In Burma, David Heath Captures Smiles Over Scars

In his new photo book, David Heath focuses on Burma’s smiles, not its scars.

We tend to focus on the scars of a troubled nation, as though staring at a soldier’s battle wounds rather than smiling at the person who carries them. Burma, or Myanmar, is one such country. Its very name is a scar — one whose war, according to the official record, has ceased. Yet scuffles persist, continuing to overshadow the place’s beautiful complexity.

It’s the smiles that matter, and they make up the focus of David Heath’s new photo book, Burma: An Enchanted Spirit. The volume is a 248-page journey through Burma’s bright underbelly, so to speak, one of many journeys Heath has undergone since 1998, when he slowly transitioned from environmental engineering to travel photography. Over the course of about a decade and a half, Heath has documented the cultures and landscapes of southeast Asia, Africa, Europe and South America. The pictures are worth more than a thousand headlines. – Nick Milanes

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There is so much more to Burma than the visitor’s typical circuit. I explored a 500-million-year-old cave in the far eastern Kayin State that felt like a Jules Verne journey to the center of the earth. I climbed rugged trails through the dense green forests of the Shan State to reach the village of the Akha, where farmers tended their rice fields. I saw the Sea Gypsies in the Andaman Sea flying in the air to spear their daily meal of fish and the colorful onion farmers on the Chindwin River who looked like an impressionistic painting in the rural landscape. I learned that the Chin tribe tattoo their faces as it is believed this will disfigure their beauty and prevent them from being kidnapped, while the Naga warriors decorate themselves with powerful headgear to express their fierceness.

From a hot air balloon, I was astounded by the stunning view of Bagan’s more than 2,200 temples and stupas peering through the many layers of mist. Countless shimmering pagodas can be seen all over country — evidence of the deep devotion felt by the people to their faith and the reason why Burma is known as the Golden Land. The glorious 2,500-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda, the biggest and most important Buddhist shrine, stands at nearly 344 feet and towers atop a hillside overlooking the bustling city of Yangon, plated with 60 tons of gold and capped with a 76-carat diamond.

The country’s diverse geography ranges from the dramatic topography of snow-capped mountains in the north to miles of white sand beaches at sea level. It’s comprised of terrain interspersed with dry central plains, steamy green jungles, teak and bamboo forests, serene river settings, an extinct volcano and 880 individual islands. Burma is also home to Mt. Hkakabo Razi, Southeast Asia’s highest peak at 19,295 feet. The principal river, the Ayeyarwaddy, often referred to as “the Road to Mandalay” after Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, flows the length of the country.

Burma harkens back to a bygone era. Although it has been isolated and untouched for many years, the people still experience the joy of “being” and are not yet caught up in the material trappings of the modern world. They are generous, compassionate, humorous and resilient. I’ve been to this country many times, but feel I have just scratched the surface in discovering its treasures and myriad of peoples.

Learn more about David Heath’s new photo book on his website, or follow him on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

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