Two weeks ago, I went to the land of thousand Pagodas, Myanmar, with clear objectives set for myself.
Prior to that trip, I had attended a photography workshop in Central Vietnam under @PicsofAsia where I had learned so much and was very contented with the quality of photos that I had produced. So at that point in time, I wanted to test myself further if I could replicate such (small) success if I was not pushed by a mentor or if I did not have the “group mentality.” In short, I wanted to see if the success I had in Vietnam was not merely by a stroke of luck.
To achieve this end, there were a few simple rules that I had set for myself. Firstly, I must not restrain myself to shooting my subject from a distance. GET UP CLOSE and FILL THE FRAME. Secondly, I must step out of my comfort zone by exploring further and deeper into territories of unfamiliarity. #Lesson 1: I believe that a good travel photography trip is one where you do not stick by the map and allow yourself to get lost. Unchain yourself from the worries of any major mishaps that could happen to you because this curtain in our mindset only blinds us from the beauty that lies waiting for you just around that corner.
Having said that, when I took a detour back to the hostel, I was very glad when I came across a local market, tucked neatly away in a back alley far from any of the tourist attraction sites in Yangon. The morning frenzy where vendors and customers dealt over raw vegetables and bloody chickens with the vibrant colours just popped out to me in the first instance. Taking a step back, I steadied my breathing as I recollected what I must and need to keep in mind before I began to take portraits of all these interesting individuals. #Lesson 2: Do not rush into it the craze when you see a photo worthy moment.
After a short minute or two, I was ready.
Everything reminded me of the lessons I had learned in Vietnam. The market had an indoor and outdoor section to it, so when I enter & exit both sides, I have to constantly keep in mind the settings on my camera. I got to be quick not just on my feet but also with my mental calculation as to what aperture/iso/shutter speed that I need to use because every time I approached someone for a portrait, I had only two minutes at best to capture something nice before they grow impatient with this “foreigner with a camera.”
Despite of the anxious and shaky start, I was embraced by the warmth of the Burmese people as soon as I threw the widest smile I could afford and a Mingalapar (Hello) endlessly to everyone I met. #Lesson 3: Learn the basics of the language wherever you are in. The fact is that the locals will always put on a stern and unapproachable look whenever they see an outsider because they might not like their daily life to be interrupted by the generally self-centred outsiders. But this will change when you show them you are not just like any other outsiders by actually caring enough to learn their language at the very least. The moment I shot out my first Mingalapar, I knew I was on the right track because even the fiercest looking chap in the market burst out laughing and invited me into his stall to request for a close up portrait. At the end of the day, they know what you are there for. They can see that you have a camera strapped over your shoulder, they know that you want to take their picture but they also probably know that once you have got what you wanted, you will leave as though you were never there. That is something they disliked so much. To change this is to show that you care enough to stay around, interact with the people, show them their photos, ask them about what they are doing or selling. Believe me, a simple hello/you are beautiful/goodbye in the local language can open up many doors of opportunities for you in ways you can never imagine.
You often hear that to truly travel and explore, you have to be a risk taker. And to this, I strongly disagree. You do not need to be a reckless traveler just to fully experience the vibrancy of your trip. Because #Lesson 4: Instead of being a risk taker, you only need to learn to be trusting instead. Some might ask what is the difference between being a risk taker and being trusting since it is almost the same or are they not intertwined? I think there is a fine line that differentiates between the two. To trust a complete stranger when you are in a foreign land is to submit yourself fully to whatever that comes your way knowing that you will embrace it as part of life whereas to be a risk taker in a foreign land is only to gain new adrenaline-pumped experience without truly understanding the essence of it. In the end, the key difference lies in the experience that you walked away with.
On my second evening, I was looking to get onto the Irrawaddy river to catch the sunset but (due to getting lost before that) I was far from where the jetty was. So I met this one-eyed guy who told me that he can bring me out onto the river on his boat and he knows the perfect location along the river to catch the sunset. If I was a risk taker, I would have said yes without any hesitation but because I wanted to be trusting towards him, I talked to him a little bit more. I soon found out how his boat business was not doing well. Severely being hit by the seasonal nature of the tourism industry, he had to open up a food stall to continue supporting his own family. And with a simple conversation as that, I managed to not only walked away with a beautiful sunset but also a deeper understanding of the lives that I had came to interact with.
