Mawlamyine is one of the most photogenic towns in Burma. The town’s fantastic location boasts ancient temples overlooking dramatic limestone crags to the east and the picturesque islands and seascapes of the Salween estuary to the west. While the locals lack the shyness you so often see among those living in remote villages, neither are they blase like say Inle or Bagan traders can be. Getting your camera out in a Mawlamyine market is almost guaranteed to have the residents posing, collapsing in heaps of giggles, calling their mates over or crowding around your LCD screen. Here are a few of our favourite people shots from the Mon State capital.
The above might not have been one of the prettiest streets in Mawlamyine but it was certainly one of the friendliest. Sticking your nose down some of the backstreets may get you a few odd looks at first but a couple of ‘mingalabars’ will break the ice. We reckon almost half the inhabitants invited us in for tea.
Yellow thanaka paste mixed with turmeric seems to be a local specialty and provides some spectacular portraits. Ask politely or if there’s a communications problem just show your camera and remember no is no. Note the wide-brimmed, rainy season hat made from bamboo on nearby Bilu Island.
Tuk tuks are something of a luxury in Mawlamyine, so a lot of market deliveries are still made the hard way. There’s no bubble wrap either and the packaging — for fruit, veg or in the below case cut flowers — is merely leaves.
Flowers are abundant at street markets. Apart from simply sticking them in a vase they’re popular as hair accessories among Burmese girls and women, and are offered at shrines and temples. In Mawlamyine’s markets you’ll see tropical flowers from the lowlands and more temperate varieties from the hills.
Down one of the grubby side streets we were invited in for lunch by this super friendly family. The son and mum are with grandmother on the right, and her mother is behind — we were assured she was 103 years old.
This young Muslim woman got so excited at actually seeing a tourist up close — and also that said tourist wanted to photograph her. After much back-tracking down side streets we managed to find her again six months later and took her back a couple of prints.
This holy man above is just one of the wonderful characters we came across in the Mawlamyine morning market. A good idea for more discreet people photography is to find a spot in a strategically placed tea shop and just watch everything pass you by.
A wonderful smile, stunning eyes and rather more subtle thanaka application from this betel nut vendor in the market, above. As a busy port, and indeed at one stage British administrative capital of Lower Burma, Mawlamyine has, even by Burmese standards, a rich ethnic mix. Mon, Bamar, Karen from surrounding hills, Sino-Burmese and Indians from every part of the subcontinent live and trade here.
Mawlamyine is a fascinating town with a vibrant street life. Whether you’re wielding a camera or not, it’s a rewarding place for a wander.
By Mark Ord
Last updated on 22nd March, 2016.