Myanmar is one of the most devout Buddhist countries in the world. Nearly 90% of the population is Buddhist, and Buddhism is completely interwoven into Burmese life and culture. There are about half a million monks and 75,000 nuns in Myanmar (or Burma, as some still call it), so as you travel around you are guaranteed to see Buddhist monks and nuns going about their day. And if you’re anything like me, you’re going to want to take photos of them.
To the Western eye, Buddhist monks are incredibly photogenic. With their shaven heads, flowing red robes, and calm demeanour, they have this amazing ability to step into a location, no matter how dull or ugly, and transform it into an eye-catching scene.
So if you want to photograph them, all you have to do is keep your camera handy, and wait for one to appear in front of you. But if you want to take the best photos of Buddhist monks in Myanmar, it’s better to plan and do your research. Where are the best locations to see them? How should you approach them? How can you be sensitive and respectful but still get good photos? What camera gear should you take to get the prettiest shots? Well stick around, because in this post I’ll answer all these questions and more.
Who are the Buddhist monks of Myanmar?
Monks are the most devout of all the Burmese Buddhists – they are the ones who have decided to renounce all worldly possessions and devote their lives to following the word of the Buddha. They shave their heads as symbol of the simple life they have chosen to live, and their traditional red robes hark back to a time when they used natural dyes like red mud or orange saffron to colour their cloth. They live in monasteries, and spend their days praying, reading, meditating, and doing monastic duties.
Unlike monks from some religions, Myanmar Buddhist monks don’t live in closed communities. They are free to leave the monasteries and walk around – in fact it’s a requirement. The monasteries rely on donations of food and money from members of the public in order to support themselves – and the public give generously because they believe that by donating to the Buddhist monks they will earn ‘merit’, which will give them a better rebirth when they are reincarnated.
Every morning, the monks leave the monastery to collect donations and food from the local community. This is your best chance of seeing them out and about, in twos and threes, as they visit house-to-house carrying the traditional black-lacquered alms bowl in which they put their gifts.
Is it OK to take photos of Buddhist monks in Myanmar?
From a religious and safety point of view, yes, it’s fine. You won’t offend their beliefs or get into trouble if you take a picture. However, they’re people just like anyone else, and may have personal objections. What’s more, as tourism opens up in Myanmar, pressure on the monks is growing. They can barely step outside without being papped by a passing tourist, and you may worry that taking photos of them is intrusive and disrespectful.
You’re right to be cautious. And as always with photographing anyone on your travels, you should approach with sensitivity. Where possible, ask if you can take a photo – a simple gesture towards your camera is usually enough, though many of them speak English. And if they say no, be polite and move on. Of course, if they are praying or meditating, asking might not be possible – in which case keep your distance and don’t disturb them.
However, especially in the less touristy areas of Myanmar, you will find most Buddhist monks won’t say no. Burmese people are some of the friendliest and most welcoming I’ve ever met, and I found the Buddhist monks to be universally charming and lovely. Many of them are keen to chat and practise their English, and they find us weird Westerners just as fascinating as we do them. Many have smartphones and some found me so interesting they wanted to have their photo taken with me. I could hardly refuse… though it was a rather awkward feeling to have the camera turned on me for a change!
So you should have no problems taking photos of Buddhist monks as you travel round Myanmar. But if you don’t want to leave it to chance, and you want to be certain of not only seeing them, but getting them in the most picturesque locations, here are some of the best places to see and photograph them.
Top places to take photos of Buddhist monks in Myanmar
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon
You’re likely to start your Burmese adventure in the capital, Yangon, so the first place you can be almost guaranteed to get stunning photos of Buddhist monks is the glittering Shwedagon Pagoda. This gold-covered temple is not only one of the most spectacular in all of Myanmar, it’s also the country’s most sacred Buddhist pagoda, as it’s believed to contain holy relics including eight strands of hair from the head of Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, and a staff, piece of robe and water filter belonging to three of his successors.
This means that no matter what time you visit, you’re almost guaranteed to see Buddhist monks here, praying, walking around, or just sitting and relaxing in front of the stunning statues and terraces. Some of them may be on their smartphones – perhaps not quite the peaceful traditional shot you’d envisaged, but this is what Buddhist life is like now, so embrace it!
Schwezigon Pagoda, Bagan
The name may seem similar, and they even look a bit alike, but the incredible Schwezigon Pagoda is 300 miles north of Yangon, in Nyaung-U, a town close to the historic ancient city of Bagan. This 1000-year-old temple is believed to contain a bone and tooth of Gautama Buddha, and is a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists.
Bagan is one of the must-see sites on any visit to Myanmar, and when you go there, Schwezigon Pagoda is a great place to photograph Buddhist monks against a glittering golden dome. Try to go towards the end of the day, to get the pagoda lit up against the deep blue evening sky, and if you’re lucky you may get to see a monk in contemplation with a friend or pupil.
U Bein Bridge, Mandalay
U Bein Bridge is another of Myanmar’s most iconic places. This 150-year-old bridge runs for three-quarters of a mile across the Taungthaman Lake near Mandalay, and is thought to be the oldest teak wood bridge in the world. This alone is enough to make it a must-see site on your trip to Myanmar, but it’s also great for photographing Buddhist monks because there is a monastery very close to the end of the bridge, and the monks regularly use it to cross to the other side of the lake.
