burma

Leica Photography In The Tropics — Then and Now

This is a camera geeking post!

After introduction in mid 1920’s, Leica photography became synonym for more agile and reactive way of taking photographs. It made possible to use a camera in situations and locations that hadn’t been considered with earlier equipment. Bit like iPhone of its day, Leica camera defined a before-and-after point in photographic world. Lets travel back to 1937 and take Leica into a jungle! Quotes bellow are from book The Leica Manual, Willard D. Morgan, 1937.

Kilimanjaro national park, Tanzania.

“Several years of photographic work under difficult tropical conditions … a 600-mile trek across the Central African Highlands in the middle of the rainy season . . . 400 miles by dugout canoe in the humid swamplands of southern New Guinea . . , and the highly variable conditions encountered in the uplands of Fiji and the Solomon Islands, have satisfied me of the singular advantages of the Leica camera, and the Leica method in general, for hot-country work.

One virtue which the Leica possesses is: It is the only camera I know of that when in use is sufficiently sealed to guard the film inside from moisture. Practically no humidity, I find, penetrates the closed camera. If the film has been cared for properly before and after use satisfactory results are certain. Nothing can happen to it while it is in use.”

Infrared photos taken with Leica M8. Victoria Falls at Zambian-Zimbabwean border. Iguazu Falls at Brazilian-Argentinean border.

“My own methods of caring for film under tropical conditions methods which have proven completely successful are these.

I purchase all the film I need before leaving home. Even the less durable grades of super-speed pan will, I know from experience, last at least a year, if one takes care. And, so far as the tropics are concerned, I distrust the mails.

Some travelers order film to be sent out to them at various stages of their voyaging. The idea seems reasonable. Fresh film, straight from the factory, it should be fine. It is, unless it happens on the way to have had a long trip through tropical waters in the mail room of an average steamer. I have been in those mail rooms. They are usually amidships near the engines; near the equator their normal temperature is often well above 120(F). And somewhere, in the midst of it, someone’s film is simmering. For the same reason I allow no cases containing film to be taken to the baggage room. They stay with me in the cabin.”

Irrawaddy, main waterway of Burma.

“Film should be carried in a steel African uniform box. Boxes made in England for use in Africa and well worth the high price one pays for them boxes guaranteed airtight and watertight. I have one which is large enough to hold, except for the cameras themselves, all of a rather extensive photographic equipment. It is roughly the size of an ordinary suitcase. And one should improve it in one particular which the makers overlooked. African uniform boxes are painted black when one gets them. Mine is now painted with a white enamel. When, as it often is, the box is being carried in the sunlight on the top of an African’s head or a South Sea Islander’s shoulders, the difference in the interior temperatures between a black box and a white one is decidedly perceptible. And very important.”

Leica Manual — A Manual For The Amateur And Professional Covering The Entire Field Of Leica Photography by Willard D. Morgan; Henry M. Lester. Source.

Mayan temple complex in Tikal, in the sea of Guatemalan jungle.

Khmer temples in Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

Taj Mahal, India.

50 years later, African uniform boxes and steamers had largely disappeared. But world of photography was still analog. Gunter Osterloh, Leica M Advanced Photo School gives few tips about problem fungus can cause to photographic equipment. Quote:

“Long visits to areas with a hot and humid climate expose the entire photographic outfit to the risk of fungus growth. Film, lenses, leather cases, all of them can be damaged by fungus. The more frequently we expose cameras, lenses, and accessories to fresh air, the lower the risk of fungus formation. Fungus growth is much more likely to occur when the equipment is not used very often.

Film react even more sensitively to a hot and humid tropical climate than cameras and lenses. Problems result from the absorption of humidity by the film, causing it to swell and to stick to the inside of its cartridge, for example, or to the take-up spool of the camera. The emulsion may then be torn from its support during the winding or rewinding operation, destroying any pictures that may have been taken on it. Bits of emulsion that remain behind (mostly in the vicinity of the pressure plate) will foster the growth of fungus.”

