It needs to be somewhere challenging. Somewhere that’s going to test my comfort level and require me to get a little dirty. After all, without a little grit, you’re not trying as hard. You’re not learning as much. You’re not fully activated.
We really didn’t know much about Myanmar before my wife and I flew to the Southeast Asian nation, but from what I had read, it fit my gritty requirements. It wasn’t until 1996 that the country started opening its doors to tourists. As a photographer, this kind of place fills my travel dreams. It’s also a country on the brink of big change, something not usually associated with Myanmar. In November of 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi won in a landmark election, showing signs of an end to a half-century of rule by the military. She is the symbol of democracy. To many, she’s the face of hope. You must take time to learn more about her decades-long non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.
Now the country is promising progressive steps forward, sanctions have been dropped and the globe is hurrying to do business in Myanmar. Of course, this added to our intrigue before the visit. We started the journey in Mandalay, the country’s second largest city, not typically the tourist’s first stop in Myanmar. But it was here that we had the most rewarding experience. It should be noted that we had previously spent a week in Thailand beaching and hanging with new Thai friends.
To an extent, our travelling style follows the words of Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism. It’s just more of an adventure when your itinerary isn’t planned out or set up for you. Yeah, you may lose some time figuring out where to go and how to find a reasonable hotel, but again, it’s about getting a little bit dirty, pushing yourself. After walking what felt like forever down the busiest streets asking the rate at each hotel, we quickly realized Myanmar and tourism are on a totally different level compared to Thailand. My simplest summary — Thailand is a cakewalk for the Western tourist. Myanmar will make you work for it.
The rooms were more than twice as costly as Thailand and not any nicer. So we settled for the best we could get at $35 a night. Without wanting to waste any more time, and sunset rapidly approaching, I asked the front desk to book us a taxi to nearby U Bein Bridge, a must-see if you’re visiting Mandalay.
Our taxi driver, Mr. Toe, quickly confirmed we were in a vastly different place from Thailand. Wearing his skirt-like longyi, and his mouth full of blood-red betel quid chew, one of his first questions was, “Why did you book taxi with hotel? They charge you big commission to book.”
I was aware of that already, but in this case, I was battling the clock. But his question gained my trust and respect. Maybe that’s what he was going for, or maybe not, but at least he was trying to save us a few bucks from the get-go. And Toe was clutch throughout our two nights in Mandalay. He got us to the bridge in time. He brought us to a currency exchange open late. He pointed out a couple restaurants that wouldn’t challenge our stomachs as much as street food. For the most part, he seemed legit. Legit enough for us to hire him for the entire next day, from early morning to sunset.
“Aung San Suu Kyi,” he said with a big smile as we drove past a big sign of her.
“Big news,” I said. “We saw it on the news at home that she won the election. That’s a good thing, right?”
“Of course,” shouted Toe. “She will fix many things.” Toe explained that he had lost his longtime job in the police department because of political corruption. That job was good, his family could afford to live in a reasonable house and he was able to send his older daughter to college. When he lost his job, he was understandably unsettled — now driving a taxi to get by and forced to move into a small hut in a dense neighborhood 10 minutes outside of town. I was really beginning to like this guy. He seemed honest and open, something I didn’t expect because of all the corruption I had read about.
I told Toe from the beginning we didn’t want to spend the whole time visiting temples and major tourist sites — that I was more interested in photographing the local people and daily routines. He upheld that request and we ended up stumbling across one of the most memorable travel moments of my life. In a small village outside of Amarapura, we noticed a huge crowd on the street dancing alongside very tall women adorned in matching bright sky blue dresses.
“Robe Festival,” said Toe. People off all ages were dancing in the streets, watching the choreographed performances as music blasted through a pickup truck megaphone. When my wife and I showed up, we started to get just as much attention. This really was a local activity, not a Westerner in sight.
When we got closer we noticed the women were in fact young men, tall, wearing all kinds of makeup and wigs. They were incredibly photogenic. And the mysteriousness continued about 50 feet away with another group of performers decked out in equally stunning dresses, this time featuring three- and four-year-olds. While there were some young girls in the group, it was mostly boys.
I had a difficult time understanding Toe’s explanation of the festival, and we still have no idea what we witnessed. To remain culturally sensitive, I never asked him why cross-dresses were being celebrated. Photographically, it was the authentic highlight of our trip. Our time with Toe was supposed to end with a sunset view atop Mandalay Hill, a stunning overlook of the city. But there was one more thing I wanted to do as a token of gratitude.
During my travels over the past couple years, I’ve gone equipped with a very small battery-powered printer that prints 4×6 images. All I have to do is snap a shot, plug in the memory card, and I can print an image on the spot and give it as a gift to the people I photograph. It’s my adaptation of the awesome Help Portrait concept.
When Toe mentioned his wife had been really sick lately, and wasn’t showing much signs of improving, I asked if I could visit his house and snap a family portrait. Surprisingly, he said yes. He picked us up from our hotel at 9:30 p.m., when his oldest daughter was finished working. With more energy than before, he brought us back to his house. Honestly, this was the most gratifying exchange of our 17-day trip. Besides Toe, English was pretty limited in his family. We laughed and struggled to communicate. His 15-year-old son showed us tracks from One Direction and Taylor Swift on his cell phone.
The reaction of everyone after the prints came out — priceless. I wouldn’t trade that compassionate synergy for anything. Normally, I’m in the position where I take a photo on the street, then move on without giving anything back. Toe got pretty emotional with the prints in hand, and he even went out of his way to call his taxi driver friend at our next destination, the jaw-dropping ancient temple city of Bagan.
Sometimes when you travel as Lao Tzu would suggest in a place far from home, it just works out that your best moments come at the beginning of the journey. The stars align and somebody local makes every experience click. Myanmar is not the easiest place to be a tourist. It’s not the most affordable in Southeast Asia either. The capital city, Yangon, is loud and overcrowded. But it is a place that keeps you activated, makes you get a little dirty. It’s developing and learning how to make improvements every day. Its people are real. Yes, Mr. Toe showed us it’s gritty.
All Images Photographed by: Rory Doyle