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.


  1. How is the GM1 working for ya? Do you feel the lack of IS using the body? I'm considering getting that or the GX7 as a companion body to the EM10.

    1. Hello Yannick, and thanks for commenting here!
      What can I say? I love my little GM1! Since I bought it, my GH3 has been left at home more often than not, and I always carry the GM1 in my handbag wherever I go. I have never used stabilized bodies, so I cannot say if I miss in-camera stabilization or not, but I have never had any issues with sharpness in my pictures with the M Zuiko 45, for example; you just have to use a faster SS and increase the ISO instead.