The Backpacker’s Manifesto
There were a dozen sagging rear-ends in my face as I plodded up the long, narrow staircase of Shwezendaw Pagoda, trapped behind a Swiss tour group who were ascending at glacial speed. I turned around to a sweeping panorama of Bagan, its parched, dusty plains peppered with four-thousand ruined temples and pagodas stretching to the horizon, a sea of slender spires glowing orange in the light of the setting sun.
I admired the view for only a moment, before briskly resuming my climb—I knew an even more serene view awaited me at the top, said to be the most serene view in all of Burma…
But stepping onto the viewing platform, all I could see was a heaving crowd of package tour groups—a roaring mosh pit of sun hats and fannypacks. It was a circus. Tourguides waved colored flags, herding their wide-eyed tourists into circles, while smooth-talking souvenir hawkers descended on the stragglers like wolves. I held on to the balustrade for support as the mob jostled around me.
Behind a row of plastic visors and pointing fingers, I could glimpse the sun sinking into the horizon, behind the silhouettes of crumbling pagodas.
But I simply didn’t care.
I came to Bagan hoping its evocative, eleventh century ruins would ignite my imagination. I wanted to see the same view that Kublai Khan must have seen, when his Mongol hoarde arrived to discover an abandoned city of four-thousand aging temples, swathed in eery silence. Instead, I could only imagine that I was in Epcot, amidst the sweaty crush of families with strollers, waiting in line for one of the manufactured ‘cultural shows’ to begin.
Despite my contentions, it’s impressive what modern package tourism can accomplish. With the proper funds, pretty much anyone can sign up to be ferried pretty much anywhere. You can join boats full of squealing families and invade sleepy Caribbean beaches. You can follow in toe as overweight, out-of-shape German women are practically dragged up Mt. Everest by their sherpas. You can even go to space with Lance Bass.
But for this week’s dose of Backpackology, my big question is: Why would you want to?
I’m not going to lie and tell you that independent travel is a picnic. Your ‘overnight’ bus might drop you off at 3AM in the middle of nowhere. You might get attacked by dogs, and need to fend them off with a souvenir Burmese parasol. You might even find that the room you booked has been inexplicably given away, so the hotel proprietor tries to offer you a wooden armchair instead, on which getting comfortable becomes a spectacular feat of contortion, and you end up spending the night in an advanced yoga pose that’s neither good for your back, nor an advanced yoga pose.
And that was only Tuesday…
Sure things would have been easier if I was on an air-conditioned bus, nestled in a neck pillow, watching Happy Feet on a tiny LCD screen. But by taking that worry- and stress-free alternative, you severely limit your potential experiences. You lose the freedom to pursue your own interests, to linger over a chai in an ancient, chaotic bazaar, or sit in peaceful silence at the top of a pagoda, watching the sun set over the plains of Bagan. Instead, your day is dictacted by a noisy woman with a flag. You, along with a crowd of other clients, are escorted from your hotel to a monument, and then a clean, tourist restaurant, then maybe a museum, and then back to your hotel. Rinse and repeat. You wont need to worry about suffering any culture shock, because you wont really be submerged in the culture. You’ll be traveling in an insular tourist bubble, provided with Western-style accomodation, possibly Western-style food, internet, air conditioning, and most of the other trappings of home. The only friendships you’re likely to forge are with the other tourists in your group, and the only locals you’ll likely meet are the hotel receptionists and the driver of your coach.
In my particular case, I probably wouldn’t have the prepetual shits from eating scary street-food, and public buses wouldn’t drop me off in rice paddies three kilometers out of town. But that’s the problem, because that’s Burma—not neck pillows and Happy Feet. It’s those unusual and unexpected (sometimes unpleasant) moments that make travel so enlivening. It’s those moments that will linger in your memory, long after the monuments and museums are forgotten. And it’s in those moments that independent travel transcends mere tourism. Sure you’re still sightseeing, trying new restaurants, and riding buses, but the experience is greater than the sum of it’s parts—it provides something nourishing to the soul. Travel is about adventure, about pushing your limits and surprising yourself. It’s about slamming your foot on the accelerator and closing your eyes, feeling the wind whipping through your hair, before colliding head-on into some frustrating and outlandish situtation. And then, it’s about learning that you’re capable of things you never imagined.
Sure, backpacking can be stressful. But the rewards are rich beyond words.
At about 5:30 AM, I abandoned all attempts to fall back asleep and took an early morning bike ride to the plains. I followed the long, flat road from Nyaung U towards old Bagan, until the hulking forms of the temples slowly emerged from the darkness. I took the turn-off at Shwezendaw Pagoda.
The sky was starting to lighten by the time I reached the viewing platform, where I found myself alone. No waving flags, no fannypacks, no tour groups. They were all fast asleep in their hotels. It would be another half hour before their wake up calls, and then another hour for them to liesurely graze their breakfast buffets. Until then, Shezendaw was mine.
I dangled my legs off the pagoda’s edge as the purple horizon turned blue, then orange, revealing a delicate mist hanging over the plains. Through the haze rose four thousand stone spires, and as dawn spilled over the horizon, their shadowed patterns and intricacies came alive, burning fiery orange in the first light. I watched as the sun climbed, illuminating the misty air with golden shafts of light that seemed to dance around the silhouetted temples. For a long moment, I just sat there, mesmerized, as goosebumps ran down my arms.
Then time appeared to stop, and as far the eye could see, everything sat silent and still.
Silent, save for the distant clanging bells of goat herders stirring their flocks, and the wind whistling through the crumbling ruins, and across the dusty plains of Bagan….