I assume that, as adults, you avoid travel where there are civil wars, epidemics, human rights violations, or other situations where you’re putting life and limb into jeopardy. But when is a destination too dicey or dangerous for a child? The age and personality of your kids will dictate some of the answers, but the rest is up to you. My advice: Don’t underestimate what your child is up for. Because careful planning and preparation can reduce risk and allow you to see more exotic places – and have some really unforgettable adventures.
Again, if I didn’t have a child, I still wouldn’t go anywhere that put me at serious risk. But with a child, I might have to skip a specific event or activity if I think it would be unwise for my daughter. For example, in Hanoi, I chose not to attend an exhibit of photographs of Vietnam War POWs and their camps. (Come to think of it, we had to leave a puppet show in Hanoi because it was too scary. I think I was more upset about the missing the puppets.) My point is, you can really go almost anywhere with a child, but you may have to make a few adjustments. I have always wanted to go to Myanmar. (As to the question of whether to call the country “Myanmar” or “Burma,” Aung San Suu Kyi prefers “Burma” for the simple reason that the people weren’t given a choice when the government changed the country’s name. But like most Burmese, I stick with the official name for clarity.) Anyway, we had ruled out Myanmar in the past due to the brutal military government as well as the lack of infrastructure that would allow us to feel comfortable and safe. I mean, who wants to support a government that uses military rule to control and intimidate its own people? We didn’t think it was an ethical or safe destination and the restrictions on travel in Myanmar made it less interesting.
In 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi began encouraging tourists to come to Myanmar with the caveat that they not come in big tour groups, avoid state-run facilities, and do their best to spend their money with local people and businesses and not the government. The government lifted the curfew, visas were easy to get, and the photos we saw and information we read were enticing. But what about our daughter, Yao Yao? Would she be safe? Would she enjoy it? Yao Yao has been to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, South Africa, Brazil, Guatemala, and many other countries that have struggled with military rule and/or human rights issues in the past. She has enjoyed every trip, though in all fairness, not every part of every trip. Yet we knew that Myanmar was going to be a whole new level of “challenging.”
In Myanmar, there were issues with medical care, consistent electricity, and sanitation, not to mention the language barriers we were sure to encounter. (There’s not a lot of English spoken outside highly touristed areas.) But we soon found out that the country had changed dramatically, and the more we researched the more we found that things seemed to have stabilized. And when we got there we were astonished, as you’ll read in further posts. The people, newly awake to their freedom, were amazing: spiritual, loving, warm, grateful for all they have. It’s a wondrous place. And it doesn’t hurt that they love Americans, for the most part. President Obama’s very public support for Aung San Suu Kyi and her democracy movement have gone a long way toward nudging the Myanmar government to loosen its iron grip. Here are some of the things we researched to ensure we were making the right decision.
- Safety Are there travel warnings from the U.S. government? Have we missed some current event that would make us decide to cancel or postpone the trip? You can get up-to-date information at travel.state.gov/content/passports/english/alertswarnings.html.
- Hotels Are there places we’re going to be comfortable and safe? We were surprised how quickly the hotels were catching up with the tourists. Previously a backpacker’s paradise but lacking in five-star hotels, that’s no longer the case. Yes, there were some snafus, but surprisingly few. Though we love to really immerse ourselves in the culture in which we travel, we want to come back to a nice room, a Western bathroom, and, when the weather warrants it, a pool.
- Medical care This is typically the big issue in third-world countries. The medical infrastructure was a concern, and we knew we had to have a safety net in case of any medical issues. We did not feel great about the medical infrastructure but we are all healthy, so we opted for medical evacuation insurance.
- Transportation infrastructure This is one most travelers don’t look at and they should. What are the records of cancellations and accidents in the past few years? There have been ferry boat accidents on Southeast Asian islands, and when investigated show lack of trained crew, not enough life jackets, and severe overcrowding. When I was 23, I was too cool to worry about such nonsense. But with a child, it’s a different ballgame. Even if safety is not a concern, time can be: Sitting and waiting for a train for an afternoon or having to rebook a flight at another airport can be monumental time-suck on a one-week vacation.
- Language and other barriers We always look at the difficulty of getting around a country, language, gender biases, or other issues. The sheer size of Myanmar made it clear we had to hone our itinerary and make the three weeks we had meaningful, or we would spend most of the time in airports and harbors. We also hired a tour company to book hotels and internal transportation, and to provide guides when we wanted them.
- Current political temperature We never want to support a policy or government that inhibits its citizen’s human rights. We knew there were still issues with traveling to Myanmar, so we minimized them by doing our best to choose hotels and other services that are not owned by the government or high-ranking military. (We were not 100% successful.) We did a lot of research, got conflicting information, and made some mistakes, which we’ll share a little later on.
Insight Guides Myanmar/Burma
Myanmar from Tyranny to Tourism
Huffington Post-Tourism in Myanmar after Aung San Suu Kyi’s Release
Wikipedia-Tourism in Myanmar
Tourism Concern-Action for Ethical Tourism
Lonely Planet Myanmar
Finding George Orwell in Burma – Emma Larkin
No Bad News for the King-Emma Larkin
Burmese Days – George Orwell
Letters from Burma – Aung San Suu Kyi
There are a lot of wonderful books about Myanmar. Check out http://www.goodreads.com
Note: The situation in Myanmar is changing daily so make sure any travel book or political information you pick up is current. Tourism is growing at an unbelievable rate and a big part of the reason we wanted to get there before it became a mass of tour groups and souvenir stands. In the last six months the political climate has changed drastically. There is violence in some parts of the country and it’s critical you understand the risks and ethical issues with visiting at this time.