by Janet Levinger
Photo credits: Janet Levinger
Our trip to Burma was part of a photography tour led by a long-time friend Dave Cardinal. When we decided to go on this tour, I decided I needed a camera – I’ve never taken photos before. Will got me a Canon Rebel in December. I am happy to report my photos improved over the trip.
Burma was temples and monks, city markets and small villages. We saw beautiful sunrises and sunsets. I photographed women and children and would show them the picture on my camera – which they loved. (Next time, I will get a small printer to bring with me.) The women would look directly at me and smile when I smiled or waved to them. In one remote village, the women wanted to touch my skin to see if it felt softer. They were just as curious about us as we were about them.
For the first part of the trip, there were 14 people including Will, our two kids, and me. We went to Yangon, Bagan, and Mandalay. For the second part of the trip, we took a boat up the Irrawaddy River to Bhamo which is about 35 miles from China in the Kachin State.
The women and children put a creamy paste called Thanaka which is ground from the bark or wood of a tree. At first, it looks strange, maybe exotic. After a while, you don’t notice it.
The river’s edge is short and cut square. The first day the landscape is flat and we pass pagoda-jeweled villages and small fishing boats and rafts made of bamboo carrying bamboo down river. Occasionally a ferry passes, blasting its horn. We stopped the first day at Mingun. It has an unfinished but huge brick pagoda which is falling apart, the world’s largest undamaged hanging bell, and small shops with local art.
Our boat is teak with five cabins each maybe ten by fifteen feet. Teak walls and floor and furniture. Sparsely appointed with views out each side to the passing river. Above is a large deck with a bar and lounge chairs and tables. Here we eat, rush from one side to the other taking photos, then edit them on our computers. They feed us well. Too well. The bell rings for meals and we come like Pavlov’s dogs, hungry or not. I get agitated not moving and run up and down the side of the boat for half an hour. Other days I run around the main deck to the amusement of the others. Sunset is beautiful. We drink bottles of wine with dinner. When we dock, they have a huge teak board for a gang plank and one staff person at each end holding a railing to make it easy to walk. I realize that Will is the youngest person on this trip.
We left the window open and wake cold at 3 am, close the window only to wake again at 4 to some strange odor, open the window again and sleep fitfully to wake again before sunrise. We stop at Nwe Nyein village where they make pottery. Our guide has brought candy and notebooks for the children who follow us like the pied piper. New ones running our direction as word spreads through the village. We watch as they throw pots – huge for water and small for flowers – all by hand, painting a design on each one with their fingers. We take photos of the children, the women, the pottery. I watch the traffic – carts pulled by two oxen carrying wood for the kilns, trucks with engines exposed, bicycles, motor bikes. There had been an earthquake, a bridge half-finished collapsed. One school was ruined so they divided the day and half the children went in the morning, the other half in the afternoon. I wondered if the ones who went to school in the morning would be disappointed that they missed the white people bringing candy and notebooks. I smiled at the women and children, said hello, showed the photos I took of the children to them and to their mothers and grandmothers and fathers who stood by with loving smiles. This is a family-oriented society with men and women watching children who scamper everywhere. The women come up to me. They point to my earrings. They want to touch my skin – I pull up my sleeve and hold out my hand – not sure if they are more interested in the white skin or the freckles. They giggle when they realize my skin feels just like theirs.
The landscape is hillier – river bluffs – as the river gets wider and the winds starts to blow. We layer ourselves in sweaters and fleece. I put on a scarf and the staff gives us blankets. We sit on lounge chairs with the blankets watching the scenery, joke that we are like seniors on the porch of a retirement home. Villages dot the river as we go. We slow when the water is shallow and wend our way through sand bars. We start to see barges with teak and piles of teak wood and lumber along the river. We see sugar cane fields.
We stop in Tagaung, an ancient capital of about 25,000 people. We see a Nat Temple, then a row of rickshaws are waiting to bring us through town to an old temple. We must have been quite a sight as the town people smiled and laughed as we passed. The temple had been destroyed and mostly buried. It was excavated in the early 2000s but they not only restored it, they actually refurbished so it looks new. The charm was lost. We walked back through the village which seems quite prosperous. We end the day “docked” at a sandbar – where I am able to run. We eat on the beach – the staff bringing tables, chairs, a charcoal grill, and lamps for us. They start a fire. We eat grilled okra, quail eggs, huge river prawns, beef, pork, chicken, and sweet corn. I am reading a good book and need some quiet time and leave early. The staff has prepared some singing and dancing which I hear from my cabin. I consider getting dressed and coming back out but decide not to. Will says I did not miss much. I think how different it is being on this boat, not really knowing what we are going to do day to day, where we are going. Hard for me to just let things happen.
