From mountains to beaches, monks to spirits, colonial architecture to hill tribes, Myanmar is a gem of contrasts and natural beauty. It is also sublimely photogenic, making books such as the newly published Burmese Light: Impressions of the Golden Land, by Hans Kemp and Tom Vater, visually arresting.
VISUAL TREASURES: Clockwise from top: The ancient city of Bagan; a transgendered spirit medium; selling firewood at Thaung Tho market; a tattooed Chin woman; and the annual Paung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival at Inle Lake.
With the country opening up and embargoes and sanctions lifted, Myanmar is seeing a surge in visitors both from the region and the West, making it a good time to publish a photographic record of the country. Many archaeological and natural wonders have been left untouched, as much through neglect as active preservation, while Myanmar's diversity of cultures remains a vibrant, compelling tapestry. In some respects the country was preserved in time for several decades under military rule; mass consumerism and commercial uniformity have largely been held at bay, but that is likely to change in the coming years.
Burmese Light is a photographic travelogue. For long-time Myanmar-watchers, there is little new detail, but the juxtaposition, background information and Kemp's images cast the country in a beautiful light, worth looking over again and again. Those who have visited will be reminded of a fascinating land filled with warmth and colour; those who have never been will find renewed impetus to go.
Chapter introductions are informative and insightful, with doses of humour and historical quotes from Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell and others, showing that the beauty of the landscape and cultural quirks haven't changed much since the 19th century.
Six regional chapters and nine sub-chapters are sometimes self-contained, sometimes slightly confusing. Inle Lake, for example, has much photographic depth, with rich detail on lifestyle and ethnic minorities. It also provides sub-chapters on cheroot smoking and thanaka beauty paste.
BURMESE LIGHT: IMPRESSIONS OF THE GOLDEN LAND: Photography by Hans Kemp, text by Tom Vater, 208pp, 2013 Visionary World paperback. Available at all good bookshops for 1,195 baht.
Where Vater's chapter introductions are lengthier, such as for Mrauk U _ which "remains lost in time and space, remote, rarely visited and utterly exquisite" _ we are better able to match the photos with a regional character, a history behind the beauty, a cultural context. Bagan, Myanmar's most striking temple landscape, might have benefited from the same depth and breadth. The boat trip to get there is described several chapters later; more linearity might make the journey more accessible to the armchair traveller.
A local voice is rendered through the photographs, but the book might also have gained through some local quotes and viewpoints _ from Yangon to the hill tribes, we largely get a visitor's perspective. Ethnic conflicts, poverty, army abuses and other human rights issues are not covered here, nor do they need to be, but the south and far north are notably absent, and the Rakhine beaches are cursorily added to the Mrauk U chapter. A Padaung woman features in the Cheroot section, and another in the People and Tribes section.
With such an abundance of imagery, though, some random categorisation is inevitable, and it is good that some destinations are untouched, left for the reader to explore. There is no perfect way to represent such variance, such incredible cultures and such light _ but this photographic journey does an excellent job of illustrating Myanmar's vast wealth of beauty.
'Unlike any other land you know': An interview with Hans Kemp
How many trips, how much time, did the book take to compile?
For Burmese Light I used images gathered from seven trips to Burma [Myanmar]. The first trip I made was in the early '90s, the last trip was in January this year. Most photos are from 2012 but a few are from earlier trips.
Any problems on your visits?
The focus of the book is on areas where tourists can go. Some of the places visited are hard to get to in terms of bone-breaking transport, and visiting some of the remote nat pwes [spirit festivals] proved challenging as the local authorities didn't appreciate a foreigner observing the general state of mayhem so common during these festivals. We were ordered to go back to Mandalay, only to be welcomed the next day by the same officials _ after my guide made some phone calls, obviously to the right people.
What's your favourite place in the country?
My favourite place is still Inle Lake. It is already more touristy than during my earlier visits, with souvenir stalls appearing even at the more remote markets, but it is still easy to get away from it all. You just have to wake up early, be out on the lake while all the tour groups are still having breakfast. The light is magical and you can witness the morning markets as a purely local affair.
A strong contender for favourite place is Mrauk U, the ancient capital of Rakhine State. I was there in the winter of 2012, and it was magical. Cold nights and morning mist covering the valley, streaks of sunlight breaking through.
Do you have worries about Myanmar's future now that it has opened up politically?
Mentioning Rakhine State obviously brings us to one of the greatest worries for the country: simmering intolerance and prejudice leading to atrocities impossible to reconcile with our image of a Buddhist country. I guess our image needs readjustment as very recent events have shown there is a strong current of ethnic hatred. Just as it would appear there was a ray of light at the end of the tunnel, the tunnel might cave in after all. I strongly hope everyone comes to their senses and refuses to give in to prejudices and rumours, but there are forces and interests at play in the shadows we barely comprehend.
With Burmese Light I wanted to focus on the beauty of the country, the magical quality of the light, the resilience of the people. Light and darkness, they are both there, I am aware of that, after all it still holds true what Kipling said: ''This is Burma, and it will be unlike any other land you know.''
About the author
- Writer: Ezra Kyrill Erker