Myanmar in photos: A backcountry expedition

Myanmar in photos: A backcountry expedition

Though the once isolated state is now opening up, Myanmar remains a traveling photographer's dream destination

Myanmar might well be on the way to becoming Southeast Asia's hottest tourist destination -- today Barack Obama will become the first U.S. president to visit the once isolated nation.

But a century on and Rudyard Kipling’s sentiments -- about "sunshine, palm trees and tinkly temple bells" -- still hold true.

Known as Burma to the famed scribe, today it remains a sensory feast of chaotic city streets, centuries-old temples and remote hillside villages.

There is little foreign influence in Myanmar. There are few cars or paved roads. Not a McDonald's, Starbucks or KFC in sight.  

And that bodes well for the traveling photographer.

Beyond the busy cities lies a country of picturesque landscapes and a people of epic friendliness -- something I discovered during a two-week journey from Mandalay to Yangon. 

More on CNN: Obama Asia visit includes landmark visit to Myanmar

U Bein teak bridge, outside Mandalay. Sunsets here are incredible.

At U Bein, hire a boat to get the best photographs. The drivers know the good spots, like this one.

From Mandalay, I took a boat down the Irrawaddy River, Myanmar’s lifeblood, to the temples of Bagan. Our boat left at 5:30 a.m. so we were able to catch the spectacular sunrise just as fishermen started their day.

Burmese monarchs built more than 4,000 temples in Bagan from the 11th to 13th centuries. Today, thousands of temples remain, covering 50 square kilometers of dusty plain. At some of the more famous temples, visitors are hassled to buy paintings and trinkets, but escape is easy.

Golden Shwezigon Paya at Bagan.

I stumbled upon this strange scene at the base of Mount Popa, near Bagan. A local said the director of a Buddhist school was distributing donations by throwing bills from a balcony -- probably not the best way to spread the wealth. Each bill is worth about US$1, and there were hundreds of them. That’s a big deal in a country where per capita income is about US$1,200. Grown men literally tackled children to get their hands on a single note.

Kalaw, a former British hill station, is a village in Shan State. It's known primarily as a trekking base.


Over the course of three days, my group, led by veteran guide Robin Singh of Golden Lily Guest House, hiked nearly 60 kilometers from Kalaw to Inle Lake, through hillside villages on trails colored red from iron oxide.

We ate lunch at the house of an 84-year-old medicine man. According to Singh, the medicine man “once killed three tigers with a musket. And ate them. He says it tastes very strong. Stinky.”

Village children checking out their photos on a hiker’s camera.

A child hides her face from the sun. The yellow paint is thanaka, made from the juice of ground bark and used as both makeup and sunscreen.

On the trail to Inle Lake.

Inle Lake is the epicenter of life in central Myanmar. Around the lake’s weedy banks, houses are built on chopstick-like stilts and longboats are the only means of transport.

Tea shops, including this one in downtown Yangon, are hubs of social activity.

This article was originally published in October, 2010. Updated  November 19, 2012.


Mitch Moxley is a journalist based in Beijing. He's written for publications including Time, The Globe and Mail, Foreign Policy and The Guardian from China, Mongolia, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.

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