U Bein Bridge in the Morning, Myanmar

On my last day in Myanmar, I again arranged for a taxi to take me back to Taung Tha Man Lake. I made no special effort to get there before daylight or just at sunset; I wanted to see the U Bein Bridge as it was meant to be — traversed by Myanmaris simply going about their day. Many of my photographs involve careful planning to capture a place when it is devoid of people so that the viewer isn’t distracted by human activity. In this instance, human activity was the very thing I wanted to preserve.

People Walking on U Bein Bridge in the Morning, Taung Tha Man Lake, Mandalay, Myanmar
Composite from 15 shots taken during 30 minutes, focal length 160 mm, aperture f/8, shutter speed 1/640, ISO 800, tripod.

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My travels in Myanmar were among the most meaningful of my career. I went there hoping only to photograph its temples, shrines, and other religious art. I would leave the country with a profound affection for its people, who were among the kindest and most welcoming people I’d encountered anywhere. It was a country that was largely closed to outsiders until the very recent past, and yet I found Myanmaris unfailingly gracious and warm – hearted, patiently answering my questions or guiding me to a tucked-away pagoda not mentioned in the guidebooks. I was saddened at the thought of leaving.

But as I watched locals crossing the U Bein Bridge as they have done for nearly two centuries, it occurred to me that this is life: a series of beginnings and endings, leaving one place for another, rising each new day to begin again. Buddhism teaches that Samsara is the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, but another way of understanding the idea is through the literal meaning of the word: “wandering on.” The Buddhist monk and teacher Thanissaro Bhikku describes Samsara as the process of continually creating worlds and moving into them. Each of us, through the countless decisions we make each day, move through this process. Some of those decisions are momentous but most are ordinary and inconsequential, altering our lives in silent, infinitesimal ways.

The people on the bridge were going about their daily tasks, the minutiae that make up most of our waking hours. They were creating their worlds and it was time to create mine: I would board a flight for Russia and in days or weeks there would be other travels to new places. I would photograph new people, perhaps on another bridge over a distant lake.

I won’t be entirely reborn, however; part of my heart will be here, in Myanmar.

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Taung Tha Man Lake in the Morning, Mandalay, Myanmar

On one of my last days in Myanmar, I made plans to rise before dawn and go to Taung Tha Man Lake and photograph the famous U Bein Bridge, the spindly teak bridge whose planks were taken from the old royal palace at Inwa. In spite of its noble provenance, the long, narrow bridge is rather ramshackle in appearance; at three-quarters of a mile long and with no railings, you catch your breath as you watch locals cross, certain that someone will slip off the edge and into the water. The bridge is one of the country’s most famous sights, and is especially picturesque at daybreak or in the vivid hues of a sunset.

U Bein Bridge and Taung Tha Man Lake in the Morning, Mandalay, Myanmar
Panorama from 2 horizontal shots, focal length 35 mm, aperture f/11, shutter speed 1/8, ISO 64, tripod.

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So I made arrangements at my hotel to have a taxi waiting for me before the sun was up. I wanted to be sure to have time to get to the lake and set up my gear before the sun rose and before the inevitable tour groups arrived.

But there’s one thing I’ve learned in my travels. Sometimes — often — things don’t go as we plan. When I came down to the hotel lobby, there was no taxi waiting outside and as it was quite early in the morning, the hotel staff were asleep behind the front desk. It was one of my last days in Myanmar, and I had waited until nearly the end of my trip to photograph U Bein Bridge, and now it seemed that I might miss the early daylight over the lake altogether.

Reluctantly, I woke one of the sleeping men at reception and explained my problem. And with the kindness and generosity of spirit that is so characteristic of Myanmaris, he didn’t grumble at being awakened or at the missing taxi. Instead, with the calm, pleasant disposition I’d come to know well in my time in Myanmar, he hustled me into his own car and drove me to the lake himself. It was a small gesture in the grand scheme of things, but one that is emblematic of the country and its people.

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Reclining Buddha, Bagan, Myanmar

In Myanmar, images of the Buddha were everywhere. Sculpted in stone, carved out of teak, or painted on canvas, there were few spaces not adorned with an image of the Buddha, and often there were multiple images. Some were simple and many others were quite ornate, but in virtually every representation of the Buddha, one thing was the same: the calm, serene countenance of a man deeply at peace.

Monk Praying Inside Ancient Temple with the Reclining Buddha, Bagan, Myanmar
Staged photo, panorama from 3 vertical shots, focal length 14 mm, aperture f/8, shutter speed 1/8, ISO 1600, tripod, 1 led light.

