You could say that our road to Mandalay started seven years ago when we stepped across the Thai-Myanmar border to renew our Thai visa. When we returned to our bus seat with fresh visa in hand, we met fellow travelers and kindred spirits, Bruce and Andrea. We became fast friends as they told us tales of venturing into the seemingly hidden world beyond the border town. Traveling Myanmar has been on my mind ever since. As news of change in the country trickled in over the last year, that desire to experience the country on cusp of change took hold.
Today we have plane tickets from Bangkok to Mandalay in mid-October. No land crossings are permitted, or you know we would pedal that road to Mandalay. We are thick in the midst of planning, packing and prepping for a three month bicycle trip in SE Asia with the focus on exploring the freshly emerging country of Myanmar. As luck would have it, the Seattle Art Museum just started a 10-week series of lectures on the country and we went to the opening talk. As I absorbed the tale of rapid and unthinkable change happening in the country this very minute, I was struck by a pattern in our travels.
We are often asked how we choose our travel destinations, and I personally am frequently asked why I travel on a bicycle. The implication, I think, of wondering why in particular I do this is that somehow it’s a more natural and easily understood fit for Willie. To know him is to have no doubt that he’s game and ready to explore any part of the world from the gritty seat of a bicycle. It has always been a bigger stretch for me to leave the comforts of home and a hot shower and push my introverted self into the unknown. I crave food security, need recharge time, and planning ahead is second nature. I’ll have little of these comforts, so it’s good for me to stop and really think about these questions, and that’s what I found myself doing in the lecture.
I found myself wondering what is happening in the lives of the people we met in Albania. We went there in 1996, which was soon after the doors to that former dictatorship were thrown open. We went because we could. We went because it was an opportunity to know people and how they live and say “You are important to me. Meeting you is worth the effort and sacrifice.” I think that many, many times on any trip. I remind myself that anytime I grow wearing of waving hello to every child as I pedal through a village. I go because I want to know and to acknowledge. I want to have an understanding of people’s country that is deeper than a sound bite. I delight in discovering different ways to do things, and find incredible hope in the commonness of daily life around the world.
I bicycled in Cuba because I wanted to know what life was really like for the Cuban people after 40 years with Fidel at the helm. I bicycled in Colombia because I thought there must be more to this country and to the people than what I hear of drug-trafficking. I traveled through the southern part of my own country because the South seems like a different world from my liberal northwest bubble. In all cases, I’ve found friendship, kindness, laughter, and connection with people who are emnot/em just-like-me. My world is a smaller, kinder, safer place for making that effort, spending my money, and pushing my limits.
So when I think about our upcoming trip to Myanmar, I think, of course I am drawn to this country at this time. It’s a little traveled country tucked between India and China. Combined with Malaysia to the south, Myanmar is surrounded by half the world’s population! Myanmar is quite literally at a crossroads, and I’m looking forward to being at some intersection in Mandalay, sipping a cup of tea and laying myself open for the unknown road ahead. I’m sure I will find friendship, food, shelter and much, much more.