Tag Archives: Myanmar

Change the Way You See

This will be the first in a series of posts about how changing the ways we see as photographers can change the stories in our photos.

The approach on each photo assignment is different. Even travel photo assignments differ even though they are on the same general topic. Shooting dance on four separate occasions, I learned about how I had to change the way I looked at the subject, so I could tell the story of each performance from a different perspective.

The eyes of a tourist


I love the way the dancer kicks the bottom of the dress to create movement. Burma, 2010. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

When I shot this set in Burma, the assignment was to show Burmese dance as a traveler would see it: in a staged performance, from a distance. I had little background in the dance forms and the stories behind each one. That limited knowledge produced shots from a spectator’s point of view. Luckily I had brought along a long lens, suitable for isolating the dancers and capturing uncluttered portraits showing off the costume and motion against a simple background.

The eyes of a storyteller

Dance acrobatics are important parts of a dance story. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2010.

I love Hanuman, the character in the Ramayana epic. When I shot this assignment at the Chalermkrung National Theatre in Bangkok, it was a behind the scenes story of the dancers who made Hanuman come alive every night at a national theatre in Thailand. I had to shoot the story as I saw it unfold, embracing its unpredictability, paying attention to detail. So I did a little abstraction and a little action. Framing the story with images of detail helped to give the necessary background for the actual dance shots, and the action shots gave me the necessary storyline. Hanuman is a singularly amazing character, but he’s actually several guys in a specially made papier mache mask, whose acrobatics on stage are remarkably demanding.

Symbol in dance can make for some great surprises. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2010.

The eyes of surprise

No one knew that rain was going to come from the umbrella. The dancer at Patravadi Theatre in Bangkok in a free-form modern dance gave us a few surprises. First, he wore an expressionless mask which contrasted with the bright costume and the even brighter umbrella. His movements were quick and energetic. And when he sprung the confetti on us, streaming from the umbrella, it was the biggest surprise of all. Less than a minute of white confetti catching the dim light in the dinner theatre, plus not being able to move because there was simply no time, gave me a limited window for a shot. I put the camera on burst mode and tried to anticipate the next twirl.

The challenges for photo assignments make for fantastic learning. Whether your goal is to get a travel story or capture how an event makes you feel, it helps to look at each assignment with different eyes. Changing the way you see can change the story.

Going to Burma

Note: I wrote this after a couple of people on Twitter asked me about Burma. Thanks for inspiring me to write again! ~Aloha

Should you go to Burma?

Like Lonely Planet, I would caution the traveler to decide for themselves, given all the arguments. LP has an excellent summary of both sides of the argument in their guide. Why did I go? Burma to me remains one of the most fascinating and beautiful cultures in Southeast Asia, and the two times I have gone leave me wanting to stay indefinitely.

There are two sides to Burma, or Myanmar. One side is the powerful military complex that has been growing stronger since 1962 when a coup by Ne Win plunged the country into a dictatorship that has endured despite economic boycotts, political sanctions, and a broken economy.  The other side of Burma you will experience if you follow Aung San Suu Kyi’s advice not to “go around in air-conditioned taxis” (in The Voice of Hope by Alan Clements,  1997) and actually engage with locals. Burmese are friendly, with a quiet dignity that belies the decades of suffering they have endured under an oppressive regime.

According to some people I met, 350,000 tourists visit Burma annually. Evidence of some tourism is now visible with the beggars at the temples. When I visited in April 2007, there were no touts at any of the major temples I visited. Returning in 2010, I was shocked at how many postcard sellers flock to the handful of tourists visiting those same temples. A chorus of “Buy from me, buy from me” follow the traveler at these temples, including a woman with a baby who wanted money if you took her photo.

Where your money goes is the question. Injecting money into a dictatorship is not why any one wants to go to Burma; but it is a concern you definitely have to seriously consider if you want to travel responsibly. You must accept that up to 20 percent of your money will go to the government; but you can spread the other 80 percent around to local, family owned businesses and benefit the people.

Travel Preparations

Getting a Visa

There are Myanmar embassies and consulates in numerous countries where you could apply and get a visa. But the disadvantage of getting a visa at a consulate is that you may have to provide a detailed itinerary including hotels you stay during your travels. In the Myanmar Consulate in Bangkok, you do not need to provide a detailed itinerary, and it only takes three days to get your visa.

For more information on itinerary requirements before travel, you can email the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism at mtt.mht@mptmail.net.mm or send snail mail to 77/91 Sule Pagoda Road , Yangon.

A convenient way is to get a visa on arrival. International flights to Myanmar land in Yangon, the former capital city. At the shiny newly renovated airport in Yangon, you will see a counter to the left of the immigration bays with two or three officials. Submit the visa application at the rightmost window with a color photo of 1”by 1.5” where the official will review it. Make sure you have a hotel booked in Yangon because you will be asked to write its address and contact numbers in the application. Then you are called at some point and have to pay the U$30 visa fee. Visas run for 28 days, and you can only extend the visa by exiting the country and entering again. If you want to stay longer, you can overstay your visa and upon your departure, pay the $3 per day of overstay fee at the airport.