Everyone can afford to travel but not everyone comes back with the same experience. I am constantly searching for what does it mean to live in a world like ours and sometimes, I think the sole purpose of my existence has got to be giving back to the community, wherever I am. With that in mind, the other objective I had set for myself was to situate myself in the vacuum that exists between the facade of tourism and the realities of the local people. #Lesson 5: Try breaking free from the cliché of tourism to gain a new experience of traveling because it opens up your eyes to things that you never thought you could possible have cared about.
On another evening, I was about to walk into an isolated temple when a young girl, maybe around the age of 4 years old, came running towards me with her mother slowly walking behind her. She was saying in broken English that she could show me around but being cash-strapped, I insisted that I could show myself around instead. Then her mother said to me, “No no, it is free. She only wants to practice her English with you. So please, let her show you around.” And of course with that, I politely take on her request. Despite talking to each other in broken sentences and lots of hand signs, we still enjoyed each other’s company with the sunset in front of us on the roof top of the temple. Surprisingly, it was one of the most happiest conversation I had in a really long time.
At the end of the sunset, I walked down with her to the Exit where her mother had laid down on the ground some paintings for me to buy. What I had learned from my own experience is that if you turn down their requests politely and respectfully, these Burmese people will also politely back off. So I was politely declining her offer when I accidentally blurted out that I was not even sure if I had enough cash for my own food for the remaining of my stay in Bagan. So, as the mother politely stopped asking me, she soon retreated back into this “moment” where she simply zoned out. When I was packing back my gears, I noticed that there were tears forming in her eyes as she continued to stare out into the distant horizon. Realising that I was looking at her, the mother quickly snapped out of the moment and wiped off her tears. I asked if she was alright but she simply shrugged it off by reflecting back the question at me. As she left to wherever she came from, I realised that I had been utterly selfish. Here I am thinking if I have enough cash to buy myself a good dinner later while there they were probably fighting for their next meal. She was not angry at me but maybe just disappointed. And for this short story, I prefer not to tell the ending to it but I am glad that I did change my mind and chased after them before they disappeared.
It is these real life stories, I believe, that adds to the experience of traveling. I do not see a point in only sight seeing and shopping, for instance, when you are abroad. The nature of the tourism industry is as such, you only see what the industry wants you to see without all of its flaws and the struggles of the people. When you have successfully break away from the chains of this blinding industry, promise yourself that you will never return to it for there are many hidden gems waiting to be unearthed by you.
Last but not least and I think this is by far the most important lesson I have learned. #Lesson 6: Be respectful to whomever you are interacting with and wherever you are at. One of the nights I had stayed in Bagan, I was delighted to know that a local puppet master had decided to perform for everyone staying at the hostel. To cut the story short, I will be just be honest with you. The whole initial hype died down really quickly when everyone realised that the puppet show was rather boring. I am not going to pretend to be angelic and say otherwise here; I think it was boring too BUT that does not mean we should lose our manners and respect. Clearly everyone had preferred to spend the night elsewhere. Some were making loud jokes about the show, others were clearly uninterested as their eyes were just glued to their phones while the ending applause was almost painful to hear. As I sat in the corner, I looked hard at the puppet master and all I could see was an honest, sincere and hard working man. He was not even getting paid for the performance because he wanted to show the culture of the local people to these tourists. He did it out of love for his craft.
So the next day, I decided to look for him and it was not that difficult to find him because it turned out that he is also running a Thai restaurant just around the corner.
Honestly, I was not quite sure why I had looked for him in the first place. I felt like I just needed to and I am glad that I did because then I got to enjoy the best red and green curry dish in my entire life so far. So we talked for a really long time after lunch about his life where he learned to cook Thai dishes many years ago from a customer he met on one of his puppet shows. He also said that the art of puppet show was a family tradition, and he intends to pass it down to his children in the future. He then asked me about Singapore and what kind of life do I have. When he listened to me, he immediately asked how much is the flight ticket there but was only disheartened to find out the actual price. But even then, he masked it with a strong laughter by his wife’s side. For the first time on my trip, I felt like I was at home again among Mr Pho and his family.
As I boarded my flight back to Singapore, I was left enchanted by a country so deeply misunderstood and yet so beautiful at the same time. To all the people I have met on this trip, I will pray for them to be in the best of well being always. Overcame by emotions as I bid my farewell, I remembered the words of Lisa St. Aubin de Teran, “Traveling is like flirting with life. It’s like saying ‘I would stay and love you, but I have to go; this is my station.'”
Till we meet again, thwa dau mal.
(Original article was first posted on www.arif-nurhakim.com/blog)