Category Archives: Burma

Yangon Revisited

As I sit in a public library, regrouping from 8 months of traveling and shooting full time, I found these images from Yangon, Myanmar, hiding in the depths of my backup hard drive. When I wasn’t bedridden in a YMCA with dengue fever, Yangon was an interesting place to be. Much more Indian in character than southeast Asian (in my opinion anyways), Yangon was surprisingly different than I had been expecting.

I thought I’d share these images before I get back to posting my Tibetan refugee story lest they get lost forever in the digital mess that is my archives.

A young girl walks past a ferry terminal along the Yangon (Hlaing) River.

A young girl walks past a ferry terminal along the Yangon (Hlaing) River.

A woman walks down a sidestreet in central Yangon.

A woman walks down a sidestreet in central Yangon.

Powerlines in Yangon are often lined with crows; for some reason the city has an unusually high number of the birds.

Powerlines in Yangon are often lined with crows; for some reason the city has an unusually high number of the birds.

Two women are reflected in a puddle as they walk near the river in central Yangon.

Two women are reflected in a puddle as they walk near the river in central Yangon.

A man repairs tires in a small workshop in South Dagon, an outer suburb of Yangon.

A man repairs tires in a small workshop in South Dagon, an outer suburb of Yangon.

A man rides his bicycle through central Yangon. Motorcycles are not allowed in the city because of a failed drive-by assassination attempt on a political figures life -resulting in a permanent ban on the vehicles.

A man rides his bicycle through central Yangon. Motorcycles are not allowed in the city because of a failed drive-by assassination attempt on the life of a political figure -resulting in a permanent ban on the vehicles.

Residents of the Dawbon slum play pickup soccer on a rainy day.

Residents of the Dawbon slum play pickup soccer on a rainy day.

A public bus in central Yangon. the busses are almost always completely full.

A public bus in central Yangon.

A young girl has an impromptu shower during a rainstorm in the Dawbon slum

A young girl has an impromptu shower during a rainstorm in the Dawbon slum

A group of young men drive an old tractor through Dawbon, a slum along the bank of the Yangon (Hlaing) River.

A group of young men drive an old tractor through Dawbon, a slum along the bank of the Yangon (Hlaing) River.

A teenager stands in the doorway of a metal working shop in South Dagon, an outlying suburb of Yangon.

A teenager stands in the doorway of a metal working shop in South Dagon, an outlying suburb of Yangon.

 

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Myanmar/Burma: Rural Life in a Time of Change

A woman referred to as “Buffalo Master” sweeps the livestock shed. With no running water or modern equipment the floor of the barn must be swept by hand a minimum of four times per day.

The first thing you notice when you enter the farm, apart from a dozen or so water buffalo, is the bed ridden 91-year-old man. Salik is the patriarch of the family farm and is so crippled by age that he is confined to a small wooden cot inside the buffalo shed. His eyes drift in and out of focus and he is prone to fits of moaning which the rest of the family seems well practiced at ignoring.

Located in the outer Yangon suburb of South Dagon, stepping onto the farm is like moving back in time. There is no electricity and no machinery apart from an ancient crank-powered grass mill. There is no running water, and no vehicles of any kind.

Salik Ram Yadar, 91, is the family’s patriarch. Originally from India the family settled in Myanmar in the 1920’s in a search for land unavailable to them in India. Essentially crippled from a lifetime of labour, Salik seldom moves from his bed which is located in the Buffalo shed.

The Family (due to a complex family web there are an impractical number of surnames, so I refer to them simply as The Family) is made up of 13 Burmese-Indians whose forbearers left India for Myanmar in the 1920’s seeking farmable land not available to them in their native country. They eek out a living by raising and milking a small herd of cows and water buffalo and selling the dairy products in central Yangon. I met them by random chance while walking through Yangon’s outer suburbs and spent nearly two weeks documenting their lives. While I initially expected to find a quaint story of pastoral atavism, I discovered something much more complicated – a family, both economically and geographically, living on the outskirts of change.

