Mya Thein Tan Pagoda in Mingun, Myanmar

I wandered through and around the unfinished pagoda until late in the afternoon, then remembered that locals had advised me that there was another pagoda nearby that I should see. A short walk away from the ruins of the pagoda was another temple, far more intricate than any I had seen on my trip.

Mya Thein Tan Pagoda in the Evening, Mingun, Myanmar
Panorama from 4 vertical shots, additional exposures for highlights, focal length 21 mm, aperture f/11, shutter speed 1/6, ISO 64, tripod.

You can buy this photo as Fine Art Print >>

The Mya Thein Tan Pagoda is striking — it was truly one of the most beautiful structures I saw in Myanmar. It’s a remarkable pagoda constructed entirely in white, giving it the appearance of a fanciful wedding cake. I learned that the pagoda was built by Bagydaw, the heir of King Bodawpaya, whose enormous ruin sat nearby on the banks of the river. But Bodawpaya’s great, unfinished pagoda was a monument to pride; Bagydaw’s temple had a more noble inspiration.

Construction on the pagoda began in 1816, shortly after the death of Bagydaw’s first wife in childbirth. The temple was a memorial to his young wife and a way for him to show his devotion to her, even in death. To fund the construction of the pagoda — which is so intricately detailed that it can be fully appreciated only by seeing it in person — the king used 100,000 emeralds. It’s from this fact that the pagoda takes its name — Mya (emeralds) Thein Tan (100,000).

Beyond its remarkable detailing, the pagoda is also noteworthy for the seven terraces which lead to the central round stupa. The terraces, it’s believed, are meant to be a tangible representation of Mount Meru, the sacred mountain that is believed to be at the center of the Buddhist cosmos. The seven terraces represent the seven peaks that rise up to Mount Meru, which is represented by the dome at the top.

Myanmar was a dream of mine for a long time before I finally got to go, and I planned the trip carefully, so that I had the best chances for good weather. I gave myself a window of time in between the rainy season and the clean cloudless skies of winter. I was never more grateful for that planning than on this day, as I photographed the Mya Thein Tan Pagoda. The brilliant white of that remarkable structure was particularly stunning against the pink sky of a coming sunset. On my way back to Mandalay I was thinking of two very different men — one who built for pride and another who built for love.

Posted in City Tagged , |

Pahtodawgyi Pagoda in the Evening, Mingun

I returned to the Pahtodawgyi Pagoda later in the day, after most of the ferries had left for Mandalay. It was a hot day, and the tourists largely stayed away from the most popular sites in the heat of the afternoon. With the exception of a few backpackers, I had the enormous ruin to myself.

Unfinished Mingun Pahtodawgyi Pagoda in the Evening, Mingun, Myanmar
Single shot, additional exposures for highlights, focal length 14 mm, aperture f/11, shutter speed 1/20, ISO 64, tripod.

You can buy this photo as Fine Art Print >>

The expansive ruin lords over the Irrawaddy River and even in decay, it’s an impressive sight. Construction of the massive stupa began in 1789 under King Bodawpaya. According to legend, Bodawpaya, a powerful king who often raided neighboring areas, came into possession of important Buddhist relics, including a tooth of the Buddha, an extraordinarily rare find. To house his precious treasure, Bodawpaya arranged for the construction of a stupa that would reach 152 meters high, the largest in Myanmar, if not the world.

Bodawpaya became consumed with the grand project, leaving his son to manage affairs of state. While his son oversaw the government, Bodawpaya built a residence for himself on an island in the river where he could oversee every element of the temple’s construction.

But after only seven years, construction of the massive temple was halted, and the reasons are now lost to history. It could simply be a matter of practicalities — builders may have found it impossible to build the temple to the desired height with the tools of the time. There was also a prophecy at the time that when the temple was completed, the kingdom would come to an end. King Bodawpaya died in 1819, his enormous stupa unfinished, and none of his successors resumed work on the project.

