Traveling to Burma with a 17-month-old is not for the faint of heart.
The idea to travel to Burma started in 2010 when they opened their borders, allowing the Burmese to explore the world and in reverse, allow others to experience their country. I believe it is because of this late acceptance of tourists in this Southeastern Asian country, that it has remained culturally rich and a place resistant to the changes of our current, fast-paced, consumer oriented, and slowly homogenizing world.
I should preface that my husband spent nearly two months collecting facts, papers, and 42 emails in an attempt to get our visas for our family of three. He did forget about Beck’s, but was gently (ha!) reminded by me that Beck probably needed one too. This spurred the last 20 or so emails and Beck’s was presumably ready for our arrival.
I’ll glaze over the driving, waiting in airports, and the actual flights, as few want to hear about how long you had to do this for. Just remember that it is in-between these paragraphs, and let me remind you, we have a 1.5 year old that is extremely verbal, has a passion for refusing naps, has a strong leaning toward cranky when he doesn’t get said naps, is determined, stubborn, and like all toddlers, active.
We arrive in the Mandalay International Airport. At this point, we are that family that no one really wants to make eye-contact with due to our verbal (this sounds nicer than loud) toddler. We follow the sea of people, noticing that there seems to be a fair amount of distance that fellow travelers are keeping from us. The flow of people slows around customs. This is the moment of truth. The haves and the have-nots. The group diverges. Those looking so smug and confident that they had done their research, and then the group that is furiously rechecking the papers they have. We fend for ourselves with the latter of the groups in a small and quite crowded room. Within seconds, we find ourselves swarmed with at least 10 Burmese visa officials crying “Baby, baby!” and trying to hold Beck. I look at him, throwing an all too familiar tantrum, and don’t hesitate. I hand him over. He quiets, laughs, and then plays with them contentedly for the duration of our time in the visa office. With the nicest, most genuine smile I have seen in a long time, the visa lady asks where one of the forms is in the already huge, disorganized pile of papers that I had handed over. I look at her, panic in my heart. “Don’t send us back. Please,” I am thinking. I tell her, no we don’t have the paper in question. She smiles, and offers me her phone to call our visa agent. Feeling ill-prepared at not having his number, I have to ask her if I could use her computer to look online for it. She looks at me, smile fading. Concerned she says, “No internet.” This is the airport. There is no internet in the airport. No. Internet. This is where I fall in love with Burma.
After a couple of hours trying to sort this out, and many conversations about sending us back to Bangkok to see out our holiday, they shrug and say, “No problem, don’t worry,” and give us our full page visas, sans photo and a few other important pieces of information. I notice that our visas say they were issued on February 16th and valid until February 16th. If this works for them, I won’t point it out. They are letting us in, however illegally. I think they just like our baby.
We have plans to fly from Mandalay to Bagan after our two day stay in Mandalay and it is protocol to pick these up in the airport a few days before. Two hours behind schedule, we head over to the lone man standing behind the Air Mandalay counter to ask to pick up our tickets. He leads us past bag security, past a desolate airport check-in, and into a homey room with a few other friendly and excited tourists from Seattle. There seem to be a lot of tourists from Seattle landing in Burma. They are trying to make small talk, while I ignore them and scan the room for one of those small credit card machines to indicate they will take my card. My hopes are feeble and for the reasons I fell in love with Burma, I am realizing it is going to be the reason that I shake my fist at it. Intense love that proves the most challenging, is the most worthwhile and rewarding though, so I am not deterred and am ready for them when they inform us “cash only.” Now, I knew it was a cash only country, but for the same reason I thought they would have internet, I thought they would take credit in the airport. The problem with cash in Burma is that it is hard to get it. The cash needs to be USD, the serial numbers cannot include AB, AC, or CD (thanks to North Korea trying to launder money a few years back), they need to be printed after 2003, and of course, flawless in every way. You are supposed to arrive with the amount you will spend, as there are only a few ATMs in the biggest cities of Mandalay and Yangon and the banks, strangely, don’t have cash. What the banks do, I am yet to suss out. We leave without our tickets, but with promises by Air Mandalay that they will hold our places on the plane for us if we will bring them the money two hours before the flight. In Asia, they tend to tell you what you want to hear, but I truly believe them. The Burmese are honest in their want to help.
We are down but not out at this point. We head to the taxis. I hand one of the many that swarm our address. He says, “Not Mandalay.” I shake my head, not willing to believe this. I move to the next taxi man. He shakes his head, “Not Mandalay.” I assume they are reading it wrong. Next driver. “Oooh. Three hour drive. Not Mandalay.” The problem about hotels in Burma: you have to organize these months in advance. With the new influx of tourism in the last three years, they haven’t had time to catch up and there are just too many tourists for the amount of hotels. It’s a bottleneck effect. They are almost always fully booked. Most of them were fully booked two months ago. This is where I feel like we may be properly screwed. A hint of dejection settles in. My love falters. No visas, no flight, no hotel. I know my love is strong though. It can get through this. They are all very willing to help. Picking up their phones, they are all trying to find a place for us. Time and time again they echo “fully booked,” but there is one driver that finds one hotel with one room left. Without missing a beat, we take it, hop in his car, and make the hour drive to our hotel. In that hour I settle into how incredible it truly is here.
