You should know upfront, this is not a guide to Myanmar. If you need general information for traveling in the country, head to Wikitravel and Travelfish: these websites are reliable and up to date. This article won’t even help you to reach the farthest and most reclusive areas of the country, as it focuses on the well known touristic areas of Yangon, Inle Lake, Mandalay and Bagan.
It will, on the other hand, help you escape the Western hordes and take a slightly different look to the country everybody knows through its postcard pictures.

All pictures by Olaf Pignataro. You will find an even wider selection of images on 500px.

YANGON

Yangon is a busy city: noisy, crowded and very livery. Just walking through the parallel colonial streets of downtown – Chinatown in particular – will give you plenty of opportunities to snap streetlife images.
And you should definitely jump on the Circular Line train you might already have read about: this local commute train travels on a loop, bringing you out of the city limits and into the countryside. If the view from your window will never get too exicting (unless you’re found of watery fields of vegetables), you want to focus on what happens in the train cars: street vendors jump in and out from the coaches selling any kind of local food; and when you’ll reach the stop of Mingaladon Railway Station, the train will literally be assaulted by farmers, throwing their goods into the train windows. Soon enough you will hardly find any space for yourself, but at least you will have plenty of photo ops! The locals won’t mind to have the camera pointed at them, and in general they will give you the same curious look you’re giving them.
As adventurous as it sounds, you’re not going to be the only Western boarding the train: the Circular Line is well known by tourists and you might struggle a little to find a car with no white people! I suggest to take an early train, just after sunrise: the morning light entering the cars windows will add some magic to your images. Then you can get off at Mingaladon stop, wander around the farmer market for an hour and jump on the next train on the same line.

And it’s better you get used to wake up early in the morning, because that is the time you should head to Shwedagon pagoda: it opens at dawn and trust me, you will love the light! Also, Shwedagon is one of the most famous spots in Myanmar, popular both with tourists and locals, and it can get way to crowded – and hot – during the day. Your entrance ticket is valid for the whole day, so it is a good idea to come back to Shwedagon pagoda just before sunset: the square is going to be more crowded then in the morning, but you will love the mood what so ever.
Depending on how many days you planned to stay in Yangon, you might have another morning to take advantage of. I decided to walk to the river, just near Botataung pagoda, where I found sleepy people boarding off jetties from the other side of the river, people from all ages doing workouts, a barber cutting beards on a pier (open air, barbershop consisting of a child plastic chair and a bucket of river water) and a woman feeding crows with fish entrails. You know, the usual stuff in Myanmar.

INLE LAKE

Yes, the fishermen standing on one leg while holding wicker baskets are posing for the tourists. And yes, you are supposed to tip. But if you navigate to the south of the lake, you will able to photograph real fishermen paddling by feet on the same narrow wooden boats, but using more reliable nets.

As you made it all the way to the end of the lake, I strongly suggest you to enter the river and keep going till Hmawbe market: set on the left bank, every day it welcomes local farmers selling vegetables, eggs, dried fish, some meat and working tools. Walking in the back of the market you might find men testing and selling roosters to be used in cockfighting. The practice is illegal in Myanmar, so, before starting snapping pictures, it might be a good idea to ask for permission.

All the other markets on the shores of the lake, the ones suggested by your boatman and tour guides, are touristic traps, where souvenir stands are taking the place of local food. Oddly, the market of Nyaungshwe, the main town where most of the tourists stay, is quite authentic! Compared to Hmawbe, in this market the desks are more rich, there are a few Westerners walking around with their cameras and it won’t be hard to find souvenirs; nontheless, having a stroll in the market dark alleys is still a good way to witness the Burmese life.

The boatman you’ll hire to navigate the lake is also going to bring you to as many workshops as possible: here you will learn the handmade processes of silk and lotus weaving, cigar rolling, umbrella making, only to be brought to the shop on the back where you’ll be forced to buy some machine-made product. I’m not telling you not to visit any of these workshops: choose wisely, as at the end of the day it might be expensive. Also, ask your boatman if he knows the workshop where Kayan Lahwi women, known for wearing brass coils placed around the neck, appearing to lengthen it. Only fifteen “giraffe women” live in the area, and they all work in hand weaving workshops (VISA accepted).
You can also rent a bike to explore the inland villages around the lake and the stupas of Intheim, or rent a private taxi to reach the further stupas of Kakku. Either way, you will spend a lot of time on the road: have your photo camera ready to snap the local way of life.

MANDALAY

Back to the city! Even if not, Mandalay feels bigger the Yangon, and its highlights are splattered from North to South: the best way to visit them is hire a motortaxi and rush forward the traffic to the city outskirts and the Three Ancient Cities.
Sagaing
hills are dotted with countless pagodas and monasteries, while Maha Muni sports a giant golden Buddha; Amarapura boasts the U Bien Bridge, the famous 1.2 km teak bridge which is a popular sunset stop, but during the daytime you will witness farmers working in flooded rice fields; another stop is Mahagandayon Monastery where 1,000 monks currently live and study.
Expect to see the same amount of photographers to be there, too.

BAGAN

Bagan sucks, man. It is home to the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas in the world, and everyone should visit it once in his lifetime. Once.
Problem is, locals are completely spoiled by tourists, and the vendors’ persistence becomes annoying after a while: you’ll find em at in front of every single pagoda, so get used to them. And do not think you’ll allowed easily take pictures of people, as it happens anywhere else in Myanmar: in Bagan, they will ask for money.
Do not despair: you can still talk with people and, once they know you, they will invite you in their kitchen and or let you take pictures while they play Chinlone, the traditional sport of Myanmar which focus is not on winning or losing, but on how beautifully the game is played. Teams of six combine sport and dance, using feet and knees to control the ball , and there is no opposing team.
Sunsets and sunrises in Bagan are spectacular indeed, and for once, it is ok to struggle with other tourists to get the perfect spots: during the hours waiting for the sun to turn the sky yellow and red, you’ll have the time to know a lot of interesting people and share your travel experiences.