31 Jul 2014

Yangon Circular Railway

Wandering around the streets of Yangon is an incredibly rewarding experience for the observer and photographer, since there are countless opportunities to capture slices of life everywhere you go, as I described in my previous 2 posts (monochrome scenes here, and color scenes here); however, there is more to Yangon than just street life. I heard from two friends that had visited the city a few months earlier, that there was another way of getting to see the local people and their ways of life from within that didn't involve walking at all; I was extremely curious to discover this place that promised to put me in touch with the locals at a more intimate level, and without even moving a muscle! Not that I doubted their words, but that was something I had to see for myself, so next morning we woke up early and walked to Yangon Central Railway Station, ready to jump on to the next train leaving.

Misleading lethargy, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Preparations, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Awaiting, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
The lonely photographer's journey, GM1 + Olympus M Zuiko 45mm
Family trip, GM1 + Olympus M Zuiko 45mm
After purchasing a very cheap ticket, we waited for a few minutes, walking up and down the busy platform, trying to get a feel for the place, until the train finally came. Hordes of people got off the old carriages, since this was the last (and first) stop, so the train became momentarily empty, but as soon as the last passenger disembarked, another crowd of people (this time smaller in number) started getting on the coaches, looking for a bit of free bench where sitting. We were lucky to sit by a window and, as our carriage was not that occupied yet and there was nothing of much interest inside the train, I spent the first minutes looking through the window, gradually but clearly noticing how the blocks of houses, bridges and traffic were steadily diminishing, while rice fields and puddles, small villages and shacks became dominant. The city had led us to the countryside.

The curve, GM1 + Olympus M Zuiko 45mm
Free crossing, GM1 + Olympus M Zuiko 45mm
Reload, GM1 + Olympus M Zuiko 45mm
Home at the track's edge, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Hopes and bags, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Green hamlet, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
The Circular Railway is Yangon's main way of transportation, since it is the cheapest and also because it links the city center with the surrounding, countryside areas, forming a loop of 45 km across 39 stations; thus in every station we stopped at (and these stops varied from mere seconds to roughly a minute) more and more people got on the train, bringing along multiple goods, most of them vegetables and fruits, in order to sell them at the street markets that populate the city. Our coach was no longer a quiet place, and only now I understood the words of my friends when they talked about 'intimacy', since the carriage was getting so crowded that there was hardly any space left to move your legs, and it was unavoidable to be sitting arm to arm, foot to foot, with everybody else around you.

Travel friendship, GM1 + Olympus M Zuiko 45mm
Myanmar donuts, GM1 + Olympus M Zuiko 45mm
Senior dealer, GM1 + Olympus M Zuiko 45mm
Market on the move, GM1 + Olympus M Zuiko 45mm
Haste, GM1 + Olympus M Zuiko 45mm
I do not speak any Burmese, so my interactions with the locals were limited to glances, smiles, some body language and other basic gestures, but being right there, in the middle of a local, busy crowd going ahead with their own lives, made me feel so at ease! They didn't pay much attention to me and my camera after some first curious seconds, but they were always considerate and friendly, despite the language barriers. Nevertheless, there was something else that immediately grabbed my attention and, once it did, it just didn't let go of me anymore, for it totally robbed my focus: the children's faces and eyes. At once interested, wary and shy, they kept on looking at me furtively through the piles of bodies between us, and that game of elusive gazes went on for a few stations until they suddenly stood up, and got off. 

Thanaka face, GM1 + Olympus M Zuiko 45mm
Windowvision, GM1 + Olympus M Zuiko 45mm
Shades of ochre, GM1 + Olympus M Zuiko 45mm
Shy eyes, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
The journey within, GM1 + Olympus M Zuiko 45mm
Three hours later, we arrived back at Yangon Central Railway Station. Our legs were a bit stiff, but my camera was packed with many memories, and my heart with a pinch of sadness. But that soon would be fixed with a visit to Yangon's most spectacular landmark: Shwedagon Pagoda.

