As the frontiers in which tourists can venture expand, and the opportunities to see a country before it has been inundated with other foreigners become fewer, a new breed of traveler has formed. These tourists are hip travelers or tripsters as I like to call them; hikers who “accidentally” wander into a forbidden zone, swimmers who pop up on an unmapped beach—there is a deep desire to be the first one to see that sunrise from an angle, a view, a perspective that no one else has before.
It is no longer acceptable to snap the same image as everyone else—there is an incredible desire to separate yourself from the crowd, no matter the cost. There were the Russian tourists who climbed to the top of the Great Pyramids in Egypt. In Siem Reap, Cambodia, we witnessed a group of French tourists ignoring local officials while they scaled an ancient temple so that they could film themselves. The cost is sometimes easily apparent, though. Just this year, a tourist broke the finger off a 600-year-old statue at a museum in Florence, Italy, while trying to get a picture with it.
The best way to understand Myanmar is to clear your mind of any other place you have visited and let it stand on its own. Forget that time India. Ignore that week in Morocco. Do not even bring up Thailand. Myanmar is different, not same same.
Myanmar monks on a motorbike at a cave temple.
Myanmar was a nice surprise and a welcome change of pace. Since it only recently opened its borders to mass tourism, many of the things we find unpleasant about other SE Asian countries do not exist here. Touts are not very prevalent, but where they do exist they are neither pushy nor persistent. We did not have to bargain hard for things like local transportation, and sometimes for food we paid the locals’ price (in many countries, foreigners are wildly overcharged). If a local does something nice, they are doing it because they want to, not because they expect a handout in return. When we were at the Mahabodhi Temple in Bagan, one of the locals wanted to put thanakha on Tara’s face. She took Tara to a nearby hut and showed her how to grind the bark from a piece of wood against a stone tablet to create the paste. As she was doing it, she asked if we wanted a fan or longyi, but there was never a hard sell. She did not ask for money afterward and seemed as happy as Tara to have this type of interaction. Continue reading →
The title of this article is something of a misnomer. Initially, I wrote an expansive piece called “The Loss of the Familiar” within a month of our departure. This article tackled the feeling of disassociation that accompanies long-term travel. The problem was that after several revisions the article lacked depth and, worse, coherency. I found myself enamored with the idea that Tara and I were traveling and losing touch with everything we knew to be familiar, but two months into a 13-month trip hardly made me experienced enough to write on the subject. Instead, I latched onto the superficial and instantly understandable differences: language, landscapes and even food.
Mike hard at work.
Which is not to say these things are not important. They seemed so irreversibly important to our lives when I first wrote the article that I felt it could have applied to anyone traveling, even for a few weeks. I was reminded of the Nick Hornby novel, “High Fidelity,” when the main character explains that sometimes it is the little things you have in common with a romantic partner that matters. Those television shows that the two of you can connect with, the songs you could sing in unison – these things are far more important than they appear. And thus, “The Loss of the Familiar” was more of a loss of the access to familiar things and the influx of the new. Continue reading →