What to Pack

Research the climate before you go; but also note that the weather in Yangon could be vastly different from the weather in the Shan State in the same week. In May-June, which is low season for tourism because of the sporadic storms, it may be humid an raining in Yangon, and hot (up to 40 degrees C) in Bagan and Mandalay, and cool (around mid-20s C) in the lake region of the Shan State.

Burmese are modest, and only very few (in Yangon) wear clothes other than the traditional Burmese dress: a shirt and longyi for the men and three-quarter sleeved blouses and long tamein for the women. The longyi is a single piece of cloth which the men wrap around their waist, tuck into the middle to secure it, and reaches to a few inches above the ankle. The tamein is a long single piece of cloth, usually with beautiful designs, which the women wrap around their waist and tuck into the side.

Although it may be hot and humid, I would advise the traveler to dress modestly. Perhaps save the tank top and short shorts for Boracay Island, Philippines or Krabi, Thailand, and bring light linen or cotton trousers/skirts and tee-shirts for Burma. Especially for women traveling alone, being very conspicuously differently dressed than the locals may result in unwanted attention. That being said, I find that at the Inle Lake area and Shan State and beyond, I wore Bermuda shorts comfortably without attracting too much attention.

Mosquito repellant is at the top of the list. There are areas in Burma which are notorious for malaria and dengue, especially in areas below the altitude of 1000 meters. Although Yangon, Mandalay and Inle Lake are not high risk areas for malaria and dengue, mozzie bites are no fun. Spray your clothes with repellant, even in the daytime, a favorite time for dengue carrying mosquitos, and reapply every three hours. Also: do not wear black. Black holds heat and this heat attracts mozzies.

Sunblock is another must. Traveling in a sampan, a dugout boat, around the Samkar area in Shan State for a couple days, I developed heat rashes on my

Monks in sampan, Shan State. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

arms. I didn’t want the oily sunblock to get on my camera and applied sunblock only once in the morning. Serves me right, but good lesson for you: apply sunblock every couple of hours, and bring a light long-sleeved shirt if you are going to be out all day, which is what I did the day after. After your long days in the sun, it’s good to have soothing after-sun lotion to moisturize—this is essential for golfers (me) and travelers (you and me) in Southeast Asia.

Not only for Burma, but also for traveling in general, you need to pack your own first aid kit. Bring essentials like band aids and medicine for headaches, diarrhea, and antihistamines against dust-induced sinus colds. Also in your first aid kit should be iodine or rubbing alcohol, and I always carry around a 50ml bottle of antiseptic handwash for times when I do not have access to clean water and soap and know my hands are icky. In addition, your feet will gather dust at every place you visit: everyone must take off their shoes at the temples and pagodas, not at the temple entrance but at the gate, and walk on dirt around the temple or pagoda grounds.

Because there is a lot of taking off of shoes, it is advisable to pack a pair of rubber sandals that are comfortable to walk in. I would recommend sandals that surfers wear: light, easy to wash, dries overnight when you wash them, and slips on and off easily.

Carry a day pack that is small and light enough to be easy on your back, but is able to contain your guidebook (I recommend Lonely Planet and Burma: The Alternative Guide by Jotow and Ganz. Read before hand and choose which one to leave at the hotel, which one goes in your daypack, depending on where your itinerary takes you), tissues, mosquito repellant, sunblock, a folded umbrella in case of sudden rains, antiseptic handwash and drinking water. If you wear shorts at any time, buy and pack in your day pack a tamein or sarong, in case you have to hurriedly put it on because you are entering holy sites such as pagodas and temples. I also recommend bringing a clean plastic garbage bag and a few rubber bands, in case you are caught in the rain and have a camera in your bag. I went to Myanmar during their water festival in April, and was doused with water from a fire truck hose—but my camera equipment stayed dry inside a garbage bag I tied together with rubber bands.

Lastly, I recommend a good map—if you are going to be traveling without a human guide. A good one is the Periplus Myanmar map.

Other than these items, you need to look at climate, geography, and possible activities you might do at the places you visit, and pack accordingly.

Eating and Drinking

Jodi over at Legalnomads, who is a much more sophisticated foodie than I am, has written excellent articles on her eating experiences in Burma, and I would recommend you go over to her site and learn about the delicious Burmese soups and other dishes you have to try. (In fact, I live in Bangkok and she gives me advice on which street here has the best duck.)

All I will stress here is that street food is definitely better than restaurant food, but that when you choose the stalls you go to buy your dinner, check first that the dish you will purchase and eat is cooked then and there. Hot soups with noodles and a la carte dishes that the vendor cooks in front of you are better than food that was cooked a few hours before and has been sitting in the hot temperatures for a while. Eating street food cooked immediately in front of you helps you avoid the “traveler’s tummy” that many travelers to Southeast Asia get from bacteria that proliferate with heat and time.

Drink only bottled water and avoid the ice is the simple rule. Tap water and ice in Burma and in many countries in Asia has stuff in it your stomach is not used to, and you will risk amoebic dysentery (trust me, this is something you do not want to get, especially as a traveler somewhere you do not know anyone or speak the language).

Other Precautions

When you are in Burma, do not engage in political conversations with locals you have just met. You are leaving the country; they are not. If the government finds out you discussed politics with someone, that person will get into trouble. Seven years of jail is common for having the wrong conversation.

