When I arrived at Mandalay International Airport on December 5, 2010, there were no ATMs and just one money changer, who peddled local kyat currency to unsuspecting tourists at a rate more than 100 times its street cost.
There was neither a Wi-Fi signal nor any cellphone companies selling SIM cards, or even any cellphones being used, for that matter. None of the cars on the road outside appeared to have been built after I was born.
And there were no scheduled flights to or from Bangkok, which was a real shame given the predicament I was in.
I’d intended for my maiden voyage to Myanmar to be celebratory. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I’d just completed my very first press trip, which is to say I’d encountered my first real-life evidence that this whole travel blogging thing might be worth pursuing.
And I’d intended for it to be defiant. After all, the Myanmar of 2010 wasn’t just a country whose infrastructure and social sensibility was stuck in the 1950s—it was a pariah nation ruled by a military junta who made it very difficult for tourists to enter at all.
The combined result of these two motivating factors, I hoped, would be a shit-ton of relatively exclusive content for my then-new blog and, hopefully, some accompanying publicity.
But all I got was a food-borne virus that nearly killed me.
I’d fallen ill on the eve of a planned boat trip down the Irrawaddy River to Bagan, a.k.a the place with 2,000 temples you’ve probably seen 2,000 times on Instagram by now. But once I regained the strength to walk after three days of crawling between my bed and the toilet, my first and only stop was a travel agent who sold me a flight to Yangon, from where I could flee back to Thailand.
Bright eyes gazing downward, bushy tail between my legs.
When I confirmed last summer that I would be returning to Myanmar, to go on a sojourn through the Mergui Archipelago with a sailing company who’d been trying to work with me almost as far back in time as my first unsuccessful visit to the country, my first instinct was to avoid the entire rest of the country. Viscerally, of course, this was because of my food poisoning experience.
But it was also because I knew, largely on account of the aforementioned Instagram posts, that the Myanmar I’d visited at the dawn of my travel blogging days no longer existed.
Eventually, fearing my future regret more than a reprise of my near-death experience or throngs of tourists à la Angkor Wat (in 2010—I can’t imagine that place now!), I decided to arrive in Myanmar a few days early so that I could take a boat trip down the Irrawaddy River to Bagan, and ooh and aah at its 2,000 temples as I’d always planned to do.
Myanmar had indeed changed. Within 10 minutes of disembarking my nonstop flight from Bangkok, I’d withdrawn cash, purchased a SIM card with 2.5 GB of LTE data and was speeding toward central Mandalay on a freshly-paved road in a brand-new Toyota hatchback.
I expected my driver to be shocked and amazed when I told him I’d visited his country more than five years prior, but all he seemed to care about was my nationality.
“Obama,” he said gleefully, and smiled at me in the rearview mirror, miniature flags of the U.S. and Myanmar stuck on his dashboard together. “Obama and Aung San Suu Kyi bring democracy here.”
Myanmar hadn’t just changed—it had moved on and moved forward, unapologetically. And before I even reached my Mandalay hotel, which cost 10 times more than the one I’d stayed at on my last visit, I accepted that, in many ways, I had too.
Among other differences, I am now completely devoid of the naiveté that compelled me to eat ice cream from a street stall after dinner that fateful night in the not-so-distant past. I’m downright paranoid on the food front: I ate packaged Japanese snacks for dinner my first night back in Myanmar.
To be sure, while I partook in some fried noodles onboard the boat to Bagan the following morning, and two different curries—spicy vegetable and potato—at my hotel the following night, it’s not just my eating which is more deliberate.
During my first trip, you see, I’d planned to bike through the temples of Bagan for several days, exploring every nook and cranny (and photographing every crimson-robed monk!) I could during that time.
This time, however, I arranged a hot air balloon flight (kindly sponsored by Balloons Over Bagan) and, excepting a short stroll I took through the temples adjacent from my hotel when the tour company shuttle dropped me off, spent the entire rest of my time in Bagan lazing in my air-conditioned deluxe room, slightly hungover from the three glasses of French champagne I’d downed after descending from the sky.
Part of this, of course, reflects not so much a lack of adventurousness, but an understandable fatigue: I haven’t been at home in Austin for more than two consecutive weeks since late last April. I’m as exhausted as I’d been in the wake of my almost-lethal food poisoning!
But it’s fair to say that my approach to traveling has—necessarily—become more pragmatic. It’s my “job” now after all.
And just as it would be unfair of me to shit-talk Myanmar for being less “authentic,” what with its citizens having exponentially increased their quality of life in just half a decade, it’s silly for me to denigrate my 2016 experience for being less gritty—for better and for worse—than my 2010 one.
I came and I saw. I didn’t conquer, but that’s OK: Myanmar didn’t conquer me this time.