The car door slammed shut as my husband stepped out after the driver, our car parked by the side of a busy highway in rural Myanmar.
We had just spent a long day visiting temples and stupas, hopping in and out of boats and horse carts—well, typical activities backpackers partake in when visiting Mandalay, Myanmar’s former royal capital in the north of the country.
This time though, we had splurged on a car hire because we were traveling with our two-year-old.
In the much-welcomed air-conditioned comfort, she was curled up on me, fast asleep after running about and climbing barefoot in various temples all day.
It was November 2018, when travel didn’t seem like a luxury only those with time and money could afford, long before the world had heard of a highly contagious respiratory illness that popularized mask-wearing and rapid antigen testing.
Our child had just turned two, right at the crossroads of developing a personality and a sense of humor. It seemed like the perfect time to introduce her to backpacking, something both her parents enjoyed well before she existed.
We had also moved to Asia earlier that year. And Myanmar, somewhat on a lull, peaceful, flush with the promise of reforms, , felt like the perfect destination, a country we didn’t—and probably still don’t—know well beyond cursory knowledge of ethnic insurgencies, , and the .
“In Myanmar, we didn't go to theme parks or restaurants with dedicated children's cutlery sets but our child got to slurp Mohinga.... listen to crowing roosters in the mornings, stumble upon playgrounds and hidden billiard halls.”
Travel guidebooks speak of a lack of nightlife and why it pays to start your day early in the biggest country in mainland Southeast Asia. We didn’t mind that. It was almost like I didn’t have to miss out on discovering a new country having to put a young child to bed at 8 p.m. every night.
We were two days into the 10-day backpacking trip with our toddler, a concept many around us found incredulous as they themselves plan holidays around kid-focused itineraries in comfortable cities with shiny attractions and public transportation systems.
In Myanmar, we didn’t go to theme parks or restaurants with dedicated children’s cutlery sets but our child got to slurp Mohinga—Myanmar’s beloved rice noodles in fish broth topped with crackers—with me at mobile food carts in front of temples and by the street, play with locals in beer stations, , and stumble upon playgrounds and .
We were barely scratching the surface. It was a beginner’s introduction to Myanmar with a spot of guided hiking, challenging but not regrettable, in eastern Myanmar’s Shan State.
Even as we were mindful of how we spent our tourist dollars, in Yangon, there were tell-tale signs of the powers who still ran the country, uniformed personnel and their well-heeled family members in military jeeps, hinting at we didn’t see coming.
That afternoon, with our day’s sightseeing almost done, my husband had asked our driver if we could stop for a beer on our way to U Bein Bridge.
We weren’t expecting a solitary wooden shack next to a highway without parking space, Mandalay Beer posters plastered on its exteriors. From where we were seated in the car, we spied beer taps. It was too good an opportunity to pass up at apéro hour but our child had just fallen asleep in the car.
So we opted for the next best thing—relay drinking. My husband would get a beer first with the driver, then he would take over sleeping child minding while I went for mine.
Moments later, I looked up from my phone to see my husband, walking towards the car with a freshly-poured pint of cold beer in a glass mug.
Even better. This was more the type of improvisation and calculated decision-making I envisioned parenthood to involve.
“Listening to the not unpleasant hum of cars zipping past on the highway, I sipped deliciously amber local lager, tiny bubbles floating to the surface, a sleeping child with dusty feet I wasn’t complaining about on my lap.”
As he walked back to the bar, I had the car and beer to myself. Listening to the not unpleasant hum of cars zipping past on the highway, I sipped deliciously amber local lager, tiny bubbles floating to the surface, a sleeping child with dusty feet I wasn’t complaining about on my lap.
It was the kind of priceless, fleeting moment I live for in my backpacking adventures. This time though, it also doubled as a reassurance, proving to us that the new member in our lives wouldn’t put a damper on our travels.
That day, the serendipitous moment lasted for all of two pints of lager hand-delivered to the car before we had to continue on our way to U Bein Bridge to catch the sunset, our child still blissfully asleep.