Leica M Advanced Photo School, latest edition is on Amazon.

My own experience echoes Osterloh. When living in Thailand I foolishly left my equipment into a closed bag for few months. After finally taken out, outer lens elements were already growing fungus, but it hadn’t penetrated inside yet. Watch out especially with expensive gear such as Leica’s!

Golden Triangle seen from Thai side, at the confluence of the Ruak River and the Mekong River. The location is border tripoint of Thailand (behind), Laos (right) and Burma (left).

Lets go forward 30 years to 2017. World has largely shifted from analog to digital (film is also experiencing a resurgence like vinyl records and tube radios). Photo can be shared instantly and without costs across the globe. Democratization of photography has progressed also further. Where there was perhaps one Mr. Morgan to hundred thousand who didn’t own any camera, and one Mr. Osterloh to ten thousand the same. Today, thanks to phone cameras, figures are opposite.

What else to consider today, if heading somewhere warm and humid? Past several years I’ve been lugging my Leica and other cameras into tropical countries in Africa, South Asia and America. Couple points to take into account:

– Obviously our dependency on electronics has become a norm. Batteries for the camera and other equipment, and needed accessories (chargers, adapters) all add weight to the backpack. Same goes with storage and backups. Connectivity with the rest of the world. Editing and sharing work on the go.

– Electronic dry boxes are nowadays affordable and a cheap insurance against the fungal growth. The device contains a small cooler, which removes moisture from the air by condensing it out. Consider them if you live in tropics for longer periods of time. Silica gel bags are alternative for those who have to change location frequently.

Sunset at Vinales, Cuba and Vang Vieng, Laos.

– Digital sensor is more vulnerable to dust than film. Sooner or later spots start to appear on your photos even if you are careful when and where changing lenses. For a long trip, sensor cleaning solution is must have backup, least for me.

– Developing countries often have shoddy power grids. Leaving a gadget plugged in for long periods risk it to power spikes that can fry delicate electronics. Cameras that can share same batteries reduce need for constant charging. Wall chargers disconnect the device from direct connection with grid.

Then and now, many things are different but some similarities also do exist. Leica’s still a specialist tool and costs a fortune!

Further reading: Article by The New Yorker from 2007.

Kachin State — Myanmar’s Christian North

This post is part of series documenting travel in Myanmar, Cuba and Iran: Introduction.

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Confluence of the N’mai and Mali rivers. Both originate as small streams on the Tibetan Plateau, and draw their waters from Himalayan-range glaciers. My tuktuk driver explained that N’mai is coming from China and Mali from India. Its not entirely clear wether the source of both rivers are in Burmese side or not. Judging the maps, some small streams indeed seem to come across the borders. The confluence is the origin of Irrawaddy River, Myanmars main waterway that flows through the country, all the way to Bay of Bengal.

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June 2015

Train to Myitkyina. We leave squeaking and shaking from Mandalay station into the night. Watching out into darkness, communities are living by the faintly lit street. Smart phones and TV screens are glowing back from there. Next morning we should be well on the way to north and after 24hrs should arrive to Myitkyina, Kachin state of Myanmar.

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Train traveling.
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Morning. Last night went without a sleep, not even the lightest dozing, ride is just too jumpy. Locals didn’t seem to mind much and kept sleeping. Outside our wagon, day is slowly opening. Clouds are looming low, and fields are wet. All the windows are open, sudden shower could wash us all inside. Farmers with their oxen are already plowing the paddies. “Iron-buffaloes” that are a norm in neighbouring Thailand, can be seen also occasionally. Change is coming also in remote parts of Myanmar. On railroads no such luck, except least were using steam locomotives like when British built the tracks 100+ years ago. Burmese trains defy the laws of gravity, to be put mildly.

