This man’s first time seeing his own photo in Tangoo, Myanmar (Burma)

I’d been to a lot of countries before my bicycle tour in Myanmar (Burma). I thought I had seen the extremes.  Poverty, wealth, imperialism, religion, oppression, joy, generosity, unrest, injustice, ignorance, and so on. Certainly Myanmar had it all and then some.  Only in Cuba before Myanmar had I seen a culture so very far removed from the westernized society I know so well.

I was only a week into a bicycle tour of Myanmar when my map led me to a dead end.  My map indicated the road continued but, holding the map upside down, the locals laughed and wagged their fingers about its existence. To get back to the main “highway” I needed to backtrack 30 miles (Myanmar uses miles not km). I found a truck headed back that way and tied my bike to a luggage rack. I stepped back to take a picture of this pickup that was the size of an 80’s Toyota (before they got big and fancy) with a topper luggage rack.What is the best route when touring in Myanmar/Burma

Now, before taking the photo I counted 38 people in and on this truck.  They are not the biggest people in the world but still, that’s a lot of bodies.  I climbed on top at the guidance of the frantic, skirted driver. I clicked a picture of the scene as you see it just below here. I looked at the image and turned my camera around to show the man at the bottom of the photo sitting in front of the monks. Turning the camera to show people I have photographed is a way that I try to make people more at ease with having their picture taken.  The reaction I got was unlike any I’ve ever experienced…

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His eyes widened as he slowly backed from the camera. He reached for his cap and began to point at the camera. Now I don’t know what language was his nor did he know mine so hand waving commenced. As he pointed at the camera he looked at me and then began to motion back at himself. I nodded yes and said aloud, “Yes, it is you.” A serious look came over his face as he briefly paused and reflected. He began to smile and laugh and took the camera from my hand. He was exclaiming wildly about this image or camera or magic. The younger men did not respond. He shook the two monks violently in an attempt to get them to look at the camera. I and a few others were now laughing at the scene atop this little pickup truck.  One monk glared sharply at me as if I disturbed his sleeping Buddha.IMG_0684

The man turned back to me and handed me the camera.  He gathered a small boy who I assumed to be his grandson, to come be by his side. He gestured with hands and face to have a picture of them taken. The result is seen above.  The image had not even come up on the viewer before the camera was torn from my hands. Grandfather and grandson alike stared in awe at the image. The grandfather, looking me in the eye and smiling, began to speak softly.  I didn’t know what he was saying but he did not break eye contact.  He continued on for a minute before drifting off.  I looked off to a row of temples above the checkered, tilled landscape reflecting on a new extreme. While the reasoning could fall into many of the categories I listed at the outset, how was it that this man had been sheltered from having his picture taken for his entire life?

See my “Five Reasons to go Myanmar (Burma) now”.

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“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you did not do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover …”

-Mark Twain

63 thoughts on “This man’s first time seeing his own photo in Tangoo, Myanmar (Burma)

    • I get pretty caught up in my experiences and I think I am pretty aware of how they shape me, especially abroad when they are so starkly different and new. And at home, too much taken for granted sometimes once the blinders of the work life go on. Anyhow, this experience was one of the must see opening I’ve had, however, Myanmar over all was the most interesting place I have been. Have you been to SE Asia?

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      • I’ve been to Singapore, if that counts. We also built Habitat houses in Nepal, but that probably doesn’t count. My husband was involved in another build in Viet Nam, but I haven’t been . . . yet. Thanks for your posts. They remind me of worlds not seen but need to be!

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      • it did. touched on culture in a really personal way. and oh the things we take for granted. i remember reading about some kind of group that actually takes photos of families in other countries and gives the photo to them.probably the first and only time it will happen for them. priceless. and there are times i take 20-30 pics of just one family moment!

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      • So I have another photo from that trip that will be a story that speaks to what you are saying. I am really tempted to spill the beans right now but I better hold out. Nice talking to you, Kris.

