As the Managing Director of Buffalo Tours, Matt Masson plays an important role in how Buffalo Tours creates unforgettable journeys in Asia – but his passion for travel, adventure and sustainability are more than just company values. Follow his stories – and many others from the Buffalo team – for a closer look at the people and stories behind the tours.
I’ve spent the past twelve years learning time and time again just how fascinating my chosen home of Asia can truly be. The people, the cultures, the history – there’s so much in this region to discover, that I still feel that I’m only beginning to scratch the surface. But like most, there was an important defining moment in my journey here – and that moment has stuck with me all the way up until now.
It was back in 2006 when I visited Burma – known now as Myanmar – for the first time, alongside a friend of mine and his father. It was still taboo at the time, especially in comparison to today, and many parts were off limits to foreign visitors. While we were fascinated by the temples in Bagan and trekking in the mountains around Inle Lake where we stayed in a Buddhist dormitory, the highlight of this journey was venturing to Rakhine state in western Myanmar.
The exact location was Mrauk-U, the former capital of the Arakan empire where Portuguese, Dutch and French traders mixed with the literati of Bengal and Mughal princes back in the 15th century. The journey to get to Mrauk-U was an adventure in itself. After the initial flight from Yangon to Sittwe located on the west coast near the Bangladesh border, we transferred on to an excruciatingly slow boat which took us inland on a series of small rivers. We arrived in Mrauk-U after the sun had set, and were greeted unexpectedly at the boat pier by our hotel transfer – a horse and carriage.
As arresting as this throwback to a different era was at the time, it would become a recurring theme over the next few days as we began to realise that life had developed at a slower pace to Yangon, the capital city of Myanmar at that time, and even smaller towns like Bagan and Inle.
The next morning, we met with our guide, affectionately called Rocky. He didn’t have the same physique as the movie character who shared his name, but he was equally striking due to a thick mop of black, curly hair and his body being covered in tattoos. It was hardly what we would have expected in this pious, traditional country – but like most things in Asia, there was an important story behind it.
“My experience with Rocky made me realise the incredibly diversity of Asia, and that national borders painted on maps don’t often make the best frame for the people and cultures who live inside them.”
As it turned out, these tattoos were the symbols which comprised the Arakan alphabet, a language that had faded in recent centuries. Rocky had been an author of several books on the Arakan culture, one of which my friend’s father had read prior to his visit. This body art, while incredible and fascinating, was the first hint at his dedication to the local culture that would become one of the most memorable elements of our journey with him.
Rocky’s knowledge of this area and passion for sharing the traditions of this ancient culture left a deep impression on us. When he escorted us through the temples, he brought the now vacant areas to life with his stories of the worship rituals which were practised by the Arakanese. When we visited to a Chin tribal village, Rocky acted as a translator and explained why the women still tattooed their faces in order to protect the young girls from being taken away by evil spirits.
It’s easy to think of Asia as exotic, far-away and unique – but my experience with Rocky made me realise the incredibly diversity of Asia, and that national borders painted on maps don’t often make the best frame for the people and cultures who live inside them. I learned to appreciate the advantages that an organised tour with a guide could provide over backpacking. While we had the independence to discover things ourselves, it allowed us to get to know the people more intimately and to have an informed picture of what life had been like. Walking through Myanmar with Rocky helped me understand the challenges that locals here faced, and the impact that living in a country that did not embrace their traditions could have.
It’s one thing to see Asia on a postcard or in a video – it’s another entirely to immerse ourselves in the culture, and to discover our very own slice of Asia. I think that’s why it’s so exciting to give our travelers the opportunity to share those experiences with us in the #MyAsia Photo Competition. It’s more than just a way to share images of Asia – this is an opportunity for all of us, as a community of world explorers, to share what makes our journeys in Asia truly ours.
The next five weeks will be just as exciting for our team as it will be for our travellers. We get to find out from all of you just what makes your journeys with us so special. Just like my experience with Rocky in Myanmar, the photos and stories we receive this month are unique and special moments that define what a Buffalo Tours’ journey really is.
I discovered my Asia alongside Rocky in the furthest reaches of Myanmar. How do you discover your Asia?