After more than 20 visits to SE Asia, Burma and Cambodia continue to attract me the most. I look forward to returning on this Joseph Van Os Photosafaris trip, digital medium format gear in hand, to give the monuments and engaging people their photographic due.
I love the resolution and impact of medium format images and always have. For years I hauled 6x7s around the mountains of the west, into East Africa, and across SE Asia. Canon 1DS pulled me back to 35, but the latest digital medium format systems re-established medium format dominance. I’ve worked to push the limits of the format, shooting aerials, from mountaintops, tracking wildlife in Madagascar, and documenting religious festivals in India and Singapore, a form of extreme street photography. I look forward to shooting relatively quiescent subjects, the temples and peoples of SE Asia. Several manufacturers have agreed to provide our clients with medium format cameras to use on this tour. I will explain how to extract the maximum resolution from the state-of-the-art contenders and conduct brief critiques.
1000 years ago two great empires rose in Southeast Asia, the first Burmese empire situated along the Irrawaddy River at Bagan and the Cambodian Khmer Empire at Angkor, now Siem Riep. They are among the finest archaeological sites in Asia and very different in character. Bagan is a dry 16 square-mile plain dotted with hundreds of small shrines and dozens of larger temples while Angkor adheres to the Indiana Jones model, with ornate temples and palaces emerging from the jungle. Evidence of the co-mingling of religion and power is seen everywhere. Burma and Cambodia have become my favorite places in Southeast Asia both for the architecture and even more for the cultures that live today. I always arrange for models in both countries: dancers, farmers, monks, ladies with parasols.
Any trip to Burma, dubbed Myanmar by the military junta, begins in Yangon, the former Rangoon. This is the largest city in the country, but compared to metropolis like Bangkok or Singapore, it feels like a backwater. It is home to the Schwedagon, an immense pagoda covered with more gold than the reserves of the British government. The stupa itself is ringed by a tile walkway bracketed by small shrines and miniature pagodas on either side. In the late afternoon worshipers pray before the various Buddhas or walk in a row sweeping with hand made-brooms. As dusk falls, they light candles, and the golden dome glows against the darkening sky. Although this is a Buddhist site, some of the worshipers are giving offerings to spirits called nats, the remnants of the pre-Buddhist animist culture.
Burma is a country of monks. Almost every male spend some time in the monastery studying Buddhism as a boy, and some follow the calling for life. In Mandalay at the Amarapura monastery, we will watch monks line up to receive rice for their daily meal. The monastery grounds are open to the public, affording a glimpse into their daily lives.
Mandalay, is full of rich subjects. The city surrounds the Mandalay Palace with its wooden parapets and tree-lined moat. U Bein Bridge is the longest teak bridge in the world. At sunset a stream of people walking bicycles, carrying bags, or balancing baskets on their heads are silhouetted and reflected in the lake. Kuthodaw Pagoda is comprised of a small forest of spires, each covering one of the collected sayings of the Buddha. A short boat ride away lies Mingdun, the massive base of what was to be the largest pagoda in the world, now abandoned and in ruins, an architectural Ozymandias cautioning against hubris.
Bagan is the highlight of any trip to Burma. Near dusk and dawn we will climb to the top of a temple to get an expansive view of the plain. There are temples as far as the eye can see. The spire of Ananda covers four giant golden Buddhas, Dhammayangyi is a hulking structure while Gawdawpalin near the river bank exemplifies grace. At dawn and dusk the reddish stone of the buildings looks like hot coals against a dark backdrop.
At the height of its power, the Cambodian empire was the most powerful on the Southeast Asian peninsula. The kings devoted themselves to building palaces, temples, and a wide range of civic projects. The architecture reflects the many influences of various religions and cultures found along the Bay of Bengal. The original inhabitants were Hindu which can be seen in the bas relief carvings of the earliest buildings, but Mahayana Buddhism took hold and later emissaries from the island of Sri Lanka brought Theraveda Buddhism to the country, which eventually spread throughout Southeast Asia.
I never tire of photographing Angkor Wat. This and other popular sites are best seen early in the morning before the crowds descend upon them. Dozens of lesser known temples surround the main archaeological sites, some still within the grasp of the jungle looking much as they did when the French archaeologists first explored here more than 100 years ago. In these quiet places I make time to stop shooting and sit like Edward Gibbon in Rome’s Capitoline Hill contemplating the grandeur and collapse of a dominant civilization.
Ta Prohm and Preah Khan retain some of the original character the first Europeans encountered when Angkor was discovered by the outside world. Trees are rooted to the walls, and we can thread through collapsed rooms and around fallen pillars while Banteay Srey, a small jewel of a temple, remains in impeccable condition, its bas-reliefs often pristine. Crowds swarm Bayon’s tower, but dozens of smaller temples attract few or none. I always try to visit at least one hidden gem on each trip. I haven’t been disappointed yet.
While Cambodia has transformed itself in the last decade, attracting armies of tourists, Burma remains stuck in time. Both will probably change beyond recognition within a few years, but as of today, they offer the richest experiences in SE Asia.
For more information or to sign up for the Cambodia and Burma Digital Medium Format Adventure, go to: