The search for Muang Muang – Bagan’s top photographer
All I knew was that we were looking for a man named Blacky.
There was no other agenda in Burma.
And with that, my friend and I were on a photographic mission. This man, as we understood, was the premiere photographer in the Bagan area of Burma, and we were on a mission to convince him to take us through the hidden gems of Bagan, to travel to places that travellers don’t visit, and to photograph the area as seen through the lens of photographers such as Jean Larivière and Claude Schauli.
Of course we had no way to reach him — only a name.
On arrival to Bagan, we began our quest to locate him. “Blacky?” we would ask, making the gesture of taking a photograph. Before long, the question was answered with “Muang Muang Ananda,” and by multiple people.
Eventually we realized that Blacky’s real name is Muang Muang, and that he would be found at Ananda Temple in Old Bagan — the grandest of the Bagan temples. We dropped off our backpacks, negotiated the rental of some bicycles, and made our way down the dusty roads from Nyaung U towards Old Bagan.
During the 30 minute bike ride down bumpy dirt roads, we passed numerous temples and pagodas large and small, all in varying condition. Elaborately written Burmese signs indicated the name and number of each temple (well over 2200 of them!), but two temples loomed above all others in the horizon.
We reach the entrance of the larger temple, park our bikes under what scant shade we are able to find, remove our shoes and socks and step barefoot onto the temple ground. To say this is a grand temple and a surreal experience is an understatement.
As we walk down the temple corridor, we’re approached by a lady. She has the traditional tanaka markings on her face and large eyes that gaze at us expectantly. “Can I help you?” she asks.
“Blacky Muang Muang?” Florian asks.
“Ah Muang Muang!” says the lady on immediate recognition. “Muang Muang not here.” she says. “Come with me, I call him.” And with that, she begins to leads us through the temple complex, making turns left and right.
Eventually down one corridor she gestures for us to wait, and she steps aside to make a phone call. “Muang Muang will be here in 20 minutes” she tells us. “Muang Muang helped me a lot and I would like to help his friends. Let me give you a tour of Ananda.” We’re appreciative and the tour starts.
At the end of the tour, we return to the first corridor, where, in the distance, I see a man walk down towards us in a measured pace. Wearing a white shirt and a longyi in purple plaid (a traditional pant-substitute), Muang Muang watches our approach and looks at us with a measured gaze as Florian introduces us, explains our mutual acquaintance (a National Geographic photographer), and that we were hoping we could travel and do photography together. Muang Muang takes a few moments to process this information.
“You see, I just had an operation in my eye.” He finally says. “Normally I can take you. Not this time. Maybe next time. I hope you enjoy Bagan.”
I have the sense he is unsure of us, having arrived unannounced.
“I can show you some places on a map,” Muang Muang offers. He pulls up a map and begins pointing. “Sunset. Sunrise. Sunrise. Good views.” He stops and looks back at us. The conversation is over.
I realize as we’re standing there that we’re actually in front of a temple shop. Behind Muang Muang are glorious photos of Bagan. “These are amazing!” I can’t help but exclaim. He looks at them, nods with a slight smile and says “Bagan.”
“Come back tomorrow.” He adds.
That night, Florian and I explore one of the recommended temples, and the next morning, we return.
Muang Muang is back at his stall and he greets us with a slight nod.
“Thanks for your recommendation,” I say enthusiastically. “We were caught in thunderstorm at the Shwezigon Pagoda but it was so much fun.” Spontaneously, I pull out my camera and show him the pictures taken from the night before.
He flips through the pictures, stopping at one of the evening pictures in a vivid blue colour and gestures us to sit down.
“What time did you take these pictures?” He asked.
Looking at the timestamp, I answer “7:22pm”
“This is the time you should go out to take pictures. Sky is very blue. But only a few minutes.”
These tips are golden! Sensing an opportunity, I boldly ask — “we’d love to have a guide. Can you recommend someone? I know you can’t do it this time, but if there’s anyone at all we’d be grateful.”
