Traveling around Burma (Myanmar) on a photography expedition with National Geographic, I fell in love with the country. It was one of my most enjoyable photo trips anywhere, with very friendly people, good food, great sites, and not too many other tourists. Here are my favorite sites, both to visit and to photograph:
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon
Given that you’re likely going to fly into Yangon, Shwedagon Pagoda is worth a stop before moving onto other parts of the country. We arrived in the afternoon and stayed until after dark.
Shwenandaw Monastery, Mandalay
Formerly part of the Royal Palace, this monastery has the perfect combination of carved wood, impressive architecture and colorful monks – some with iPads.
Sandamuni Pagoda, Mandalay
With hundreds of shrines, this was my favorite pagoda that we visited. Of course a pagoda without monks isn’t very interesting, so it’s worth waiting for a couple to come along.
Shwe Kyin Monastery, Mandalay
This was my favorite monastery in Burma. Of course there were the impossibly photogenic monks, but here there were also prayer ceremonies taking place, with hundreds of monks chanting and almost singing.
The Unfinished Mingun Pagoda
Part of the fun was getting here from Mandalay via ferry. There are other sites in the small town, including the second largest bell in the world and the very-white Hsinbyume Pagoda, but I enjoyed photographing the earthquake-damaged and never-finished Mingun Pagoda.
U Bien Bridge, Amarapura
This is the longest teak bridge in the world, stretching over a kilometer as it crosses Taungthaman Lake. Take a boat out on the lake at sunset. The photography is all about the silhouettes of those on the bridge. When I return to Burma, this will be my first destination.
The Temples of Bagan
Bagan was the reason I had wanted to travel to Burma in the first place. For years I had seen photos of hundreds of temples rising out of the morning mist. We spent time among the temples during the day, and also climbed pagodas to watch the sunset and sunrise. It was even more awe-inspiring in person. While I took a lot of photos as the light changed, I also put down my camera frequently to enjoy the view. I could easily spend a week in Bagan, bicycling around and exploring the temples.
Roadside Peanut Winnowing
If you’re driving through the countryside and see something interesting, stop! One of our best experiences was joining a group of peanut winnowers that we passed on the way to Mount Popa. We photographed and participated in the winnowing process for more than an hour.
Taung Kalat / Mount Popa
The entire area around Mount Popa is beautiful, but the highlight was Taungkalat (Taung Kalat), a volcanic plug with a monastery (of course) at the top. We climbed the 777 steps to the top and, although the monastery isn’t exciting, the view makes the climb well worthwhile.
Shwethalyaung Pagoda / Reclining Buddha, Bagan
National Geographic pre-arranged for us to photograph monks with candles at the Reclining Buddha in Bagan. Even though it was set up for us, it still magical being a part of it.
I loved Inle Lake – photographing the fishermen who row with their legs, visiting the villages around the lake and relaxing in the evenings at our hotel on the edge of the lake.
Ywama Monastery, Inle Lake
So it shouldn’t be a surprise at this point that I liked this monastery – the first place where we saw young monks in school. It was a fun place to photograph, and the teacher didn’t seem annoyed at all to have a few of us in there slightly disrupting lessons.
I never take my kids on photo trips. With the early mornings, late nights, hiking, climbing, shooting sessions and extended time on busses, these are trips meant for adults. Was Burma kid-friendly? Yes, as much as any developing nation is. The food was good and it was easy to get around. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable with kids under 10 or 12 climbing the temples of Bagan, but otherwise all of our destinations were good for kids. I saw very few young western tourists there – less than 10 over the course of 10 days. As with anywhere, kids over six or so can appreciate the culture more than younger kids.
Mandalay, Inle Lake and Bagan are must-visit destinations. But there are other places I want to get to as well, like the Datdawtaung Cave and the golden rock of the Kyaiktiko Pagoda. Have you been to Burma? What do you recommend as must-see sites?