You will see people working on roads in some villages—carrying baskets of broken stones on their heads and working in the heat. They are villagers who have been forced without pay to work for the government. Usually there are police (blue uniform) or soldiers (bright olive green uniform) around to watch them. Do not take photos of them, or of any police or soldiers. This will get you in trouble.

Tourist taxis and tourists have special laws. That is why cars carrying tourists merge at the most illogical times in the most hair-raising ways because locals know they have to avoid getting hit by or hitting them. Tourists who are robbed usually get to the top of the police priority list. Stealing gets a person seven years in a Burmese jail.

There may be a lot more questions you have, and you do want to read a lot on Burma before you go. I recommend careful research before you go. (NOTE: There is a government ban on books that the government considers containing views “harmful” to the Tatmadaw, the military, so you might meet trouble in case your luggage is hand-checked and it contains these titles.) Here’s my essential reading list:

Perfect Hostage by Justin Wintle (Arrow Books, 2007) is a good start for someone who is unfamiliar with Burma’s history. This book frames Burmese history through the life of Aung San, Burma’s most revered hero, and Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese generals’ most formidable political enemy alive because the people love her.

Letters from Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi (Penguin, 1995). Although it is dated, this book has lyrical vignettes of Burmese culture from the Lady’s point of view.

Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin (Penguin, 2004) is a quick read, but insightful. Emma Larkin goes undercover and travels Burma accompanied and guided by Orwell’s prophetic ideas.

The River of Lost Footsteps by Thant Myint U (Faber and Faber, 2007) is Burmese history through a personal lens. I find this book comprehensive and sophisticated in the way it interprets Burmese history and the links between events in Burma’s past and the present.

Living Silence in Burma by Christina Fink (Silkworm, 2009) is a comprehensive look into the Burmese psyche and what it’s like to live under military rule for so long. The most recent and second edition includes recent events.


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Su Mon in the City – a Closeup of Life in Yangon
The Umbrella Story
An Unkindness of Ravens
The Good, the Bugs, and the Ugly
That Beautiful Longing

That Beautiful Longing

Ironically, on a Sunday, I am surrounded by idols.

The natural cave at Shew Oo Min, in Pindaya, has around 8000 Buddha figures brought here by pilgrims. Walking barefoot through the cave, on a cold wet floor, I glance at the inscriptions. Many of the pilgrims who have brought in Buddha figures or donated paint to renovate the old figures are from far away. The US, Germany, Singapore.

Like with the other Buddha figures I’ve seen on this trip to Burma—in Bagan, the Schwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, in Mandalay and now in the Shan State—the eyes of the figure are cast down, looking at a point between sky and earth, but not really looking.

A monk studies beside Buddha figures, Burma. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

“It’s to remind us to control attachment,” Ye Myint tells me. We are perched on top of the Lawka Auk Shaung Pagoda, waiting for the sun to set over Bagan. He knows the caretaker who holds the keys, and when I tell him I didn’t want to climb the popular Shwesendaw Pagoda with the other tourists, he takes me to this small, lonely paya, or pagoda. From here, with a zoom lens, I can see the tourists at Shwesendaw to the East in their floppy hats and sunglasses, waiting for the sunset.

Buddhism is founded on the idea that life is suffering, called dukkha. When we become attached to something, we desire it, and the desire most often leads to suffering. “We can’t

Monk prays at Schwedagon Paya, Rangoon. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

have everything we want,” Ye Myint pronounces. He looks away, squinting at the tops of the pagodas in the distance. I follow his gaze, but the sun is too bright and hurts.

“But it’s human to desire,” I say. I am thinking of dreams I have had in Burma, strange and lengthy streams of things from other lifetimes: an old lover’s shoulder in window light, laughter in a faraway conversation I still remember, a day infused with piano sonatas and the smell of good bread, contentment felt on a slow train from Sapa in Northern Vietnam. Things I’ve craved but have compartmentalized in little boxes, signed, sealed, made scarce to make way for the present.

“Yes, but the self is not real,” is Ye Myint’s confident reply. He refers to the other Buddhist precept of annata, or non-self. Like Plato’s world of ideas, the Buddha taught that the self in this world is an approximation of reality. In this world, we are air in jars. Imprisoned in glass, we are unable to join with the air around us everywhere, the universe. Only when the self reaches enlightenment or nibbana, will the self become one with the universe, and become real.

We fall silent in our own thoughts like friends do sometimes. I think of monks who could not keep their eyes down any longer but marched against the military junta in September 2007, and were repressed with force. Which of their 227 rules says they have to forego freedom?

I think of the other lives, the ones who are not in the news.

I meet a man in the Shan State who has an advanced degree from a famous English university. In crisp English, he apologizes that they only have fried rice, even though I am the one imposing on his house, resting from the heat. He gives me a cloth serviette and sets my place at the table in precisely a Western manner. A fork each for both salad and main course, edge of the dish flush with the placemat. We talked for a time, but like my other conversations with Burmese, we danced around the words we wanted to say but didn’t, or couldn’t.

