The casual observer may be under the impression that Myanmar is run by an evil, corrupt and very nasty military junta. This is tragically true but not the whole story. At a local level, Burma is run by an army of matriarchs: every shop, market stall, restaurant or craft workshop has an elegantly-dressed, hard-working, multi-tasking lady running the show. Husbands, children, shopping, business deals, finances, cooking and chatting with neighbours are all managed from a tiny plastic seat behind a mountain of items for sale.
Anyone who has eaten at a family restaurant in Myanmar will remember that while the waiting staff and cooks may be of either gender, The Boss is always the alpha female of the family. The proprietress will not make her presence known while you order and eat your food…although you may see her perched on a high stool behind the till. Only when payment is due does The Boss make her appearance – and always with a giant, over-size Chinese calculator to tot up the bill. A 16-person multinational tour group with no Burmese language skills all demanding separate bills for a 3-course meal with lots of drinks? No problem – some rapid-fire punching on the calculator, a quick scribble in the notebook and everyone is sorted out.
The best places to photograph in Asia are always the local markets – usually at their most action-packed early in the morning. As well as the usual produce markets, Burma has some spectacular flower markets. Despite being a very poor society, flowers are sold all over the country, sometimes as temple offerings, sometimes as decorations. Even the grizzliest, toughest truck drivers will visit a flower stall each morning to buy a small posy of ginger lilies – these are hung over the rear view mirror as a protective charm.
The little town of Kalaw in Shan State hosts a very colourful market where women from the local hilltribes meet to sell their produce every few days. Each tribe wears a unique style of headdress.
My other favourite location to photograph local life in Myanmar was in the myriad of little workshops – this is still a place where things are made and sold locally. The relative economic isolation of the country means that the vast range of consumer goods available in the rest of Asia are still thin on the ground, so the gap is filled with a cottage industry of old-fashioned crafts-women.
As a tourist, it won’t take long before you meet Burma’s newest and most determined breed of female entrepreneurs – the postcard girls (they’ll find you). “Hello, where you from? you buy postcard???” A gaggle of these smiling, very cheeky young ladies will follow you everywhere at the major tourist sites offering a selection of terrible postcards, cheap jewellery and other dodgy tourist tat. It is best to accept your fate, buy a trinket or two and be left in peace rather than try to escape – you will be hunted down. The old favourite answer of “Maybe Later” is interpreted as a binding contract of future sale, so I would not advise you to try that either.
The photo I most wanted to capture in Burma proved to be the most elusive – I became fascinated with the Buddhist nuns: the disconcerting contrast of their shaven heads with the beautiful pink robes. Like the monks, they seemed to drift through the traffic and bustling markets completely detached from the world around them. At the first sign of a camera, the nuns melt away into the crowds, so it became impossible to establish any kind of eye-contact or brief exchange of greetings from which the opportunity to request a portrait may emerge. Then on my final day in Myanmar, on a last-minute visit to Yangon market, I walked around a corner and bumped into a striking young nun collecting alms with two little novices. I offered an apology and hopefully pointed to my camera – to my surprise she nodded and smiled. As soon as I had clicked the shutter, the three of them disappeared into the crowd.
This is the picture I return to look at most from my Burma collection – she radiates such a sense of beauty and serenity. Is there also a hint of a smile?
The full collection of my images from Myanmar can be found here.