Since that time, earthquakes have caused considerable damage to the temple. One, in 1838, caused the heads of the massive stone lions guarding the entrance to break off and roll into the river. It also caused deep cracks in the temple’s façade, as if it had been cleaved by the hand of an angry god. Somehow, the unfinished state of the temple along with the great cracks made it all the more remarkable and all the more evocative. A king attempted to build the largest temple in the world; in failing, he left a broken monument to hubris and ambition.

Posted in City Tagged , |

Novices in Mingun, Myanmar

A short drive from Mandalay is the city of Mingun, essentially a large village on the banks of the Irrawaddy River. Like all of Myanmar, Mingun has an abundance of temples, pagodas, and stupas of every kind, but it is perhaps most well-known for one that was never finished: the enormous Pahtodawgyi Pagaoda. When it was begun in 1790, it was intended to be the largest stupa in the world. But only the bottom third was ever completed, and over the years, nature has taken a toll on the great, brooding ruin along the river.

Two Monks on the Stairs of Small Mingun Pagoda in the Evening, Mingun, Myanmar
Staged photo, panorama from 5 vertical shots, additional exposures for highlights, focal length 14 mm, aperture f/11, shutter speed 1/80, ISO 64, tripod, gold reflector.

You can buy this photo as Fine Art Print >>

Even unfinished, the massive stupa is one of the area’s biggest attractions, with tourists taking day trips from Mandalay to climb its rickety steps for the incredible view at the top. But I saw the crowds of tourists there and decided to make my way elsewhere. There was no shortage of beautiful pagodas and temples in Mingun, and I wanted to find one that the tourists didn’t know about.

Eventually I found a small pagoda, far less elaborate and imposing than many of the others, but no less beautiful. Two novice monks, probably no older than ten, seemed to be deep in thought. They were only young boys, and already they had dedicated themselves to a life of prayer and meditation. I could scarcely sit still at their age; I couldn’t imagine the kind of discipline and dedication it took to embark on a life of the spirit at such a young age.

I wandered around the pagoda and its grounds for some time and the boys never seemed to notice me. Occasionally they spoke to one another, but they remained mostly in their silent, contemplative state. And though it appeared that their gazes were focused on some point in the distance, I had the feeling that they were actually focused on something unseen and impalpable, and beyond the ability of most adults to understand.

Posted in City Tagged , |

Sagaing Hill in the Evening, Myanmar

I was several days into my time in Sagaing Hill, but I felt that I had only begun to explore the area and its culture. It was a place rich with history and faith and wandering its streets and pathways, I felt that I could spend years there and only begin to understand the faith and its teachings.

Sedi La Su Taung Pyae Pagoda and Irrawaddy River in the Evening, Sagaing Hill, Myanmar
Single shot, additional exposures for highlights, focal length 70 mm, aperture f/11, shutter speed 4 seconds, ISO 64, tripod.

You can buy this photo as Fine Art Print >>

Again and again I climbed to the top of Sagaing Hill, often to photograph the city, but sometimes simply to find a quiet place and think. Myanmar tends to inspire that in a person; surrounded by temples and hundreds of monks and nuns, it’s hard not to feel contemplative here.

On a particularly warm evening, I made my way to the top of the hill, took some photographs overlooking the city, and sat down in the shade of a tree. Before me was a view that I had come to love — the golden stupas of Sagaing Hill glittering like gemstones in the sunlight and the great Irrawaddy River flowing in the distance.

I thought of Gautama himself, who found enlightenment as he sat underneath a Bodhi tree. I won’t claim any kind of special insight or mastery of a spiritual discipline. I can’t say for certain what kind of tree I sat under. But as I sat there, looking over the hillside and the river beyond, I felt an ancient peace settle over me. In my case, it was the peace that comes from a deep contentment with the present and a profound appreciation of beauty. There is something very special about Sagaing Hill; it was easy to see why so many devout Buddhists are drawn to the place. I was in no hurry and had nowhere else to be. I settled myself against the tree and prepared to spend the afternoon admiring this beautiful, serene bit of creation.

