The faded print was passed through our car window to a K’Cho woman walking along the side of the road. Smiling, she took the photo in her dusty hands, looked quizzically at the young couple in the picture; and shook her head “no” as she continued walking.
We were on our way to Mount Victoria, ten thousand feet above sea level in the Chin State of Western Myanmar. This time of year, farmers burned thousands of acres of brush in anticipation of the upcoming planting season. The resulting smoke embraces the rolling hills and light green brush, creating a surreal, almost monochromatic landscape. The promise of cool mountain air, beautiful blue vistas and deeply authentic Myanmar drove us onward toward this mountain oasis. We took our 4×4 across unprepared roads, through small, fast-running streams, and straight into the past. I was on this journey with amateur photographer and friend, Mike Levinthal. We would be spending nearly three weeks photographing the people of rural Myanmar.
Leading our expedition was U Kyi Soe., a forty-year-old Burmese guide with a perpetual smile and a passion for photography. Kyi Soe carried a small vintage Canon camera in a belt-holster above his traditional Longyi. In this small satchel, he also carried a stack of photographs. “This is my passion,” Kyi Soe said, holding up the worn stack of prints. He liked to photograph people and then return the pictures, often taking months or years to complete the cycle. So, without asking, he would stop the car and show passers-by the tattered prints, hoping that someone knew the couple in the picture.
Our next attempt was at a weathered, bamboo teahouse plastered with red and white “High Class” paper whiskey signs. Four men sat under the shade of woven palm fronds, trying to escape the 100+ degree heat. They hadn’t seen the young couple either. We drove on. And the stops continued.
This was beginning to feel like some strange Asian police-detective movie. After hours and hours of bouncing around in a sweltering, frequently stopping car, we were starting to feel queasy and anxious. Eating a tray of “delicious, lip-watering” Chinese wafer cookies hadn’t helped. At this pace, it was going to take us forever to arrive at our mountaintop destination.
It soon became clear that his task was a lot harder than it first appeared. Many of the people he’d photographed had been walking from their mountain village, sometimes two days there and back. But we kept trying. And, after many more hours in the car, Mike & I surrendered to the heat, giving in to the rhythm of the journey. It might have been a kind of delirium, but we began to lose track of time and started to make the most of these detours.
At a stop by a small village outside Saw, Mike & I were surprised to find a bright yellow sunflower field behind an old monastery. It was like a technicolor beacon against the faded landscape.
We kicked off our shoes (customary in Asia), walked through the monastery and into the field. After a little while, we’d attracted the attention of the people in the village and quickly had lots of company. Although we couldn’t communicate with anyone (other than lots of mingalabas) laughter seemed to work just fine. After 30 minutes or so, we were ushered into the monastery for tea with the head Monk. It was such a memorable moment.
Three hours later, we arrived at our “Mountain Oasis” only to find that this “promised land” was anything but. Five ramshackle wood huts sat on a smoky hillside. Entering my 2-cot hut, I was greeted by the room’s permanent residents, an active beehive and a 5-inch black spider. After momentarily pausing to consider which kind of bite hurts less, I opted for the bed opposite the hive. Turned out to be a good choice.
That night over a simple dinner of rice, chicken, tea (complete with a few unfortunate floating ants), Mike and I talked about how Kyi Soe’s detours had made the entire trip worthwhile. What had seemed like a distraction had been the entire point. I think Kyi Soe knew exactly what he was doing.
One can’t travel in this part of Asia without being exposed to Buddhism. And on hot day in late March, I re-learned one of the Buddha’s great lessons: “It is better to travel well than arrive.” I don’t know where Kyi Soe is right now, but I imagine him smiling as he thumbs through his old photographs..