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Kat Marriner : September 25th, 2012

On the Road to Mandalay

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.

7 comments to On the Road to Mandalay

  • Thomas Schroeder

    Thank you for such a thoughtful and encouraging post. It’s so clear what a good traveling team you and Willie make. I wish you both a wonderful trip and send love and prayers your way!!

    All the best,

  • Kat Marriner

    Thanks Thomas! Willie only wishes I would sing Freebird more often like you did on your trip with him.

  • Kat Marriner

    Uh oh, Noni. A stray finger swipe on my new tablet and blog app and I wiped away your comment by mistake. So sorry! But thank you for your message!

  • MP

    I am soooo behind in your news. I didn’t even know you’d biked in Alaska. Great pix, as usual. Will be cking the blog regularly for Myanmar updates. Travel safe. Love, mp

  • Kat Marriner

    Thanks MP! I think I stopped in to visit you a week or two before we pedaled Alaska and some training for SE Asia.

  • Len DeMoss

    Hi Kat, I came across your and Willie site from the Adventure Cycling newsletter. A friend and I cycle every year through the winter, in SE Asia and have long wanted to cycle through Myanmaar but after talking with others, we’d always been told the country made it difficult for anyone to cycle there. I am assuming that now one can fly into Mandalay with the bike and cycle from there. But how far north can you cycle and must you return back to Mandalay to leave the country?

    Also, I was intrigued by your comment about cycling in Cuba. This is the one country I have longed to visit and cycle, but as you know Americans who are not Cuban-Americans (in other words, the discriminated Americans) cannot legally visit the country. I am curious as to how you and Willie managed to cycle there? Were you able to secure one of the US travel permits to Cuba? And if so, how did you manage to get it?

    Len DeMoss

  • Len,
    There are still no open land crossings into/out of Myanmar. You have to fly in and out. And there is still much of the country that is off limits to travelers. But things are changing fast. ATM’s are coming to Yangon. People are more willing to talk about their government. The internet has opened up. Six months from now … who knows. It is still illegal to camp in Myanmar, so you need to book ahead (especially during peak travel periods). And the police are actually very helpful. So if you need lodging in a town that has no hotels or guest houses approved to take in foreigners, head to the police station.

    On Cuba. We just broke the law and went … via Toronto. This was back in 1998. You can find the radio series of commentaries here:

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