A good friend, whom I ask to take me home for Thingyan, the Burmese New Year when she goes, writes me back a month later, saying no without saying no. “The government discourages Burmese from hosting tourists privately,” she writes, “so please book a tour to that area.”

Young fisherman at Inle Lake. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

Even in our letters, we keep to the edges of reality. Our words are ascetic, dripping with dukkha, anointed with annata.

Even now, hundreds of miles away as I write this, I still peer over that edge. And the eyes of what I imagine to be Burma looks back at me, eyes that are large and dark, almost like the water at Inle Lake at dawn. When I look into them I hear the echo of the lone fisherman singing about lost love, the soft splash of his oar punctuating the long high notes of his song.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

You might also like:

Su Mon in the City – a Closeup of Life in Yangon
The Umbrella Story
An Unkindness of Ravens

An Unkindness of Ravens

“Give money for blood for baby,” the woman carrying the child says to me at the Schwezigon Pagoda. Bare feet hurting from small pebbles on the ground as I walk, I turn away from her. If I hide my face, maybe she’ll turn away, too.

She follows me. “Give money for blood for baby.” The stone path around the main pagoda stings my feet with heat. I walk around pretending to be completely engaged in taking cliched shots of the golden spires of the pagoda in bad noontime lighting, ignoring the woman and the baby she holds in her arms.

“Blood for baby.” She blocks my path now, and has put down the child. The child is in a bright lime green outfit, complete with hat, and her face has been beautifully brushed with tanaka in butterfly swirls. The child looks up at me, smiles. She’s not sick.

Then I realize the mother is saying food, not blood. I sigh relief but the soles of my feet are baking, and by now she has thrust aside the personal space I assume is always around me. I could rub noses with her with just a slight inclination. The mother puts down the child and says something to her, and the child says, “Hello, hello,” following me. I smile at her but try to engross myself in the architecture. The mother coaching her, the child comes closer to me, in her lime green sandals, tugs at my jeans,”Hello, hello.”

Money, her mother chants. Money, money.

I feel like a pimp, and the camera hanging on my neck has made a whore of them.

She has nothing to sell, so she sells the probability of a photo I might take of her and the baby or both, for money.

Once upon a time, I would have taken the shot and given the dollar. But today, I am resolute: I will not spoil the trip by buying my images, in effect creating beggars around these tourist spots like the photographers who have come before me.

Maybe it’s too late.

I walk fast out of the pagoda grounds, out onto the unpaved parking lot, pebbles biting into my feet. Flanking the parking lot is a row of shops. Myanmar Lager Beer, a large sign announces. Outside the compound, under a tamarind tree, a dead dog lay; split open from whatever cruelty it met last night. An unkindness of ravens pecks at the carcass, making sharp sounds as they feast.

I walk back to the temple compound, still barefoot. Again I steel my shoulders for the swarm of postcard sellers. In the parking lot’s dust, there is one of me and three Spanish tourists, bright in their blondeness. Thankfully, they stand out. The assault of postcard sellers chooses them. I am left alone, to walk to the car I’ve hired, to get away.

I cannot get away. In Bagan, I stop beside one of the city’s ubiquitous peanut fields, to watch a man climb the toddy palm trees lining the field, to gather toddy nuts. The purple nuts the size of half a head yield sugar, which the locals boil into syrup and when hardened, form jaggery, a kind of after-meal candy. The jaggery is also fermented with the nut’s juice to make jaggery juice, a thick, sweet drink in the morning, and in the afternoon, fermented in the heat, becomes jaggery beer, a local favorite.

The man climbs the palm tree using a rope truss, a net hanging from his belt. He cuts the nuts and holds them in his net, so he looks like a strange spider with bulbous legs from where I observe below. He smiles at me while climbing another tree, and I receive this as a sign to take his photo. He plays to the camera, stopping on his descent to give me his smile, and flex his strong and limber leg muscles.

Crossing on flooded path, Mandalay. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

Ten minutes later, the matriarch of the family shows me her torn shirt. Her breast shows through a gash in her shirt. She is saying something to me, and although I do not own any language here, I understand she is telling me how poor they are.

I have a few kyats in my pocket. I hand them to her, then I walk away, telling myself I am not creating beggars. I am merely helping someone buy some better clothes.

Maybe it’s too late, now, to change from the change that has already happened. In Minggun, the boat I am on approaches the shore where broken lies the giant lion built to guard the pagoda that was never finished, a giant square block of red brick on a hill. The shore looks deserted until the boat is about a hundred meters away, then I see them.

Women with postcards dangling from their hands. Bead necklaces. Fabric. There are six of them, waiting by one of the jetties. “We are not landing there,” Kyaw Myint says to me. As if they heard, the women clamber, run, away from the jetty toward another, near a broken wall shaded by a large rain tree.

When I get off the boat, six voices chant, “Buy from me, buy from me, not expensive, later OK?” I am trotting now, away from their voices, toward the broken pagoda. At the base of the hill, a couple of shops scream color. Cold Drink, one of them implores in crooked letters hand-painted on cardboard.

