6 Jan 2013

Myanmar -the Golden Land

My Myanmar trip over Christmas/New Year was just superb.Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is the land that time passed by.Once a jewel in the British Empire it gained independence in 1948.A military coup in 1988 led to estrangement from the West and the imposition of sanctions. Since 2010 Myanmar has moved back towards democracy.Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton visited late last year and sanctions are being lifted.All is not sweetness and light however with large sections of the country still closed to tourists as the government fights separatist and insurgency movements in the north and west.
The sleeping beauty is waking up and re engaging with the world .
And what a beauty it is .The years of sanctions have had a wonderful side effect leaving a beautiful country suspended in a less frantic time .No obsession with brands,no KFC, McDonalds,Starbucks ,Coca Cola or even a mobile phone system connected to the outside world and a beautiful friendly,modest and highly religious people.They are very poor but seemingly content and their culture remains intact .On the other hand the infrastructure is very poor and the education and health systems are even worse.
Since the sanctions were lifted tourism is expanding very rapidly but it needs a big investment to handle the projected numbers.Sadly the portents are not good for this growth being tasteful with massive crass overdevelopment of tourist facilities in nearbyThailand ,Bali and particularly Vietnam showing how easily beautiful places can be wrecked.The Myanmar I saw may have been a once ever opportunity.All the precedents suggest that in 5 to 10 years it will be gone .I count myself very lucky to have seen it now.
I flew into Yangon( formerly Rangoon) then upto Mandalay and then sailed slowly down the Ayeyarwady River( formerly the Irrawaddy River) on a traditional river boat for 8 days stopping at towns and villages on the river banks which are not usually accessed by tourists.It was an extraordinary trip.
For this trip of a lifetime I took my Leica X1 compact camera with a Voigtlander optical viewfinder,a half case ,one spare battery ,charger and just one SD card .I also wisely took a Kiwi filter tube,lens hood ( $40 off eBay) and a B&W clear filter.I used this the whole time and it protected the camera and the lens from the all pervasive dust.I had my Canon G9 in my bag as a reserve for any mishaps..
For readers who are not familiar with the X1 it is a small camera with a fixed 35mm equivalent f2.8 lens and an APSC sized sensor.It takes beautiful images and it has simple controls and easy to access menus.It does not have IS,GPS,wi fi or even take movies.It just takes superb still pictures which suits me just fine .Having just a fixed lens does involve compromises but in many ways it makes things easier as I do not have to make any decisions on which lens to use and of course it is so light to carry.
Not having a long lens means that I really have to be in a subject's face when taking people shots and so I developed a technique for doing this without causing any offence. Firstly I set up the camera controls in advance then I approached the subjects with a broad smile and asked them in English if I could take their photo.I am certain that not one understood a word but they understood my request and always nodded in the affirmative with a broad smile .I then took the photo,showed it to them on the LCD screen( not always that easy as the Leica has a very poor LCD) then thanked them in English and retreated with a big smile and a small bow .The smile and the bow are very important I believe in showing respect.
I took about 320 pictures over the 14 days of the trip .Pretty restrained by most standards -equivalent to 9 rolls of 35mm film but I am trying to adopt a more deliberate and considered film like approach to taking digital photos.I deleted about 100 of these on the trip and then culled them down to 110 when I put them onto the computer back home .I ended up with 110 images which I am really pleased with including perhaps some of the best photos I have ever taken in the past 50 years.
I have always been a big fan of the photography of Steve McCurry who has shot many great photos in the Middle and Far East including the iconic Afghan girl photo which graced the cover of National Geographic magazine and has since been published thousands of times .McCurry was the master of Kodachrome slide film with his big sharp supersaturated images.In fact Kodak selected him to shoot the last roll of Kodachrome manufactured in 2010.
I loved Kodachrome and if we were still all using film I am sure that I would have used it on my Myanmar trip.Anyway I did the next best thing I emulated Kodachrome as far as possible by shooting all my pictures as both RAW and JPEG files.I shot the JPEGS on the vivid setting and they are the big surprise .They really are vivid and they remind of Kodachrome.They may not be natural but to me they say "spirit of Myanmar" and that's what I wanted.
This is the first tranche of the Myanmar photos -many more will follow.


  1. I grew up on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. There were still lots of real and simple folk there in the fifties and sixties. Many tourists came to experience the quaint old ways of these people and the unspoiled beauty of the land. So I totally get why you feel lucky to have seen Myanmar before it changes. Great shots as always here John! That first one is my favorite...WOW!

  2. Hello John,

    I came to your blog via the article at Steve Huff's Blog.
    Wonderful pictures of this beautiful country that you show us here! Thanks for that :)

    I have one question. You said you shoot the pictures in RAW & JPEG. Did you edit the RAW's to get the "Kodachrome-Look" you like that much or do you show the unedited JPEG's?

  3. Wonderful series and wonderful story! I am indeed impressed. I too have an X1 and shoot lots of black and white street photography! I love this camera and the IQ it spits out! What metering setting did you use? I gennerally use spot metering for best results? Can you share a bit on this?


    Pete Ansara
    FB: captain shutter