What do you do when you’re traveling, and you have nothing specific on the agenda?
You’ve been to all the big sights and you’re tired of museums and temples, but you aren’t quite feeling lazy enough to just go sit in a café or bar. What now?
Me? I wander. I get lost. I follow my nose, setting off in one direction and taking whatever road looks most interesting. I like the back roads, where the people actually live and nothing is done up for tourists.
I look. I take note of everything I can – how do the people live? What are they doing? Why? What kind of clothes are they wearing? What are they buying or cooking or eating? How do people get around? What do their houses look like? What are the houses made of? How sturdy and secure are they? Are people in the streets or in their houses? Why?
And just about every time, the kids find me. I don’t know if they’re drawn to me because I’m so pretty (haha!) or because I’m white or because I’m probably carrying a camera, but they find me. I snap a couple of pictures, usually pretty candid ones, and they take a look, giggling away and pointing to themselves on the screen.
Then come the posed pictures, kids lined up in a row or a group, laughing and silly with their tongues out or straight-faced and serious, making V for victory with their fingers at the camera.
And that’s what happened in Hpa-An in Myanmar. A small town known for the surrounding landscape of karst limestone and cave temples, Hpa-An has become a popular tourist destination in the past few years.
I did the tourist thing. I took a boat across the river and climbed a big hill to watch the sunset. I took a day trip around to all the cave temples and karst scenery. I visited a popular swimming hole.
And when I’d done all that? I wandered. Beyond the market, towards the river, I followed a road down a slight hill, into an area remarkably different from the rest of town. Here the houses were wood and bamboo open-air structures on stilts, with thatched roofs and steps leading down over a small gully to the concrete pathway.
This is clearly the poorer part of Hpa-An, but that doesn’t matter. The kids are happy, cheerfully going about their business of carrying water or looking after younger siblings, and stopping once in a while for a game of jacks or to shoot toy guns at each other.
The little ones hide their thanaka-smeared faces as I approach, shyly burying their eyes in their mothers’ skirts.
The older kids giggle and pose, excitedly pushing their way into my frame until I snap the shutter release. Then they gather around to look and I have to make sure even the smallest, shyest ones get to see themselves on the screen.
The mothers don’t seem to mind. Despite not wanting their own pictures taken, they are happy to let me snap a few of their children, knowing that this kind of excitement doesn’t come along every day. Although I know I could not possibly be the first foreigner to wander here, I also suspect that few tourists actually make it to this part of Hpa-An.
And why would they? There are no ‘exciting’ sights here. No temples, no museums, no weird things for sale, no spectacular views. There is nothing to draw in the average tourist. But for me it is always a highlight to wander amongst people’s lives, no matter how briefly, and connect with them the easiest way I know how: through pictures.
Do you ever just wander like this? What do you do when you’ve seen all the sights?