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As my trip progressed, I learned that images of the Buddha have different meanings — that a sitting Buddha and a standing Buddha could have completely different meanings, for example. But it was images of the reclining Buddha that I came to find most fascinating.

At first glance, the reclining Buddha suggests relaxation; the pose is not unlike a person lounging by a pool on a tropical holiday. But the meaning is actually far more profound. The reclining Buddha — a common image anywhere that the faith is prevalent — symbolizes the Buddha in the final moments before his death. Though the exact cause of the Buddha’s death is uncertain, virtually all accounts of his life agree that he was aware that his death was imminent and faced it with a calm acceptance of the impermanence of life.

I learned much about Buddhism during my time in Myanmar, but it was this belief, in particular, that I came to find most comforting. Many of us go through our lives consumed with the fear of death—our own or those of the ones we love. But if Buddhism teaches anything, it is that life is transitory, and that death is not an end, merely a transition. It is nothing to be feared.

One of the things I love the most about travel is how it changes you. Each new place becomes part of us, altering us in ways that may take us years to understand. My travels in Myanmar affected me profoundly, leaving me with a greater appreciation of life but also the awareness that death is simply another part of life, another one of the many transitions we experience in our earthly shell. And because of the people I came to know in Myanmar, my life has been enriched immeasurably.

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In the Temple, Bagan, Myanmar

While traveling through Myanmar, I was struck repeatedly not only by the intricate beauty of its temples, but by the deep and profound spirituality of the people. The Buddhist faith seems to permeate every aspect of life in Myanmar. In all of my travels, I couldn’t think of another place where religion was so deeply ingrained in its people.

Monk Praying Inside Ancient Temple with the Seated Golden Buddha, Bagan, Myanmar
Staged photo, panorama from 4 vertical shots, focal length 14 mm, aperture f/8, shutter speed 1/10, ISO 1600, tripod, 2 led lights.

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I was particularly impressed Myanmar’s children, many of whom were novice monks. They were barely old enough to read, and already they had dedicated themselves to a life of study, prayer, and meditation. I saw them inside virtually every temple, heads bent in concentration.

Seeing such dedication in such young boys made me reflect on the faith and its history. I was intrigued by the idea of a faith without a god, a belief system that esteems enlightenment above all else. I thought of the faith’s origins with a young man of wealth and privilege, Siddhartha Gautama. Pained by the suffering he witnessed in the world, Gautama abandoned his life of comforts and indulgences for one of poverty and asceticism. Still unfulfilled, he adopted the Middle Way, a life lived between the two extremes, and spent six years of his life searching. Finally, while meditating under a Bodhi tree, Gautama is believed to have achieved enlightenment and began teaching others how to reach this state. His followers called him Buddha, which means “enlightened one.”

The exact dates of the Buddha’s life and death are unknown, as are other crucial details of his life. But that’s no matter. It is the essence rather than the facts of his life that is significant. And I could see it — that devotion to edification, the pursuit of something beyond oneself — reflected in the faces of the young novice monks I encountered. It was one of the most profound experiences of my life.

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Shwesandaw Pagoda in Bagan, Myanmar

Like virtually all travelers to Myanmar, I devoted part of my trip to Bagan, Myanmar’s ancient capital. With more than two thousand temples and monasteries scattered across the countryside, Bagan is one of the country’s most visited destinations and certainly one of its most photographed.

Panorama of Shwesandaw Pagoda at Sunset, Bagan, Myanmar
Panorama from 3 horizontal shots, focal length 48 mm, aperture f/11, shutter speed 1/10, ISO 64, tripod.

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One would have to stay in Bagan for weeks or months to even begin to see all of the temples. My time was limited, so I rented an eBike at my hotel and planned to cover as much of the archaeological area — a twenty-six square mile space — as possible, stopping at all of the temples that caught my eye.

Bagan is justifiably popular among tourists. It’s a fanciful landscape of ancient spires and stupas nearly as far as one can see. Though in some respects it was nothing like the silent and still site of Inwa, I again experienced the sense of having stepped into a distant, inscrutable time.

Like many places in Myanmar, Bagan has been struck by earthquakes numerous times over the years, most recently in 2016. The 2016 earthquake damaged hundreds of the city’s temples, many of which are now in various states of repair. Because of the damage to the temples, Bagan has prohibited visitors from climbing to the top, meaning that my photographs would have to be taken on the ground.