We move slowly and the landscape changes little. The third day also starts chilly but warms before noon. We start to see charming wooden bridges crossing small streams that flow into the Irrawaddy. Every village still bejeweled with a golden pagoda.
Next stop is Katha. George Orwell was a policeman here in the early 1900s. He wrote a book about Burma which I have not read. We saw the British Club, Orwell’s former home, now empty on the first floor but occupied by government workers upstairs, and the railroad station. Only one train comes each day. Katha is a city of 35,000 people and we are getting closer to the Chinese border. We saw lots of commerce but the city did not seem that prosperous. The next morning, we rise early for the morning market and sunrise and are rewarded by monks out for morning alms. We watch the market being set up. Villagers bringing food on carts and wagons, on motorbikes and on their heads.
We can see mountains in the distance but otherwise the landscape is little changed. We spot a few dolphins now and again. I did not know there were river dolphins. They are going extinct. A dolphin is spotted and everyone runs to try to get a photo. I don’t have much of a zoom lens and I’ve seen dolphins by the hundreds, so I look but don’t take photos. The river is full of sand bars so we move in circuitous fashion. Every now and then some of the staff go out in the small boat – a dinghy or scout boat — to judge the depth. The small boat needs a muffler and its departures and arrivals break the quiet.
Shwegu is a dusty town, cluttered with litter. We arrived too late for the market so it did not seem very lively. But few white people ever come and we paraded through town with people running to doors and windows to see us. I wave “Mingalaba” or “Hello” – everyone has a smile. We pass a monastery and I wave to a monk – not a novice – at the upper window. He says “hello” and something in Burmese. The guide said he asked if we would like to come in. Most of us accepted. The monastery was nothing special, busy with balloons and flags and statues and flowers, random stuff left and forgotten in corners and cupboards, under tables. Local women were chanting the prayers. I realized that we had been in only the high-end monasteries so far. This one was for the masses, how most lived. But our experience here was the best. As we walked back, they had set up a table and brought out sticky rice, oranges, tea and coffee. I could tell that some of the others were anxious to get going, to take photos of the town before it got dark. But to me, this was more special and more important. We came here to see about their lives. We are also ambassadors for our way of life. They want to see and know about us as well. I would have sat there much longer, tried to have a conversation with some of the women. Photos were not important; being the recipient of their generosity was.
We visited the Shwe Baw Kyne monastery which has about 7000 pagodas. It is situated on an island in the river and there is a small village nearby. The pagodas are quite a site – some old, some new, some restored, some crumbling. They were golden or white or faded. Some small, some tall. Worth a visit if you get up that way. The monastery has a relic of Buddha. The nearby village seemed prosperous enough. The houses were mostly built on stilts. In this dry season, the roads were silky dust nearly to my ankles.
We continue our way on the river. We go through a defile – a narrow place in the river. I had not known the word before. The banks are greener and we see mountains in the distance. These are the foothills of the Himalayas. We pass under a beautiful year-old bridge. The first one we have seen. Not sure why they put it where they did. We are only very close miles from China.
We ended the day near Bhamo around 3 pm. We “docked” on a sand bank about 10 km from town. Not much there. We asked if we could take the dinghy to town but we were told that we did not have permission. We are in Kachin state where there is fighting. We need permission to go into the towns. They have permission for us to be on this sand bank tonight and to go to town tomorrow. We cannot visit other villages or go to town today. There are a few huts on the beach and we go talk to the people. It is all one extended family. They come from a village downstream and spend three months here every summer. They go to the mountains and cut reeds that are used to weave mats and baskets. They soak them and then dry them in the sun. Working all summer, they tell us they make about $500. The rest of the year, they work for other people. The mother is smart and open. One son either late teens or early 20s was wandering around and taken by the rebels for a few days. The rebels thought he was a spy. They said they could hear guns going off the previous day even though the fighting is supposed to have stopped. Fortunately, we did not hear anything. I like the mother. She has five kids. I tell her I have only two. We smile at each other. Will notices that they have a solar panel on the top of one of their huts. Yes they tell us, it charges a batter to run a TV and DVD player so the children have something to do.
To access Janet’s travel notes, click here: /reflections-on-myanmar-burma/