Up until this point, I had only seen the airport. Now I am seeing Burma. People are paving the roads…by hand. I mean, literally by hand. Older women are crushing the rocks, stirring the tar, laying the gravel using their hands. We drive by farmland, huts, cows pulling plows.
The driver honks the horn and Beck laughs. The driver laughs. The tourists we are sharing the ride with laugh. This repeats for the duration of the ride. So. Much. Love.
Once we hit the roundabout, it turns full on. Mandalay is a city. A busy city with people buying, making, and living their lives like they do in any other city, except it seemed to be standing still in modernity. There aren’t any western franchises, tall buildings, or stop lights. The roads are dusty. Pot-holed. Perfect.
Our hotel is in the heart of the city. It has *gasp* internet! It includes breakfast. It is moderately clean. They serve beer. It is all we ask for in a hotel and then some. The desk points us in the direction of a place to eat. We ask for a map, they laugh. “Just walk that way. You will find it,” and we do. In seeming contrast to all things Burmese, the streets are extremely well marked and organized. We are the only tourists we see on the walk. Actually, we only see four other tourists in our two day stay in Mandalay, outside of our hotel. Because of this, we stand out. Really, Beck stands out. A fair-skinned, blond, blue-eyed baby in a Kelty backpack isn’t a sight they see often. Everyone that we walk by stops, points, smiles, and wants to play with him. He loves it. When we got to our restaurant, we order one meal each, and receive 15 bowls of currys, rice, and soup for $5. For two and a half people. I thought something must be lost in translation but, this is how they serve meals here. We get Beck out of his backpack and are preparing to eat a meal like one does with a toddler, disastrously, the waiters swoop down, pick him up and play with him the entire time. They teach him how to write in Burmese and show him off to the cooks. Josh and I have a conversation. I could get used to this.
And so went our stay in Mandalay.
I go for a run and find myself soaking in the local morning routines. Monks take my picture. I wander through a market of homemade sausages, shark, stalls selling army gear, spices, art. The streets are full of old bicycles and cars from the 60’s, reminiscent of an Orwellian era.
With the help of our hotel, we find the one ATM in Mandalay that would recognize our American debit card. Things are working out. Flights to Bagan, check.
Bagan. One of the most beautiful and pristine places I have yet to see. In an attempt to describe a place that holds its own, the best I can say is that it is slightly reminiscent of Angkor Wat’s spirituality, with the laid back, untouched feel of Luang Prabang, Laos. Their bright red mouths stained from betel nut reminds one of India. The dirt roads are groomed, lined with temples, pagodas, and stupas. In its time, between the 11th and 13th century, there were 10,000 Buddhist temples. Over 2,000 remain with another 2,000 under renovation after an earthquake in 1975.
We hire a driver, U Aung, to take us to so many temples and pagodas that we lose count. They are as beautiful inside as out. Along with massive, gold Buddhas, they have the original paintings, doors, and bricks poking out of the necessary renovations. Eventually, we have to call a nap hour for Beck though. We make plans for U Aung to pick us up in the late afternoon so we could see Bagan at sunset. After going back to our hotel, laying Beck down in his bed of blankets, and drinking a much deserved beer on a hot day, we start to waver about leaving the quiet of the moment. This was the climax of our trip though. We rally. No rest for the weary. When our driver arrives, I scoop a sleepy Beck up and set off.
Our driver takes us to a remote pagoda, off the dirt path that already had little, to no traffic. He meets up with his friend that unlocks the doors for us and leads us inside with flashlights in the quiet dark, spotting Buddhas recessed into the walls. Light is shining through the windows. If I were the type to believe, this is where one could find religion. Even Beck quieted. There is peace in this place.
Truly, there aren’t going to be the right words to describe the sunsets, the temples, the inherent kindness of the people, and the slow, peaceful way of this place. If you do find yourself in Burma, tread lightly and appreciate the kind soul of this country.
“True and sincere traveling is no pastime, but it is as serious as the grave, or any part of the human journey, and it requires a long probation to be broken into it. I do not speak of those that travel sitting, the sedentary travelers whose legs hang dangling the while, mere idle symbols of the fact, any more than when we speak of sitting hens we mean those that sit standing, but I mean those to whom traveling is life for the legs, and death too, at last. The traveler must be born again on the road, and earn a passport from the elements, the principal powers that be for him. He shall experience at last that old threat of his mother fulfilled, that he shall be skinned alive. His sores shall gradually deepen themselves that they may heal inwardly, while he gives no rest to the sole of his foot, and at night weariness must be his pillow, that so he may acquire experience against his rainy days. So it was with us.”
-Henry David Thoreau