Avoiding “The Easy Way” – My Travels in Myanmar

The train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai in Thailand has plugins in it. Plugins, clean sinks with liquid soap, a restaurant and air-conditioning, should you prefer it. The 15-hour trip hardly seems difficult, unless of course, you’re custom is flying first class. (Ah, perspective….) As I sit on the train today I realize that this is all luxury. It was a luxury the first time I took it, too, but back then I had never been to Myanmar. I did not truly understand what luxury was.

Home in a small village near Hpa-An, Myanmar
Home in a small village near Hpa-An, Myanmar

Two weeks ago I embarked on an adventure with a friend and fellow traveler, Franco. (You may have seen the interview I did with him a few months ago.)  After four months of sportive backpacking with his guy pals from Argentina, Franco invited me to join him on the last leg of his journey to Myanmar. I was just in the process of settling myself in Chiang Mai, but the prospect of being spontaneous was too tempting to pass up! So I shuffled some plans and striped down my backpack to include only the most basic necessities (because I knew if I went anywhere with Franco, there would be A LOT of walking involved.)

What Franco doesn’t know is that in the days leading up to our trip I was still thinking of ways I could be ‘more rugged’. (I even talked myself out of carrying conditioner and facial masks ☺.) While physical activity has always been an important part of my life, and I enjoy the outdoors, no one would ever mistake me for a tomboy… I had seen Franco’s GoPro videos with his friend Emilio – trekking across Vietnam, hitch-hiking, and sleeping on streets – and I saw this trip as my opportunity to really do this whole backpacking thing right – full sweat and tears. A test of endurance.

Franco on our hike at Mt. Zwegabin, Hpa-An

I think it was the combination of Franco’s wild spirit, and the raw landscape of Burma, that did indeed make this journey a test. You see, I knew I could go across the world on my own. Take planes and trains and buses on my own. Get directions on my own. Live abroad on my own. Of all these things, I am proud. (But what is pride but the critique of a picture we draw for ourselves?) There is always a step further you can go. And there is always a cheaper alternative, even if you don’t have to take it, you can.

When we got off the plane in Yangon, my natural inclination would have been to hire a taxi to take me to my hotel. I would have negotiated, of course, and considered myself a smart tourist for doing so. But Franco pulled out his map and said, “The local bus is this way!” We managed to find it more easily that I would have thought. It was windowless, door-less, crowded and the seats remaining were falling apart, but it got us where we needed to go and only cost us about a quarter. (Plus there was the added bonus of curious stares from the local people ☺) There were no signs or indications for where we should exit the bus and only one person spoke even a little English, but this only made the accomplishment of arriving to the right place all the more savory.

Boys hanging out at a little shop on our walk around Inle Lake
Boys at a little shop on our walk around Inle Lake

And this, I can tell you, sets the tone of our traveling with Franco! We walked where the distances were short and we biked or bused where distances were longer. Only on a few occasions did we take a cab, (and with much reluctance from my amigo). There were times that I was so hot or so tired that I wanted to kill him, but then I kept reminding myself that this was what I wanted out of the trip. A little push. If I ever suggested taking a cab or renting an e-bike, Franco reminded me sternly that that was the “easy way,” and then I’d push forward like a puffy little 8-year-old on the playground with a big bully.

At the top of Mt. Zwegabin
At the top of Mt. Zwegabin

Of course, we all have physical limitations. But I believe on this trip I learned about where they really are, and it’s a little further up a hill and past my mental roadblock than I originally thought! By the time we reached Hsipaw, the last city on our route, I had finally figured out just how far I could go, and went to say “Basta!”

We had rented bicycles in this little northern town and went out in search of a remote waterfall. (The directions included “turn past the big tree.”) The ride on the highway was hilly, many diesel trucks sped by us honking, and the heat was blazing. After stopping to ask 3 times, we finally found the road to turn on. (Of course, from there it was uphill a few more miles on rocky dirt roads!)

My face would not keep the sunscreen I kept re-applying and it had turned the lovely shade of tomato red. At first my solution was to walk my bike. Then at some point I just wanted to fall under a tree and die. At that moment, Franco saw my exasperation and said, “Let me take it.” He walked both our bikes up the last little piece of hill until we found the walking path to the waterfall. And it was a beautiful waterfall… I have never felt happier getting soaked with all of my clothes on!

Waterfall in Hsipaw
Waterfall in Hsipaw

We could have taken a motorcycle. We could have taken a guided tour. We could have stayed at a bar near the hotel and drank beer! But all of these options would have been “the easy way,” and that’s just not what this trip was about. I biked for hours through rugged hills in the heat, I climbed a mountain 2372 feet tall, I got up at 4:30 to see the sunrise over temples, and I lay in the rush of a slick, rocky waterfall. This was a glorious journey for me. Not a vacation, a journey. Mind and spirit.

Our last full day in Myanmar was spent on a twelve-hour train ride from Hsipaw to Mandalay. It was well worth the trip for the breath-taking views of lush Burmese countryside and steep overpasses. Inside the train, however, was very different than the Thai train I am sitting on today… The toilet and small sink outside were long-neglected in cleanings, people left trash in the floor attracting hundreds of flies, plus some mice here and there. It was hot, and rickety and slow. But it didn’t phase me anymore.

View from the Train, Hsipaw-Mandalay
View from the Train, Hsipaw-Mandalay

At night, when swarms of bugs entered through the open windows, I saw some Burmese men and women putting small leafy branches in the lights of the trains to draw the bugs away. Despite the circumstances, I was happy I took the train. It gave me a chance to observe both nature and culture, and made me ever aware of how fortunate we are in America, and in Thailand.

I am so glad I went to Myanmar, and I’m so glad I went with Franco. (Taking the easy way will never feel quite as satisfying…) I am sure if he were telling his own story, he would include things he discovered traveling with me (like peanut butter, for example). But I will save those things for him to write about (con su mejorada Inglés, Franquito!!).

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