Posted in City Tagged , |

Sitagu International Buddhist Academy, Myanmar

During my wanderings through Sagaing, I found the Sitagu International Buddhist Academy. Located at the base of Sagaing Hill, the temple is a visually stunning place, and very different than Myanmar’s other temples. In a landscape of conical, needle-like stupas, the broad golden dome of the Academy is difficult not to miss. And compared to its centuries-old counterparts, the Academy is a relative newcomer; it was only built in 1994.

Panorama of Sitagu International Buddhist Academy in the Evening, Sagaing Hill, Myanmar
Panorama from 5 vertical shots, additional exposures for highlights, focal length 16 mm, aperture f/11, shutter speed 1/30, ISO 64, tripod.

You can buy this photo as Fine Art Print >>

Buddhism is an integral part of life in Myanmar, and education is an integral part of the faith. Most adolescent boys will spend at least part of their lives in a monastery, praying and studying Buddhist teachings. In Sagaing, long an important Buddhist center, monks and nuns from across Myanmar come to study the ancient texts. In one of the most profoundly religious countries in the world, Sagaing is perhaps its most devout city.

The Academy was founded by Sayadaw Ashin Nyanissara in 1994 to train the brightest Buddhist monks. Since that time, thousands of seekers have come through its terra cotta entryway in search of knowledge. Inside the temple, there are images of Buddhism’s sacred sites, as well as a collection of hundreds of Buddhas from around the world.

I was lucky enough to wander into the temple on a day when there weren’t many people there. I had the great, gilded dome and its courtyard to myself. Feeling the serenity that thousands before me had experienced, I took my photographs then continued on my walk. I had my own seeking to do.

Posted in City Tagged , |

U Min Thonze Caves, Myanmar

A short drive from Mandalay is the pilgrimage site of Sagaing Hill, one of the country’s religious centers. Though it’s a large city, it’s nothing on the scale of Mandalay, and the landscape here, which is dotted with pagodas and stupas, is serene and contemplative after the hustle and bustle of Mandalay.

Line of Buddhas in U Min Thonze Caves, Sagaing Hill, Myanmar
Panorama from 7 vertical shots, additional exposures for highlights, focal length 140 mm, aperture f/11, shutter speed 4 seconds, ISO 100, tripod.

You can buy this photo as Fine Art Print >>

I went to Sagaing Hill early in my trip, but I was intrigued by the city and its history as a center of Buddhist study. Before I left Myanmar, I arranged for three more days at Sagaing. I wanted to wander its winding streets and hillsides unhurried. An ancient faith permeated the city and the feet of thousands of devout followers had walked its streets; I wanted to understand what Sagaing meant to people.

With its lush green hillsides and golden stupas, Sagaing looks a bit like Bagan. More than six hundred monasteries and temples dot the landscape at Sagaing, their gilded domes and spires glittering in the sunlight. It’s a stunning sight, and deeply moving.

One of the more remarkable structures in this landscape of gilded temples is U Min Thonze Caves. Its name is a bit misleading — there are no caves here, but rather, a fascinating temple that is partly built into the hillside. In a landscape of elaborate temples and beautiful interiors, U Min Thonze Caves is perhaps the most special. Its most incredible feature is a crescent-shaped colonnade of forty-five golden Buddhas. At first glance, the outsized Buddhas appear to be identical — the same posture, the same serene expression. A closer look reveals that they are, in fact, all different. Each carefully sculpted face bears a slightly different expression, a nearly imperceptible variation. The forty-five Buddhas represent forty-five years of Buddhist teachings.

The Buddhas present something of an optical illusion and it is difficult to adequately capture the colonnade in a two-dimensional photograph. To capture as many as possible, I took seven vertical shots, each with a different focus, for one panoramic image. It was a difficult shot, but I hope it captures something of the serene beauty of the temple.