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Ages old scenes meet today in north Myanmar.
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Myitkyina. Wide Irrawaddy is quiet. Night is coming and different shades over blue are descending over it. Due to the military restrictions, there is no traffic in the river. Water is plenty and level high, it would be easy to sail to Bhamo in south. Christian churches are everywhere, outnumbering the Buddhist temples in the city. A work of European missionaries in 19th century, who converted the local animist population to followers of Christ. Still, when looking the statistics, Buddhism is dominant religion also in Kachin state like in the rest of Myanmar.

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Street market in Myitkyina.

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Bhamo-Katha river boat.

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Two pranksters in Myitkyina.

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View from U-Bein bridge Mandalay, April 2013 & June 2015.
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South Myanmar in Photos

This post is part of series documenting travel in Myanmar, Cuba and Iran: Introduction.

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Moulmein.
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June 2015

Most travelers head north from Yangon, Bagan and Inle-lake especially. But south-east of the country offers fascinating sights to see as well. Here are couple photos from Moulmein and Hpa-An.

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Moulmein. Worlds largest reclining Buddha at Mudon.
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Moulmein.
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Moulmein.
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Hpa-An.
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Hpa-An.
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Hpa-An.
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Hpa-An.
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Hpa-An.
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Amazing cloud of bats going for eat, every sunset.

Mandalay and Shan Minority Region of Myanmar

This post is part of series documenting travel in Myanmar, Cuba and Iran: Introduction.

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Mandalay and Shan minority region: Land, and people from many ethnic groups are beautiful. Although world changes fast, here too, it was still possible to find places little affected by modern times.

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April 2013 & June 2015

Woke up in bus around 6am while approaching Mandalay, landscape outside looked drier than past days in Yangon. Highway bus station is well outside the city, even beyond airport. I was only tourist on bus, conveniently, maybe not coincidentally, there was older gentleman with a signboard offering scooter rides to center. Still sleep in my eyes walking outside the bus, took his offer, and about 40 mins later checked in to my room in downtown.

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U Bien Bridge, Mandalay.

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Before arriving, I associated the name Mandalay to a romantic gone world. World from sepia coloured photographs, noblemen posing with their hunting trophies. Kipling’s world connected with ocean steamers and telegrams, not emails and budget airlines. Mandalay suffered badly during WW2. Wooden imperial city in the center was completely destroyed. But city still has interesting sights worth visiting: Mandalay Hill, Mahamuni Paya Temple, U Bien Bridge being among them. City is second largest in Myanmar, street life offers plenty to see.

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Few locals understand English at all, older generations being better speakers than younger. Reason is that after military coup of 1962, English education was stopped in Myanmar. Country never joined the Commonwealth either, like other dominions of former British Empire. Myanmar has its own timezone… Burmese like do things their own way. @ Mandalay

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I tried to continue to Hsipaw this morning by train. State controlled railways are notoriously badly managed. Wake up at 3am, walk to station for 4am train. Waited until 9am for nothing, then had enough and hitched a truck to Pyin Oo Lwin which is about 1/3 of the way between Mandalay to Hsipaw. Hilly views were brown and barren.

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Friendly smiles in Shan state.

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Pyin Oo Lwin used to be hill station of British Burma, and it was formerly known as Maymyo. Many colonial-era buildings are still standing. Besides its colonial heritage, town has waterfalls to explore and botanical garden. George Orwell served in Mandalay and Maymyo as policemen in 1920’s. @ Pyin Oo Lwin

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Long railway bridge over a deep valley.

Yesterdays train was late “only” 3-4 hours. After checking tickets and done their duties, conductors promptly started drinking for the rest of the way. Kind of telling what is the state of government controlled company. Didn’t even know that its physically possible for heavy train to jump and tilt so much without falling! But views were great and am glad I chose the train not easier bus. Burmese life in the stations and in train was worth many pictures. Train arrived to Hsipaw on sunset, had simple dinner and went bed early. Town is little bigger than in Pyin was. @ Hsipaw

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Morning walk to hot spring outside the town. Winds were cool, farmers with their water buffaloes working on rice paddies, scene not much changed over the centuries.