A young teen approaches me, three dollar bills clutched like an open poker hand. “Help me change to kyat”, he says. “In Mingun is very difficult.” I know this trick already. The little girl across from the Buddhist University, with tanaka on her face and flowers in her hair, asked me to change 700 kyats to a dollar a few days ago. I shook my head then, I shake my head now at the young man.

One US dollar can get approximately 950 kyats, but the locals use the common currency exchange rate of 1000 kyats to the dollar. Instant profit. It’s almost advisable not to change

Finished walls at a bamboo factory, Amarapura. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

to kyats for food expenses; a 16-dollar meal at a restaurant, instead of the equivalent 15,200 kyats, will cost you 16,000 kyats on the exchange. Multiply that by two meals a day, and you automatically under-budget. But paying with US dollars can also get you into trouble. Legalnomads, traveling in Burma for six weeks, once had to lick a 10-dollar bill to show a man it was spotless, after he had refused to take it as payment because it “had a spot.” Spotless and crisp greenbacks are the only way to go in Burma.

“Please help me change,” the boy says again more insistently, thrusting the three dollar bills to me. I must note that by Minggun my soul is frayed. I have spent five days listening to the mantra of “Money, buy from me, hello, buy from me” and walking through assaults of postcards sellers. This is not conducive to photography, or vacationing; I am tired of it. So when the boy continues his chant, I snap back. “I am not a bank,” I say. My face turns to stone. I put the lens cap on my camera, shutting its sensor in darkness.

In 2007 the impoverished government of Burma increased prices. Gas went up 66%, diesel 100%, and natural gas 500%. Manufacturing costs followed, and price increase was passed on, of course, to the consumers–the common men and women who toil day in and day out to earn the average annual income of $1900. Most people, according to Lonely Planet, “make $1 a day if that.”

But just outside Mandalay, along the Irrawady River, there are people who help each other for nothing. Kyaw Myint has taken me to see a village along the way to Amarapura, but the concrete path leading from the highway to the village broke. Just that morning, the water sliced through, flooding the path. The pedestrians and motorcyclists wade slowly through the mild currents, on another path.

Kyaw Myint wants to know if I will cross, roll up my jeans and wade to the village. But I don’t answer, because the village is here, specifically the men. They have taken off their

Men making a makeshift bridge on the Irrawady River. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

longyi and sandals, and they are chest deep in the water hammering wooden poles into the riverbed to build a temporary bridge. I stand there watching them work, young and old alike. There will be no insurance company who will sweep in and compensate everyone for their loss, for their work. The government, which since 1962 has never been for the people, will take its time to repair the concrete path, if it does. But the villagers, resourceful and cooperative, have already come up with their own solution.

In Amarupura, deep into country very few tourists visit, we find a bamboo factory in the middle of the jungle. A whole family harvest the bamboo and work all day to make mats and walls. “He says,” Kyaw Myint translates,”they can make some 600 kyats per wall. He can make ten walls per day, but he sells maybe three or five.” We hang around the family, laughing with the women, playing with the sleepy baby. I feel my face relax, smile more easily. Under the mango tree I spy another group of ravens, chattering, and remembering a book I read in third grade, the metaphor startles me.

The raven has a bad rep. Known to attack both humans and animals, it eats almost anything, dead or alive. But it is intelligent and resourceful, known to survive in the cruelest, most difficult terrain. It mimics other animals in behavior that gets it food. It is, despite being an annoyance, a magnificent survivor.


Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

You might also like:

Su Mon in the City  a Closeup of Life in Yangon
The Umbrella Story

The Umbrella Story

On a hot day in the beginning of the rainy season, temperatures in Myanmar can go up to 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 Fahrenheit). Baking in the midday heat in Mandalay, at the Buddhist University, waiting for the monks to walk to lunch from classes, it feels like I should have brought the umbrella that is in my luggage, back at the hotel.

Umbrellas are everywhere in Myanmar. Monks carry brown ones. On Inle Lake, the tourist boats carry an umbrella for each passenger; it’s not uncommon to pass a boatload of tourists in colorful life vests, clutching umbrellas, pasty white with sunblock lotion.

But visit Myanmar even for a few days, and you notice the little umbrellas, meticulously folded with ribs, symmetrical and small, stuck near a Buddha statue or near a nat, the helpful spirits recruited into Burma’s Theravada Buddhism to convert the animists into the religion in the 12th Century.

Small paper umbrellas for sale at Sule Paya. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

It’s my second time around in Myanmar, and I notice the umbrellas more than usual. In Yangon, I ask Su Mon about them at Sule Paya. “The umbrellas are offered to ask for shelter from the sun–in life, the sun can be like suffering we experience,” she offers.

Of course I had to go to a workshop. The paper umbrellas in Myanmar are a popular tourist souvenir, and all tourist trips inevitably end up in a workshop. In Pindaya, Ko Zaw takes me to a workshop at the foot of the hill near Shew Oo Min Cave with its thousands of Buddha statues left there by pilgrims. The family works out of a simple concrete building. Scrawled all over the walls are messages from tourists who have been here, a graffiti of well wishes in the languages of some of 13,000 tourists, mostly backpackers, who troop into Pindaya every year.

