The Golden Land

Kyaiktiyo Pagoda

Kyaiktiyo Pagoda also known as the Golden Rock.

Photographer: Tim Walker
Styled: Jacob K

It is a four-hour train ride from Yangon, the former capital of Burma, the country now referred to as Myanmar, followed by an arduous hour-long climb in a retrofitted dump truck, to Golden Rock, a 25-foot-high naturally formed granite boulder so impossibly perched on the edge of a mountain that the only logical explanation for its precarious existence is the Buddhist one. According to lore, a single strand of hair holds the hallowed rock, which is devotionally covered in layers of gold leaf, in place. For Tim Walker, a photographer known for his monumental fantasy-world sets, Myanmar was the ultimate stage for a shoot. “When they first saw the pictures, people asked if we had built the backgrounds,” he says. “But, in fact, they were beyond anything I could have even imagined.”

Walker and his team—the model Edie Campbell, the stylist Jacob K, the hairstylist Christiaan Houtenbos, and the makeup artist Sam Bryant—made the pilgrimage there in January, spending 10 days in a country that until recently was ruled by a repressive military junta and cut off from the rest of the world. What they found was a land so visually and philosophically far-out—at least from their Western perspective—that it conjured the trippy heroine of this story: Prudence Farrow, Mia’s “rather uptight and impossibly perfect Buddhist sister” as Walker describes her, who got lost in deep meditation while in India, thus inspiring the Beatles song “Dear Prudence.” Along her mystical tour of the country, Prudence, as played by Campbell, encounters Madame Thair, the wealthy owner of an antiques store in Yangon; members of the Kayan tribe, who are known for their neck-elongating jewelry; and a holy temple shaped like Humpty Dumpty.

Amid all the beauty and wonder, the crew also discovered a country that is very much set in its ways—even despite the recent opening of its borders. Women are not allowed to touch Golden Rock, nor are they permitted to stand above a certain height at sacred locations, such as Shwedagon Pagoda—what Walker refers to as the Sistine Chapel of Yangon. Campbell was required to crouch, lest she be too close to an elevated Buddha. “It may seem outdated to us, but it’s where the country is,” Walker says.

Many of the houses the team wanted to use as locations are owned by the military, which was reluctant to grant permission; and the concept of a fashion shoot is so foreign to the locals that enlisting their help was often an exercise in making lemonade. Walker asked for six nuns in traditional pink robes; one monk in orange turned up. Still, Walker says, he felt very welcome. “Nothing was too sacred for us Westerners,” he says. “They wanted to share and celebrate their culture. And that’s what this story ultimately is—a celebration of the country and its beauty.”

In an earlier version of this article, Myanmar was referred to as Burma. We have corrected the error and the change is reflected throughout.