Irene is an avid traveler who believes photography is magic, and enables her to view the world with new eyes. Her foray into Myanmar—a country still relatively untouched by tourists—gives us an insight into the magic that lies within it.
Hi, My name is Irene Barlian. I am an Indonesian photographer who focuses on documentary and travel photography. I am currently living in Jakarta but continue to travel. I am very fond of sunset and sunrise. I love travelling because I genuinely think that it’s the best way to learn. Being exposed to different cultures, meeting new people, and encountering all kinds of situations. It’s a lesson that you won’t get anywhere else. Travelling is the best way to see the beauty in the world and appreciate how life works.
How does photography influence the way you travel and see the world around you?
I feel that my senses are heightened when I am travelling. I pay more attention to everything around me. I am able to see the beauty in the mundane. It is like getting a new pair of eyes to see the world with, and to have a whole new perspective on life. With photography, you have the ability to freeze the moments and make them last forever. Photography makes me feel like I have the power to stop time. It’s like magic.
Why did a visit to Myanmar appeal to you? Which areas did you visit while you were there?
I have always been fascinated and interested by the diverse culture, rich tradition, sublime landscape, and the variety of people in Asia. So it all started in 2014 when I decided to travel to other Southeast Asian countries. Myanmar was on the top of my list. The country had just opened to the world in 1990, so it’s quite new in terms of tourism. I wondered what it would be like to visit a country that is still considered ‘pure’. During my 10-day trip to Myanmar, I visited Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, and Inle Lake.
How did you approach planning your trip?
First of all, I listed out the things that I wanted to see and the places that I wanted to visit. Then, I started researching it. Ranging from the city itself, how to get there, the transportation that I would be using, places to stay, and everything else. Pretty much some basic stuff that I might need during my travels. I tried to keep everything open yet organized, so my day-to-day schedule was not fixed. I just google searched everything and made my own itinerary. Once I got to Myanmar, I asked around and got information directly from the locals. I did get lost once in a while, but I think the process of figuring things out is part of the journey.
How did you manage to get around the country when you arrived?
Transportation is pretty straightforward in Myanmar. I was surprised by how organized and well maintained the public transport is in Myanmar. I used buses to navigate between each city. They have a long list of buses (with the schedules) that can take you from one city to another. And, they’re all online! I recommend the JJ Express Bus. It is a big bus with ac and big reclining seats. It’s comfortable and affordable. On a day-to-day basis, I used different kinds of transportation from cars, motorcycles, boats, and even horse-drawn carriages.
Did you have any expectations of Myanmar before you traveled there?
Yes, I love to imagine what it would be like to be in a place before I travel. I imagined Myanmar to be somewhat holy and untouched, I remembered it was the most religious Buddhist country in the world. But, nothing compared the feeling of being there in person, firsthand. It was grand, and beat my imagination of what Myanmar would be like.
Tell us about some of your experiences
As a Buddhist country, there are literally thousands of pagodas, stupas, and monasteries scattered across the country. The classic architecture of Myanmar is reflected in every pagoda, yet each one still has its own distinct style - a combination of culture, traditions and belief that creates a work of art. Everything in Myanmar feels very traditional and authentic. The country that it's culture is derived from, and it's beliefs mesmerized me! And, it doesn’t get any better than being in a bus filled with the locals. Everyone bringing a whole bunch of stuff back to their homes, while listening to Burmese songs playing on the radio. Travelling around Myanmar was a pure experience for me. English is not really commonly spoken there, not even in the tourist areas. The men wear sarongs or ‘long-yi’, as they called it. The women use Thanaka, a yellowish cream made from ground bark that they use for sunscreen on a daily basis. My encounter with the Pa’O and Padaung people was one of the highlights of my trip. They are the second largest Shan ethnics that inhabited the southwestern part of Shan State.
Has this trip been different to your previous ones?
I think every trip is different. Every place has it’s own charm and beauty. Every culture is a treasure waiting to be explored and discovered. People I meet along the way have their own story to tell. But I think what made this trip different is the rawness that I felt when I traveled here. It is not ‘set-up’ for tourists yet - at least not in all places. I could really get immersed in their way of life and get to feel the real Myanmar.
Do you have any memorable moments from your trip?
A lot of memorable moments happened during my trip. One of my favourites is when I saw a monk meditating inside a vaulted arch, carved through the Ananda temple in Bagan. It was serene. I could feel his energy filling up the entire space. It was soothing and calming. Definitely one of the best moments of my Myanmar trip.
Do you have any advice for people interested in traveling to Myanmar?
Be open and flexible because you will never know what’s coming towards you and always, always go for local food. I think that Myanmar is astonishing. The experience has been nothing but genuine and pure. Myanmar has exceeded my expectations and become one of my favourite countries to travel to.
Do you have a favourite picture from the trip? Can you share the story behind it?
I think this picture is my favorite because it portrays the life of a monk in Myanmar. A simple image that has a lot of meanings and contains symbols of life in Myanmar. In this image, a novice monk is walking in front of a dorm at the Mahagandayon Monastery. In the background, there are two monks peeking out the window, with red robes and towels hanging in front of the dorm. Mahagandayon is the biggest teaching monastery in Mandalay that accommodates almost 1000 monks from all over the world. I was there to watch them having lunch, which is their last meal of the day. I have never seen so many monks in one place before! All of them with their heads shaved, wearing red robe, and shoeless. Everyone man in Myanmar has to try monastery life, at least once in their lifetime. They then have the choice to stay and become a monk or leave. It is a pride for Myanmar people to become a monk or have relatives who have joined the monastery’s life.
What’s next for you?
I would love to continue my journey across Southeast Asia and complete my body of work. I am also planning on organizing an exhibition once it finishes.
Images courtesy of Irene Barlian
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