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Visit to “Shan Palace” is still worth mentioning. Like other Burmese minorities in British colonial Burma, Shan’s had semi-autonomous status. After independence (1947), and especially after military coup (1962), ethnic tensions escalated dramatically when largest group of Bamar’s took the reigns of the state.

Compared to common perception of “royals”, Shan’s royals were more like feudal lords. Each fief had his area ranging from biggest 12,400 (Kengtung) to miniscule 14 square miles (Namtok).

Before coup of -62, Shan’s royals were living in Hsipaw. Nowadays their original palace does not exist anymore, it was burned down by the military. “Palace” that remains today is British colonial-era mansion built in 1920’s. Current owners are relatives of former royals, and are already well in their sixties. Much of their life has been a struggle with the whims of military leaders. During my visit, one wing of the decaying mansion was open for travelers. Sympathetic owners had fascinating story to tell about the family and Shan history. The place has old photographs and other memorabilia from long gone era… @ Hsipaw

Wind Of Change: Myanmar, Iran, Cuba

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Posts in the series:

Back in late 1980’s when I was a teenager, Berlin Wall, East European Communist satellites, and finally Soviet Union itself collapsed within time of only few years. Media, adults, everyone, were commenting and speculating what comes next. Scorpions recorded their famous song Wind Of Change, to portray the epic changes that profoundly changed lives of millions of Europeans. Me included, although completely clueless about it, but I liked the song.

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In this decade we’ve seen the news, ministers, presidents, envoys shuffling back and forth to three countries: Republic of the Union of Myanmar, Islamic Republic of Iran and lately Barak Obama was first American president in 90 years to travel Havana, capital of Republic of Cuba. All the high level work has been about ending economic blockades, sanctions and trade embargoes. These countries are far apart with different histories. Issues in negotiations have local nuances, and remains to be seen wether actual changes continue like the wind of change, or stale air of empty words. These events nevertheless represent similar dawn-of-new-era moment for the people of these countries, similar of what was happening in Europe earlier. To people who have been waiting for a long time, in many cases their entire lives. People who want more open, prosperous and predictable future.

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Spring 2015 I was finishing my assignment in north Thailand. While land border to Myanmar was always close by, crossing was limited to air travel mainly. So after my work was finished, flight to Yangon was awaiting and journey started from there. Friends also recommended two other countries, and the plan expanded from there.

Here’s the journey so far:

History: Why did Burma fell into tyranny while India remains worlds largest democracy?

On November 8 2015, general elections will be held in Burma (aka. Myanmar). It’s a chance for a long time to fix some errors of the past. But what the two countries in subject had to do with each other and the question?

Lets start in India. Epilogue from Michael Edwardes book British India 1772-1947:

Implicit in the tenets of liberal democracy is the rule of law. Inefficient courts and the inappropriateness of their procedure often led, and still lead, to travesties of justice, but the basic principle that law controls the limits of government is entrenched in India.

It may seem seem very little after 175 years of direct British rule to have left behind only a system of government and of law, neither of which – according to some critics – work very well. But they were not abstract systems. They were supported by an administration framework which survived the transfer of power. Unlike the other European imperial powers in their Asian possessions, the British deliberately constructed the scaffolding of a modern state in which Indians themselves played an indispensable functional role. When the small British element was withdrawn in 1947 the scaffolding did not collapse, even under the pressures of partition.

Burma was annexed by British in three stages from 1826 to 1886 when Mandalay, the imperial capital, and rest of upper Burma fell to British hands. Burma was province of India (Raj) until 1937, after which administered from Rangoon but still closely linked with India.

