Today we decided to do the Sangu River hike, which is basically a hike down to the river bellow from our hotel.
I figured that the hike would be downhill most of the way, but I can’t really say that it was: it was a lot more of up and down. The trail itself was made of dried mud, and the few steps were carved out in the soil. It was a little precarious, especially where teak leaves had fallen on the trail. It would be ridiculous to attempt the trail after rain – it would be nearly impossible not to slip.
Twice the trail diverged – we went right both time, which luckily turned out to be correct. As with our previous hike here, we walked by teak and banana plantations, but this time the trail seemed more like a skinny path than a regularly used trail.
Without much warning we arrived into a tribal village. The trail went right by a home, where women and children were sitting outside. The trail ended there: we were surprised to be right on the river’s shore. We thought that we had much further to go!
The view of the river was beautiful: a tobacco plantation went right to the shore, where there were a few boats and children playing in the water.
We decided to hire a boat and go into town, instead of turning around. Hiring a boat was easy – the “driver” found us. The river was mostly shallow, but consisted of beautiful see-through water. As we got ready to board the boat, I went in the river to wet my legs. It was so refreshing, I wanted to go in!
Travis had the best “seat” in the house!
The ride took about 30 minutes to the town’s first bridge. On our way there, we slowly past people bathing, washing laundry or doing the dishes. There were children running in the water, playing. People transporting good, while others build insanely long bamboo rafts. It was lovely, quiet, slow.
As we arrived in town we were a bit confused as to where to go in order to find the actual town. We wondered around backstreets, past carpentry shops and tiny habitations. We stopped at a small shop to buy some water and realized after a few minutes that it was probably a “mafia” hangout: people exchanging envelopes, shiny new motorcycles…
We finally managed to find a place with gas tuk tuk (most here are electric, and can’t go up a big hill) and hired one to take us to the Golden Stupa, and then back to our hotel.
The ride to the stupa was bumpy and went through some countryside. When we arrived, we made our way to the top of the hill, ready to check out some Burmese Buddhism goodness.
The place was busy with Bangladeshi tourists, mostly Hindus and Muslims. It didn’t feel that anyone was there to worship – it was all just something to gawk at. They were playing music, really bad techno music, blaring on the loudspeakers. It was so bizarre, and both things combined removed all possible chance of relaxation or spirituality. Travis was not allowed to go in because he was wearing shorts, so I went in by myself.
As soon as I got up to the stupa, every men there crowded me, asking for my name and where I was from. I tried to ignore them but as soon as I stopped to take a picture, it was over. A man approached me and said “I want you me photo”. I agreed, feeling cornered. Within seconds, I was surrounded by men wanting a photo with me. At first I thought that it was funny, but soon it no longer felt funny at all. I was feeling used, exploited – actually I felt belittled, as though I was not a person but just something being told what to do. I managed to get a photo of some of the men, but there were too many to fit in the frame.
I didn’t enjoy the stupa. I felt stripped of its original intent: it was as though it was a tourist trap instead of an actual religious sight. There were a few monks, but it wasn’t enough. I was looking for some quiet spirituality, and instead got loud music, half falling to pieces buildings and a photography assault.
As I walked around the stupa, trying to get to the stairs to run away, I was approached by more men. I really didn’t want to be in more photos, but now I was even more cornered. After each shot, I tried to walk away but I was stopped by yet another men. Eventually I was able to escape…
While running towards the entrance, a quick mental calculation approximated that I had just “posed” in 30 photos. As I reached Travis, I started to explain what had happened at the stupa. As it turned out, he too had been photographed just as much.
The thing is, no one really asks if it’s OK to take your picture. I guess some sort of try, and yes, some actually do, but often it doesn’t feel like I have a say. It never feels OK to say no. It’s rude and frustrating. They just shove cameras or cellphones in your face, and snap away.
Then, I thought about it. I also shove my camera lens in people’s faces all the time, sometimes without asking. I encroach on their privacy and take away their right to say no. So how was this any different? I also got to thinking how happy it made those people to have their picture taken with me. Wouldn’t it make sense for me to just simply pose with them, to make them happy?
The difference is that I might take a few frames of a person, and then move on. I don’t pose with them, nor do I get 30 different people to pose with them. But maybe many people over the course of a day or week do the same thing to them, and maybe they find it just as annoying. In all though, I guess that it balances everything out. I take pictures of others, and they take pictures of me.
So, after some thinking and calming down I concluded that even though what they do to us can be more annoying than what we do to them, I should just put up with it and smile. Making them happy and offsetting all of my pictures of people might be worth it after all…