Muang Muang hands me back the camera and he sits down. For many wordless moments, he gazes out contemplatively, hand on his chin. Still without speaking, he now gestures for Florian’s camera and looks through his collection of photos. Again he sits gazing out without words.
“As I said, I had an operation in my eye,” he finally says. “Normally when people come to Bagan, they ask for me. There’s no one else I can recommend. Maybe I can take you around for just one day. Maybe tomorrow.” He adds.
I am beyond ecstatic. We thank him profusely and begin to make arrangements for a private car hire and to compensate him for his time. Our day is to begin at 5:00am to catch the sunrise and we’re to visit a few more remote villages and monasteries.
Before the sun is up, we’re already on our way. As the day unfolds, I learn more about Muang Muang. Back around 30 years ago, as Bagan was just starting to open up for local tourism, Muang Muang started by taking souvenir photos of local travellers in front of the temple. Back then, travel to Burma was heavily restricted and people could only come for 7 days at a time. Noticed by a Swiss photographer named Claude Schauli, Muang Muang was entrusted with photographic equipment for an expedition team that could not finish their shoot in 7 days. The photographer showed Muang Muang the ropes so that he could continue to gather photos for them until their next visit. The photographer left all their gear and essentially provided Muang Muang with all the tools he needed to take his photography to the next level.
As his photographic skills continued to improve, a series of instrumental mentors continued to hone and guide his technique to the point today where Muang Muang is widely recognized for his iconic photographs of the Bagan region and other parts of Burma. When I later had the opportunity to visit his home, the walls were adorned with numerous awards and prizes from various competitions. His work (uncredited) has been featured in some early Burma guidebooks, he was involved in the photography work for a Louis Vuitton ad, and he played a role with helping UNESCO and the archaeology department in documenting the temples and its artifacts in the region.
This morning we first stop at Salay, a few hours away from Bagan. We arrive at an old monastery, where we were greeted by an old monk and his proteges. We sat through a tea ceremony, and as we learned about the monastery school for orphans and poor children, decided to make a donation towards the education of the young monks. The old monk showed us the library of books that were all over 400 years old, gesturing that he had all of the tomes memorized in his head.
After the brief tour, we were allowed to wander the complex and photograph the monks as they went about their day. It was a splendid opportunity to watch everyone.
Outside, a crowd of curious children were gathering. I smiled and waved at them, and they smiled back. Later one of the children presented me with a garland of flowers and I reciprocated with a bag of chips. As we left the complex, I waved to them as they vigorously waved back.
We continued our journey to another town, and then another monastery, where yet another group of children gathered around in curiosity. Not surprisingly, we were caught in a rainstorm, so I passed time chatting with Muang Muang and letting the children make faces into my laptop photobooth application. Giggles and laughter pierced right through the patter of the rain as we waited for the storm to pass.
We eventually returned back to the Bagan region to visit some of Muang Muang’s favorite temples. “Look at this angle. Try this.” Muang Muang would instruct as he observed me taking photos. Sometimes he would grab my camera, fuss with the settings to show me different angles.
Before I knew it, the day was wrapping up. We thanked Muang Muang profusely for his time.
“Come back next time,” he says. “More notice, and we visit more places in Myanmar (Burma).”
Thinking of the rewarding day, I nod and wave goodnight.
The next day we’re back at the temple again where Muang Muang passes me a DVD. “Photos I took during the day.”
I thank him, and as I walk back down the temple corridor, my mind is already racing, vividly visualizing all the next places in Burma I still have yet to discover.
To book Muang Muang for a trip:
Typically Muang Muang asks for a 1 month lead time. He can take you on photographic trips all throughout Myanmar, but he specializes in Bagan. His day rate is $150 USD per day plus all travel expenses including food. That’s a fixed rate irrespective of the number of photographers in a group.
Since internet is highly unreliable, call Muang Muang to speak with him at 061 65183 / 09 502 2462
The best times to go:
Depends on what you’re looking for. If you want long shadows and more golden hour opportunities, the winter months from October to February are the best. For stormy weather and rainclouds, come in the summer months.