The woman and her daughter demonstrate how they make paper from mulberry bark. Mulberry trees scatter around the area; they strip the bark off branches and soak it in a pool outside. When the bark is soft enough, they pound it into pulpy bits with a heavy mallet. Then the pulp is soaked again, this time until it clings to a mesh frame inside the pond. Dried on the mesh, the paper forms and is peeled off. The woman shows me how she made designs on the paper with bougainvilla petals; a ubiquitous bush that grows even uncared for, in Asia.

A boy makes the umbrella frame. He shows me how the spring in the bamboo is also made from bamboo, cleverly cut so it forms a natural, one piece spring to open the umbrella and close it. He wants to give me the cross section of the spring, but I smile and decline, saying, kye zu ba be, thank you in Burmese.

A girl paints a paper umbrella, Pindaya. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

I watch the two women work in their dim room, surrounded by thin bamboo from Pathein, shavings on the floor, and hundreds of umbrellas formed and semi-formed. The umbrella shade is made of paper, cut to the circumference of the frame. They glue on the paper using natural glues, like resin, and dry it under the sun to stretch the paper over the frame. In some factories, like Bagan’s Schwe Pathein, they use cotton instead of paper. Whether the umbrellas are made of paper or cotton they are painted over with diesel to make them waterproof.

Outside, a rain begins to fall.  I take out my plastic umbrella made in China. The woman turns away, and I imagine her smile fading as she returns her attention to the work of making an umbrella that someone else will buy.

I see the little umbrella at Ku Bauk Gyi. It’s midday, and the concrete stings the soles of my bare feet. In the cool shelter of the pagoda with the jataka paintings, paintings of stories from Buddha’s life, I ask Tin Win about the single golden paper umbrella that some pilgrim has stuck in front of the Buddha.

Nara Pedi Sitthu, a King of Bagan in the 12th Century, had five sons. At the end of his life, the legend goes, he wanted to devote his time to meditation. So he pondered over how to choose an heir; tradition dictated that the eldest son inherits the throne. But Nara Pedi Sitthu did not think his eldest son was suitable to rule the kingdom. “You know what he did?” Tin Win asked me, smiling.

I haphazard a bad guess. “He had the other sons assassinated?” I tried, although I should have just kept quiet. I am currently on page 39 of Justin Wintle’s portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi Perfect Hostage, and was reading last night that kings who rose to power without a bloodline would assassinate entire families of the previous reign, to prevent a contest for the throne.

No,” Tin Win laughs, “he used democracy.”

He said it so loud. I thought this was a dirty word in Myanmar. My eyebrows must have gone up in a question, because Tin Win continued his story to explain.

The king thought of a plan to leave the choice of his successor to the gods. He had his sons sit in a circle in the center of which he stood, holding an umbrella. He prayed, then threw the umbrella in the air. It would point to the rightful heir when it fell, as mandated by the gods.

The umbrella pointed to the youngest, who happened to be the one the king himself had wanted to ascend the throne.

A man paints a design on a traditional Pathein design umbrella, Bagan. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

The son who became king of Bagan later built a pagoda and named it Htinlo Minlo, meaning “favored by the king and favored by the umbrella.”

“That’s a great story, thank you,” I tell Tin Win.

He smiles showing his perfect white teeth, pleased. You’re welcome. Now you know why we offer umbrellas to receive favors.”

When I return to Yangon, I walk with Su Mon at Inya Lake near University Avenue. Under umbrellas, although it is not raining nor sunny, young couples giggle and kiss.

Briefly I think how wonderful, how exquisitely wonderful it must be to have your whole world under the 60 or 70 centimeters circumference of an umbrella. Under it, you are favored, where, staring into your lover’s eyes, you see yourself mirrored back in unconditionally positive light.

“Let’s go back,” Su Mon says, gesturing for me to keep apace with her. We make our way toward the car, sidestepping the puddles which have begun to reflect the storm clouds forming over Yangon. In an hour, it will rain, but we will be safe and dry in a dinner show this my last night in Myanmar, eating and making comments about the dancer’s beautiful skirt, the special tamein that has a “tail” that she flips away with her feet.

And I will leave Myanmar again, thinking about the word democracy and favor that comes with random chance.


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Su Mon in the City

A Closeup of Life in Yangon

Schwedagon Paya glitters in evening light despite storm clouds. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

Her hair has gotten so dry. She ties it in a ponytail most days with a plain rubber band, out of the way, for the times when she is at work taking tourists to Schwedagon Pagoda. The sunset at Schwedagon Pagoda, called a paya in Burmese, never fails to awe her. Around 6.35 pm the golden spires of the paya catch the light and hold it, and the gold blinks and blinks.

Today she takes a girl and her father to Sule Paya, then the Yangon Harbor, before they go to the Strand Hotel, the old posh place from British days. Getting off at the Sule Paya from the hired car, they cross the street. “Yangon used to be the cleanest city in Southeast Asia,” she pronounces. She has said this line hundreds of times. She clutches the plastic folder to herself and watches for the buses that careen around the corner past the mosque.

In the cool entrance to Sule Paya she pays the entrance fees and waits while the tourists take off their shoes and socks. In a couple of days, when they go to Bagan, she knows they will forego wearing shoes and will begin to wear sandals, anticipating another pagoda, another temple, another barefoot experience.