A local child minds the grazing buffalo herd from atop one of the animals. Cobras are common in the tall grass and without boots the children often ride the buffalos to avoid snake deadly bites.

Myanmar (or the more loaded former name of Burma) is best known for an oppressive government that kept its country isolated from the rest of the world for decades. But as Aung Sun Suu Kyi and her democratic movement have gained power and popularity, Myanmar is slowly opening its borders. Hundreds of tourists arrive at Yangon International airport each day and bring with them money and foreign culture. Mega corporations like Panasonic and LG have expanded into the country, making telecommunications and technology increasingly available. Expats are settling in the cities as English teachers, tour guides and entrepreneurs. There is even a Facebook store.

For The Family these changes will lead to profound changes to the life they have been living for nearly 100 years – though they aren’t able to see it coming.

Raja, 31, helps sweep the buffalo shed. Raja has a severe mental disability which prevents him from doing anything other than simple manual labour.

When the military dictator General Ne Win seized power in 1962 he promptly banned unions of any kind. A logical step to keep the people from organizing against him, the regulations against unions weren’t lifted until 2011. This means that though huge numbers of Burmese are engaged in agriculture, they do so on a micro-level. In all of Yangon there are only six farms with more than 300 cattle. The vast majority, like The Family’s, have an average of 20 animals. Though the concept of organic small-scale farming appeals to a Western sense of boutique dining, for a Burmese family trying to survive in an increasingly globalized country, the lack of efficiency of such small farms will likely lead to hard times. Even though Myanmar is not a dairy consuming nation (the average citizen consumes just 25kg of dairy compared to the average of 200kg annually for a European), the country imports nearly $50 million worth of milk each year.

Fresh cut grass is ground by hand before it is fed to the livestock. With no electricity on the farm the work is often done by candlelight.

As the US and China compete for influence in the newly opened Myanmar, massive international corporations will almost certainly begin to exploit the disorganization of the Burmese farmers. With their inferior transportation networks, lack of refrigeration and processing equipment, and high operating costs, small local farmers will be hard pressed to stay competitive.

I have many more images from this family farm, but friend/photographer Thomas Cristofoletti recently pointed out that the story isn’t finished. I need to go back and see how the family fares in the coming years of change, so I’m just posting a selection of photos from an ongoing work.

Aung Stoong, 53, binds the grass into 180k.g. bales. All the animal fodder is cut by hand and Aung Stoong harvests up to 800 k.g. of grass by hand each day.

Aung Stoong scoops protein powder that he will add to the livestock’s diet. These products improve the quality of the milk, but the added expense means the farm is operating at a deficit.

 

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Cakkabyuha: Mental Mastery of Pain

A young trainee bends an iron sword with her neck. The swords are extremely thick and sharp enough to cut fruit with, yet it does not pierce her skin.

In a small building, down a non-descript side street of the 8th Quarter, is the Cakkabyuha martial art headquarters of Yangon. An ancient Burmese martial art, Cakkabyuha involves focused meditation that leads to mental mastery over pain.

To call the training center a headquarters is perhaps misleading. It is nothing more than a large tin-roofed shack built on wooden stilts. It is not exactly impoverished, but neither is it glamorous. There is little financial support for the training; they have no dieticians, no protein supplements and no modern equipment. Yet they are attending international martial arts competitions and steadily gaining recognition.

The trainees, around 12 during my visit, sleep together in this small space and dedicate their waking life to practice.

The master of the Cakkabyuha team sits in front of their Buddhist shrine. Two of his children are members of the team.

Team members meditate before practice.

Team members meditate before practice. Buddhist meditation is an important part of preparing mentally for the extreme physical stresses of Cakkabyuha.

Team members count prayer beads as part of their daily meditation. Counting each individual bead many times over helps them to focus their minds and allows them to enter a trance-like state.

A team member ends his meditation and prepares for practice.

