Or how inspiration came to me on the road to Mandalay.
Tea for two? I ask in what I wish was Burmese, causing immediate and noisy hilarity around us. The boy’s reply is instant and in impeccable English, do you want Myanmar tea?
It’s six o’clock in the morning. I’m sitting in a local tea shop on the corner of 19th and 65th street facing the wall to the former palace in Mandalay. The brief for today is to shoot an interesting portrait of a local character. To do this I have partnered up with Bob. Bob is a marketing professor at a university in Singapore. He loves handling his DSLR and wants to get some tips to improve his skills. Professor Bob has signed up for a photo tour in Myanmar. Eight days with five other amateur photographers . We travel around under the guidance of a professional photographer ( me) and they have to actually shoot. Everyday. It’s a photography workshop but on the road.
We decide to get an early start, and while sipping on hot sweet milk tea, are devising our plan of action. The Professor and I are going through our options. I have an outdated edition of the Lonely Planet guide and the Professor is carrying around an iPad with the Frommer’s guide to Myanmar.
The general laughter mentioned earlier is a good sign. We have succeeded in making friends with everyone in the tea shop. Old and young, everyone takes a turn at speaking to us. Where do you come from? How old are you? Is it your first time in Myanmar? Do you like our country? Where are you going?
We are unable to answer the last question with any confidence and consequently receive an abundance of advice from everyone around.
Koko, the boy who serves tea, thinks we should head for the pagoda on the hill. Szaw Szaw the taxi driver mentions something about U Bein Bridge. His friend Pyo Yoe Soe thinks it will be too late to meet anyone at the bridge by the time we get there, and maybe we should go there at sunset. Soe Soe and her mother, who own the tea shop, are advising us to go to the Mahamuni Pagoda and watch a game of Chinlone (cane ball). The Cane Ball Festival is on this month and people from all over the country have travelled to Mandalay to participate.
Each one of our newfound friends is defending their idea with such confidence and animation that we quickly forget about our guide books and decide to order another round of milk tea and ask more questions. After losing several games of checkers played on a piece of painted cardboard and using old coke bottle tops for the pieces, we decide to visit U Bein Bridge at sundown.
But now it is time for check-in and maybe breakfast. Bob and I have reservations at the hotel by the Red Canal which is only two blocks down the road. The Red Canal is Mandalay’s prettiest hotel. My room’s furniture is made of beautiful teak and rattan, and the bathroom is lined with marble and mother of pearl fittings. I notice that the rooms are named after the different ethnic people of Myanmar. I am staying in the Kachin Suite. Bob has a Chan Suite. Both rooms overlook the swimming pool. I imagine that Cartier Bresson would have stayed in a similar place when he visited Mandalay back in the 20th century, but possibly without the pool…
After a quick swim, we decide to explore the city’s surroundings before our sunset mission. A picnic is prepared for us, transportation is organised, and off we go to the hills for a small trek. On the road east from Mandalay, the landscape is punctuated by conical hats appearing in the distance. The local farmers are re-planting the new rice crop. The luscious green paddies extend for miles all the way to stupa-bearing hills. I notice the absence of electric poles in this scenery, which is a rare occurence these days in an Asian country. One has to keep in mind that Myanmar’s economy is only picking up now after a 40 years hiatus.
Our picnic is waiting for us at the top of the hill. There, a stupa offers panoramic views of the whole region including Mandalay’s former palace. While we are having lunch, the friendly monks from the nearby monastery come join us. The conversation with them is very entertaining with topics ranging from world politics to Manchester United and marriage.
Later that day, we discover U Bein Bridge. U Bein Bridge is the longest teakwood bridge in the world (1.2 km) it sits on Taungthaman Lake. It was built by recycling the teak columns of the old palace during the move to Mandalay in the 19th century. The sunsets on the bridge is spectacular. What Bob and I need now, is an interesting character to photograph. We talked to everyone — fishermen, monks, students. In the end, the Burmese are so friendly and approachable that the professor and I, in order to fulfill our brief, are faced with a dilemna : who are we going to shoot ?