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    • I started at Inle Lake and rode west. Once I started north I got lost right away and then this thing happened above. I continued on to Mandalay but stayed in the country on the way. Then I went east and it was amazing. I am being flooded with memories and think I should sit down and look at some pics and tell some more stories. This bike tour was the best trip I have done. Anyway, I hung out in these small multi religious communities and then went on to Bagan which, though pretty relaxed, seemed like Disney after riding alone for three weeks…

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      • You totally should. Inle is beautiful. I’m Burmese myself, born in Mandalay, and raised in the mountainous regions till I was about 9, then I was sent abroad to study. I’m pleasantly surprised that you went a bike tour of all things, because our terrains can be pretty rough given that the cities are so widely spaced (Even I confused by the places when I go back). I’ve always loved reading about our cities from foreigners’ points of view, so I hope to see more of your travels there on this blog!

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      • I think a bike is the best form of transport when visiting abroad, if a person has the time. Arriving anywhere by bicycle is disarming. People do not look at you even remotely as they would some who arrives by bus or private car. I think I should actually write a short thing about biking overseas because there is so much to it. Now in Burma, yes, the roads are awful in most places where there is not an oil field or poppy plantation at the end of it. I found myself riding in the brush on the side of the road often becasue the rest was so bad. However, when I spoke to tourists who traveled by bus they thought biking sounded better. Some Australian boys I kept running into thought I was crazy when we met but at the end of three weeks when we saw each other again they had changed their minds and all wanted my bike. Like I said, I can go on and on about Myanmar. I really hope that the arrival of capitalism and “democracy” don’t ruin or corrupt the amazing cultures there. If you ever want to ask more questions you can also write me at mike@exddtours.com. Mingalabaaaaaa!

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    • That is such a nice compliment. I feel like when I tell the story orally it’s so much more interesting and trying to convey it in text is such a challenge. But we have that incredible visit in common. What a place! What people! It’s spine tingling to think on the people I met and the hand waving I did trying to explain what I meant when my Burmese phrasebook was failing! And the laughter when I tried to make sentences. How long were yo there? What did you do? What did you think of the food?

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      • I was in Burma for 2 weeks and was just thrilled by the experience. The people were just amazing and always smiling. I agree learning a few words makes a huge difference and gets lots of laughter.

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      • One thing I learned is that greetings often literally translate into “have you eaten”. When n I would ride through villages and the mountains in the middle of nowhere, venders often held up oranges as I passed. I assumed they were holding these up to indicate sale. I learned a few days later that these were often just offers of a piece of fruit. As in, “you’re in my house, eat”. When I would stop in villages generally I was greeted by the whole town. They would gather slowly smiling and chattering to each other about my bike, and its gears I presume. I would say something in Burmese and they would brighten and smile and swarm me all talking just before I would announce that I don’t speak Burmese, I need food, water, and the keep moving. The announcement of my inability to speak never retarded the banter and excitement. In fact the more I tried to explain that I could not speak the more they thought I could speak it seemed. Anyhow, often in these situations, as I pushed my bike through the crowd, someone would hand me a bag and say “mingalaba”. No strings attached. Eat. Safe travels. Glad to hear you had a similar experience in terms of high spiritedness of the people in that land of irony.

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    • The little boy kept tugging on my water bottle. I gestured as if to ask if he wanted me to pour some in his empty bottle and the grandfather looked at hi as if he should not be bothering me. As the overloaded truck swayed to and fro bumping down roads that had not been worked on since the British colonists left, I smiled at grandfather and said its ok. He smiled and said something to the boy as I filled (and spilled) his bottle. Grandfather continued smiling and talking to me about whatever he was talking about until we got back to the “highway”.

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  1. “Yes, it is you.” That is beauty. I’m glad you took the photo of the man and his grandson. Photographers and artists put beauty into the eyes of the beholders. The man did not break eye contact. That is probably the first time he’d ever beheld his own beauty and his grandson’s.

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      • I don’t even know the name… We had just crossed the border from Mexico, it was getting dark and we needed a place to park the van for the night. We made a right turn, then a left, then another right and so on. We ended up in a little village by a stream. Everybody came down to greet us and they opened up the school grounds for us to park! We chatted and took photos. The kids ran up to get the elders, so that we could take their photos as well! It was an incredible experience.

