Home Cameras/Lenses Leica Myanmar: I say Ayeyarwady, you say Irrawaddy

Myanmar: I say Ayeyarwady, you say Irrawaddy

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Last month I spent ten glorious days in Myanmar which we remember from our youth as Burma. I’ll pause the narrative there. I know you might wonder why I would want to go to Myanmar in view of the recent Rohingya atrocities. Allow me to explain. I went to Myanmar in 2012 and loved the country and the people.

My boycotting it now would not impact on the politicians or the military, but it would have an effect on people who are dependant on tourism and who are unaware of what is going on in the northwest of the country. The expedition I went on was the first tourist boat trip into the Irrawaddy Delta. I booked it a year ago when it was announced, I paid a substantial deposit and I really wanted to go. Note the Irrawaddy River is the main river in Myanmar and is also known as the Ayeyarwady

Myanmar has had a very turbulent history since gaining independence from Britain in 1948. There has been rampant ethnic strife and long running civil wars for the past 70 years. Only since 2010 when the US, the EU and Australia and Canada lifted sanctions has the economy started to improve and even then much of the improvement is down to Chinese infrastructure investment-the new imperialism.

It is a resource rich country with massive oil, gas, gem, jade and timber reserves but military control and corruption have held back development and prevented the sort of growth that the natural resources should permit. 

And what of Aung San Suu Ki, “The Lady”, whose National League for Democracy party overwhelmingly won the general election in 1999? The military refused to hand over power and the Lady remained under house arrest until 2010 when she came to a sort of modus vivendi with the authorities, however unsatisfactory. She is now the State Counsellor, with no real authority, and many people inevitably feel somewhat let down. At 76, though, she is probably being realistic and understands that change is not going to come rapidly. 

I flew into Yangon Airport from Hong Kong the afternoon before our morning sailing from Yangon port. Back on my previous trip in 2012 Yangon Airport International terminal was a small, tired and very inadequate building. Now it is a modern airport. After that the surprises kept coming. The journey into the city on the late Friday afternoon took 90 mins. It should normally take 20 mins out of the rush hour. Yangon traffic is now on par with Jakarta and Bangkok and far worse than Sydney. In 2012 the traffic was very light. Now there are over half a million vehicles in Yangon. The skyline is crowded with cranes. Chinese and, to a lesser extent, Japanese money is fuelling a construction boom. The economy is growing rapidly but it is off a very low base. Even in the smallest and poorest villages we visited there were mobile phones and the networks are all 4G. Samsung and Chinese mobile phone brands dominate the market. No signs of Apple — way too expensive for Myanmar.

This trip was on a small ship, the RV Katha Pandaw, operated by a British Company, Pandaw — also known as the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. It was very much an expedition as the huge Irrawaddy Delta is not an area usually seen by tourists and this was the first trip by Pandaw into the Delta.

There were just 19 passengers on the ship — seven Australians, two Norwegians and ten British — and they were an interesting and very well-travelled senior group.

The Delta consists of nine main channels and a capillary system of smaller creeks and waterways. It is heavily populated by 3.5m people. This waterlogged maze has played a critical role in Myanmar’s history. In the heyday of the Raj in India the Delta produced much of the rice for the British Empire and it is still a major rice producing region. It was rice harvest time during the trip and bags of rice were on the move everywhere on heavily overloaded boats.

As well as harvest time it was one of the hottest periods of the year ahead of the monsoon and even the locals were complaining about the heat. As we walked through very quiet towns in the heat of the day I was frequently reminded of the old saying about mad dogs and Englishmen going out in the midday sun.

With so many friendly and curious people and markets, it was a people photographer’s dream location. In fact I took no photos of tourist sights because, well, there were no tourist sights because there were no tourists — apart from us. I took only one camera with me, my Leica Q and as is my practice I took very few photos but I am very pleased with those few which you can see here.

Again, as usual, I always tried to gain approval from my subjects before photographing them and employed my never fail photographic device — a broad and genuine smile. If I had to get down to be eye level with my subjects — and the Burmese are champion squatters — I got down on one knee. Wearing shorts helps with this process but being 71 years old does not. I invariably came back from a shore excursion with a dirty right knee. I suffer for my art. 

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16 COMMENTS

  1. There is some fantastic images here John, thank you for sharing them with us and the story of your journey. Excellent stuff. Dave

  2. Lovely images as usual John. I am glad to hear that the mobile networks are working well as I know some people who are involved in the business there. The people are very friendly as you say. Do they still call themselves Burmese? There also seem to be signs of economic progress, but the situation in the North West of the country cannot be ignored. That picture of the children behind a grill is intriguing, though.

