Life in the land of the golden temples: A mesmerising tour of Burma’s monks, sea gypsies and spellbinding sites
Many of the subjects had never had their photograph taken before but he managed to earn their trust
rhythm and culture of villages that had never before been visited by a Westerner, the intrepid explorer managed to create a breathtaking photo series which acts as a tribute to the land clinging to its traditional ways, whilst aiming to embrace the new modern world.
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Photographer David Heath was enthralled by Kyauk Ka Lat Lake in Hpa-An, Kayin State, watching monks row toward a monastery
It took five years and eight trips to Burma for the photographer to even scratch the surface of this extraordinary Asian country
It was David's aim to full capture the soul of the people he encountered. Pictured right, an onion farmer on the Chindwin River
His colourful work is a pastiche of the land clinging to its traditional ways, whilst aiming to embrace the new modern world
The photographer said he first visited Burma six years ago, with many of the villages remaining isolated from the rest of the world.
Going back for his 13th visit last October, while leading a group of amateur photographers, David said the land is a lot different now to when he first arrived.
'This is still possible but it’s changing now. The modern world has come crashing in and they’re in the midst of a transition.'
What captured David's attention was first and foremost the people.
He said: 'I’ve never encountered people that are more generous, humorous, resilient, friendly and open.
'After all they’ve been through politically, they approach life with an amazing sense of humour. They are extremely compassionate towards each other and bring joy to whatever they do.
'Compared to people in the west, they are very present. I think Buddhism has a lot to do with that. I’ve learned so much about the joy of being during my travels there.
This shot was taken on top of a temple during a sunset overlooking the Ananda and Thabanyu Buddhist temples in Bagan
Crossing the famous teakwood bridge in Mandalay enabled the photographer to witness a woman fishing on Taung Tha Man Lake
Fishermen making their way out onto the water, shot at sunrise from the shores of Taung Tha Man Lake, Amarapura in Mandalay
His 248-page book, Burma: An Enchanted Spirit, focuses on honouring and celebrating the souls he encountered on his adventure, which spanned 38 flights, 10 visas, and six prescriptions of antimalarial medication.
Many of the subjects had never had their photograph taken before, but the Californian believes his openness and positive energy helped them to open up to him.
'I believe it’s about the energy that my guide Win and I bring to the process; he is a former Monk and extremely passionate about his country and the people.
'They feel our love and energy and I believe that makes them more receptive to us. It enables us to capture their true essence.'
'Win's also a photographer and understands light, so he knows when it's best at sunrise and sunset, but also where to encounter amazing cultural experiences, free from tourists.'
The photographer said he first visited Burma six years ago, with many of the villages remaining isolated from the rest of the world
Many of the subjects had never had their photograph taken before, but the Californian believes his openness and positive energy helped them to open up to him
David, who is in his 50s, experienced a whole spectrum of accommodation during his stay, enabling him to immerse himself in all aspects of Burma life.
This ranged from sleeping on the floors of bamboo huts in remote villages, crawling with bugs, to enjoying luxurious bedding in five-star retreats, with gourmet chef to boot.
The photographer started off as a businessman, but it wasn't until he received a Canon AE-1 film camera in the 1980s he dared to dream that perhaps photography could be his creative outlet.
He advises each photographer finds a niche, and for him that was Myanmar.
If he were to recommend a favourite place in the beautiful country, it would be the ancient city of Bagan.
'There are over 2,000 temples there that are so otherworldly, it feels like you’re on another planet,' he said.
'Watching the mist roll over the region during sunrise and sunset is one of the most remarkable experiences I’ve ever had. It’s so beautiful, it will easily bring a tear to your eye.'
This photograph is one of David's favourites, and was captured in a monastery in Bagan. These young monks were said to be quick to laugh, very curious, and truly enjoyable to be around
The startling eyes of a young child in Burma, was perfectly captured by the Californian photographer for his book
A girl selling watermelon on a 1950s moving train that circles the entire city of Yangon. All of these trains are currently being replaced
A monk praying to a figure of Prince Siddhartha during austerity stage in a 500 million year old cave
The Karen people of Myanmar have been embattled in a civil war with the country’s central government since 1949. It is considered the world’s longest ongoing war. In 2011, photographer Jason Florio traveled through the remote jungles of the Karen state, visiting villages and photographing the people he met.
The country's reforms could open it, but weak infrastructure and Chinese competition will challenge Western investors. A man steps out from a money changer in Yangon / Reuters
With the upgrading of American diplomatic relations with Myanmar, and a wave of political reform in the country over the past year, many businesses have begun eying the Southeast Asian nation, which has a population of over 50 million people and has been essentially isolated from Western companies by U.S., Japanese, and EU sanctions. A delegation of Japanese business leaders recently visited the country, as did an American delegation. Business magnate and philanthropistGeorge Soros also visited recently (of course, the U.S. would have to drop sanctions for investment to happen, but that is looking more likely). Asia Sentinel has provided an update on all the corporate interest in Myanmar.
