Myanmar: I say Ayeyarwady, you say Irrawaddy
Last month I spent ten glorious days in Myanmar which we remember from our youth as Burma. I'll pause the narrative there. I know you might wonder why I would want to go to Myanmar in view of the recent Rohingya atrocities. Allow me to explain. I went to Myanmar in 2012 and loved the country and the people.
My boycotting it now would not impact on the politicians or the military, but it would have an effect on people who are dependant on tourism and who are unaware of what is going on in the northwest of the country. The expedition I went on was the first tourist boat trip into the Irrawaddy Delta. I booked it a year ago when it was announced, I paid a substantial deposit and I really wanted to go. Note the Irrawaddy River is the main river in Myanmar and is also known as the Ayeyarwady
Myanmar has had a very turbulent history since gaining independence from Britain in 1948. There has been rampant ethnic strife and long running civil wars for the past 70 years. Only since 2010 when the US, the EU and Australia and Canada lifted sanctions has the economy started to improve and even then much of the improvement is down to Chinese infrastructure investment-the new imperialism.
It is a resource rich country with massive oil, gas, gem, jade and timber reserves but military control and corruption have held back development and prevented the sort of growth that the natural resources should permit.
And what of Aung San Suu Ki, “The Lady”, whose National League for Democracy party overwhelmingly won the general election in 1999? The military refused to hand over power and the Lady remained under house arrest until 2010 when she came to a sort of modus vivendi with the authorities, however unsatisfactory. She is now the State Counsellor, with no real authority, and many people inevitably feel somewhat let down. At 76, though, she is probably being realistic and understands that change is not going to come rapidly.
I flew into Yangon Airport from Hong Kong the afternoon before our morning sailing from Yangon port. Back on my previous trip in 2012 Yangon Airport International terminal was a small, tired and very inadequate building. Now it is a modern airport. After that the surprises kept coming. The journey into the city on the late Friday afternoon took 90 mins. It should normally take 20 mins out of the rush hour. Yangon traffic is now on par with Jakarta and Bangkok and far worse than Sydney. In 2012 the traffic was very light. Now there are over half a million vehicles in Yangon. The skyline is crowded with cranes. Chinese and, to a lesser extent, Japanese money is fuelling a construction boom. The economy is growing rapidly but it is off a very low base. Even in the smallest and poorest villages we visited there were mobile phones and the networks are all 4G. Samsung and Chinese mobile phone brands dominate the market. No signs of Apple — way too expensive for Myanmar.
This trip was on a small ship, the RV Katha Pandaw, operated by a British Company, Pandaw — also known as the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. It was very much an expedition as the huge Irrawaddy Delta is not an area usually seen by tourists and this was the first trip by Pandaw into the Delta.
There were just 19 passengers on the ship — seven Australians, two Norwegians and ten British — and they were an interesting and very well-travelled senior group.
The Delta consists of nine main channels and a capillary system of smaller creeks and waterways. It is heavily populated by 3.5m people. This waterlogged maze has played a critical role in Myanmar's history. In the heyday of the Raj in India the Delta produced much of the rice for the British Empire and it is still a major rice producing region. It was rice harvest time during the trip and bags of rice were on the move everywhere on heavily overloaded boats.
As well as harvest time it was one of the hottest periods of the year ahead of the monsoon and even the locals were complaining about the heat. As we walked through very quiet towns in the heat of the day I was frequently reminded of the old saying about mad dogs and Englishmen going out in the midday sun.
With so many friendly and curious people and markets, it was a people photographer's dream location. In fact I took no photos of tourist sights because, well, there were no tourist sights because there were no tourists — apart from us. I took only one camera with me, my Leica Q and as is my practice I took very few photos but I am very pleased with those few which you can see here.
Again, as usual, I always tried to gain approval from my subjects before photographing them and employed my never fail photographic device — a broad and genuine smile. If I had to get down to be eye level with my subjects — and the Burmese are champion squatters — I got down on one knee. Wearing shorts helps with this process but being 71 years old does not. I invariably came back from a shore excursion with a dirty right knee. I suffer for my art.
- You can find more from John Shingleton at The Rolling Road and on on Instagram at therollingroad.