Living in Singapore provides us with the perfect opportunity to travel the region, not only the beach breaks, but the cultural and adventure options too.
Although travelling with children to exotic destinations can be tricky, it can also bring great rewards, as Melinda Murphy discovered on a recent family holiday in Myanmar.
“You can do it … you’re doing it … you’re …” Crash! My six-year-old son Hudson was flat out on the road, a mere five metres from the shop where we’d just rented bikes. “Okay, bud, get back on. You’ve got this!” But he didn’t have it. He fell again. And again. And again. So did his eight-year-old sister Maisie. I began to question my sanity. What were we doing taking them on a 15km bike ride through the pagodas of Bagan? I hadn’t counted on dirt roads with an inch or more of loose top soil and pockets of gravel. Jaws set in determination, they again picked up their almost-new bikes – bikes that had been arranged for them by our tour company which had asked for wheel measurements weeks before, to ensure they were just the right size for us all. And they fell again.
Then the most amazing thing happened: locals (even nuns in pink robes) turned out onto the neatly swept dirt streets of New Bagan, cheering on the little blond-headed Western boy and his blue-eyed sister who kept falling off their bikes. Their cheers worked wonders because they both suddenly got it, and off we went, leaving the crowd clapping in the distance.
Myanmar is a magical place, partly because the tourism industry is at a perfect juncture. Since the government starting pushing tourism in 2012, the country has developed enough infrastructure to make it easy to travel with kids in tow. There are decent hotels, English-speaking guides and good restaurants, many catering to Western tastes. At Inle Lake, kids can even order pizza with ingredients shipped straight from Italy itself. In Bagan, my kids happily wolfed down a yummy local meal while we watched a unique puppet show in which the puppeteers were part of the performance.
The markets in Myanmar were different than others I’ve seen, somehow more colourful and vibrant. People were happy, there as much to see their friends as they were to sell their wares. At one market, my kids were fighting (as siblings often do) and a painter hawking his art started drawing on their arms, fashioning home-made tattoos, of sorts.
In Pidaya, we took a hike through the countryside, walking through fields of mountain rice and climbing gently sloping ravines on our way to Shwe Oo Min Paya, a cave adorned with more than 8,000 eye-popping gold statues of Buddha. We stopped at a one-room hut on stilts, cobbled together out of bamboo, the kind of place the Big Bad Wolf could easily blow down. Two middle-aged sisters lived there, sitting for hours every day on the tattered floor, making hat after hat to sell at market. We bought two hats for US$2 each. Sure, we could have bought fancier hats somewhere else, but their broad smiles – they were thrilled that we wanted one of their hats – were truly priceless. It was a lesson my kids discussed for weeks on end. “Mommy, we really made those ladies happy when we bought the hats they made.”
An hour or so later, we came upon another house, this one made from handmade bricks, home of the local potato chip “factory” – a strong word to use since they weren’t exactly churning out bags of chips and there were no big pieces of machinery. Rather, the family peels and cuts piles and piles of potatoes by hand, placing the slices on a giant screen to be smoked over a big fire pit, then deep fried. The very poor family served us hot tea and freshly fried potato chips, all for free. Paying for them would be considered an insult, though we were allowed to buy some raw ones to cook at home. By the way, they were, hands down, the best potato chips I’ve ever had. Ever.
Inle Lake was my favourite, a place like no other, where homes on stilts are surrounded by fields of hydroponic farms and the famous fishermen, paddling with one leg posing for photos. There, we saw weavers at work, including long-necked women from the Kayan tribe making scarves using an archaic method. Boat makers fashioned a longboat out of a tree, umbrella makers whittled bamboo handles and workers crafted lacquer bowls and plates – all under our watchful eye.
I’d never have guessed that a trip to somewhere as exotic sounding as Myanmar would teach my kids some of the most important – and basic – life lessons. They learned about a different culture and forgotten crafts, sure, but best of all, we were all reminded that the simple things such as a little encouragement, a thankful smile and a bike ride in the sun make for the best memories.
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