Burma is home to some of the early civilizations of Southeast Asia including the Pyu and the Mon. In the 9th century, the Burmans of the Kingdom of Nanzhao, entered the upper Irrawaddy valley and, following the establishment of the Pagan Kingdom in 1057, the language and culture of these peoples slowly became dominant in the country. Sometime during this period, Buddhismbecame the predominant religion of the country. Following the Mongol invasion of Burma in 1287, the kingdom of Pagan fell and a period of control by several warring states emerged. In the second half of the 16th century, the country was reunified by the Taungoo Dynasty which, for a brief period of time, was the largest empire in the history of Southeast Asia.The 18th centuryKonbaung Dynasty ruled over an area that includes modern Burma as well as Manipur in India. In the 19th century, following three Anglo-Burmese Wars, Burma was colonized by Britain.
British rule brought social, economic, cultural and administrative changes to the once-feudal society. Since independence in 1948, the country has been in one of the longest running civil warsamong the country's myriad ethnic groups that remains unresolved. From 1962 to 2011, the country was under military rule. The military junta was dissolved in 2011 following a general election in 2010 and a civilian government installed.
Burma is a resource rich country. However, since the reformations of 1962, the Burmese economyhas become one of the least developed in the world. Burma’s GDP stands at $42.953 billion and grows at an average rate of 2.9% annually – the lowest rate of economic growth in the GreaterMekong Subregion. Among others, the EU, United States and Canada have imposed economic sanctions on Burma. Burma's health care system is one of the worst in the world: The World Health Organization ranked Burma at 190th, the worst performing of all countries.
I have personally heard from a number of Western businesspeople who see great potential in Myanmar - they see the sizable population, the history of British law, and the significant natural resources including offshore petroleum, and compare Myanmar today to Vietnam in the early 1990s, when that country began to seriously open up to Western investment.
But, at least right now, that comparison is seriously flawed. Myanmar is a large consumer market, but its development indicators overall are more on the level of some of the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Large areas of the country have virtually no infrastructure, having been dominated by ethnic insurgencies for decades. Although the country has a history of quality education and use of English, for decades the regime essentially shut down the best universities, fearful that they would be breeding grounds for anti-government protests as they have been many times in Myanmar's history.
This was perhaps the most destructive blow to the country's economic future - despite some government talk of IT and computer science in recent years, in reality Myanmar is one of the least technologically advanced nations in Asia, outside North Korea. It would be very hard for a multinational to build an office of any size in Myanmar doing medium-value or high-value added work, without recruiting many Burmese exiles to come back to the country, which probably is not going to happen at this point.
Of course, in certain industries such as natural resources, all these flaws may not matter; Oil companies have prospered in other climates inhospitable to business. But then there is another problem, which did not exist as much in Vietnam: Even in the resources industry, any Western companies coming in will start with at least a ten-year disadvantage against Chinese firms already established in Myanmar, and with shorter supply chains, more diplomatic support, and large pools of cash.
The Karen people of Myanmar have been embattled in a civil war with the country’s central government since 1949. It is considered the world’s longest ongoing war.
In late 2010, photographer Jason Florio was on assignment in Myanmar when he became inspired to undertake a larger project on the freedom fighters and civilians in the Karen state.
“I was immediately enamored by the gentleness of the Karen people and their serene composure despite being embroiled in one of the world’s longest ongoing conflicts,” Florio said. “I was hooked.”
He returned two months later and spent five weeks trekking through the remote jungles, visiting villages and photographing the people he met.
Florio said he wanted to “bring viewers face to face with the Karen people,” members of an ethnic minority that make up about 7 percent of the population.
Myanmar, also known as Burma, has historically blamed the ethnic rebels for waging attacks to destabilize the government.
Although the democratization of the country under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi has made steps toward ending the civil war, Florio said the Karen people and other ethnic groups in Myanmar are still being oppressed.
He worked in extremely treacherous conditions, traveling in the cover of darkness and always under threat of detection by the Burmese army.
“For one set of portraits we trekked by foot for three days over mountains covering about 80 miles to remote Karen jungle villages,” Florio said.
He also visited Karen National Liberation Army bases on the front lines and was smuggled down the Salween River, hiding under black tarps.
His technique of isolating the subjects he photographed on a backdrop while still letting some of the environment show is one he calls a “happy accident,” discovered during a previous shoot.
“The first time I hung the sheet in the glare of a West African afternoon I noticed that the environment subtly appeared behind the subject, so from then on I tried to incorporate the ‘happy accident’ into the portraits,” Florio said.
The piece of cloth itself holds special significance to the photographer. Given to him by his grandmother, it’s nearly 70 years old.