U Bein Bridge can get very crowded, so the best time to visit is first thing in the morning. Get there before dawn to photograph the sunrise, and then hang around to see the monks as they begin their day, walking across the scenic wooden bridge into the town to collect offerings.
But you don’t have to wait for the monks to come to you. If you want to have the best opportunities to take photos, why not go to them? And the one place you’ll be absolutely guaranteed to see monks in abundance is inside one of the monasteries, many of which welcome visitors.
Mahagandayon Monastery, Mandalay
The monastery I mentioned above, close to U Bein Bridge, is called Mahagandayon Monastery. It’s one of the largest teaching monasteries in Myanmar, and home to up to 2000 monks at any one time. Some of them are older students, but there are also young novices there too – boys as young as ten years old who are beginning their Buddhist education.
Monks are not allowed to eat after 12 noon, so every day at around 11.30 they all queue up to get their last meal of the day. First they must wash and remove their shoes, before queuing in long, orderly lines to get their lunch. For a young novice I imagine the experience must be kind of similar to being packed off to a British boarding school, though here discipline is extremely strict and the novices are noticeably far better-behaved than most British boys!
This daily ritual has become a major tourist attraction. Every day at ‘feeding time’, dozens of tourists turn up, pushing and shoving to get the best spots, and snapping away like paparazzi. And even though visitors are welcome, I did feel pretty uncomfortable joining in. While allowing tourists into the monasteries can promote cultural understanding and is also a way for them to raise money, it felt rather like we were watching performing animals.
However, the monks were still very friendly, and after the meal, many were happy to stop and chat. They’re all keen to find out about Western life and culture and learn more about us – while of course I was far more interested in learning about them!
So if you plan to visit Mahagandayon Monastery, my top recommendation is to avoid the lunchtime spectacle and go in the afternoon. You’ll skip the crowds and the paparazzi frenzy and pretty much have the place to yourself. This will be much less intrusive and give you more of a chance to actually meet the monks, take portraits, and chat to them if you want.
Shwe Yan Pyay monastery, Kalaw
If you’re interested in the young novice monks, another great place to visit is Shwe Yay Pyay monastery near Kalaw, which has a school for young Buddhist boys. It’s traditional for all boys from Buddhist families to enter a monastery for a few months at around the age of 10 years old, to learn the basics of Buddhism.
The novices are expected to stay in the monastery for a few months at least, learning about the Buddha’s teachings, living a life of discipline and following the Ten Precepts. These are a series of ethical rules: like not killing and not stealing, which you’d hope would be pretty standard for everyone – though others, like not eating after midday and not singing or dancing, sound slightly harder for a 10-year-old to stick to. After a few months of education they will return to their families and normal schools.
When the boys reach the age of around 20 they have another opportunity to rejoin the monastic community as fully ordained monks. But this time, they will have to stick to the full list of 227 Precepts! Most will stay from a few months to a few years, but some remain a monk for life, like this amazing chap.
Life for Buddhist novices is not as draconian as you might think. Obviously they have to study, but they are also allowed to play football and watch TV like normal kids.
This is one of my favourite photos of my entire Myanmar trip. I love how the two boys are perfectly framed inside the curve of the window ledge, and how even though they’re supposed to be studying they are just like schoolboys the world over, and would rather daydream and look out of the window.
Shwe Inn Bin monastery, Mandalay
As well as the Buddhist monks in their red robes, many of the monasteries in Myanmar are also extremely photogenic. This is Shwe Inn Bin monastery near Mandalay, constructed from intricately carved teak wood. If you look closely at the photo you can see the guy perched on the lower roof varnishing it. That must be quite a job!
The monastery is covered with beautiful carvings – though I don’t think the guy with the varnish has reached this part yet. These figures are nats, which are Burmese spirits. There are 37 Great Nats, which are the spirits of important people who died, and a host of lesser nats which are the spirits of things like the trees, water and so on. Some nats are mischievous and cause trouble, so it’s important to make offerings to them to ensure their good behaviour.
While looking around I spotted this one monk, pacing up and down and reciting quietly to himself. He was completely lost in meditation. I would have loved to know exactly what he was doing but clearly he couldn’t be interrupted.
As well as the detailed carvings on the outside, many of the monasteries have some pretty impressive bling inside! As you’ll have noticed from the temples mentioned above, gold is heavily used in Buddhism. It’s associated with the sun and fire, and with knowledge, enlightenment, happiness, good health and freedom. That’s why temples and statues all across the Buddhist world are covered in gold leaf.
How to take photos of Buddhist monks in Myanmar
Here are my top tips for taking the best photos of Buddhist monks:
- Be respectful. Where possible, ask if you can take a photo before you do so.
- Of course if the monk is praying, meditating, or talking to someone, it might be extremely rude to interrupt. In that case, keep your distance and be subtle. This is where a zoom lens really comes in useful. If you have space in your luggage, I’d always recommend taking a zoom lens on your travels so you can photograph people from a polite distance without disturbing them.
- Find the shot, and then wait for the right moment. If you see a nice background, frame your image and wait for a monk to walk through. If the monk is praying, wait for the look or gesture that brings the scene to life.
- As always with portraits, a nice shallow depth of field and soft background is key. Use a wide aperture like f/4 or lower, or if you’re on auto, use your camera’s portrait mode.
Have you been to Myanmar? Photographed monks in other countries? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.