The Journey is the Destination

On our first train trip around the city of Yangon on an old Japan Railways train converted into the “Yangon Circle Line” as I sat and took photos out the window of our carriage a Burmese man about my age turned to me and asked where I came from…. “New York”. He smiled and inquired if these scenes I was observing outside the trains windows in the city….scenes of children swimming in flooded rice paddies, of women picking crops waist deep in muddy water….if these scenes were “strange” to me. Without hesitation I told him I thought the scenery was beautiful…he seemed pleased, yet somewhat surprised. “In Myanmar….{a long pause}… children do not need the xBox to be happy. You see the children playing in the field…..swimming in the pond? They are happy. I hope this does not change.” I smiled, nodded approvingly, and told him I certainly hope the same…. While I hope that a new openness to tourism and trade brings prosperity and success to the people of Myanmar, I too hope that this does not change. Today Myanmar remains one of the few places in the world not conquered by the modern day colonialism of multi-national companies and their advertising. The years of sanctions and closed borders, while they must have been unthinkable to live through, led to an unintended positive result of a thriving set of local brands and a unique spirit.  It takes coming to a place like this to realize how disastrous to creativity and local uniqueness our system of world brands really can be.

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Several days later it was time to say goodbye to Yangon and move onward to see the countryside and temples of Bagan. As the taxi dropped us off at the decaying colonial railway station, we joined the mass of humanity waiting for their trains in the waiting room. After a wait, we made our way to the platform to wait for the trains delayed arrival…and as the moments passed families began to almost set up camp on the platform settling in for the wait of an undetermined amount of time. Picnic baskets were opened as mothers gave their children a snack before the long journey. Children as young as 5 or 6 sold bags of oranges, cigarettes & other trinkets to the passengers as they waited. Finally, after 90 minutes or so, the passengers began to stir as the railway officials begin to blow their whistles to alert everyone to stay clear of the tracks….. A tired collection of train cars began to pull into the station….many cars of “Ordinary Class” – slatted wooden benches with open holes for windows. Several “Upper Class” cars consisting of chairs that looked like Barca-loungers in a permanent state of recline and huge open windows…. Finally our “Sleeper” came into view….these cars were supposedly donated by Japan, however I can’t imagine when they may have plied Japans rails…perhaps before WW2? We quickly boarded and the friendly train conductor led us to our compartment and home for the next 20 hours, a perfectly respectable 4 bed sleeper with two huge open windows to let in the scenery and fresh air. Orders were taken for dinner and breakfast (this was certainly unexpected) and moments later we were off.

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The train clanged and heaved its way around the city…familiar scenes of the circle line ride came into view. As the time passed and the sun slowly began to set, we left the familiar scenes of the city and coasted into the countryside. Village after village came into view. It almost felt like watching a movie such as “Baraka or Samsara” as I drank cold Myanmar beer and watched the scenery go by outside…. A young couple sitting outside their parents watchful eyes near the tracks sharing a private sunset…. Old men sitting on the tracks next to our train smoking the Cheroot and chewing betel nut. Groups of young children running and waving at the train as it passes…. The further we passed outside of Yangon the more rural the scenes became. Now the villages had electric lights for the streets, but most homes were filled with the warm orange glow of candlelight. A home, larger than the rest came into view…raised on stilts above the ground. The train slowed briefly enough to provide a better view….. A group of young children sat surrounding an old man with a single candle and a book…. Clearly the town story teller telling good night tales to the village children, the same as he has every day for years – tonight the passing train provided us a glimpse into their lives.

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There are very few times anymore travelling that I’ve truly felt far away from home….. The train journey to Bagan was definitely one of those times….. a reminder of how large the world is and how many ways there are to enjoy life. It is a beautiful thing to see people enjoying the real things in life…. A healthy family, beautiful scenery, home grown food, and a caring community.

To me this is the essence of travel at its simplest form….going from point A to point B and watching and learning along the way. In the high speed world we live in, when we force ourselves to sit back and enjoy the journey we might just see what we are missing all along. I’m absolutely as guilty as any of us as I often pass the time checking Instagram and Facebook on my phone….. Forcing yourself to shut off for a bit sometimes makes you realize though just what you are missing. The narrative might not be there like on a TV show, but if you sit back, watch the world go by and watch the expressions of the people around you, after long enough you start to feel as though you are watching a movie. You start to wonder what the couple on the long boat next to yours are talking about as they are looking back at you…sitting on a river cruiser steaming upstream on the Irrawaddy. Is this how they spend every day – another day at the office for them? There is a beauty in not knowing and letting our imagination take over….we all did it as children and then at some point we stopped and now we look for the news, the media and others to tell us what we should be seeing. As much as I love photography, it’s nearly impossible to convey the senses that accompany the view I’m enjoying as I’m writing this on the Irrawaddy river….. the warmth of the morning sun on my back, the slightly sweet smoky smell from the farmers burning their fields…..the constant sound of the engine fighting to bring us upstream.

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In this world of high speed communication, dirt cheap budget flights, and instant gratification you owe it to yourself to slow down every once in a while….take the slow boat there… you just might see what you’ve been missing.

Yangon

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Bagan

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4 thoughts on “The Journey is the Destination

    1. Thanks J. Yep Myanmar was pretty incredible. yangon was one of the most interesting cities I’ve been to.

    1. Definitely do it….. It’s definitely one of my favorite memories of travel in Asia. Such a unique culture, closed off to the world for so many years and now so eager to open up.

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