National Geographic Society Newsroom

One hundred hours in Burma: A photo diary

Knowing whether to call it Burma or Myanmar was just one of the many questions I had as the tug guided our 25,000 ton ship gingerly up the Yangon River. The dredging that had taken place earlier that morning had turned the open water from a cool bubble-bath blue to a murky brown, although I...

Knowing whether to call it Burma or Myanmar was just one of the many questions I had as the tug guided our 25,000 ton ship gingerly up the Yangon River. The dredging that had taken place earlier that morning had turned the open water from a cool bubble-bath blue to a murky brown, although I suspect it’s probably pretty-much this colour most of the time now. After four days at sea, civilisation lay ahead.


The murky Yangon. Civilisation ahead (photo: Ken Banks)


There were rumours that we’d be docking outside Yangon within walking distance of the city centre. The rumours were false, but where we did end up – in an industrial area an hour from the city – proved just as interesting. We’d arrived too late to head out that night so we took a stroll outside the ship in time to catch our first Burmese sunset.


Cranes aboard the Deshbandu-1 await their cargo of logs (photo: Ken Banks)


The dockside was noticeable for the dozens of second-hand Korean buses and coaches that lined it, most waiting their turn to join the hustle and bustle of Yangon’s creaking public transport system. Behind lay row upon row of logs. According to the Indian and Bangladeshi crew, the Deshbandu-1 would be in port for one month as it loaded its cargo. Final destination: Chittagong, Bangladesh. Burma is a major exporter of teak, with 75% of the world market worth hundreds of millions of dollars each year to the country. As one of the only countries to harvest high-quality teak from natural forests, Burma faces a deforestation crisis.


The thermometer doesn’t lie (photo: Ken Banks)


As we left port on the second morning, I spotted the thermometer on the front of the bus. 117 degrees Fahrenheit is well into the forties, and it felt it. Burma’s tropical climate is high in humidity, making it feel particularly uncomfortable. Temperatures are supposed to average around 20 to 25 degrees Celsius at this time of year, but with climate change wreaking havoc around the globe that probably doesn’t mean too much these days.


Home delivery system, Burmese-style (photo: Ken Banks)


As you walk the back streets of Yangon it’s hard not to notice the countless ropes hanging down from high up the front of the buildings, with bags or bulldog clips attached. For a while we couldn’t figure out what these were for until we bumped into one in action. We watched with a fascination that only a traveller seeing this for the very first time would have, as a shop owner attached a bag of coffee to the clip, and shook the rope until a bell rang high up on the customer’s balcony. And then, zip – up it went. We were witnessing a clever home delivery system in action, saving business people long and arduous trips up flights of stairs in the heat. With crime so low in the country, if the customer wasn’t in then there’s an extremely high chance that their goods would still be dangling there when they return.


Elephants are a big draw for tourists in Asia (photo: Ken Banks)


Elephant smuggling for the tourist trade in neighboring Thailand is a major problem in Burma, with up to a hundred reportedly removed from their forest homes and taken over the border each year. Many die in the process. We passed this elephant chained to a tree on our way into Yangon.


Car imports are heavily regulated in Burma (photo: Ken Banks)


Strict control of new vehicles even applies to the police (photo: Ken Banks)


Many of the roads in Burma are in bad shape, and this doesn’t bode well as demand for cars and public transport increases. Even if you could afford a car – they’re well out of the price range of the majority of Burma’s population – the government only allows a few thousand to be imported each year. The result is something a little like I’d imagine Cuba to be – roads peppered with old cars which have no right to still be running. This blue Mazda, and the two police vehicles, are typical of what you see.


Despite the many signs to the contrary, health and safety is an issue (photo: Ken Banks)


On my travels throughout Africa I’ve seen my fair share of electrical cabling horror stories. This shot, taken in one of the backstreets in Yangon, is actually one of the better ones. Power cuts are frequent in the capital, but none of them lasted more than a few minutes while we were there.


Temples compete with mobile phone masts for the skies above Yangon (photo: Ken Banks)


Mobile phone ownership remains low, resulting in a booming trade for phone ‘kiosks’ like these (photo: Ken Banks)


A young monk makes a dash across the road with his new purchase (photo: Ken Banks)


Anyone who knows my work will know my fascination for mobile, particularly how it impacts communities. I’ve already got a gallery of over 150 images taken on my travels over the past ten years, mostly in Africa. This was my first time in Burma, and it was incredible to see how mobile phone shops have already taken hold. Ownership is still incredibly low, but that’s changing. HTC launched a new phone earlier this year aimed specifically at the Burmese market. According to the World Bank, less than 3% of people here own a phone.


A monk takes some down time to make a call (photo: Ken Banks)


When I set out yesterday, everyone with me knew my single objective for the day was to get a photo of a monk using a mobile phone. Okay, it may be a bit cheesy but for me it was the ideal photo to highlight the blending of old and new in a rapidly changing country.


I didn’t stop to ask the score (photo: Ken Banks)


A sneaky shot taken through the gates of a Monastic School, monks play football with friends in the late afternoon. More often you’ll see people playing kick-volleyball, or chin lone, with the same small dried-reed ball.


A young monk watches tourists at Yangon’s biggest temple complex, Shwedagon Pagoda (photo: Ken Banks)


A battery-powered market stall sells groundnuts into the early evening (photo: Ken Banks)


A local bus speeds through the quietening streets (photo: Ken Banks)


Whenever I travel I do my best to see the place at night. They often take on a whole new identity, and Yangon was no different. Not only did the sunset present a wonderful backdrop, but the temperature dropped significantly and the traffic thinned out to make walking quite a pleasure. In the photo (three up) we met this young monk who spent much of his time at the Shwedagon Pagoda finding tourists to help him practice his English.


Children reclaiming the streets at night (photo: Ken Banks)


After nine hours exploring Yangon largely on foot we headed back to the coach. As I turned the last corner I literally bumped into about ten children playing football on what was earlier a busy road. Many of the streets seemed to be reclaimed at night like this, with the more popular spots being those with the best lighting. In the background is another of Yangon’s many pagodas, or tiered towers (note the mobile phone mast to the left). This was my last shot of the day.

In case you’re wondering what I’m doing in Burma, I’m spending a month aboard a ship mentoring about a dozen socially-focused technology start-ups as they take their products and services to a dozen cities around the world over a hundred days. I joined about three weeks ago in Hong Kong and leave when we get to India, our next port of call.

You can read more on the Unreasonable at Sea website and on my earlier National Geographic post, or follow the rest of the journey on my Twitter or Instagram pages.

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Author Photo Ken Banks
Ken Banks is an innovator, mentor, anthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Founder of and now Head of Social Impact at Yoti, he spends his time applying Yoti's digital identity solutions to humanitarian problems around the world. His earlier research resulted in the development of FrontlineSMS, an award-winning text messaging-based field communication system designed to empower grassroots non-profit organisations. He shares exciting stories in "Digital Diversity" about how mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used around the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.