Photos & Projects

Travelling Myanmar Solo with Black & White Film – By Jelle Vonk

February 2, 2020

My unexposed rolls of film, put together in a plastic zip bag ready to pass through security. ‘These cannot go through the scanner’ I said firmly. No problem at all, just wait here sir, a few moments later we were trough without any problems. This was the start of my trip, travelling solo to Myanmar.

Taking my first longer solo trip felt like a bit of a challenge. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to rely purely on myself, in a completely different country in a complete different environment. Of course I was nervous, but I was also excited. Thrilled to the adventure, the unknown but also ready to expose my 11 rolls of black and white film.

Men working on the street in the rain (Yangon)

My Leica M2 was the greatest travel companion I could imagine. Together we saw things we had never been before, we were exposed to new light of experiences, felt the senses and captured it. We were there, in those moments. I could rely on its basics, itself, its solid character.

I stepped outside of the door of my hostel in the busy streets of Yangon. Immediately the heat stroke me, the sun burning on my skin. Wow, what a people and what a stuff going on. People selling everything, everywhere, fruits, meat, vegetables, clothes, anything you could imagine. Within the first hour I already shot my first roll. People are walking everywhere, lots of sounds and smells as you walk over the streets with open sewers. A man, moving a riding table trough the street. Young men, sorting out fish. Anything could happen on the streets. Walking up and down china town I took man shots, with sometimes a necessary break with a bottle of water. Me, a small bag, one lens and one camera.

Young men sorting fish (Yangon)

Travelling with film can sound like it’s a bit of challenge and a hassle, but over the all the security points during this trip, with flights to Bangkok and internal flights, I had no problems at all. Just claim firmly the material can not go trough the scanner, hand it forward in a plastic bag and smile, you should be fine. As a thank you I had some small darkroom prints, it was incredible how happy the staff was with this nice gesture.

One of the greatest scenes I liked to shoot in Myanmar were the trains. In Yangon itself there was the circle train, which only ran half a circle around Yangon at the time I was there due to maintenance. However, the impressions weren’t any less. Stepping up in a local train station in the neighborhood I wasn’t sure were to buy a ticket. Another passenger however pointed my to a small house close to the track. After a friendly encounter with the ticket office I boarded the old train. Its main function is for local transport in Yangon. On the train you could buy lots of food. Ladies were walking with food carried upon their heads and sitting down, serving you once you decided to buy. It was a massive experience to see and to photograph.

A worker commuting home in Yangon

A lady selling food in the circle train of Yangon

As I progressed my trip I passed through many places in Myanmar. I visited the famous Inle Lake with the unique poses of the fishermen, the temples of Bagan and the city of Mandalay. Hiring a local tuk tuk driver as a guide in Mandalay was the perfect decision. It led me to the jade market where stones were being cut, traded and sold by phone to China.

Inspecting and selling jade at the jade market in Mandalay

In the last week I travelled up to Shipaw by train. A small town in the Shan state. From here we hiked 2 days into the mountains with only pure essentials. No room for my camera bag, I put it inside a t-shirt together with 3 rolls of film and my underwear and toothbrush. We hiked, for hours and hours with a small group I met in a hostel and a hired mountain guide. We spent the night at a local homestay, no running water and electricity. Advantage of a mechanical camera? It just works. On the second day we passed a school and visited it . As we had time to spent with the children I was lucky enough to photograph a few of them. None of them spoke any Burmese as they belonged to a minority, part of their education was taught in English due to lack of local tongue teachers.

A local school in a Shan State village

Backpacking brings you back to the essence of what you need. After a long trip you realize less is more and that you don’t need any stuff, other than some basic clothes. When I look through an inverted 50mm lens om my light table and see my negatives I remember every shot I took. I remember every moment, even if the shots failed. Life or travel isn’t about perfect, it’s about doing it and experience it. Slow down, shoot film. Embrace whatever comes out of it. Grab your camera and get out there.

A young student at school in Shan State

For all pictures of my trip to Myanmar and other trips please see my blog at

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  • Reply
    February 2, 2020 at 10:19 am

    Lovely photos! May I ask how you went about shooting in all kinds of lighting conditions with only one camera? I tend to take two cameras on my travels, one for ISO 100 films for outdoors, the other loaded with ISO 400, usually pushed to 1600 or 3200 for indoors situations. Thanks, Recky

    • Reply
      Jelle Vonk
      February 2, 2020 at 6:42 pm

      Hi Recky,
      I used hp5 and rated it according to travel plans. If I knew I would be in a dark train next day I would rate it at 1600. If it would be sunny I would stick to the usual 400. Since I normally shoot at f8 1/250 I had some space to open up a few stops.

