Myanmar: Regaining the sense of adventure

With the nightfall came the rain. It fell heavy on the windshield as our cab crept along the traffic, slowly shuffling forward. The bus station turned out to be a maze of little holes in walls instead of one big terminal as I had imagined. Heavy rain rushed my parting with the Dutch couple I had known for a fleeting moment as they hurried off to their next destination, separate from mine. As I was trying to figure out my arrival time to Mandalay, it became apparent that no one else on the bus spoke English, and I couldn’t help but wonder if this wasn’t what I had always wanted. It had always been so; even when I was fifteen and everyone I knew was running off abroad for a few weeks, practicing a new language and adulthood, I was the one who chose a destination that no one else had picked. I was the odd one out, the wild card; the only one deviating from the worn trail left by backpackers before me; all alone, perhaps, but by my own choice. It had always been so; it would always remain so.

Loud Korean pop music tore the audio system in two. In that moment I was engulfed in enchanted wonder, a feeling of brilliant isolation wrapping me up in a warm promise of a grand adventure.

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Mandalay Hill

I have been thinking about the word adventure a lot and what it means to me. I don’t want to play the hipster and complain that all places have been ruined by tourists. However, I do get especially giddy when I think about far-flung lands that my friends have barely even heard of and that my mum wouldn’t probably approve me going to. An adventure can be small and humble as long as it is significant to me; but the sense of adventure is arguably easier to reach when venturing into unknown places.

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Bagan

It seems arrogant to worry that a tourist will ruin a destination for I am one myself, but at times I catch myself wondering whether there are still places out there to truly explore; whether I am “too late” and the sweeping wave of tourism has wiped away all authenticity. How I hate that word, “authenticity”, and even more the fact that it should mean something to me… If something exists, it is authentic. Perhaps a better word to describe what I’m looking for – what all of us are looking for – is exotic, or novel, or different.

Our search for the real deal is, in truth, just a search for an unspoiled corner of a planet, someplace new and exciting that no one has ever been to before. Bangkok is filled with slim blondes and rowdy Englishmen getting ripped off by the t-shirt salesman; the real city hides, as masses of tourists take to her streets. As much as we hate to be “that guy” and admit it, we all lust for an unadulterated adventure that no one can share with us. We want experiences that no one else has. Is it that bad? I’ve asked myself. Is it that bad, that hypocritical, to want to experience a place clean of people like me? I don’t really have an answer.

 

I thought of many ways to begin this piece of writing. Should I tell about the morning when I rolled my bicycle into busy Mandalay traffic, avoiding potholes and getting deafened by the blaring horns, crossing roads as the locals did? Or about the night running its fingers through my hair as I, on the back of a motorbike, zoomed through the city that was little by little slowing down to take a breath? Maybe I should describe the way it feels to be sat on a scooter for the very first time, with a map in hand and no place to go but forward. Or the peace of mind that lies within looking down into a darkening city or across a lake with its fishermen carefully paddling through the lotus and the seaweed, my aching feet lifted up against the hull of the boat and a slow, satisfied grin creeping on my face. There are too many beginnings; too many stories that I have written in my mind about this exhilarating country. So I chose the first moment that I felt that special feeling creeping up to me. It is a feeling quite like love but more capricious, more fleeting… although perhaps just as quick to drop you down to your knees and hurt you.

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Near Inle Lake

There have been so many times in Myanmar that I’ve stopped thinking, barely breathing, overwhelmed by the sensation of being in a unique country that’s as new to me as a friend I just met. Here the feeling of adventure is strong. I look at the people in awe as they smile and greet me with mingalaba, and I reply in the same words if not a little bit tentatively. Every scene I see turns into a loose thread of a grander story in my head; I catch myself narrating a story that doesn’t have a beginning nor an end. Being here I feel inspired, awe-struck, lucky. I feel lucky that I have been born in a position where I can make this my life. Lucky that I have had the chance to see the children waving at me without any reservation or shame, or the women with teeth either missing or dyed by the red  chewing tobacco smiling genuinely, curiously at me. I feel lucky to have met Myanmar.

In a few years it will all change as more and more tourists find their way to the gem west from Thailand and just east of Eden. Who’s to know what my new love will look like, sound like, act like, when I return? I imagine it will be like meeting an old friend that I haven’t seen in years but as soon as we embrace, it will be as if there never were time and space between us. After all, Myanmar has been gentle to me this time. She has enticed me and excited me. She has given me adventure, so adventure I shall have.

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Inle Lake
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