Posted in Interior Tagged , |

Shwenandaw Monastery in Mandalay, Myanmar

Myanmar is a landscape dotted with the gilded spires of temples and monasteries. There are thousands of them — along riverbanks and roadsides and even in the poorest villages. Some are ancient and in states of decay while others are meticulously preserved. But each is a remarkable structure, often incredibly ornate, and imbued with the deep reverence of the country’s people.

Two Monks Reading Book in Shwenandaw Monastery, Mandalay, Myanmar
Staged photo, panorama from 5 vertical shots, additional exposures for highlights, focal length 14 mm, aperture f/8, shutter speed 1/4, ISO 800, tripod, 2 led lights.

You can buy this photo as Fine Art Print >>

One of the most stunning monasteries in Mandalay is the Shwenandaw Monastery, an intricately carved and ornamented building completed in 1880. Built and carved from teak, the monastery is the only major surviving building from wooden Royal Palace, which was built by King Mindon in the mid-1800s. King Mindon died in the monastery (where his meditation cushion still sits), and his son and successor, King Thibaw, became convinced that his father’s spirit haunted the building. Unable to meditate in the building, Thibaw had the building disassembled and relocated outside the royal fortress. The meticulous reassembling of the monastery was completed in 1880, two years after Mindon’s death.

Many years later, during World War II, much of the Royal Palace was destroyed in bombing raids. Shwenandaw Monastery is the only major survivor of the palace complex. It remains today largely as it was when it was completed — fragile but imposing, with Buddhist myths meticulously carved into teak wood and stories of the Buddha’s past lives cast in gilt panels. The building’s intricately carved roof is held aloft by numerous columns, each one formed from the trunk of a single teak tree.

On the day that I discovered the Shwenandaw Monastery, I left my shoes at the door and walked silently inside. There, at the base of one of the monastery’s mighty columns, I found two novice monks reading the ancient texts of their faith. They were surrounded by beauty and the emblems of their ancient beliefs, and untroubled by ghosts of any kind.

Posted in Interior Tagged , |

Largest Book in the World, Myanmar

There is a proverb that states: “To be Burmese is to be Buddhist.” In Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma, it is impossible to separate Buddhism from the culture of the people.

Two Monks Visiting World's Largest Book in Kuthodaw Pagoda, Mandalay, Myanmar
Staged photo, panorama from 5 vertical shots, additional exposures for highlights, focal length 14 mm, aperture f/11, shutter speed 1/125, ISO 64, tripod, remote flash.

You can buy this photo as Fine Art Print >>

There is perhaps no other country in the world in which a religion or philosophy is so deeply ingrained. Most scholars consider Myanmar to be the most religious of all Buddhist countries; virtually every adolescent boy will spend at least a brief period of time in a monastery, and many will stay for years. The country is home to roughly half a million Buddhist monks, 50,000 temples, and countless shrines. Even in the poorest communities, you will find numerous shrines and temples, some in decay and overgrown with vegetation, but all a place of reverence for the people.

The people of Myanmar practice an ancient form of Buddhism, Theravada, which is regarded as perhaps the oldest form of the faith. Historians believe that the faith was carried to the country by missionaries as early as the 3rd century BC. With a history so deeply rooted in the place, it’s no wonder that Buddhism permeates every aspect of life in Myanmar.

There is perhaps nowhere else in the world that a monument such as the Kuthodaw Pagoda could exist. In a country that values education in Buddhist teachings almost as highly as it values the philosophy itself and in which even the poorest families sacrifice to give their sons a monastic education, Buddhism’s ancient texts are venerated. The Kuthodaw Pagoda is a monument to that veneration. Hundreds of small white pagodas each house a stone tablet — 730 in total — that together contain the entirety of Buddhist teachings. Walking among the white stupas of the complex, a person could read the entire text of ancient Buddhist works.