Fortunately, the temples of Bagan are beautiful no matter your vantage point. I headed to Shwesandaw Pagoda, which occupies a prominent position in the center of town and is one of Myanmar’s most beloved pilgrimage sites. Shwesandaw means “golden holy hair,” a name given to the temple because it reportedly enshrines hair from the Buddha.

The area is famous for its sunsets, a spectacular sight when the pastel light of a late afternoon falls on hundreds of delicate stupas. I lingered in Bagan until the sun began to move closer to the horizon and then I set about photographing the ancient spire of Shwesandaw. I found myself continually thinking of an old song, “Golden Hair,” by Syd Barrett, founder of Pink Floyd. It was an altogether pleasant way to end my day in Bagan.

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Myint Mo Taung Temple Complex in Inwa, Myanmar

I continued to wander through the old capital of Inwa. Beyond the crumbling temple complex, it was a landscape of abandoned monasteries, decaying city walls and watchtowers that now looked out over a terrain devoid of humans. There is something endlessly fascinating to me about abandoned places; bereft of people, their stories can only be filled in by imagination and conjecture.

Myint Mo Taung Temple Complex in the Evening, Inwa, Myanmar
Panorama from 5 vertical shots, focal length 24 mm, aperture f/11, shutter speed 0.8 seconds, ISO 64, tripod.

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Because of the difficulty of getting there, Inwa was far less touristy than Bagan and some of Myanmar’s other ancient sites. I was alone for most of that day, and there were only a few small huts to indicate that anyone still lived on the island. Inwa is similar to Bagan with dense tropical brush punctuated here and there by an ancient stupa, but the absence of tourists meant that I was free to wander the time-worn capital as I wished, with no one standing in the way of my photographs.

And unlike Bagan, in Inwa, it is still possible to climb to the top of the temples. Many of Inwa’s temples appear to be crumbling and decaying at first glance, but are actually still quite substantial. Excited to see Inwa from a higher vantage point, I found myself, with gear in tow, scurrying to the tops of these ancient structures, eager to look out over the uninhabited countryside.

Hauntingly beautiful from any angle, I found that Inwa was especially lovely when viewed from the top of one of its temples. From there, it was possible to see several of the abandoned temples and a swath of the surrounding countryside, dense with palms and creeping vines. I observed Inwa from my perch until the sun was low on the horizon. Then, happy with the photographs I’d made, I headed back to the ferry for Mandalay.

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Ancient Pagodas in Inwa, Myanmar

My travels often take me to places that remind me of the transitory nature of life. I’ve photographed ruins, abandoned castles, empty landscapes where communities once flourished. Time and again, I’m reminded that we are only here for a short while and that even the most powerful empires will one day come to an end.

Ancient Pagoda Complex in the Evening, Inwa, Myanmar
Panorama from 4 vertical shots, focal length 24 mm, aperture f/11, shutter speed 1/25, ISO 64, tripod.

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I was reminded of this again in Myanmar when I visited the ancient capital of Inwa. For more than three hundred years between the 14th and 19th centuries, Inwa was the country’s imperial capital. It served as capital far longer even than Bagan, the country’s famous ancient capital. Because of its importance, the grand city was repeatedly attacked, destroyed, and rebuilt.

Inwa is a fascinating, mysterious place. Built on a manmade island between the Irrawaddy and Myitinge Rivers, it is difficult to get to, even today. There are no paved roads leading there, only dirt roads which are treacherous for all but the hardiest of automobiles and drivers. Locals — the brave ones, at least — take motorbikes and enterprising tour guides take visitors on donkey carts, but otherwise, Inwa is largely left alone, a far less visited site than Bagan and some of Myanmar’s other ancient sites.

But I knew from having read about it that I wanted to see it, no matter how I had to get there. I visited twice, once with a driver who was undeterred by the unpaved roads and once by taking the ferry from Sagaing and walking. It was a trip that required some extra effort, but it was well worth it.

Soon after entering Inwa, I found an ancient temple complex, long abandoned and nearly overtaken by vegetation. I felt as if I had entered another world, a forgotten but once splendid place. It was a quiet, still day; the only sounds were my footsteps and the chirps of jungle insects. Once a seat of imperial power, Inwa and its weathered, crumbling stupas were now a monument to the passage of time.

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Teak Wood Interior of Bagaya Monastery, Myanmar

Sometimes Myanmar was deceiving. So much of what I saw in the country was ancient that it was easy to feel that every temple and pagoda had a history going back to the distant past. Much of the country seemed frozen in time, and sometimes I had to remind myself that some places felt much older than they actually were.