A mural depicting three Buddhist monks who were closely associated with Cakkabyuha thousands of years ago. Buddhism and the martial art are strongly connected as it originated as a method of self defense for ancient monks.

A team member does bench presses while lying on a bed of spears.

Wounds mark the back of a team member after lying on a bed of spears. The weapons the team trains with are strong and sharp, often wounding the team members despite their mental control.

Apples are chopped in half while sitting on a team member’s throat.

Team members place a spear between their throats and have bricks smashed on their heads with a sledgehammer.

Two used and bent swords sit on a pile of fresh ones. Since the team is extremely poor, the use of each sword is a major expense.

Team members train every day, conditioning their bodies with hundreds of pushups per day.

A young team member practices lifting a spear weighted with 15kg using only his tongue.

One of the most experienced team members bends an iron sword into his eye socket.

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Knock Knock – Dengue Chic in Burma

“Knock knock,” says my door in two gentle syllables. I roll over in my bed, the sheets so soaked with sweat there is an audible squelching sound.

“Knock knock KNOCK,” the door repeats more urgently. I know from the soft light filtering through the flowered curtains that it is morning time, and therefore on the other side of the door there will be an elderly woman holding a tray with a soggy fried egg, a banana, and a cup of instant coffee. It is breakfast time at the YMCA Yangon and from the screaming pain in every joint and muscle in my body I can tell that the dengue fever has not yet passed.

Knock knock knock. Pause. Knock knock knock knock knock. I know from experience that this will not stop. I have been to the front desk three times to request that I be taken off the breakfast list, and each time they nod earnestly and tell me it will be done. I have said the same thing directly to the women who bring the food as well, and they give me the same nod. I have been staying in the same room for a total of two weeks now and have refused the breakfast every morning but one (the first), and yet they persist.

Knock knock knock knock knock knock knock knock knock knock knock. My head is throbbing and I slept for perhaps two hours the night before, so intense was the pain from the dengue. I attempt to say “no” as loudly as possible, but all that comes out is a pathetic guttural moan. The knocking continues with renewed vigor, the little old woman in the hallway emboldened by the sounds of life from within.

I drag myself out of the bed with herculean effort. Since I the fevered sweating began I have been sleeping naked in an effort to conserve the three pairs of underwear I currently own, so I drunkenly grope in the semi-darkness for something to cover myself. I find a towel and tie it around my waist, and then swing the door open. I know for a fact that I looked utterly insane at this moment because I looked at my reflection soon after. My hair, uncut for three months, is matted to my head in damp curls and my eyes are bloodshot from lack of sleep. It has also been three or four days since I’ve had enough energy to shower, so I almost certainly smell horrendous.

To her credit the woman doesn’t flinch in the slightest. She simply extends the try towards me, sad looking egg forward, and says “breakfast!”

I am furious, livid, raging. I want to scream obscenities at her at the top of my lungs and ask her what makes continue knocking after the first twenty-five go unanswered. I want to smash the tray out of her hands and slam the door in her face. But instead I say “No thank you.” Despite the fact that I have had the same interaction with this woman for approximately thirteen consecutive mornings, she looks confused. Unsure of what to do she extends the tray towards me again, hopefully.

“No thank you. Very sick. No breakfast tomorrow. No breakfast next day. Breakfast never, OK?” The fever makes it difficult to take anything more than a very shallow breath, so I have to speak in measured tones to avoid using too much air.

“OK, bye-bye!” she answers brightly and moves on to the next room, occupied by a French girl who hates the breakfast service as much as I do. This encounter will be repeated tomorrow, I have no doubt.

I close the door and take stock of my room. I have refused the cleaning staff entry since the dengue set in and things are beginning to deteriorate. The bed sheets are twisted from my fever induced squirming and the pillowcases have circular yellow stains from where my sweat has seeped into the cotton fibers. A vomit crusted waste bin sits beside my bed. Empty water bottles litter the floor, and several of them are filled with a yellowish liquid.

