In the West, Burma is known for its ruthless military dictatorship, for peace nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, perhaps for its abundance of golden pagodas and ancient temples. Few are aware of the fact that it was renamed Myanmar by the Junta in 1989. Little is known of Laos but those distant TV images during the Vietnam war, tortured by bombs and ruled by communists. Both countries have been isolated from Western influence for almost forty years. In the mid-nineties, tourist visas, formerly only granted for seven days, were extended to one month.
Having worked as a photojournalist and editor in Germany, I was well aware of the politically incorrect decision to explore Burma on a yearlong journey through Southeast Asia, and the thought of supporting a regime involved in murder, drug trafficking and torture almost kept me from going.
Yet, other travelers reporting that private, non-government enterprises had started to operate transportation, hotels and restaurants encouraged me to go there. I also knew that ordinary people of Burma, despite their political reality, are deeply rooted in Theravada Buddhism, a spiritual quest of mine since the first time I traveled to Asia ten years ago.
The result is a body of work entitled “Signs of Immortality” — a testimony to an ancient and enduring culture, a humbling experience in view of the political restraints. People inside Myanmar disagree with Aung San Suu Kyi asking tourists to stay away. In fact, many Burmese told me that they favor outsiders to visit, as an assurance of still being on the map of the world, not forgotten and isolated.
Surprisingly, military presence seemed subdued. Supporters of the underground democratic movement approach tourists to deliver books and much needed medicine to areas outside the big cities. Buddhist temples and monasteries are as omnipresent as fast food places are in the U.S. They are vibrant places where people gather after work to meditate, picnic, tend babies, smoke, consult palm readers, or practice English on tourists. In the streets, monks and nuns asking for their daily food mingle with shoppers, vendors and cars. It is this open spirituality as an integral part of daily life, not private or reserved for a special day of the week, that moved me most.
As a documentary photographer traveling all over the world, it has always been my intention to raise awareness to unfamiliar cultures — especially in view of the present situation we face in this country.