Julie Vola visits the ancient capital of Myanmar and escapes the crowds
I arrived in Yangon in mid-December when the weather was very good, dry and not too hot. I decided to be on my own for this Christmas holiday, just my cameras and me.
My travel itinerary was a bit different from the usual tour of the country (Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake). Most people rush through these places with two or three days in each location and long stints on night buses in between. As I only had 10 days, I didn’t want to rush, so to take the time to explore I split it between Yangon, the former capital, a vibrant, cosmopolitan city with amazing colonial architecture, and Bagan, the ancient capital with more than 2,000 temples and pagodas.
Shooting in Bagan has always been a dream of mine. Just like the iconic photos of trees growing on temples at Angkor Wat, I have always dreamed of taking photos of the balloons over Bagan. I quickly discovered that there so much more to this spiritual site than that.
My Holga, Bagan and Me
After the overwhelming stimulation of my senses in Yangon, Bagan was an oasis of serenity — everything slowed down. I spent five days quietly writing and taking photos. Moving softly through my days I tried to be mindful of the small things that I didn’t capture with my camera, the melody of the chimes mixed with the joyous chatter of the souvenir vendors, the sound of the wind in the high grass and the twitter of the birds, the smell of dry leaves and cardamom and all the spices from the Burmese paan or kwun-ya (betel leaves chewing mix).
On the first day I visited all the main temples that are popular with tourists. These are the biggest, the most impressive but also the easiest to reach. As it has pagodas, temples and stupas sprinkled throughout the countryside, Bagan offers a lot of hidden gems. So for the rest of my trip I avoided the packed places and instead went exploring all the small dirt roads I could find riding an electric bicycle.
I prefer the photos from my Holga camera. Its simplicity better captures my mood in Bagan’s small poetic moments. I was fascinated by the light in this country, whether filtered through the trees or windows and doors in the temples, or under the hard blue sky.
I wandered along a sandy track, moving away from the main road into an area barely indicated on the map. I got lost in the crops and found myself pushing my bicycle through the sand near a little shack where a family was resting in the hot hours of the day. The father came out and invited me to rest with him for a bit, offering me much-needed water. I showed him the map and he pointed to me where we were, then without speaking he showed me another point, a small monastery with no name.
Once I arrived there, the monastery was actually a ruin. I noticed a red robe drying in the sun next to a shack, but no-one was in sight. I walked around the ruins and suddenly from a corner a monk furtively appeared. I followed him and when I reached him he only said hello. From then he did not speak again.
He led me to the top of the ruin to appreciate the view. He sat down while I took photos then I joined him. He saw my tattoo and I tried to explain its meditative meaning, he proceeded to show me some of his. We communicated through hand gestures and I understood he told me to come back at 6pm for the sunset, unfortunately it was my last day in Bagan and I had to take the bus to Yangon that afternoon to catch my flight the following day.