The remarkable collection of tablets — which were originally inlaid with gemstones and in which the texts were filled with gold ink — took eight years to complete. The gems and gold ink were long ago carried away by the British, but the power and beauty of the text remains.

Posted in City Tagged , |

Lake Inle Fisherman, Myanmar

If Myanmar exists as a place apart from the world, Lake Inle exists at an even greater remove. It is a world that exists entirely above and around water, where everything — houses, gardens, pagodas — seems to float just above the glassy surface of the lake, and where the Intha people still live much as their ancestors did.

Burmese Fisherman on the Boat with Traditional Conical Net in the Morning, Lake Inle, Myanmar
Staged photo, single shot, focal length 14 mm, aperture f/8, shutter speed 1/125, ISO 250, handheld.

You can buy this photo as Fine Art Print >>

It’s one of the places they say you must see in Myanmar. Inle is a serenely beautiful expanse of water, where the blue of its surface seems to run seamlessly into the blue of the sky. It’s a massive lake — just under fifty square miles, but shallow enough for swimming.

It’s on the lake’s surface where the juxtaposition of past and present is most obvious. On this placid body of water, fringed with stilt houses and floating gardens, the Intha fishermen use a time-honored method of trapping fish which is not done anywhere else in the world. Using a large, conical net, they steer the boat with one leg while using their hands to fish. With movements that are nimble and practiced, the Intha fishermen appear like delicate acrobats on the water’s surface. Seeing this ancient choreography play out on the water was one of the most special moments of my trip.

But Myanmar is changing. The unique way of fishing that developed on Inle Lake is no longer economically feasible. Nowadays, the Intha people make more money appearing to fish as a show for tourists. In this land where the past and the present are colliding, there’s an irony in the performance of an ancient technique so that it can be captured on iPhones and posted to social media.

But in all other ways, Inle remains as it always has. Delicate stilt houses are perched just above the water, pagodas seem to float on the water, whole lives are lived on the water. Only the fisherman have changed.

Posted in Landscape Tagged , |

Lake Inle in the Morning, Myanmar

Not that long ago, Myanmar was unknown. It’s only been in the last decade or so — a blip, in the grand scheme of things — that Myanmar has opened itself to tourism, and for most people, the country is still well off the beaten path. It was a place few travelers ever visited, one that existed in a time apart from the rest of the world, largely isolated from modernity. As the writer Rudyard Kipling said of it, when it was still known as Burma, “it is unlike any land you know about.”

Burmese Fisherman on the Boat with Traditional Conical Net in the Morning, Lake Inle, Myanmar
Staged photo, single shot, additional exposures for highlights, focal length 14 mm, aperture f/8, shutter speed 1/160, ISO 800, handheld.

You can buy this photo as Fine Art Print >>

When I arrived in Myanmar, it was easy to see that this is a land still immersed in traditional ways. Unlike much of the world, Myanmar doesn’t appear to be in any great hurry to slough off the past and adopt all the trappings of the new and modern. It’s still quite possible to see something of life as it has been lived here for centuries, behind a veil of near total isolation from the rest of the world.

But tourists are quickly discovering Myanmar. Its gilded pagodas and floating gardens are mystical and serene and it isn’t hard to find yourself completely enchanted by the country and its people. Foreign tourists will bring change to the country; it’s inevitable. And little by little, those traces of ancient life may begin to slip away.

As I traveled through Myanmar, I had the profound sense of having entered a land at a hinge moment of its history, a land still permeated by the past but where change is happening rapidly. A familiar refrain among travelers to the country is “You have to see it before it changes.”

I was fascinated by Myanmar for years before I was fortunate enough to see it for myself, and the people I met there have a special place in my heart. I feel that I was able to see this beautiful country at a rare moment in its long history, and I hope my photographs capture the beauty of the landscape and the kind and gentle spirit of its people.

Posted in Landscape Tagged , |