23 Jul 2014

Streets of Yangon II: color scenes

Yangon is a city that deserves to be discovered by foot. It's quite vast and it can be very hot at times, but the pleasure of simply walking through its alleys, discovering amazing little corners or buildings left and right is totally worth it. Architecture-wise, Yangon is a city with a visible colonial past were time and rains have passed mercilessly and have left their sign on the walls and windows: everywhere you go, the big, old buildings will greet you with their mouldy facades and rotten furniture, with their faded colors and their leaning railings. Yangon is a city of contrasts, where once majestic buildings are abandoned and decrepit today, while people live in small beehives and spend most of their time in the streets. After last week's monochrome collection (you can see it here) today we embrace color!

Human beehive, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Nature vs. cement, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Deterioration, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Open decay, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Quiet afternoon, GM1 + Olympus M Zuiko 45mm
Transparency, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
But there is more to Yangon than simply decay and abandonment from better times; the city is far from dead, and it shows a relentless energy and will to prosper that can be seen in certain areas that are experimenting rapid urbanization and growth. Though tourism and foreig presence is still small in the city (and the rest of the country), things are starting to change and signs of modernisation can already be spotted througout the city. The area near Yangon's main attraction, Shwedagon Pagoda (I will cover it in a future post), is specially active in its development: new condominium buildings are starting to appear, and the lake around the floating Karaweik Palace, another of Yangon's renowned attractions, has turned into a nice, big and well kept public park.

Karaweik Palace I, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Karaweik Palace II, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Shwedagon through the trees, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Afternoon reflections, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Romance in the umbrella shade, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Cooling down, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
But what is a city without its myriad of faces and souls populating every road and every street? Day and night, old quarters or developing areas, shaded corners or sunny squares, Yangon is never empty nor quiet, and you will always encounter people anywhere you go in this exciting, dirty metropolis. Kids playing and men riding, women carrying goods back home or vendors advertising. Chances are very high that you will grab a few smiles and even rudiments of conversations along your way, and more often than not, the best memories you will keep from your days spent there willl not be places but people. 

19th Street, GM1 + Olympus M Zuiko 45mm
Night market, GM1 + Olympus M Zuiko 45mm
Umbrellas, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
The dishwasher, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Textures and surprise, GM1 + Olympus M Zuiko 45mm
The little guardian, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Ice-cream seller, GM1 + Olympus M Zuiko 45mm
Searching for tired legs, GM1 + Olympus M Zuiko 45mm
To see the collection of images from Yangon Circular Railway, click here., and for images of the beautiful pagodas that populate the city, including the renowned Shwedagon, click here.

15 Jul 2014

Streets of Yangon I: monochrome scenes

During the last Songkran holidays I traveled to Yangon. It was my first visit to Myanmar, and it came as a last minute decision: me, along 3 friends, had just 3 days to spend together, and on a whim, we decided to fly to Myanmar's biggest city since it was near enough and the three of them, all Buddhist, were really interested in seeing the famous pagodas that populate the city, specially the renowned Shwedagon. I had heard numerous stories from friends that Myanmar is a rough while exciting country, but they all recommended going North, despising Yangon as a secondary destination not worth more than a night. We didn't have the luxury of a longer vacation, and considering our available time, traveling North was totally out of question, so we had to find things to do and see in the former capital for the whole length of our stay. I can say up front that we succeeded in our purpose, since Yangon is a city full of charms and magic and we deeply enjoyed all the experiences that we lived there.

The last drink, GM1 + Olympus M Zuiko 45mm
Night duties, GM1 + Olympus M Zuiko 45mm
Frying pose, GM1 + Olympus M Zuiko 45mm
We reached late in the evening from Bangkok, took a cheap taxi to our hotel, located right in the heart of the old quarters, and once we were ready to go out and start our exploration of the city it was already dark and we were increasingly hungry, thus our first stroll was along the small streets next to our hotel, in search of a place to have dinner. Despite the late hour and lack of sunshine, the streets were lively and full of people: vendors selling their goods and customers buying, some people cooking and some other eating, so it didn't take us long to choose a place and have our first taste of Burmese food: fried noodles with seafood. A couple of drinks later we returned to the hotel since all stalls were slowly closing and we felt tired. A brief first contact, but the following day would be much longer!

