Looking for the "real deal"

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March 15th 2017
Published: June 22nd 2017
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During my past blogs I have frequently touched upon the concept of authenticity, or better the conflict between tourists looking for the "real thing" while still falling into a seemingly fabricated type of experience. In the case of Southeast Asia I have also mentioned that ending up in tourist circles is often unavaidable due to cultural and financial differences between most tourists and the local people. This time I would like to discuss a similar phenomenon. Similar, but not exactly the same - my issues with "attraction hopping".

When I talk about attraction hopping I mean the intentional or unintentional ticking (and photographing) of all the flagship attractions of a certain destination. This kind of behavior is typically associated with Chinese or Asian tourists in general (the Europe in one week tours anyone?), but more frequently than not I feel that I fall into the same circle of habits when traveling - and I am not happy about this. Of course guide books and more recently the internet have for ages steered tourists in certain directions and, in my opinion, made certain things into "attractions" while others (often not deservingly) are shunned by a vast majority of travelers. This is definitely the case of Naypiydaw as mentioned in my last blog entry. So what I am trying to say is that consciously or subconscioulsy we are all biased towards certain attractions in certain destinations and this is not really an issue. What bugs me is when I realize that during the last days I have been ticking off more or less relevant tourist attractions while I got only very limited experiences of non-tourist related features of the place.

To give you the example of Myanmar, me and THH spent quite some time traveling to the famous "Inle Lake" where fishermen paddle their small boats with snakeline leg movements while throwing nets to catch fish. This is one of the most widely photographed images of Myanmar and perfectly pairs with the setting sun over the lake, creating reflections of the fishermens gracious movements on the calm, almost black waters. Beautiful it is - but beauty comes with a price. It did not take us long to spot the difference between the real fishermen roaming the lake and a large number of "actors", posing for your perfect sunset picture. Fishermen tend to be dressed casually (and very poorly) and spend most of their time actually trying to catch fish and less on the acrobatics of steering the boat. The "actors" are typically dressed in fancier white clothes and wear traditional hats - almost all the same - like a crew wearing a uniform. I understand fully that people need to make money in a place like Inle and I understand the pleasure of a perfect picture but... something about this really hurts.

So how to get away from this? Independence we thought. In Bagan, the ancient capitaly of Myanmar which is largely reduced to a resettled village and humongous fields of never-ending pagodas, we got ourselves a battery-driven scooter to roam the ruins by ourselves. This should do to get a glimpse of real life, shouldn't it? Well, after another couple of days looking at my camera I had to admit that most pictures I took were picture-perfect impressions of the countless ruins spanning the vast plains of Bagan. Particularly interesting was the impressive sunset we were watching from the heights of a crumbling pagoda - unfortunatley shared with other dozens of travelers of all ages climbing the dangerous and slippery remains to get a glimpse. Of course this takes nothing off the experience but again, can Myanmar be reduced to a temple-hopping trip? Apparently it is so for a vast majority of tourists and to some extend I felt the same way when we arrived in Mandalay, our final destination in the country. We pretty much ticked off all the famous pagodas, the famous lake, the picture of the fisherman, the sunset on the pagoda and the mandatory selfie with a Longji (Myanmar's traditional skirt).

I should know better - or so I thought. Was the reasons for this "attraction ticking" trip really the economic and cultural situation of the country which would make it difficult and unpleasant to get a glimpse of local life? Mandalay, the second biggest city of the country, should be able to answer this question for me - and so we went. Renting another motorbike (this time running on gas, oh yeah baby) we toured the sprawling northern capital of Myanmar. Grey block buildings, traffic that would make the most seasoned driver shiver, relentless sun hitting the concrete, the mandatory pagodas, an awkwardly reconstructed royal palace in the city center, all this was ours to explore. How to get a taste of local life in South East Asia? Eat street food and go to the shopping malls - two different classes with two different lifestyles. Of course we found Mandalay's biggest mall in the suburbs, just to be met with a typical upscale Asian scenario: Luxury shops, scaringly fair girls walking on high heels wrapped in Prada, an outdoor performance or karaoke, pretty much the standard. This was obviously where the rich and famous hang around but most tourists would not dream to adventure themselves into this slice of modern life.

So what causes us to follow the attraction trail and who is to blame? Also, when we choose to travel are we really looking for the flagship attractions? Again, this is a very hard question to answer for me. I also believe that the attraction trail I was following in Burma had to do with the nature of the destination - an Asian developing destination. A mentioned in my earlier entries about Cambodia, one can easily look for daily life in any of the Burmese cities. Unfortunately, coffee shops, bars, hangouts and what westerners consider "relaxed environments" are not part of them. Alcohol is still widely shunned in strictly Buddhist Myanmar. Most locals don't have the money to eat in clean and comfortable restaurants. Local life is all too frequenty reduced to dusty roadside stalls, very basic night markets and chewing beetle nut on a plastic stool next to a busy intersection. Are we to blame that we don't really partake in this lifestyle and/or are not able to enjoy it as tourists and explorers? Probably not. What really bothers me though is that many of the things we get confronted with when we travel are not part of contemporary daily life of a destination. We live in the Burma of past emperors, disappearing traditions and semi-relevant structures turned into flagship attractions.

Does this take anything away from Myanmar as a tourist destination? Of course not. The country is a truly captivating bridge between Southeast and South Asia, a transit area where one can feal a large cultural shift from one iconic part of the world to another. The countries innumerable temples and pagodas are testimony to a great history and the ever-increasing number of Aung San Suu Kyi portraits are a testimony to Myanmar's recent struggles and future aspirations. What we need to remember though is that we cannot reduce an entire country, its people and its history to the image of dancing fishermen, golden stupas and teakwood bridges. We don't have to sit on the plastic stools, eat next to gutters and chew betelnut - as long as we remember that it is the Zeitgeist and not the attraction that helps us to understand a country.

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