  • Reply
    Alan Withington
    February 2, 2020 at 11:05 am

    Wonderful photos, capturing the feel of the places beautifully, love the write up too. Thank you!

  • Reply
    theo vervloet
    February 2, 2020 at 11:45 am

    Very good job. These pictures are a good lesson for our over spoiled European citizens.

  • Reply
    Giuseppe Papale
    February 2, 2020 at 12:06 pm

    my compliments for the trip and the great photos.

  • Reply
    Julian Love
    February 2, 2020 at 12:44 pm

    Thanks for sharing Jelle. It is a wonderful write up of your travels and some really evocative photos. So nice to see great shots on 35mmc for a change 🙂

  • Reply
    Aaron Gold
    February 2, 2020 at 3:52 pm

    Great story, great pictures — I really enjoyed reading this. And I’ve yet to seen wiser words on this site than “Slow down, shoot film.”

  • Reply
    Dan J Castelli
    February 2, 2020 at 4:04 pm

    The timing of your article is perfect! My wife & I are traveling to London in a few weeks (our 4th trip.) I looked over the notes I’ve taken over the years regarding camera equipment and realized I’ve overpacked on every trip. This time I’ve decided on the one camera/one lens/one small bag. A dozen rolls of Delta 400. I’m thinking. ‘what the heck; it’s London!?’ Your narrative and the great photos (my favorite was the woman selling food on the train – you caught an unguarded moment with empathy. My second is the water buffalo tenders.) is a nice reminder we don’t need to pack enough gear to cover a political event, just enough to get good photos without carrying extra weight and being an obnoxious tourist.
    I’ll be taking my M2. If I may ask a nerd question? What lens did you use?
    I will echo Giuseppe Papale: my compliments on a good story and fine photography.

    • Reply
      Jelle Vonk
      February 2, 2020 at 6:38 pm

      Thank you! I used a summaron f2.8 35mm lens.

      • Reply
        Dan J Castelli
        February 3, 2020 at 12:50 pm

        “Advantage of a mechanical camera? It just works…” I’ve been in similar situations where, as a citizen of the 1st world, you find yourself placed in, essentially, a previous century. Your gear (in my case, it was an original Nikon F with an eyelevel finder) works and you make your photos. I’m happy to see people still can experience that feeling; you’re very much alive.
        Thank you for sharing the lens information. Excellent blog!

  • Reply
    February 2, 2020 at 7:58 pm

    A fantastic story and photos! Thanks for writing and sharing this. Do you usr a meter or shoot sunny 16 on your M2? Your photos have great artistic exposure!

    • Reply
      Jelle Vonk
      February 3, 2020 at 6:28 am

      Hi Peter,
      Thank you.
      I use a app on my phone if needed but guess the light most time on earlier readings. As you know B&W is forgiving.

  • Reply
    February 2, 2020 at 10:07 pm

    Fantastic work Jelle!

  • Reply
    Roger B.
    February 2, 2020 at 11:49 pm

    Superb photos, reminiscent of the great photojournalism done during the 1930s – 1950s. So few people these days have the courage to walk right into social situations and shoot – especially in nations that are not their homes. Thank you for sharing!

    • Reply
      Jelle Vonk
      February 3, 2020 at 6:29 am

      Thank you for this really nice comment Roger. Maybe I should change career, still young enough….

  • Reply
    February 3, 2020 at 3:09 am

    Really great post!

  • Reply
    Jeff Le Bon
    February 3, 2020 at 12:42 pm

    HP5 ftw again!

  • Reply
    Gil Aegerter
    February 3, 2020 at 1:54 pm

    Love that last shot of the child in particular. Sounds like a great trip.

  • Reply
    February 7, 2020 at 9:49 am

    It was fun to look at your photos and hear about your shooting experience. I too recently returned from a trip to the region and shot some film. I applaud you for taking only one lens and one camera, as I am not sure I could do that. I felt free taking a Nikon FM3 with a 28mm and 58mm plus a Rollei 35T for when the conditions were a little rougher. I usually like to have a three lens set up to include a short tele, but found that the two lenses for the Nikon was sufficient. Maybe sometime in the future I will have the guts to try it with just one lens.

    Keep up the good work.

  • Reply
    My EH Trip
    April 11, 2020 at 1:02 am

    Black and White photos explaining too much. Great article.

  • Reply
    Jonathan King
    May 17, 2020 at 2:27 pm

    Wonderful article and pictures, Jelle. The photos of the lady selling food on the train and the school child at the end stood out to me. Thank you for sharing?

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