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Area of British India. At it’s largest in 1937, Raj was behemoth that covered modern day Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka

Here is where comes the interesting comparison: scaffolding that Edwardes describes, must have been taking form in Burma as well. Both countries gain their independence around same time, India 1947 and Burma next year. So what happened? Here are few points that can explain:

Time — British had 175 years of uninterrupted influence in some parts of India, Bengal in particular. Upper Burma in contrast, this was just over 60 years. Same person who’s birth and childhood in northern Burma was during reign of King Thibaw early 1880’s, could have seen Union Jack lowered and British Governor boarding on ship in 1948.

Border region — Burma was for a long administered from Calcutta and considered a mere eastern border of Raj. Buffer zone militarily, source of raw materials economically. Well before third Anglo-Burman war, British Secretary of State wrote to Governor-General of India (Terence R. Blackburn, The British Humiliation of Burma):

…it is of primary importance to allow no other European power to insert itself between British Burma and China. Our influence in that country (Upper Burma, still independent at the time of writing) ought to be paramount. The country itself is of no great importance. But an easy communication with the multitudes who inhabit Western China is an object of national importance.

This obviously does not automate things one way or other, but goes to show in which kind of hands the development of country was at the time.

Economy — Development of Burmese commerce, industry, education was slow because owned by foreigners. Not just European but largely in Indian as well. Need for civil servants to run state affairs was also different, in times when Burma received it’s orders from Calcutta or Delhi. Peace loving, tax paying, industrious middle class became one of corner stones of modern India, not so much of Burma.

World War Two — Burma became a war zone when Japanese entered the country 1942. They were forced out few years later by Allied army, but the damage was already done. Front lines were moving in Burmese territory. Effects on society and to democratic institutions can be easily be guessed. None of Burma’s major pre-war political parties survived until the independence. In comparison, Indian National Congress (INC) was founded decades before the independence, and is still one of the dominant political parties of the country.

Scaffolding that Edwardes described is still holding the worlds biggest democracy. In Burma it started collapsing after the independence, and came down entirely in 1962. Military took control of state powers (Dr. Maung Maung, Burma and General Ne Win):

Revolutionary Council (the junta) was deeply disillusioned with parliamentary democracy. In “The Burmese Way to Socialism”, a terse and powerful statement of policy issued by the Revolutionary Council on April 30, 1962, it was pointed out that “parliamentary democracy has been tried and tested in furtherance of the aims of socialist development. But Burma’s ‘parliamentary democracy’ has not only failed to serve our socialist development, but also, due to it’s very defects, weakness and loopholes, it’s abuses and the absence of a mature public opinion, lost sight of and deviated from the socialist aims, …

The last question: does it matter after all this time? Many things have changed and country has been taking few wary democratic steps in recent years. But the fact is that same clan of generals is still pulling the strings on state affairs. Human rights are abused when people try voice out their opinion. Ethnic minorities fight their desperate struggle against Burma Army. Couple examples from newspaper The Irrawaddy earlier this year: here, here and here.

Update after November 8 2015 election: (NLD) National League for Democracy won the landslide victory in election. People voted the only true democratic alternative, as opposed to parties and politicians appointed by military. Today mid December The Irrawaddy reported interesting meeting that take place between NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi and former junta leader, Than Shwe. Positive signs, hope they continue to come.

Myanmar Travel Practicalities

For traveler planning to go Myanmar and studying things beforehand on Internet, certain things always come up. Because country is developing so fast, so will be information about it outdated fast. Regarding accommodation and transportation prices and availability, high and low season differs a considerably.

Update 2016: On land border crossing from Thailand is now open for e-Visa holders in three places. North: Mae Sai-Tachileik, central: Mae Sot-Myawaddy and south: Ranong-Kawthaung (earlier it was required to fly). Link.

Summer 2015: Am just back from my second trip to Myanmar. Its over two years since my previous trip, from which the details were listed bellow. Here’s some differences spotted this time.