The cool floor of the paya is gritty with dust. She watches the tourists walk gingerly on the tiles, pausing to take photographs. She explains the nats, spirits that have been incorporated into the Theravada Buddhism of Myanmar in the 12th Century, to convert the animist citizens who believed in these spirits.

Storm clouds gather over Yangon's Schwedagon Pagoda. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

In her hometown of Samkar every one placed nat shrines where there were large trees. The locals offered flowers and candles to the spirits who lived in those trees. For a good harvest. For a marriage. For favorable weather. Always supplicating for something desired.

This constant craving translated well into Buddhism. After she moved to Yangon and began her job at the travel agency, she saw the same behavior at the payas of the city: coconuts and bananas offered to the nats, offerings to the Buddha. For exam scores. For a marriage. For a son. She thinks of the thousands of wishes floating through the air in Yangon, like dust motes unseen until light hits.

The day heats up; her hair sticks to her neck. Absent-mindedly she fans herself with the plastic folder she carries with the vouchers, the itinerary, documents. Soon the heat of the paya floor will be prohibitive, the tourists now hurry between awnings, walking on the sides of their feet in a strange lopsided tiptoe.

She walked in Samkar, as a young girl, on riverbed stones. Jumping from the long-tail boats onto the riverbank to attend the Mwabe Market on Tuesdays with her mother. They only ever bought fish or meat, shampoo, salt. The rest of what they needed, they grew at home.

She misses the cool water swirling around her ankles, the breeze cooling her face underneath the bright orange scarf of her Pa O tribe. Days at the market by the riverside were cool, passing swiftly before the long trek back to their home by the fields of Samkar dust.

The dust in Yangon is always sticky, clouds of it now swirling in the Taw Mye Township where she sits in a teashop waiting for the tourists to finish photographing the market. Also swirling are the yells of bus conductors as they announce their destinations. She tries to smile through the dust and the noise, touches her hair. Her hair has gotten so dry.

She has tried all the shampoos–the local brands when she was first starting out with her job, then later when she could afford it, the Thai imports from across the border.

Still her hair is dry, and she has finally given up from letting it hang loose down her back but has resorted to tying it with the rubber band to hold it in place. But at night when she combs away the tangles in the dim light of the room she shares with another girl, she longs for the softness and strength her hair used to have when she was younger in Samkar.

It’s the water, she thinks. The water in the city is harsh, rough like city life. Back home the water was silky. She remembers the late afternoon baths by the river. With her mother, in her longyi, the tubular cloth both men and women wear, she and her mother would take turns pouring water over each other’s hair. The day was cooling when they bathed, but the water was still warm.

The floor at Schwedagon Paya is already warm when she takes the tourists there. She points out the people pouring water over the nats. “They pour water to purify their minds and gain peace,” she explains. She is not sure they are listening; they are busy looking through their cameras. Sometimes, she thinks, the people in the city are like these tourists, only seeing the world through a narrow opening, oblivious to the stories of other lives around them. She has become like this somewhat. Sometimes she panics a little, wondering if she should have stayed home in Samkar and let the cycles of planting and rainfall, heat and harvest, rule her life. But for a girl who excelled at her studies and languages, she had a choice—go to the city and work for some kind of future. Not for her the cracked feet of her mother and sisters but the glitter of a life spent speaking English and washing her hair with imported shampoo from Thailand.

Although now her hair had gotten so dry.

She turns to her tourists as they cross the path to the Western side of Schwedagon Paya. “Excuse me,” she says to her tourists, “I would like to pour water on the statues.”

I travel so I can collect you

I travel so that I can collect you. Like a book of old stamps, the photos I have taken and the journal entries I’ve scribbled in the pages bearing coffee rings and beer stains flip through

A man stares out of a wooden temple near Nyaung Shwe, Myanmar. Photo by Aloha Lavina

my days of being a vulture–a traveler who collects days not mine.

I gawk at you and take your photo, and in the night when I am sweating underneath a fan too slow, under itchy blankets, under the hypnotic howling of street dogs and strange snorers, I thank God I am only here for a few weeks.

I will Tweet about you and blog your life which makes for great soundbites and compelling writing. It has been getting harder and harder to find thrills. People come to my blog and seek vicarious thrills because it has been getting harder and harder to find that shock, that moment when revelations intersect with vivid disgust or awe.

So here I am, ensconced in your life, for a moment. I will collect you, and what better thrill than living someone else’s life for a few weeks, knowing that soon, soon I can go home?

John’s Mirror

Woman and red umbrella, Mandalay Myanmar. (c) Aloha Lavina.

“She’s not that nice, but she is quite interesting,” says John, introducing me to a girl he knew who wanted to be a model. He is kidding. Of course. She has asked me if we can collaborate on her portfolio, and I right away say I didn’t have time; I am leaving for Myanmar in a few days. John catches the end of the conversation, and shaking my hand, turns to the girl and adds his joke.

The girl does not know what to do, so she smiles and asks for my business card. As I hand it over to her, I force a smile, but John’s introduction has left me thinking. I am already drifting away from the sangria and Coronas with lime, floating away from the cheese quesadilla which begins to cool and coagulate into an unappetizing mass on my plastic basket at La Monita. The traveler who’s been in Bangkok for 10 days sitting beside me on the picnic style table speaks, and I can see her mouth but cannot really hear all that she’s saying.