I started peeing into the water bottles on the second day of being ill when I lost the strength to walk down the hall to the bathroom. I stack them in rows against the wall and wait until it rains, at which point I dump them out the window onto a tin roof, and watch the rancid liquid run into the gutters.

There are empty wrappers from all sorts of strange Asian junk food items. It’s a shame, since there is so much good food to be had on the streets here, but I don’t have the energy to walk more than a hundred meters. The effort of climbing the three flights of stairs to my room leaves me gasping, and my head spinning. I am subsisting almost entirely on the kinds of foods I refuse to eat normally; I spent the whole of yesterday slowly picking at a foot-long cake, dubiously named The Strawberry Cream. It’s strange to me that I can be so sick and yet still be hungry. If someone had put a McDonald’s cheeseburger beside my bed in the night I would have eaten it for breakfast.

I have been living like this for six days now. It began very suddenly while I was out making pictures of a traditional Burmese martial art, my temperature soaring wildly over the course of an hour. I barely made it out of the taxi on the way back without throwing up. That night was a hellish combination of sweat, nausea and retching, and the second night was no better. The third morning was promising; I felt fine, if still below average, and went out for tea and lunch to celebrate my victory over what I assumed was a stomach bug. But later in the afternoon the true evil of dengue began – the physical pain. It’s as if all of my bones were trying to twist themselves apart and no bodily position, sitting or lying, offers any relief. Each breath feels like my lungs are expanding into fractured ribs. This lasted most of that day and through the night. When I woke up the next morning, I again felt fairly good, though a headache persisted. And then, by the evening, the pain returned. Up and down, peaks and hellish troughs.

This is the glamorous state of life at the moment. According to the doctors I have spoken to, both in Yangon and abroad, I could be out of commission anywhere from a week to three. This means that the trip to Burma is essentially a write off photographically as my visa expires in a week. Perhaps I will miraculously recover and get a few more days of shooting before then, but it seems unlikely I will produce anything of substance. This is extremely disappointing, obviously, but maybe an important lesson about the nature of this work. Definitely this is an exercise in patience and humility.

Note: I wrote this for three reasons, the first being that I spend so much time exposing other people’s private lives that I thought it was important to be honest about myself and my situation. Secondly, to show just how decidedly unglamorous and unromantic this experience is. The idea of some globetrotting loner, with everyday filled with adventure and exotic experiences, is so very far from reality. And thirdly, and most importantly: I have been lying in bed for more than six days now and am desperately bored.

Stay healthy!

Luc

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Burmese Questions

A boy in a small repair shop where he replaces the suspension on taxis. Motorcycles are banned in Yangon after someone tried to assassinate a government official in a drive by shooting.

“Hello, where are you from, do you like Burma?” the man asked in one continuous breath. He looked to be about forty, with dark hair and wild eyes. His accent was European, possibly Italian, or maybe Greek.He had come out of nowhere, emerging from the crowd of pedestrians near the Sula pagoda in central Yangon. I was sitting on a concrete ledge, absently eating my way through a bag of samosas (that would later make me incredibly sick), so I was a little surprised when I heard the heavily accented English.

“Uh, yeah. It’s nice,” I replied.

“Nice? Nice?” The man spoke the words incredulously and was instantly aggressive. “What is nice about this place? It is maybe 70% of India. It is too expensive, I can get a room in Laos for $3 a night, but here I must pay $10? They are not ready for the tourists, not ready at all.”

In a normal conversation this would have been the time where I would have spoken, but the man seemed uninterested in any opinion I might have. He didn’t even seem to be aware of my presence; it was as if he was just raging at the world in general, not even looking at me as he continued to rant.

“Did you go to Thailand? This is much better place. The people here have shitty lives, they are not happy. Everything is too expensive and all my money is going to the government.”

At this point I tried to interject that I was staying at a YMCA and that my $8 per night was not going to the government, but towards providing low cost housing for the needy. But he just yelled over me, becoming irate.