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      • That’s awesome. They were loving having some fresh blood in town and wanted to show you a good time. They are probably still talking about it. Funny, I titled this story with a town name but I am not really sure what it was because my map was so bad. I was literally lost in Myanmar. Safe travels!

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  2. What a great moment – I spent time living in Thailand and while I didn’t get to Myanmar, the people I met from there were some of the nicest I met. It’s still a dream of mine to go there, thanks for stoking the fires. And thanks for liking my blog!

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    • Glad to stoke a fire! I think when you go from Thailand to Myanmar, you take a step back in time. You would love it. They speak Shan on the border state with Thailand so any Thai you speak is understood. While we’re at it take a look at this for stoking the fire http://wp.me/p2qivy-1q

      Safe travels

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  3. Understanding the existence of socioeconomic inequalities is one thing, but experiencing up close, the power of a digital divide between cultures with one photograph is a surreal concept on both sides of the fence.

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  4. Thank you for promoting Myanmar as a travel destination; I adored the people, and do believe that drawing interest and attention to the country will benefit them more than we realize….you have a beautiful story, and experience here!

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  5. Hi Mike,
    Reading this it now feels like eons ago that I was in Myanmar but also the memories are so seared in my mind. I spent 3 weeks there about 10 years ago. It was the max visa allowance at the time. I would agree that it was one of the most enjoyable places I had been but the oppression was palpable. The fear of talking “too much” at the time was evident. We met one woman who did not hold back though – she had been sponsored for study abroad, so was more worldly. I still remember the feeling of the air quality, the simplicity of the untouched life and the ease of us being there – though our emails were monitored so we kept those simple! I still have mala beads from a monk at one of the main temples.
    Thanks for stirring up the memories,
    Kelly

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    • Kelly, My trip was in 2007 so things were still very tough there. I certainly experienced their fear of speaking out but was often invited for tea and private chats. I was also approached several times for help getting out of the country. I think being on a bicycle was really disarming and made me much more approachable. I have only photos from Myanmar but the memories are strong. I need to continue to get them in print before I forget. It’s nice chatting with you. BTW- I was mocked for my opinion on that Facebook page we were talking about. Finger-pointed, name-called, and mocked. Still, it’s a degradation!

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      • Oh No!!!! So sorry about that.
        It really did get me thinking after that. I was brought to a place of wondering, about all the things I would miss out on if I simply said no because it was ‘offensive’ or different or uncomfortable. So, sorry for the razzing you got 😦 But it really got me paying attention 🙂 I appreciate it.

        And on Myanmar, that year I traveled just over a year in Asia, I think it was 2003. I loved the friendliness of the people in Myanmar and met many happy people who loved to make small talk and share their lives with us…. as long as it was not political. I could sit and observe, or walk along the side streets and ultimately someone would approach to chat. The best parts of the world for me are always on the outskirts. On the fringes of life. Like you, on your bike, it opens people to you. They are curious and excited to see something different away from the tourist market.

        Kelly

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      • No, no, no. I was making a joke about the Facebook thing. But the joke was lost through virtual communication, again.

        Nice to share these Myanmar experiences with one another. Thanks

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  6. Great story! I only spent a few hours in Burma (getting my Thai visa renewed) but it left me with the distinct impression of a place I’d love to travel. I’ve had a few times with my camera where the people not only had never seen their picture but were very confused at how it is possible to put their image immediately inside a small box. Their magic becomes your magic, and the whole experience becomes magical. I also take a small printer along and give people wallet-sized photos.

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  7. Good read, ive done quite a bit of traveling india, Asia, middle east. At first I was surprised at the differences in comparison to the west but I learned to embrace and take advantage of all the opportunities I found myself in. Going as native as possible was awesome but at 6’5″ and 270 I am a bit larger than most of the natives.

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  8. Pingback: Sitting with Mountain Gorillas, Bwindi, Uganda | ExploreDreamDiscover Talks

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