Streets of Yangon, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Avian colonisation, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Quiet alley, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
The first thing you notice when you set foot in any of Yangon's streets, big or small, is how busy they are, how dusty, how noisy, how packed by traffic, people, dirt, and birds. Yangon, as many Asian cities, is a bustling hub, overpopulated and hyperactive, where the flow of things is dictated by basic needs and things are done in a beautifully unorganized manner; the streets are never empty nor lonely, and even under the fiercest sun, there are countless vendors displaying their merchandise directly on the floor or in humble baskets or tables to everyone passing by. From fruits to religious tokens to clothes to second hand gadgets, there is so much you can find along the streets that it is no surprise that there are not many shopping centers or malls in the city, since most people purchase everything they need in the streets.

Wicker and fruits, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Street market I, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Street market II, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Health insurance, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Different directions, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
There are, however, a few indoor markets, though these tend to blend both the local businesses with the tourist-oriented stalls, full of the usual souvenir flavors, but don't be fooled, Yangon is no touristic city by any stretch of the imagination (at least not yet) if you compare it with the likes of Bangkok, Luang Prabang, Hanoi or even Kuala Lumpur, and the more you will encounter will be a few tourists taking pictures or drinking beer in the street bars at night. Yangon remains, as of today, mostly a local city, and tourism is only a minor (though increasing) presence.

Crowd I, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Crowd II, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
While you walk leisurely along the streets of this big, chaotic and dirty city, you will come across multiple people and, more often than not, they will smile at you, curious and surprised at your skin color, greeting and welcoming you to their land without any second intentions. At least that's how I felt there, always welcomed and safe. The old, colonial district where we were located is probably one of the most interesting in the city for its mixture of European and Asian colors and the decay that shines everywhere, but we will leave that for a future post, since today I prefer to focus on the people: there are many poor and homeless people in Yangon, living in the streets, in small shacks or in the numerous abandoned buildings that spread across the whole city, there is garbage piled up in every corner, holes in the dusty roads, but there is also a decency in the way they carry on with their lives, making the most of their situation, and coexisting with the long, hard past that rests upon their shoulders.

Lonely walk, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Leaves and shadows, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Walkers, GM1 + Olympus M Zuiko 45mm
Daily departure, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
The shadow of a long colonial past can be felt everywhere, as does the memory of a recent and oppressive regime, but the people of Yangon face the future with courage while carrying on with their old traditions at the same time, ignoring the effects of globalization to a great extent (though this is starting to change quickly since the country opened its frontiers a few years ago, which is already impacting the face of the city and even the life of its inhabitants); as you stroll around the city, you will soon see that most people still wear the traditional sarong skirts, even the younger and 'modern' generations, while the majority of women and kids dress their faces with thanaka paste.

Coordination, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Women's stroll, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Gambling gathering, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Dissemination, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Another thing that will quickly grab the attention of any foreign visitor is the surprising absence of motorbikes; Yangon is a city overflowing with old cars and rusty buses, but there are almost no motorcycles since the roads are not very well maintained and it would be too dangerous and risky for them; therefore, people must find other ways of transportation, but fear not, for they have plenty of ways to move around the city, either by the aforementioned cars, buses or taxis, simply walking, or using the 2 most common and energy-efficient ways of transportation of all: bicycles and rickshaws. Two and three wheel human powered vehicles are omnipresent in Yangon, and they serve multiple purposes: from the obvious one of transporting people, to carrying stuff to sleeping ground.

The carrier, GM1 + Olympus M Zuiko 45mm
Recess, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Rickshaw stand, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
The ride, GM1 + Olympus M Zuiko 45mm
Playground, GM1 + Olympus M Zuiko 45mm
Nap, GM1 + Olympus M Zuiko 45mm
The pier, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
After one full day relentlessly walking the streets of old Yangon, camera in hand, capturing every scene and trying to apprehend the vibe and rhythm of such a vast, diverse and complex city, I noticed I had a slight sunburnt, and only then I realized something that had past unnoticed to me the whole day despite its obviousness: the scarcity of trees in the city. There seems to be no space left for them, amidst the streets full of concrete, cement and dust. I promised myself to look for more trees the following day!

Bricks and textures, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
The trunk, GM1 + Olympus M Zuiko 45mm
To see the streets of this city through color, head here, for the collection of captures of Yangon Circular Railway, click here, and for images of the beautiful pagodas that populate the city (including the renowned Shwedagon), click here.