I have been to 47 countries!” he screamed. “Maybe for you, coming from some stupid place in America it is nice, but for me this is nothing. It is the fault of you and your friends, writing on the Internet that Burma is a nice place to visit, that it is beautiful. Where is the beauty? I see no beauty, I see only sad people with the shit life.”

I thought about telling him that I was not American, but decided to say nothing. Instead I listened to him for ten more minutes before finally losing my temper with him and saying a few unrepeatable things. He looked shocked, since this was basically the first time I had spoken, and then just walked away.

It was one of those incidents which I rehashed over and over in my head for the next hour, thinking of all the things I should have said, cursing myself for not thinking faster on my feet and wishing I could repeat the event again just for the pleasure of saying cleverly spiteful things. But he was gone, and I was alone again.

Before this point I hadn’t really thought about Burma at all. I had taken a two week break from shooting to travel with some friends of mine, and somewhere during all the bus rides and hostels and temples, I forgot to formulate an opinion.

A girl carries her younger brother along the train tracks in North Dagon township. The tracks do a full circle around Yangon and provide an inexpensive means of commuting, though the circuit takes more than three hours.

Is Burma nice? I suppose it depends on how you think about it. There are certainly nice places, like Bagan, with its thousands of Buddhist temples, or Mandalay hill with its sweeping panoramic views. Though Yangon is predictably dirty, the streets covered with red spit from beetle nut chewers and the sidewalks impossibly uneven, the outskirts of the city are green and peaceful. Since large portions of the country are off limits to foreigners, it is difficult to get clear picture. Certainly the places the government has approved as tourist zones are nice, but that is by design and might not reflect reality.

Is it too expensive? Maybe. It is definitely more expensive than other destinations in the region, though at about $8-10 a night, I’m not sure if people have a right to complain. Just because it’s Asia doesn’t mean things must be free. That being said, there is a definite lack of tourist infrastructure, so the guest houses and hotels can pretty much charge whatever they want in the busy season, knowing that someone will take it.

The main issue I have with money, and something that my strange lecturer may have been right about, is the moral issue of giving your money to a repressive military government. Times are changing in the country, and most people, when asked, will tell you that conditions are improving and that they are happy with the changes in government, but it is impossible to know what is really happening behind the scenes here, so I won’t speculate. What I do know is that you can make a conscious effort to give as little of your money to the government as possible -staying in places like the YMCA, or hiring a local driver rather than taking the state trains – but in the end, regardless of whatever speeches travelers make about being morally against the regime, they will typically just choose whatever is cheapest.

Are the people unhappy? They smile a lot and sing as they walk down the streets. I’ve never seen so much singing in public in any country. Kids run around and laugh and play soccer and ask tourists cheekily for money. They don’t seem downtrodden – but that is not in any way the same as having an easy life.

The average yearly income is estimated at around $430 USD a year, with a significant margin of the population living below the poverty line. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International (as well as many other groups in the region) have less than glowing reports on the country’s treatment of its citizens. Rohingya refugees flee across Burma’s Northern border into Bangladesh where they live in conditions of squalor. Five years ago thousands of monks were shot by government troops while peacefully protesting. Without a doubt there are some seriously bad things happening in this country, but since neither myself nor my European friend have any first hand knowledge about the situation, I’m not sure either of us are fit to comment on the happiness of the nation as a whole. Ethically I don’t think it is right for me to make assertions about things I have never seen.

What I have seen with my own eyes is that life is tough in this once closed country, but the people, like many I have met in impoverished nations, are survivors in the best sense of the word.

A farm hand moves hay bails in a rural suburb on the outskirts of Yangon.

It is a personal choice whether or not to visit Burma. Is it beautiful? Sometimes. Is it cheap? Not overly. Are the people happy? You’ll have to decide for yourself. I think many of them are. Is it fascinating? Absolutely.

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I have two photo projects in the works, one about the contrast between urban and rural life in the former capital, Yangon, and one about Cakkabyuha, a traditional martial art involving incredible feats of strength and mental mastery over pain. Stay tuned.

Luc.

 

 

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