The Burning Man: A geographical analysis of a new-age pilgrimage


At the top of “6 o’clock”, a main street in Black Rock City, Nevada

The folks at UC Berkeley’s library have just kindly dug out my Geography Undergraduate Honours Thesis from 2002 and scanned it. I had somehow lost every single copy, a depressing combination of hard-drive crashes and absent-minded post-graduation packing.

It was interesting for me to reread it now, both for reminiscence sake and to ponder how my writing has changed over the years.

The Burning Man is a yearly festival in the middle of Nevada’s Black Rock Dessert that I have now attended thrice: in 2002 when I was walking around with a notebook interviewing people; in 2003, sans notebook, to partake in all the art, joy and partying that I had missed the year before; and in 2009 when my sister, brother-in-law, cousins and very good friend wanted to go for the very first time.

The Burning Man is very close to my heart, partly because of the great art on offer and partly because by living for a week in “the gift economy”, where money can’t buy you anything, one learns to appreciate labour and human interaction outside the mental confines of commerce. (One also learns to appreciate just how long the human body can go without a shower.)

But it is also special because while at Berkeley I won a Geography field scholarship to study The Burning Man in 2002, the first time, in the words of a good friend, that I “got other people to pay for my crazy trips.”

I studied The Burning Man as a pilgrimage. I flew to Phoenix, Arizona, and followed a bunch of “pilgrims” who had been attending yearly for more than ten years, through the different stages of the pilgrimage: pre-trip preparation, 10-hr road trip to Black Rock City, “the Burn” itself, and then the trip back, a bittersweet cocktail of story-swapping, memories and depression about returning to the real world.

This was soon followed by my thirty-day cycling trip around Malaysia on RM10/day in 2004 (see here) and last year’s six-month journey across China and India (see here).

In other words, The Burning Man experience set the tone for my subsequent intellectual and professional projects: designing offbeat trips around which I can tell a story. It reminds me of the many things in life I have to be thankful for.

Do download the two PDFs and read if you’d like. Just remember that it’s twelve years old now!

Burning Man-A geographical analysis Part 1 of 2

Burning Man-A geographical analysis Part 2 of 2

I do believe that everybody should visit The Burning Man at least once in their life, if they can afford the time and money. I’d just like to share one excerpt from the end of the thesis:

“ see The Burning Man now as a perfect and complete model of utopia is to miss the point. The overriding aim of Harvey and crew is not to subsume all sectors of society into this new socio-economic system, but to teach and spread its ideologies, in the hope that some of them rub off. The Burning Man is about less reverence for money and more reverence for people. The Gift Economy is about having one’s intrinsic love for others, and not hard cash, as the motivation for human actions. Harvey wants to change the economic impetus behind life into more of an altruistic motivation. The Burning Man is about the freedom to express one’s self, and the tolerance with which to allow others to revel in that freedom. It is about reverence for the earth, and sharing and sustaining the resources we have.”

More photos:


These giant structures are aesthetically pleasing but also functional, providing a respite from the heat


Random art


One of my favourite pieces: A photo of every nuclear bomb ever detonated.



The globe rotates, providing a fun, whacky playa-viewing experience for those inside


Typical camp scene




Before leaving Phoenix, Arizona


It’s really dry out on the playa!


The “naked bike ride”



The Temple of Joy is one of my favourite ever Burning Man structures. Made of recycled dinosaur-model parts. Reminds me of great South-east Asian temples. It was burnt on Sunday, one day after the Man burnt.




Not just for adults. Lots of kids having fun.


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