Myanmar sounds so silent when I retrieve it in my head. In 2007 I went with five other photographers, in the heat of the Southeast Asian summer. In those days, the names meant nothing to me. I followed everyone into the car every day, and when we piled out, I was already taking the lens cap off and framing someone else’s moments so I could take them home and call them my own. The names meant nothing—where we were, what the people were called, why they wore different headscarves. All they were to me were images.

I remember no names, no locations. When I recall Myanmar, I am struck by beauty and gestalt sensations of vivid light and rich pattern. I experienced the country as an unfolding design: elements of it appeared in small bits every day, until each lyrical surprise became a stunning, vague tapestry.

Leading Lines
In the weaver’s workshop on Inle Lake a woman wove a lungi, a man’s sarong that Burmese men wear, out of 2172 threads. In the low light, her hands repeated the same gesture over and over until before her spanned hours of red. At some point she added a smattering of yellow. As the burgundy wrap grew, the small and seemingly inconsequential yellow line led her eye to itself again and again, and once more, until she finished the fabric. I thought of how her life must be, this woman of Myanmar. Finite lines governed her life. Those lines led her from the early morning when she careful brushes tanaka on her cheeks, to the midday laundry at the riverbank, to the evening when she fetches water for the teapot and soups Burmese love to eat. Night fell. Every day, the shuttle moved from one end of the loom to the other without fail—until the fabric was finished at last, a precise and unfaltering sea of sameness with the one bright yellow thread trapped amidst the red.

Repetition with Variation
When we went to the market in Yangon, all the women had flowers in their hair. It was their New Year’s Day, and the women commemorated another year, another auspicious wish. One of them painted her lips and she cradled a basket of lemons as her eyes darted around in anticipation. Perhaps it would arrive that day, her future. No one knew what hid behind her slight smile, and it was the perhapses and the maybes that moved her hand quicker than usual at a glance from someone.

The flowers in her hair came loose and a strand of hair floated and tickled the air. It was an unexpected and wonderful disorder, and perhaps someone came closer to her, wanting to put the flowers back in place, and tuck away the stubborn strand of hair. Instead people stood around, and I watched her arrange the lemons in her basket. She looked at me, she looked away. I began to leave, hoping that she sold her lemons before they soured, and putting down the telephoto focus on the one woman, my vision widened to take in the hundreds of them in the market place. Each voice, each gesture, each life combined in a cacophony of anticipation. I realized I could not give any thing to every one. Humbled and helpless I stared at the flowers in their hair, glinting in the ripening light like so many small and bright wishes.

The men were fascinating, less conspicuous. They did not wear tanaka. They were gradations of white shirt and lungi. It was almost like they did not want to be noticed and strove for sameness. It was in their stories that I heard the levels of separation. In a society where everyone is encouraged to be a straight line, a slight syncopation attracts the mind’s eye.

The one man lived in the Mingun Home for the Aged. Everything, down to the cheapest plastic toothbrush, depended upon the generosity of donors. Yet he dressed meticulously every day. He cleaned his face and feet. He buttoned his faded green tunic so the collar was neat. His lungi was precisely tied. Every day he walked around the compound, hands folded behind his back, or sat on a chair in the courtyard and prayed with a string of beads. Like the prayer beads, his life revolved around uniformity and predictability, although a visitor only needed to look at the half-empty donation box to realize that his life was entirely variable.

It took only an instant to erase my pity. I emptied an envelope of kyats into the donation box and wished I had more to give. When again my eyes glanced at him, he gave me a slight respectful nod, and I watched him walk and pray, the picture of dignity in a faded green tunic.

There was also the man at the Inle Lake temple with the sack of discarded food. His children surrounded him, clutching old bread in their tiny, dusty fingers. I was the one who looked away from his gaze. A man should never have to beg in front of his children. In this too, there was a dignity I needed to learn.

I discovered studies in contrast. The design demanded an understanding that there was no running water in the floating villages on Inle Lake, but that every other house had a satellite dish. Transportation on the lake was the sampan, a flat one-piece boat made of hard wood. This nimble taxi is traditionally carved by hand and burn-polished to a black finish. Some of the sampans I saw sported smart new Johnson’s outboard motors.

There was the soldier and the monk.

On the way back from Heho to Yangon, two soldiers and one monk boarded our flight during the stop in Mandalay. Twenty minutes in the air, we encountered severe turbulence; the air hostess who was standing as the air pocket hit flew one foot above the floor and banged her head on the aircraft ceiling; people screamed. As the plane rattled in the electrical storm, the soldiers held on to their hand phones. The monk reached for his prayer fan and prayed.

Like a slowly spinning prayer wheel, the patterns from Myanmar churn as I think of returning. And when John puts up a mirror in front of me with his comment, I see myself for the traveler that I was. Did I really go just to collect photos, to collect experiences? Did I lie at night in Yangon sweating under an itchy blanket, and irritated, wished for home? What do I know except how to say mingalaba, hello in Burmese?

I did not even know how to say thank you.