Taking Portraits in Myanmar (Burma)

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Portrait of an umbrella maker, Pindaya, Myanmar
Portrait of an umbrella maker, Pindaya, Myanmar

One of the things they say about Myanmar is that the people are really friendly. Actually they say that about a lot of places – and sometimes it’s true. But it tends to be only true in parts. In most places people will be people: some are friendly, some are only pretending to be friendly because they want something from you, some are too busy to talk, some are grumpy, some are shysters trying to rob you. And that’s probably true of a lot of Myanmar too… except that when I was there it really didn’t seem that way. Everyone was lovely! And when I asked for portraits in Myanmar, everyone said yes!

Portrait of an old man, Kalaw, Myanmar
Old man, Kalaw

One of the things I love about being a photographer is that it makes you interact with a place and its people in a much more intimate way. Without a camera, you can just wander and observe but you never really engage.  But if you want to take really great travel portraits, you have to engage with people.  Make eye contact. Use sign language to ask to take a photo. Make them laugh. Stand there for a while, don’t just walk on by.

Read More: 25 Best Tips To Improve Your Travel Photography

Portrait of a Market trader selling delicious locusts, Yangon, Myanmar
Market trader selling delicious locusts, Yangon

And I really found Myanmar such a fantastic place to take portraits. Absolutely everyone was delighted to let me take their photo, happy to smile or not smile, showing no signs of getting annoyed or bored with me, and never asking for anything in return.

Portrait of a Happy farm worker, Kalaw, Myanmar
Happy farm worker, Kalaw

Why might this be?  When I went, in 2015, Myanmar had only recently re-opened its doors to tourists after a long period of military dictatorship. That means people hadn’t had time to get annoyed with tourists, or jaded.  In places like Thailand it feels like everyone just looks at you and sees dollar signs in their eyes like some sort of cartoon character: everyone is out to rinse you for all they can get. Myanmar may get like that eventually too, but for now, people are still just genuinely pleased to see visitors. They’re happy that you’ve taken the trouble to visit their country, they know you’re going to experience their culture and spend your money in the local community, and they really do want you to have a nice time and leave with a positive impression.

Hat seller, Nyaung U market, Bagan
Hat seller, Nyaung U market, Bagan

I spotted this lady while hiking in the hills near Kalaw. She was hoeing the ground, and didn’t look up for ages.  I could see the opportunity for a photo, but it was no good with her looking down at the ground.  I waited… and got totally left behind by my group. Then a guy came past on a motorbike – clearly someone she knew. He spotted me standing on the edge of the field with the camera poised and said something which made her laugh – and I got the exact photo I’d been waiting for.

Portrait of a Padaung tribeswoman, Inle Lake, Myanmar,
Portrait of a Padaung tribeswoman, Inle Lake, Myanmar

This fabulous lady is one of the the famous long-necked Padaung tribeswomen. From their mid-teens Padaung women begin pressing down their collarbones and elongating their necks using brass rings, all in the name of tradition and beauty. There’s a fair amount of debate about whether they should really be encouraged to do this sort of physical damage to themselves just for the sake of looks – but there are many things we all do to look beautiful that are extremely questionable, and as a photographer I try not to judge – I just capture. And it must be said they do look incredible.

Boy selling chickens, 26th Street Market, Yangon
Boy selling chickens, 26th Street Market, Yangon

I found Myanmar’s markets to be especially great places to take portrait photos of people. Markets are my favourite kind of place for taking photos: they are always so full of life, and people, and interesting things, and hustle and bustle. And Myanmar’s markets were no exception. Yet again, market traders sitting waiting for customers were more than happy to let me take their portraits in Myanmar.

Read more: 13 Top Tips For Photographing Markets

A young flower seller, Kuthodaw Pagoda, Mandalay
Portrait of a young flower seller, Kuthodaw Pagoda, Mandalay

You’ll have noticed many of the people in these photos have got this strange yellow stuff on their faces. This is a traditional paste made out of tree bark called Thanaka. It’s used as protection from the sun and also for decoration, as you can see on the portrait of the little girl above.

Smiling market trader, Inle Lake, Myanmar
Smiling market trader, Inle Lake, Myanmar

This last of my Myanmar portraits is my absolute favourite from my entire trip. It was taken at a market in a village on the shores of Inle lake, which is in the Shan region. The Shan people are known for their colourful turbans, but what caught my eye was not this lady’s headgear, but her incredible face. Those deep-etched lines that speak of so much experience and such a life lived, and those ancient, watery eyes, full of so much knowledge. I also love how she’s put her hand behind her neck, almost like she’s modelling, even though she’s, I dunno, 150 years old! I know I’m getting a bit overly poetic here which I don’t usually do, but I honestly could just look at that face for hours. I just wish I’d been able to talk to her beyond a bit of sign language; I bet she’s got some amazing stories.

If you want to read more about my trip to Myanmar, check out some of my other posts:

Taking Photos Of Buddhist Monks In Myanmar

The Iconic Leg-Rowing Fishermen of Inle Lake, Myanmar

Myanmar’s Marvellous Markets

Or my post on the Lonely Planet blog, here.

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  • joanndastanton
    1st August 2018 at 6:49 pm

    I’m in love with all your photos!!! Myanmar is on my bucket list, the people look absolutely beautiful!

    • passportandpixels
      4th August 2018 at 2:06 pm

      Thanks so much Joannda! Myanmar truly was amazing, and such a great place for photography. It’s definitely one to visit soon before it gets too overrun with tourists!

  • Lauren
    10th January 2019 at 12:35 pm

    What incredible photos. Particularly love the Padaung tribeswomen image and a very valid point you made about our beauty ideals – we all punish ourselves for beauty in some way! We visit Myanmar in April, would love any tips!

    • passportandpixels
      12th January 2019 at 11:55 am

      Thank so you much Lauren! And thank you for taking the time to post. The best tip I can give you is the one you’re already doing – going to Myanmar! There are quite a few posts on the blog here that should hopefully inspire you. I went with a group though, so I can’t give you many tips about getting around as it was all organised for us. I’m sure you’re already planning on going to Bagan and Inle Lake, these were the two real highlights for me, so I’d say spend more time there and don’t worry too much about Yangon – unless big cities are your thing! Have fun though – and let me know how you get on. I’d be really interested to know how you find it!

  • Kathryn Burrington
    26th April 2019 at 1:15 pm

    Beautiful images. So many lovely smiles, especially that last lady, as you say. I wish you could have spoken to her too. She looks so kind with many stories to tell.

    • passportandpixels
      26th April 2019 at 10:27 pm

      Thank you so much for taking the time to comment and for your kind words, Kathryn!


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