Capturing both familiar local landscapes and the people & places of less familiar world, this diverse, thought provoking retrospective, draws upon work previously exhibited in London, New York and Singapore.
In this first of a two part series, Andy W Langton, puts pen to paper and takes us on a visit to Burma’s Rivers & Roads Less Traveled.
I had spent the previous month in the remote hills of Northern Thailand photographing the indigenous tribes, many of whom had fled Burma over the last 30 years to avoid persecution, resettlement and civil war to forge a new life.
Initially, I was hoping to cross the border at Mae Sai into Burma’s Shan State but no such luck. Whilst access to this amazing country is rapidly opening-up, the crossing north of Chiang Rai was still closed to foreigners. Instead of a few miles into Burma I chose to take a 450mile bus ride to Bangkok and a 600mile flight to Mandalay. From Mandalay, we were to be picked up by our contact and driven overnight to Lashio, the largest of the towns in northern Shan State.
For the first week of the trip, I would be taking along Jonas, a 22year old German gap year student from Kiel on Germany’s Baltic coast. He had been working with IMPECT, (Inter Mountain Peoples Education and Culture in Thailand), as a teacher for the previous 9 months and had accompanied me on most of the field trips over my time in the Thai highlands.
I got the distinct feeling that the relationship between China and the Burma’s military junta was beginning to wane. I could see that China’s exploitation was on a huge scale, with little of the benefits filtering down to the general population.
Bordering China, Shan State carried the bulk of the trade between the two countries and if Burma was a lush garden of rich pickings, China’s presence akin to a plague of locust, consuming everything that lay before them.
Bumper to bumper trucks and lorries made their way up the steep mountain pass to reach the Shan plateau, making our progress very slow. Upon reaching the top around 2am, headlights from the hundreds of vehicles created a giant illuminated serpent upon which Burma’s food produce and considerable natural resources would exit the country.
Arriving in Lashio we spent the first night and the following day with our contacts. With no food and little water to drink or wash, their situation was a day-to-day challenge. When staying with them began to attract attention, we decided to stay the second night in a nearby hotel catering for Chinese businessmen to minimize the chance of getting picked up.
Whilst in Lashio, we were to visit nearby villages, a visit to Nam Kyan monastery orphanage was to have the greatest impact on me.
Founded and run by head monk U Sasana, this was one of two centers established to provide education, and in the case of Nam Kyan, a home for Burma’s less fortunate children.
The first thing that struck me was how happy the children were. With no immediate family and few material possessions, the children relied on the monastery for all things. Food would come from alms collected from nearby villages and local women would prepare food in the kitchen attached to the schoolhouse. From private overseas donations, work had already started on a larger, better equipment schoolhouse with the stone for the foundations coming from the nearby quarry.
An hour’s journey away and we had arrived at U Sasana’s second project, a newly constructed timber built schoolhouse that provided education to children from the surrounding villages. Under the shade of a Banyan tree in the school yard, U Sasana sat and reluctantly agreed to have his photograph taken before I joined a group of young Monks in the field at the back of the monastery.
From Lashio we were to take the early bus, which left a few hours before dawn, heading to the higher hills and more remote villages and monasteries. The steep and twisting mountain roads left little margin for error, eventually reaching Namshan and its single guesthouse as a thick mist of low cloud descended to accompany the torrential rain.
Reminding me of the Himalayan town of Darjeeling, the narrow single high street of timber houses ran for about ¼ mile until it abruptly stopped. A devastating fire the year before had destroyed a large section of the upper high street as strong winds fanned the flames that tore through the tinder dry houses. An appeal had been made throughout Shan state and enough money collected from other villages to rebuild, this time in brick and concrete. Towards the highest section of the town, Namshan monastery appeared out of the mist as we made our way up the hill.
As a reminder that we were in country in the grip of civil war, an open truck loaded with Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) soldiers drove past belching diesel fumes. As the truck mounted machine gun was swung in my direction it sent a clear message that they were in control of this particular place and taking a photograph wasn’t the best decision. There’s a time and a place for pointing a camera, this wasn’t one. To the North in Kachin State, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) where in the midst of savage fighting with government troops. Rarely if ever reported to the outside world a chance meeting with a British conflict photographer a few days earlier had given me an insight into what was going on. His beaten up Nikon and the look you get when you’ve been in a war zone for a year said as much as his grim accounts.
Towards the highest section of the town, Namshan monastery appeared out of the mist. Probably due to the rain, which was now bouncing off the ground, the monastery appeared to be deserted. Eventually we located the Abbot and asked if we could take a look around, Jonas stayed and joined the Abbot for tea whilst I continued to have a look around. A large dormitory was located at the far end of the courtyard, I knocked on the door and waited.
As the double doors opened, a group of novice monks came to see who the stranger was. Inside, single beds lined the long narrow dormitory and all eyes were immediately on me, the whole place then irrupted in excitement. Taking a packet of boiled sweets out of my bag brought from Singapore there was soon a mad scramble.
In the doorway, umbrellas stood in a large earthenware pot. By now the monsoon rain was so heavy that torrents poured off the roofs and through the gaps between the buildings. Gesturing for them to come outside they eventually ventured out and the courtyard became a waterpark in the torrential rain.
With the boys heading back inside to change into dry robes I joined Jonas and the Abbot for some tea. As with monk U Sasana, the Abbots English was flawless and we chatted about everything from Premier league football to Aung San Suu Kyi.
We had been told that further up the valley, beyond some truly enormous Banyan tree’s, stood Zetonhone monastery. Our arrival would correspond with the new moon on the 16th and herald the start of Kason Nyaung Ye Thun, Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and passing to Nirvana.
Arriving unannounced, we were immediately greeted as special guests and made to feel at home whilst daily life continued as normal. The monks continued with building improvements, novice monks had their lessons with meditation and prayers throughout the day. During recreational time, novice monks played football and Chin Lone (kick volleyball), whilst the older monks walked around the hillside tea gardens that surrounded the monastery on all sides. After the communal dinner we climbed the hill overlooking the monastery and watched a fiery red sun go down, silhouetting the Stupas to make a perfect sunset.
Our return journey to Lashio, although downhill all the way, was a much more uncomfortable experience. The bus we had paid for never arrived which meant a 7hr journey in a cattle truck with 50 others which was the more common mode of transport.
With no perceptible suspension and poor brakes, the journey did have its moments of excitement. After about 4 hours we eventually stopped for a welcome break. By this time, I was having difficulty in bending my back and as we walked around the front of the truck Jonas dropped his wallet. Bending down to pick it up, I used the open cab of the truck as a support as a gust of wind slammed the door on the back of my hand. Thrusting the wallet at Jonas, I continued walking telling him I was going to the roadside bathroom, a few steps later I passed out.
Flat on my back on the mountain road, traffic drove around the star shaped foreigner. Jonas had seen me and assumed I was stretching out my back and went off to get some noodles for breakfast. Sometime later I began to hear birdsong and could see blurred figures looking down at me ‘Sir, truck leaving’. Struggling to my feet I headed back and met Jonas who still hadn’t realised I wasn’t stretching out my back, or taking a roadside nap.
Picking up some of the luggage we had left at the Lashio safe house we boarded the overnight bus to Rangoon, a more comfortable 13hour journey lay ahead. Jonas was to catch his flight back to Bangkok and I was heading off to Sittwe on Burma’s west coast for the next stage of my journey along Burma’s Rivers & Roads Less Traveled’.