myint was a tutor, helping students who were looking for a little extra schooling than the sub-par government school systems could provide. The salary wasn't great, bringing in $50-$60 per month, which, with his young family, didn't go far.

So, in 2012, he made a change and decided to become a trekking guide for tourists, following in the footsteps of his brother, who had been one for the past 10 years. Trekking tours in the Shan Hills near his home of Kalaw had begun to take off in the last year or two, and it seemed like a good opportunity.

At first, the pay was poor. He would charge his clients about $12 per day and could take only 1-2 clients at any one time. After the expense of hiring a cook, the food from the market, the villagers’ homes in which they would sleep, and his bus ride home after the three-day trek, he'd be left with just a few dollars.

However, by 2015, business was excellent. While he could only work 5-6 months a year as a trekking guide, due to the low and high tourist seasons, he was busy during much of that time taking 5-6 clients on each trek. Not only that, but as soon as he arrived back to his home in #Kalaw, there would be another group ready for him.

In Myanmar, it’s not taboo to talk about how much money. So, when asked about how much money he made, he said it was about $120 per month. This amount seemed awfully low, considering how busy he was.

When pressed, he explained that when he thinks about how much money he makes, he doesn't think of his income from clients, or the profit he makes after paying for their expenses, such as food and accommodation. Instead, he takes his income from his work and subtracts the food and rent for his family. He then takes out the money he spends on fuel for his bike, his children's school books, and all other expenses for himself and his
family.

To Kyaw Myint, it is the amount of money left over at the end of each month. How much money he makes is how much he saves for the future.

 

#2 Life of a Young Monk

Novice monk Po Htein studies near the monastery near Ananda Temple in Bagan, Myanmar
© Dustin Main 2016

Featured story in This Myanmar Life

In Myanmar, nearly all boys will become novice monks once or twice as they are growing up. This usually involves a large ceremony in the village / town, having their heads shaved, then living in the monastery for a few days or a week learning about the teachings of buddhism.

Rarely do they stick around though.

As a child, Po Htein visited the monastery near the famous Ananda Temple in Old Bagan several times. At 11 years old, he decided to stay here, leaving behind his friends and family in his village more than 3 hours away. Now at 17, he sometimes wonders how much longer he'll stay.

His day begins early at 4am, when he and the other monks walk around collecting alms from the homes around. At 6am, they head to the village of New Bagan and continue collecting there until 10am with an hr break in between. Nearly 4 hours is spent collecting alms every morning.

However, after that is finished, much of his day is free to do as he likes. Only from 1pm - 2pm, when an older monk teaches, and from 6pm - 7pm when they all gather to pray and chant is mandatory. With the early wake-up the next day just around the corner, he's in bed by 8pm.

His life is a playful one though. While he had two sisters at home growing up, what he enjoys most about being here is spending time with the other younger monks. They're like his little brothers, and he's the eldest of the bunch now.

As adulthood looms closer, he says he wants to be a farmer back in his village, growing onions on the family land. Maybe after living here for one more year, he'll decide.

 

#1 Lighting the Way

U Aung Soe pieces together parasols at night to cover the cost of the family health care bills.
© Dustin Main 2016

(Since likes don't rule the world, I'm picking the #1 for the year)

Featured story in This Myanmar Life

U Aung Soe (47) learned the craft of building and painting parasols from his wife's family in Pathein, a place famous for craftsmanship.

After moving to Nyaung U a few years ago, his business had been slowly growing with the influx of tourism to the town, and he had been settling into life there with his wife and their two children.

Everything abruptly changed for them in mid-2014, when his wife Daw Kyi Kyi Win (47) suffered a stroke, leaving her partially paralyzed on the left side of her body.  This has placed a great strain on the family, both financially and emotionally.  In the first six months alone, $2000 was spent on health care, including hospital visits, traditional Myanmar medicine, and massage.  This is a huge sum of money for the family, who must now depend on U Aung Soe’s work only.  In addition to their usual monthly expenditure: $300 for food, water & electricity, $15 for mobile phone service, $100 for private school, and $40 for their rent, his income must also cover $300 of health care costs.

It's also been hard on the children, and their grades have suffered due to the stress at home as their mother hasn’t been able to do what she once did for them.  However, U Aung Soe is insistent that they stay in school and get a proper education.

So, every day at sunrise, and then after dinner, U Aung Soe alone helps his wife outside and helps brace her as they walk the length of the street.  It's been a tough road to recovery, but things are slowly improving as they work their way back towards the life they had before.

 

Honorable mention

Street art abstract in Bushwick, NYC
© Dustin Main 2016

I didn't have a chance to shoot many abstracts in 2016, but during my stint in New York City, I headed out to Bushwick to photograph street art and it turned out to be the perfect place to play.

 

Do you have a favorite?  Let me know in the comments below.

Be sure to follow along on my adventures in 2017 on Instagram, and let me know what you think (and maybe where I should go next).

 

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