Teak Wood Interior of Bagaya Monastery, Inwa, Myanmar
Panorama from 10 vertical shots in 2 rows, additional exposures for highlights, focal length 14 mm, aperture f/8, shutter speed 8 seconds, ISO 250, tripod.

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That was the experience I had at the Bagaya Monastery in the town of Inwa, not far from Mandalay. Though the town itself is one Myanmar’s earliest capitals, the monastery was a newcomer compared to many of the others I’d explored; it looked and felt much older, but the monastery was only built in 1834.

Unlike many of the monasteries that I toured in Myanmar, the Bagaya Monastery was built entirely of teak, including the 267 pillars which supported the building, the largest of which is 60 feet tall and nine feet in diameter. Intricately carved lotus motifs were repeated throughout the building. I wouldn’t have imagined it was possible, but I found it even more splendid than the teak wood monastery in Mandalay.

Bagaya is still a functioning monastery. As I walked through the halls, camera in hand, I realised that in a room to my left, monks were gathered in study. As was often the case when I encountered monks in Myanmar, they were oblivious to me. Focused on their studies, or perhaps in prayer, they seemed completely unaware that anyone else was in the temple. I took my photographs and left quietly, leaving them to the silent rituals of their ancient faith.

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Fisherman on Taung Tha Man Lake, Myanmar

My excursion onto the lake with the fishermen proved to be one of the most exciting experiences of the trip. During the months that I spent planning the trip, it was the temples and pagodas that most interested me — I was fascinated by their intricate, fantastical architecture and the deeply spiritual nature of the people. And the temples were just as remarkable as I anticipated; each one different than the last, each one ornate and meticulously designed.

Fisherman Throwing Net Early in the Morning, Taung Tha Man Lake, Mandalay, Myanmar
Staged photo, single shot, focal length 14 mm, aperture f/5.6, shutter speed 1/1600, ISO 1250, handheld.

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But I was surprised at the contentment I felt on the water with the fishermen. It was such a simple thing, to spend the day with two men as they went about their daily work. And though the work they did was physically demanding, it was clear that they were in their element. They weren’t stuck in city traffic, or continually checking emails, or answering to an angry manager. I was a little envious of them and began to think that it might be nice to spend my life a few inches above the water’s surface.

They went about their work, and I went about mine. I took hundreds of photographs from every angle, trying to get the perfect combination of light, color, and water. I wanted to capture the delicate choreography of spray against sunlight when the nets hit the water. Out of the hundreds of photos that I took that day, I think this is one of the best. It captures not only the image, but the feeling of pure, simple joy that I experienced on the water.

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Taung Tha Man Lake in the Morning, Myanmar

Mornings in Myanmar are sublime. Many of the country’s days pass in a haze of rain and sweltering heat, making the clear, temperate mornings feel like a gift. Like the locals, I found myself rising early, not wanting to sleep in and miss even a few minutes of the early morning and its gentle sunlight.

Fisherman Throwing Net Early in the Morning, Taung Tha Man Lake, Mandalay, Myanmar
Staged photo, single shot, focal length 14 mm, aperture f/2.8, shutter speed 1/1250, ISO 3200, handheld.

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The fishermen on Taung Tha Man Lake get out early as well, guiding their long, slender boats out onto the still water as the locals on shore are just beginning to stir. The lake, generally placid at any time of day, is especially beautiful in the morning, when the sky is reflected perfectly on its surface.

Unlike the fishermen I encountered at Lake Inle, the men at Taung Tha Man Lake are not merely fishing for the entertainment of camera-wielding tourists; fishing is their livelihood. They may oblige a tourist here and there with a photograph, but the work they are doing is real work. It’s also arduous. Their nets — heavy with lead weights — are flung into the air. They meet the water’s surface fully expanded, sending a gentle spray of water into the sunlight.

I made arrangements to go out onto the lake early one morning with two fishermen. That first morning was mostly a learning experience — after I got over my amazement at their strength and agility I found it was much harder to photograph them at work than I had anticipated. I wanted to capture the net in flight, but it required a very fast shutter speed in a low amount of light. My first day on the water was largely spent learning how to photograph them, with few of the photographs worth keeping.

I went back with them the next morning. The weather was even more agreeable than the morning before, with the colors of the sky and the sunrise reflected beautifully in the water’s surface. I was engrossed in what I was doing and the morning passed quickly, and before I knew it, the fishermen were leading the boats back to shore to sell that day’s catch.

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