Magical mysterious Myanmar (with the Nikon 70-200mm)

Myanmar is one of these last ‘hidden gems’: countries that have kept their own identity in terms of culture, religions and beliefs throughout the years, compared to what we call ‘modern society’ – at least to a certain extent. Travelling to these countries is like stepping back in time when you’re immersing yourself in something quite different from the world we know and live in. There’s a sense of mystery surrounding the buddhist monasteries in Mandalay and the plains of Bagan with hundreds of stupas and temples. Yet tourism is picking up dramatically and it will surely change the country; not necessarily always for the better.

Some of the images below are well-known to visitors whereas some may not. During my travels I always asked my guide to take us to places not frequently visited by tourists, like monasteries where monks are taking lectures. Here I could at least try to capture some of the magic, or energy as some may call it that seem to surround everyone and everything, without being haunted by countless of picture-hungry tourists who like to ‘snap and go’ as much and as fast as they can.

Let’s start in Mandalay and its iconic U-bein bridge, one of Mandalay’s most visited places.

Mandalay U-bein bridge sunrise
Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G
 @ 70mm on Nikon D4, f/8, 1/640 s., ISO 100, -1.0 exp. comp.

On my first trip I managed to capture the image of the buddhist nuns below. I do wonder if this is at all possible again these days with the huge increase in tourism: the bridge is now continuously full with tourists taking snapshots all the time…

Nuns on U-bein bridge at sunset
Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G
 @ 200mm on Nikon D3S, f/4, 1/640 s., ISO 500, -1.0 exp. comp.

Near the U-bein bridge are monasteries that are visited frequently by tourists. In fact, there is one where busloads of tourists come and go to see the monks standing in line for their lunch. I got the impression there were more tourists than monks in this place. However the monks seem to have become quite used to the scene, although it does look like a bit of a circus. Best to be avoided if you’re not so keen on someone standing right in front of you who came from some region on this planet where ‘etiquette’ has no meaning at all…

Monk in queue for lunch at Mandalay monastery
Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G
 @ 200mm on Nikon D4S, f/2.8, 1/1250 s., ISO 100, spot metered.

When my guide took me to the monastery below, I was quite amazed to hear there were over 1500 monks studying there. And when I heard that their religious teachings covered something more than five times the size compared to the Bible texts, I was even more amazed. And when I heard the students have to learn all of this by heart, I didn’t know what to think anymore. So I just went walking across the room, looking for shots while every now and then a monk would look up as if to say ‘what are you doing here?!’ Amazing experience.

Mandalay monastery teachings
Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G
 @ 200mm on Nikon D4, f/2.8, 1/100 s., ISO 1100, -2.3 exp. comp.


Mandalay monastery monk studying
Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G
 @ 200mm on Nikon D4, f/2.8, 1/100 s., ISO 800, -2.3 exp. comp.

Bagan is a magical place; something that just has to be experienced in reality. Tourists do gather in the thousands (if not more) to view the sunrise and sunset where the many stupas and temples are faintly lit up by the sun. Actually, the 70-200mm lens is perfect in these situations. I saw many photographers playing around with their wide angle zoom lenses believing (incorrectly) ‘the more the better’. In fact, the shot below was taking at the end of a morning sunrise when I wasn’t even able to get a good position as so many tourists were standing in front of me. Slightly frustrated, I picked up my 70-200mm and took this shot hoping for a bit of luck.

Bagan sunrise (from temple that is now closed)
Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G
 @ 140mm on Nikon D3S, f/4, 1/800 s., ISO 200

For a bit of extra cash you can skip the tourists and catch a balloon; certainly one of the more interesting alternatives to see the Bagan temples at sunrise or sunset. Your success off course depends heavily of the weather at the time of shooting, but with a bit of luck you can capture the magic from the air.

Bagan sunrise (from balloon)
Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G
 @ 200mm on Nikon D3S, f/2.8, 1/125 s., ISO 220

I remember the first time I was complaining to my guide that I hadn’t seen any monks yet during my trip. So when we arrived in Bagan he told me ‘you are very lucky, tomorrow you will see the monks’. Turns out he was referring to a once in a year-only event, the ‘Ananda pagoda festival’ where thousands of monks gather to receive gifts from Myanmar people gathering from all over the country, a unique religious event. I just couldn’t believe my luck.

Ananda pagoda festival monks
Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G
 @ 145mm on Nikon D4S, f/4, 1/125 s., ISO 2500, -0.3 exp. comp.


Ananda pagoda festival monks
Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G
 @ 145mm on Nikon D3S, f/4.5, 1/400 s., ISO 200

Another well-known place to visit in Myanmar is Inle lake. You can easily find lots of images on the Internet with fishermen posing for photographers while fishing. I again chose to go ‘off the beaten track’ and let my guide take me to the monasteries nearby. It was again a completely different and magical experience.

Nyaung Schwe monastery monks attending evening prayer
Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G
 @ 70mm on Nikon D4, f/2.8, 1/40 s., ISO 1600, -2.0 exp. comp.

Shooting with a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens is not always easy inside monasteries as there is very little light to work with. Best is to switch to a prime lens like the 85mm f/1.8 to bring those ISOs down. The 85mm also has a pretty smooth bokeh especially at f/1.8:

Nyaung Schwe monastery monks attending evening prayer
Nikon 85mm f/1.8G
 on Nikon D4, f/1.8, 1/80 s., ISO 1250, -2.0 exp. comp.


Nyaung Schwe monastery head monk
Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G
 @ 140mm on Nikon D4, f/4, 1/200 s., ISO 1400, -1.7 exp. comp.

Talking about magic: this last image was taken during once of those moments you simply cannot plan for, or even expect to happen. You just have to be lucky, or perhaps luck is not the right word. My guide and I were sitting in a room where we witnessed a small group of young monks taking lectures. Nothing much was happening, I was looking through my viewfinder to see if there was an interesting shot I could take. Then, I noticed the setting sun was shining exactly though a small window, directly onto one of the monks. And only unto that single monk. I recall thinking: ‘my autofocus must really like this because of the light and contrast’, but I also became aware of the scene: the young monk was really focused on the lecture, unlike most of the other monks, and continued to do so while the sun rays were shining on his face. He seemed not to be bothered by it; in fact he seemed to be completely focused on the lecture taking place in front of him.

It was a very strange moment that is difficult to describe. Looking back I felt there was something special that happened at that moment, and I can still see or feel that ‘something special’ in the shot that I took. Perhaps the young monk experienced something similar. An enlightened moment…

Nyaung Schwe monastery monks attending lecture
Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G
 @ 175mm on Nikon D4, f/4, 1/250 s., ISO 1100, -1.0 exp. comp.

Myanmar is a magical place. If you have the chance to visit you should take the opportunity, while it is still unique and not ‘assembled’ into ‘modernisation’ and ‘globalization’.

Please note that these images are protected by copyright and are not allowed to be used in any commercial way. If you’re interested in personal use only (like using as personal desktop/tablet/mobile background) then that’s fine; however any other use is prohibited by law.

And as usual, for any questions, comments or feedback, simple add comments below (preferred) or otherwise drop me a note at:

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