Burning Man: 10 Ways It’s Not Just a Giant Desert Party with Faux Fur & Drugs
I have to admit, before I went to Burning Man I was like many of you out there — certain that it wasn’t for me.
Friend: You still haven’t been to Burning Man yet?
Me: Um, you mean pay money to fry in the desert for a week with no showers? Who would voluntarily subject themselves to that kind of “vacation” *cough* torture*cough*? Especially while I could spend the week on a beach in Spain drinking wine instead? HELL 👏 NO! 👏
At the time, I also believed that Burning Man was just a giant hedonistic desert party filled with bizarre jewel-crusted hats, neon faux fur jackets, and long-haired anarchists tripping on acid. That’s what I saw in the news, and any online photos I saw only confirmed it.
Well friends, I must confess something. I went to Burning Man in 2017 and was proven wrong.
Here’s what I learned from experiencing Burning Man for myself:
1. It’s not just a giant party. It’s a city. It’s a community.
First and foremost, Burning Man is a city. It even has a city name — Black Rock City (lovingly abbreviated as BRC). As Burningman.org describes it, it’s “A city in the the desert. A culture of possibility. A network of doers.”
70,000 people create a city together each year. Imagine a city that is built from the ground up, by the hands of the very people who live in it. When one goes to Burning Man, they are not “going to a festival.” They are visiting a temporary city.
Those who visit are part of the community. In fact, attendees are not merely attendees. They are called BRC citizens. As one enters through the gates to BRC, greeters warmly smile and say, “Welcome home.”
2. People come from all walks of life from all over the world. It’s not only for 20-to-30-something tree-hugging hippies, Instagram models, and Silicon Valley tech bros.
As I marveled at the all the people around me on my first day, I was surprised to discover what a huge amount of diversity there was. Yes, DIVERSITY.
I had envisioned a homogenous population of young hippies, models, and tech bros. Social media and news outlets had painted such a picture. I’m not going to deny the fact that there are some douchey people there (I once heard of an elitist camp with fruit-infused spa water and a welcome guide with a Who’s Who comprised of model and VC headshots), but these people are the minority, not the majority.
What I saw with my own eyes were people from all walks of life — all ages (from babies to grandpas to entire families), many nationalities from all over the world, and a colorful range of people with different religions, political beliefs, and orientations. Looking at the Burning Man Census Survey Data, diversity is evident.
In our camp alone, we proudly made up a diverse bunch: Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, and mixes in between. We also came from a variety of professions including chefs, farmers, doctors, construction builders, consultants, project managers, and artists.
3. Instead of chaos, there’s order.
One would think that a temporary city built in a desert would be totally chaotic. I was shocked to find out how orderly it is.
There are well-planned streets (organized from 2:00–10:00 in a clock-wise orientation, and A- L from the center to outer ring), plentiful restrooms (despite recent gossip on the poop situation), help centers, medical tents, and sanitation crews. According to this public infrastructure article, it takes “a year-round staff and over 1,200 volunteers to make this event happen.”
Furthermore, everyone at Burning Man is expected to adhere to the 10 Principles, which include: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-Reliance, Radical Self-Expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, and Immediacy.
It’s amazing how effective these 10 principles are at creating a respectful and organized community. In fact, adherence to them is so vital to the community and one’s experience that it’s required that you read about them before you buy a ticket.
4. Consent matters. You do not have to do anything you don’t want to.
No means no. And if it’s not a clear yes, then it’s a no. Consent is one of the golden rules and people abide by it.
You are not forced to do anything, and you can opt out of anything at any given time. Don’t want that shoulder massage? Just say no. Don’t want to have a sip of that drink? Just say no.
You need permission to take a photo of someone you don’t know. I was even asked by someone if it was ok for them to give me a hug — consent is taken that seriously. I can only think of one negative encounter during my 8 days there, where a man got a little too close, and we shooed him away as quickly as one could say “Shoo.”
5. There’s so much more to do than party. There are endless other activity options. And art.
***Spoiler alert: Yes there are parties, faux fur, and drugs, but it’s not as prevalent as you think, and it certainly does not take precedence***
One of the first things you receive upon arrival is a printed booklet filled with an hour-by-hour schedule of FREE (that’s right, none of them cost money!) events and activities happening each day. There were so many available activities that I was getting major FOMO.
Where do these “free” activities come from? Well, one of the principles of Burning Man is “Gifting”, so people and camps offer amazing gifts to the community.
Here’s just a small snippet of what’s available for you: Attend a relationship workshop, learn ballet, taste wines at a bar, geek out at a science or tech lecture, decorate your bike, have a pancake brunch, “shop” for costumes, watch a circus performance, dance all night to whatever music your heart desires (not just electronic), take a kinky rope bondage class, zipline, workout in a unicorn cycling class, or listen to live jazz bands. Last year, one of my favorite things was looking at the moon’s craters through a telescope. There’s even a Black Rock observatory for astronomy buffs in the desert! And also an Ultra Marathon for runners.
There’s also art. SO MUCH ART. Black Rock City is basically a huge museum in the desert, filled with giant, stunning art pieces. Here are some breathtaking art pieces, captured beautifully by one of my friends.