It was the curtain she used to black out her windows when London was blitzed by Germany during World War II.
Since 1997, he has been using it as a backdrop for a series of portraits of people living in conflict areas and on the edges of the developing world.
“For me photography is a conduit, a way to hopefully bring awareness, demystify and educate,” Florio said. “The Karen are often shy people and are not attention seekers, but once I showed them other work I had done, they understood my intentions and were happy to be photographed.”
Little is known with certainty about the early history of Burma. Cave paintings and a Holocene assemblage in a hunter-gatherer cave site in Padah Lin in Shan State show evidence of an early neolithic culture (circa 10,000 BC). Rice cultivation and chicken domestication were being practiced around 2,500 BC, and the production of iron tools dates to around 1500 BC. Of the modern Burmese, the Mon people are thought to have migrated into the lower Irrawaddy valley around 1500 BC and, by the mid-10th century BC, they were dominant in southern Burma. The Tibeto-Burman speaking Pyu arrived later in the 1st century BC, and established several city states – of which Sri Ksetra (modern Pyay) was the most powerful – in central Irrawaddy valley. The Pyu kingdoms entered a period of rapid decline in early 9th century AD when the powerful kingdom of Nanzhao (in present-day Yunnan) invaded the Irrawaddy valley several times.
Imperial era (1044–1885)
Pagodas and temples in present-day Bagan, the capital of the Bagan Kingdom
The power gap left by the decline of the Pyu kingdoms was filled by the Bamar, aTibeto-Burman speaking group that migrated to the Irrawaddy Valley from theKingdom of Nanzhao in the present-day Yunnan. These migrants established thePagan Kingdom centered in Bagan in 849, which, by the reign of Anawrahta (1044–1077) ruled much of the territory that forms present-day Burma. It was in this period that many elements of modern Burmese culture were cemented. After Anawrahta's capture of the Mon capital of Thaton In 1057, the Bamar adoptedTheravada Buddhism from the Mons. The Burmese script was created, based on theMon script, during the reign of King Kyanzittha (1084–1113). Prosperous from trade, Bagan kings built many magnificent temples and pagodas throughout the country, many of which can still be seen today. The Pagan kingdom ended following theMongol invasion of Burma by the forces of Kublai Khan in 1277 and the sacking of Bagan in 1286.
Between 1287 and 1530, Burma was ruled by several small warring kingdoms. Tai-Shan migrants from Yunnan who arrived with the Mongols ruled the Shan and Kachinhills in Northern Burma. The three brothers, Athinhkaya, Yazathingyan and Thihathufounded the Myinsaing Kingdom which devolved into the Sagaing and Pinyakingdoms in 1315. They were united by Ava in 1364. In the western Burma, the Arakan city of Mrauk U was the center of a Rakhine kingdom between 1430 and 1784. The Hanthawaddy Kingdom established by King Wareru at Bago controlled most of Lower Burma from 1287 to 1539 while the upper Irrawaddy plains were ruled by Burmanized Shan kings from the city of Ava (near Mandalay) from 1364 until 1555.
This period was characterized by constant warfare between Ava and the various other kingdoms. During the reign of Minkhaung I, Ava briefly controlled Rakhine and fought wars of unification with Razadarit of Bago. Under Minyekyawswa, Ava came close to defeating Bago a few times, but could never quite reassemble the lost empire. By the late-15th century, constant war left Ava greatly weakened and its peripheral areas became either independent or autonomous. In 1510, KingMinkyinyo of Taungoo broke away from Ava and established a small independent kingdom. In 1527, Mohnyin (Shan: Mong Yang) Shans captured Ava ending the delicate power balance that had existed for nearly two centuries. The Shans would rule Upper Burma until 1555.
Despite the wars, this period is considered a golden age for Burmese culture. During the rule of Queen Shin Sawbu (1453–1472) of Bago, the Shwedagon Pagoda, the epicenter of Burmese religion, was raised to its near present height. The many pagodas and temples of Mrauk U were built during this period.
Reinforced by fleeing Burmans from Ava, the Kingdom of Taungoo under its young, ambitious king Tabinshwehti defeated the more powerful Hanthawaddy Kingdom and ruled all of Lower Burma by 1541. Tabinshwehti's successor King Bayinnaung retook Ava from the Shans and went on to conquer a vast swathe of western South East Asia including Manipur (now in India), Mong Mao (Southern Yunnan), the Shan states,Lan Na (present-day northern Thailand), and Ayutthaya (Siam), and Lan Xang (Laos). However, Bayinnaung's massive empire unravelled soon after his death in 1581. TheSiamese declared independence in 1584, and went on to capture the Tenasserim region of Lower Burma by 1595. The Taungoo capital at Bago was sacked by Rakhine forces aided by Portuguese mercenaries in 1599.