I’ve just come back from a ten-day motorbike trip around Mandalay with some friends. Despite the fact that the term ‘motorbike’ was hotly disputed by my pals it was wonderful to get back on a bike after a long (government imposed) hiatus. Motorbikes are not allowed in Yangon.
I’m not experienced on large motorbikes; I once completed the Monaco grand prix circuit on a 50cc moped, merrily zooming in and out of the million pound traffic jam, I’ll admit I’m not proud, I’ll ride anything. So I was quite happy to settle with the only choice of bike in Myanmar – a 125cc Chinese moped called Doris that looked like it might once have had a basket on the front and sounded at full-throttle like a tired and angry wasp trying to fight its way out of a jar. My friends, who with enough motorcycling exploits (and motorbikes) between them to knock Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman down a peg or two, were not so enamoured by the Doris.
After over a thousand kilometres and the odd bit of roadside assistance by kindly lorry drivers and fortuitously located mechanics in paddy fields they’d come around to the point of view that these bikes were perfect for the job, for as much as they tended to break down, they were certainly easy to repair on the road. Although better suited for nipping to the shops, they’d also allowed us to see some of the country at a slower pace than we might have normally taken.
Sometimes I forget how lucky I am to live and work in some of the amazing places I find myself, and sometimes it’s too easy to lose sight of where I am, keeping my head down as I wander the streets, paying no heed to my surroundings, ignoring the people about me.
It’s only when I find myself a tourist, or at least get the chance to see my location through a visitors eyes that I actually remember to look up and realise how wonderful and amazing the things I take for granted, the things I ignore on a daily basis, really are.
The brochures and guide-books for Burma* are packed with beautiful images: the mist shrouded temples of Bagan, sunrise at the teak bridge in Mandalay, the sunset at Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon*; and if you are one of the 1.8 million anticipated tourists this season, those are the sights you expect to see having paid a considerable amount of money to get here.
But I watched a group of western tourists trudging up my favourite street in Yangon this weekend; their ears listening intently to their guide through headphones, eyes firmly fixed to the floor; and I saw that they were missing the whole point of being on that street. I wanted to interrupt their carefully choreographed commentary and say “Hey guys, stop and have a look around, go and have a bit of barbequed meat and a glass of beer” I didn’t, that might have interrupted their busy schedule; they probably had a cultural show to get to. But I wondered for a moment, as I watched them pass by whether they realised that as observers they were also the observed, and whether when they returned to the comfort of their coach, happy to have seen “a bit of street-life”, they felt that they’d missed something important.
With this clearly defined tourism emphasis on destination, I wonder that those that come to visit Myanmar, (or anywhere for that matter including the UK), due to their tight schedules and I-spy checklists, in their attempt to see ‘everything’ they actually miss out the important bits. They miss the pleasure you get from stopping, and taking a look around, having a cup of tea and a chat, or the joy of interacting with the country from the back of a motorbike that’s top speed is 30mph.
And I’m not suggesting for a moment that they should all hire a Doris bike* as we did, because that is not the trip that they signed up for; and I’m not criticising tourism or package tours per se, nor being so impudent to say I am a better tourist. What I am saying, and I think this also applies to our life outside of our touristic moments; is how much time do we actually take to stop and look around us, at the place in the world where we find ourselves and really see it, or meet it?
These tourists on their action-packed tour of the ”Mysterious East” won’t experience the pleasure a friend of mine had at meeting a barber who gave him a much-needed shave, and then refused his money accepting only the opportunity to practice the English that he’d picked up through listening to the world service as payment. And they won’t have space in their timetable to sit with a group of young men in a beer hall, pay for their beer all night just for the pleasure of talking about football, politics, girls and to listen to them play their guitar and sing Eagles songs.
And it saddens me that the majority of people who will come to see Myanmar will leave having seen only the picture postcard destinations they were promised. All credit to them for coming, something many of them will have hoped to achieve for years, they may well learn a great deal about the colourful past of the country, but I wonder, will they miss the real thing, the vibrant present and the exciting future that is Myanmar today.
As the great philosopher Bueller (1986) once said “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
So if I learned, or reminded myself of one thing on this motorbike trip around Myanmar with my pals it’s that I should make sure that I do stop, and that I do look around, and that I don’t miss the life going on around me.
And that I should make sure that my destination, regardless of whether that is the supermarket, the office, or an amazingly beautiful temple is only perhaps a small element of that journey that I take, wherever in the world that I happen to be
*1– Some continue to call the country Burma, despite what the United Nations, Aung San Suu Kyi and the people of Myanmar say. The country is called Myanmar, the name was changed back from the British enforced title of Burma in 1989, and anyway both names actually mean pretty much the same thing, Myanmar being the written way of saying Burma.
*2-Which is now known as Yangon, despite what the BBC tell you, it was called Rangoon by the British who’d of course misheard the name Yangon in their haste when they invaded the city back in 1852.,
*3 – Mandalay Motorbikes do have bikes other that the Doris to hire. If you are interested in a motorbike trip around Myanmar get in touch with Zach, at https://www.facebook.com/MandalayMotorbike?fref=ts he’ll sort you out!