6. It’s a deeply spiritual place, even for the non-spiritual. Instead of hedonism, there’s reverance.
Many people come to have spiritual journeys. In a way, it’s a pilgrimage.
There’s a temple built in the desert each year. It’s a place of deep spiritual meaning, where we remember lost loves, lost relationships, things we haven’t lost yet but lament. It is a place of quiet thought, of silent tears.
As you enter the temple, you write and read letters to loved ones lost. You see shrines built for the people who have left this earth too soon. You read advice. You read entire life stories. You learn. You reflect upon your own life.
After losing my mom to cancer in June 2017 (after already losing my dad in 2010), I was finally called to Burning Man. One day, I left a handwritten letter for my mom and dad and stapled it to the temple. I fell to my knees and cried my eyes out. All around me, people were mourning and celebrating simultaneously. “I know the heartache of your loss and the joy of your love,” our red and watery eyes would say. A stranger came by and offered me a tissue. We all sat in silent remembrance.
On the last day, people watch the temple implode in flames, symbolic of loss, finality, and rebirth. Hearts explode with love. Even for people who haven’t lost anyone yet, it’s a beautiful time to think about our own lives and purpose.
7. It is your home for the week, and it is what you make of it. It’s as rough or as glam as you want.
There is a huge range of living choices at Burning Man from high-end to shoestring-budget end. It’s all up to you to build the home you want.
You could rent an RV with friends if you’d like. You could also just come solo and set up a simple tent or sleep in your car. Or you could join a camp, which is what I did as a first-time Burner who went alone last year.
As for cost, you can decide how much you want to spend. It’s possible to spend under $600 in total for the entire week, as described in How to Do Burning Man on a Shoestring Budget. Though the ticket itself usually costs $425, you could apply for a low-income one for $190.
It’s also important to note that once you are at Burning Man you do not need money. It is decommodified. Everything onsite is gifted for “free” — there’s no exchange of money (unless you need to buy ice or coffee from Center Camp).
That said, it can still get expensive. I spent almost $2000 in total last year, mainly because I splurged on nice camping gear to maximize my comfort (massive tent, air mattress, etc.) and new costumes. My costs included $300 in camp fees, which covered cooked meals, water, shower, and infrastructure.
Ultimately, you design your own experience according to your needs.
8. It is where you face your personal challenges and overcome them.
Truth be told, Burning Man isn’t for everyone as some cannot handle the extreme heat, constant dust, or the inevitable mental and physical challenges. However, it’s an incredible opportunity to overcome them.
It’s guaranteed that you will come across some personal challenges that will push you, change you, and possibly almost break you. Everything gets amplified here. All your insecurities and fears are right there for you to face, head to head. But breaking through makes it all worth it.
I shamefully did not know how to ride a bike before Burning Man. In my 30s, I was extremely embarrassed about this and had arrived nervously with my bike, completely overwhelmed and terrified by the sheer scale of the desert.
Little by little, I finally learned how to ride a bike, thanks to the help of many kind souls at my camp. They say it takes a village to raise a child. I’ve learned that it takes a camp to raise a baby biker. In the first few days, I could barely even pedal in our own parking lot. But camp members came out to teach me. When I said “Please go on without me” they said, “We don’t leave our family behind.” They watched me bike down our block, then through our street, and finally, all night on the playa, freely riding through crowds in the dust.
I faced my fears, but I didn’t have to do it alone.
9. The Man Burn is not just porn for pyros. It is a beautiful tradition.
On Saturday, the Man burns.
Imagine witnessing thousands upon thousands of people all gathering in the center of one temporary city to honor the tradition in awe. Art cars, bikes, and people on foot all descend at once.
It’s a beautiful celebration with fire dancers, ceremonies, and fireworks.
Last year when the burn began, suddenly without warning, the tears streamed down my face. I looked into the flames and saw the silhouettes of my mom and dad walking towards each other as it all burned down and they vanished in smoke.
The flames reminded me of a phoenix rising from the ashes. When it all burns down, there is still life and a new dawn. We dust ourselves off and rise together again, even in the face of destruction. It’s a collective experience where we each realize how precious life is.
10. It teaches you to appreciate the Now. As quickly as it rises, it also disappears. Everything is ephemeral.
This temporary city exists only once a year for a limited time, reminding us to live in the Now.
Cities rise and fall. Civilizations rise and fall. People are born and people die. Nothing lasts forever.
What do we have left? We have memories etched into our brains. We have a reminder to live in the present moment. We have each other. In the end, and what matters most, we are left with the gift of presence in the fleeting ephemeral.
One of the 10 principles I admire the most is “Leaving No Trace.” Whatever you bring in, you bring out. On the last day during camp breakdown, we combed our entire plot several times methodically to make sure that not even one tiny piece of lint was left.
As we picked up the very last traces of our existence from the ground, and the sun rose over a city slowly vanishing, I felt more alive than ever.
I hope that you discovered something new about Burning Man. Thanks for taking a glimpse of it through my eyes, a first-hand look into the dusty place that I’ve come to know and love. ❤
Please share this article if you liked it, and if you do find yourself at Burning Man this year, please come say hi at Flat Tire Cafe where we’ll be serving up coffee and fixing bikes. ☕🚲
Update: And here’s my video from Burning Man 2018. Please watch to catch a glimpse of the magic. :)