I captured this photograph in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, while traveling aboard the river cruiser, Road to Mandalay by Orient-Express, on assignment for a luxury magazine in 2001.
Then, as now, the Southeast Asia country was a complicated place with the paradoxes common in places with painful pasts and uncertain futures. Kindness and fear, beauty and poverty, spirituality and brutality coexisted in such fierce contrast that it boggled my mind and filled my heart with an intensity that left me vowing to return.
A year later, my husband and I did go back, this time for an inaugural Road to Mandalay voyage up the remote Chindwin River*. And once more we experienced a warmth and grace that belied the cruel reality of life under a Taliban-like military regime.
In those days, tourists were rare and the people we met were as curious about us as we were about them. Gaggles of children, innocent of the political repercussions that interaction with foreigners could bring, trailed behind us Pied-Piper-style to see pictures of themselves in the LCD displays of our cameras. Babies cried at the sight of my blue eyes, women reached out to touch my blond hair and throngs of people lined the river banks to wave and greet the river boat.
As we explored isolated communities, visited sacred pagodas, and delivered donated books and much needed supplies to a remote school, we were often joined by the Burmese boat staff, many of whom were seeing a region of their country for the first time.
Feeling the weight of our responsibility as foreigners, we listened and learned and relied on our guides to advise and translate as we navigated a society still strictly monitored by an often inhumane and fickle military junta.
Educated as engineers and physicists and medical doctors, professions with little opportunity for private-sector employment, our guides were smart and resourceful and eager to share their world with us and equally interested in our reaction to it.
Rudyard Kipling’s famed observation, “This is Burma. It is quite unlike any place you know about,’” was also our own: We’d never experienced anything like Burma.
I hadn’t expected that more than a decade would pass without another visit, but it has. And with the recent political and economic reforms taking place there, Myanmar has been much on my mind lately. I find that I am itching to go back, to talk to people and ask them how, or if, their lives have changed, to explore and photograph and fall in love all over again. Will I get there? I’ll keep you posted.
* Note: On July 22, 2013, the new luxury river cruiser Orcaella by Orient-Express embarked on its maiden voyage, guests will cruise along the Chindwin River discovering the hidden world of Myanmar. Learn more at www.orient-express.com
Also recommended: Back to Jail in Burma (nytimes.com, July 24, 2013)