— Accommodation: to my feeling had remained mostly the same (only exception being Bagan, where new hotels and guesthouses have risen). My previous and this trip were both on low season and no guesthouse was never fully booked when walking in. I paid generally 10-15 USD for one night in non-ac, fan, shared bathroom option.
— Money: Dollar dependency is disappearing. People seem to start trusting their own currency, and wasn’t at any time situation where Kyat would have been totally rejected. Dollars can still be used, and often prices are quoted in USD. But multiply the amount by thousand (or 1100 to be exact) and you got your price in Kyat’s. If using Dollars, better still have brand new ‘big head’ ones (July 2016, only new Dollar bills accepted). New ATM’s of Burmese banks that accept MasterCard and Visa are more common, not just in bigger cities.
— Transport: roads and busses are improving as well, but only just. Smaller roads are in bad shape still. Rail transport is still same, trains are late for hours, and when desperately trying to catch the schedule, going old tracks can be gravity defying experience! Flight connections to and from Myanmar have increased a lot, Yangon and Mandalay being most easily accessible from direct flights outside the country. At the time I studied options, direct flight Chiangmai (Thailand) to Mandalay wasn’t available, but no doubt that won’t take long anymore. Mandalay – Bangkok is there, likewise Chiangmai – Yangon.
— Internet and calls: street landline telephone booths seem mostly vanished, and smartphones are glowing at faces of young and old. Liberalisation of the telecom industry was in the news back in 2013 has gone forward on full force, and teenagers are taking selfies just like in Thailand and everywhere. Brand new neon signs of Samsung, Oppo, Huawei are shining everywhere, in small towns that barely have any street lights. 3G prepaid cards are widely available for tourists as well. Often guesthouses have least some kind of WiFi available as well, although exceptions were and when working, very slowly.
— Military restrictions: Unlike two years ago Mrauk U and Sittwe (north west Myanmar near Bangladesh border), was now open for tourists. Met a couple who had done the arduous bus journey there and back. North east corner near in Kachin state challenging to travel, now for several years. Popular Irrawaddy boat trip Myitkyina – Bhamo – Katha – Mandalay is still not possible. River boat to Mandalay can be done from Bhamo, but one can access it by boat or fly in. Road access requires special permits, usually out of reach from tourists.

Spring 2013:

— WiFi and Internet access. Generally hard to find and when available, snail speed. Power breaks interrupt net access often, so even if cafe advertise Free WiFi, check does it work before buying your drink. Power breaks can also damage electronics, so careful not to leave your device charging too long periods.
— ATM’s. Yangon and Mandalay are no problem anymore, especially former. Yangon Airport and many city shopping malls have Visa/Mastercard compatible ATM’s.
— US Dollars. Only brand new (no wrinkles), “big head” notes are accepted. Train tickets, hotels are usually paid with Dollars. Bus tickets, meals and other things with local money Kyat. Street money changers in Yangon offer lucrative rates, but tourist should be careful and count money carefully. Their hands are fast. Banks and official money exchange booths gave also good rates, and are safe.
— Accommodation was no problem. Prices for A/C-dorm, or single room with a fan and shared bathroom, were generally 7-12 Dollars. Higher than Thailand, but not astronomical like some high season traveler stories know to tell. Rooms were also always available.


Public telephone booth for local calls. Liberalizing the mobile phones from state control had begun, so these booths are probably disappearing sight. When I arrived to Yangon Airport, none of my sim cards (from Europe, Thailand) connect to Myanmar mobile operator.

For traveler on budget (money is not used to pave the way), Myanmar can be rough experience. Roads are generally in poor condition (except new highway between Yangon and Mandalay/Bagan), so night busses are no sleeper busses. Seats are for small Burmese, large/tall Western person must fit in or cry and fit it. State controlled railway prices are double to busses and tracks are even worse condition than roads. Burmese are very friendly and helpful, but speak little to no English. Found personally their accent hard to follow, even basic words had often to be repeated few times.