Myanmar’s rapid development reshapes places and people

19 Octobr 2016

The first time I visited Burma, I was so amazed I almost forgot to take photographs. From the time I got off the plane at Yangon to the point I got back onto it a couple of weeks later, I was continuously somewhere between mild bemusement and outright astonishment.

I remember the taxi from the airport to our hotel was so old and rusty, I could see the road flashing by through holes in the floorboards under my feet. Road traffic was chaotic but cars were surprisingly few. The buildings seemed to be a strange mix of Demolition Ready, Early Incongruous and Fading Colonial, unified only by the thick dark grunge that coated everything, the inevitable outcome of decades of ignored maintenance. And then you saw the temples. Like amazing Shwedagon Pagoda, immaculate, revered, piously sheathed in pure gold, glimmering like a mirage above the steamy clutter of the city below.

On the streets, the faces spoke of dozens of different origins and cultural histories — Bamar, Chinese Burmese, Indians, Pakistanis, Anglo-Burmese. In fact there are 135 recognised ethnic groups, plus many with no official recognition. In the wonderfully chaotic street markets, fish flopped about despairingly in tubs and buckets, still-bleeding cuts of animal flesh festered under clouds of flies, rivulets of rank liquids leaked across the blistering pavement, and the locals tucked into their meals or went about their chores amidst some of the most unsanitary conditions I’ve ever witnessed. In short, all the smell-o-rama authenticity a photographer could ever ask for.

In those days the punishing international sanctions had cut deep. In our pre-tour client briefings, our advice to clients in those days stressed the need for crisp, unmarked and unfolded US dollar bills, specifying serial number runs to be avoided. Cash dispensers simply didn’t exist — it needed a trip to the moneychanger to convert those mint dollars to kyats. Mobile phones were few and far between, and reserved for well-heeled or well-connected locals: your own phone simply became a useless brick on landing at Yangon, unless briefly brought to life on a teetering WiFi connection in your hotel.

That was just a few years ago.

The last time I visited Myanmar, I was amazed again. Nearly everything had changed. The 20-minute run between Yangon airport and the centre of town was now a chaotic bumper-to-bumper crawl that can take over an hour. Shiny new buildings, fancy restaurants, a skyline now filled with cranes and concrete. Flashing neons and loud billboards channelling ‘Premium Life for Your Dream’ and ‘Infinite Luxury’ messages to would-be buyers of serviced apartments. Huge building-sized advertisements promote Samsung Galaxy phones — and the shops selling them are five to a block. ATMs dispense cash on demand. Asia’s ‘final frontier market’ was now the focus of a gold rush. The mission was proudly declared: Yangon will become ‘Asia’s most livable city’ and Myanmar aspires to be the Singapore of 2035.

… the local language never developed a word for ‘tourist’: the closest word for that concept was ‘guest.’

Fuelled by a new, democratic civilian government, massive and far-sighted foreign investment and a torrent of tourist dollars, Myanmar is on a trajectory to bring new wealth to its citizens. Hard to find fault with that. But what about the photography? This used to be a country so unspoilt and unvisited that the local language never developed a word for ‘tourist’: the closest word for that concept was ‘guest.’

The genuine welcome, the ready smile, is still there — but the monetisation of visitors is increasingly taking hold. Shrines are busier. Temples and markets are getting more crowded — not least because of tourists like us. Travelshooters’ Myanmar photography tour private itineraries have been re-planned to take clients to less-visited photography contexts, and to less-visited times and locations at those crowded but unmissable destinations like Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake.

For me, without question, Burma remains one of the world’s most fertile and fascinating photography tour destinations. But time and progress waits for no one. The ancient Dallah ferry, carrying the precious patina of millions of crossings, has already been replaced with more a modern version from Japan. There’s talk of modernising the amazingly photogenic railways, where currently the battered seats and peeling paint proudly commemorate the travels of decades of commuters. Soon, no doubt, the traditional longyi worn by men and women will give way to t-shirts blaring Western brand names.

Burma will always be a magical destination for photographers. But I suggest you don’t hang about. Grab that camera and go.

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