    William

    • William thanks for the kind comments on my photos. I do feel that my photography has improved markedly as I have aged. Sadly I have left my run very late.
      Yes the peope of Myanmar still call themselves Burmese and the language of Myanmar is Burmese.
      There is nothing sinister about the girls behind the bars. They are nuns in a nunnery which I had just visited and they are waving goodbye from behind a straightforward security gate which is designed to keep intruders out not the girls in.
      I saw nothing in any way sinister in Myanmar

  3. I am sorry John but I must respectfully disagree with your immoral but first world white male privileged decision to support the genocidal military of Myanmar. Any contribution to their economy and thus to their hold on power conveniently ignores the horrors of what they are doing. Your rational is no more excusable than a German citizens pretense that the concentration camps didn’t exist. The human mind is of course a rationalization machine but your choice to support a government which rapes tortures and murders hundreds of thousands of people on the basis of their religion is not excusable.

    • Jeff, In fairness to John (not that he can’t speak for himself, and probably will) but his original text (which you can find on his website,
      http://therollingroad.blogspot.co.uk) was considerably more strident in condemnation of the situation in Myanmar. It was my decision to tone it down for Macfilos (with his agreement) because this is not a political blog and we have always steered clear of contentious issues. There are other places for deeper discussions on such subjects.

      • Thanks Mike. I won’t engage further with JeffP on this as I feel it would not be productive. Suffice to say I do mange to sleep well at night happy in the knowledge that the few shekels which passed from my priviledged white male hands to some very poor Burmese workers on my trip hopefully helped make their life just a tiny bit better.

        One of the best things about Macfilos and which attracted me to reading it initially and contributing to it is the civilised tone of the blog itself and the freedom from the acrimony and name calling which passes for comment on so many blogs and forums nowadays. I commend your efforts in keeping up the standard.
        I am off to a camp in the remote Kimberleys of Western Australia next week. More priviledged white male behaviour I know but you are a long time dead-and I came very close to testing that theory last year- and hopefully the destination will be seen as non controversial by all your readers.

      • I apologize if i came across as rude. As a photographer i certainly understand the draw of being one of the first to visit a newly opened country and to have my photos attract favorable attention on websites like this one.
        On the other hand, tourism does provide much needed cash to the military government and major newspapers do report the murder of babies children etc in very cruel ways. Guess what money the government is using to pay those soldiers? If the publicity which you and john generate via his images brings that government money then in some way are you not complicit in that genocide.
        With the great power of the internet comes the great responsibility of its users..

        Anyway i spare you further comments as it appears that the ‘civilized’ world really doesn’t care and I don’t want to waste any more of your time.

  4. As always, expect nothing but the best from your expeditions, glad to read they upgraded network. Think if I remember right you were lucky it was 2G in 2012. Thanks and great to see you have progressed to journeying around again!

  5. Tremendously enjoyable, what you do with that Q, John. Are they just as you took them or has there been some cropping for the individual portraits? There are almost always more stances than one to inter community, interracial conflict, and I respect the line you take.

    • John, thanks. Yes there is some cropping of some of the individual portraits but a surprising number are the full frame. The great thing about the Q is that it is full frame so even a sizeable crop still leaves a very usable image.

  6. I first discovered your photos of Myanmar a few years ago on Steve Huff’s site and I love the pics you did with the X1. I can’t remember the title but it has something to do with kodachrome. These new pics are really excellent. I was in Myanmar 2 years ago and I found the Burmese the friendliest people I’ve ever met while travelling. My travel camera was and has been the ricoh gr from 2013. I enjoy the 28mm field of view, something I miss on my recently bought secondhand leica X2 though I love the colors and that unique leica rendering. Going on a trip soon and will only take the X2 to try to master 36mm FOV. I’m tempted by the Q but I don’t like the size of the camera. Too big for me and the new CL has a far too complicated menu. I hated all those buttons that change your profile too easily when I tried it at a Leica show at my local camera shop. Plus battery life is poor and body is sliipery compared to the X2. I’m also afraid that 24MP will be too much. Keep posting your excellent photos so full of humanity and looking forward to you next pics

  7. Jean , many thanks for your kind comments on my photos. Yes I did have Myanmar photos on Steve Huff’s site six years ago and they were very bright and perhaps Kodachrome like. I gave up on Steve Huff years ago – too many nasty comments-something you don’t get on Macfilos – or so I thought!
    I agree with you about the CL -I cannot see myself getting one – and you are right the Q is a bit of a brick . After taking the Q around Myanmar for 10 days I took my X1 up the north coast of NSW the week after and was genuinely surprised at how light and small it felt.
    Enjoy your X2 -it is a superb camera.

  8. Hello John
    Thanks for your answer and encouragement. I’ve been using the X2 for a week. It is truly a camera that I bond with, with that Leica unique color signature that I love. I did miss the 28mm FOV a couple of times in restricted space but it did the job wonderfully otherwise. I really like the photo you posted of the beach in NSW. I’d very much like to see it in colour. Being new to the Macfilos blog, the work you all do on it is really inspiring and something I’m keen to read every evening coming home from work.

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