Seeing Myanmar with a toddler on your back

A mother takes her two-year-old on an 11-day backpacking trip - complete with treks and boat rides - and discovers the kindness of strangers as well as the adaptability of a child

Friends and family were shocked when my husband and I told them we were heading to Myanmar with our daughter, who had just turned two.

Elna is not unfamiliar with air and rail travel. She took her first red-eye flight from Paris to Singapore at 21/2 months old and had been to Barcelona, Berlin, London, Bali and various cities in France before she turned two.

We just moved to Singapore last year and Myanmar would be our first family holiday in the region - and our first backpacking trip with Elna, spanning 11 days.

In a way, this trip stemmed from my selfish desires. As a rookie mum, I wanted to prove to myself that we are still capable of travelling like we used to. I was also inspired by Malaysian photographer Stefen Chow's approach to parenting and travelling with young children.

My husband and I had read that Myanmar lacks a thriving nightlife scene.

This sounded perfect for us as our toddler is usually in bed by 8.30pm.

  • GETTING THERE

  • We flew with Myanmar National Airlines to Mandalay via Yangon and flew back to Singapore from Yangon on Jetstar.

    SilkAir operates 10 non-stop flights a week to Yangon and three flights a week to Mandalay via Yangon.

    TIPS

    • Leave the stroller at home. We borrowed a hiking baby carrier that served us well. Invest in a good, lightweight portable cot (we are big fans of LittleLife's Arc 2 travel cot, which weighs less than 2.5kg without its rucksack), so you are not at the mercy of hotels.

    • Myanmar is the second-largest country in South-east Asia and many of its popular sights are in the north and in Yangon, down south. For a shorter holiday of six to eight days, skip Yangon and the temples outside Mandalay, though there is no way to avoid the minivan or bus rides between cities.

    • Most tourists take the slow train from Mandalay to the town of Hsipaw through lush, tropical landscape crossing the spectacular Goteik viaduct. As much as Elna loves trains and while I did try to plan around this, we did not have a lot of time to spare.

    • Beer stations are great for local men - and parents with young children who need to keep to an 8pm curfew. I find it very convenient for grabbing dinner (in Elna's case, grilled vegetables on sticks supplemented by two food pouches) and a few beers in a non-touristy, laid-back atmosphere.

    • Most Myanmar people are friendly and would enthusiastically sweep your child up into their arms without asking. We are okay as long as she does not resist and remains within our sight. She had been carried by a waiter while he went about his business in an eatery and offered deep-fried snacks and bananas by generous street vendors. You might want to rethink your travel plans if you cannot stand strangers touching your children.

    • Rattan balls and colourful papier-mache animals sold outside temples make good souvenirs for toddlers. You can get slightly pricier but fair trade versions at Pomelo for Myanmar boutiques in Yangon and Bagan.

However, we had conflicted thoughts about going to a country that perpetuated the Rohingya crisis and imprisoned two Reuters reporters - who were released just last Tuesday after 16 months.

In the end, we decided to go, but avoid government-run establishments as much as possible.

Ill-timed public crying aside, travelling with a baby had been interesting.

Yet now, at this juncture, Elna's growing curiosity and interactions with the people around her took her to a new level of self-awareness, which made exploring new places together very exciting.

In Mandalay, we hired a car for the day to go see the rickety U Bein Bridge, the numerous temples scattered outside the city and the former imperial capital of Inwa.

The Maha Aungmye Bonzan Monastery in Inwa was impressive, but so was the short boat ride across the river and the touristy horse-drawn cart. Elna was mesmerised.

The highlight of our trip was a two-day trek in northern Shan State. There were limited trails we could go on, especially after German tourists triggered a landmine in the area in 2016.

My husband insisted on hiring a guide as we had Elna with us. I conceded.

We might have somewhat overestimated our abilities in the backbreaking trek up the hills, past padi fields and a rebel army checkpoint to Pan Kam, a Palaung village. Elna had no complaints, though, being carried by either of us the entire way.

It was probably the villagers' first time seeing a toddler among the backpackers who had come to stay for the night and everyone fussed over her.

That night, we sipped home-brewed rice wine around a fire under a sky full of stars, with Elna playing at our feet.

Two-year-olds are more adaptable than we give them credit for. Every evening at bedtime, she fell asleep with no issue, with a towel over her tent cot to block out the light, while we busied ourselves with showers and packing for the next morning's early departure.

On a day we spent nearly 12 hours on the road, first in a minivan from the town of Hsipaw to Mandalay, and then on a bus from Mandalay to the ancient city of Bagan, she napped, snacked on kout hnyin kyee tout (sticky rice in bamboo), played and sat between us without being restless.

Having a toddler meant we could not rent e-bikes to explore Bagan's famous temples and pagodas like other backpackers, but that put us in the market for yet another horse-drawn cart ride, a longer one this time.

I was not sure if Elna could stomach street food and crammed half our luggage with food pouches as I was reluctant to go to upmarket restaurants and miss out on local fare.

My worries turned out unfounded. She shared htamin hin (curry and rice) with us at rest-stop canteens, slurped Shan noodles at tea houses and ate mohinga (rice noodles in fish broth) on our laps at a communal kerbside table with other women and their babies.

The stainless-steel spoon ubiquitous in Myanmar's street food stalls makes the best toddler feeding spoon, by the way, as you cannot break it and it is the perfect size for little hands to hold and scoop food with.

Travelling with a toddler brought some pleasant surprises. You get to see the country in a different light as strangers warm up to you quicker than expected.

We were given an extra seat so we could have a whole row to ourselves in the minivan and airport Customs officers permitted Elna to play at their desk at the Customs inspection area.

I even ventured into a dodgy billiard hall at the back of a beer station under thxe pretext of running after Elna and took a few photos without anyone batting an eyelid.

On our last day in Myanmar, we spent hours at the fascinating Drug Elimination Museum in Yangon - which is equal parts musty propaganda and psychedelic oddity - where we were the only visitors and took it easy, sipping cocktails in the early evening at trendy yakitori bar Gekko before getting dinner at a biryani fast-food joint in Yangon's Little India.

During the trip, we took Elna to the playground only twice, in Pan Kam and Yangon, and I think she had more fun running barefoot through cave-like temple complexes and pagodas.

Just when you think your backpacking days are behind you, it turns out it is possible to have your cake and eat it - with a two-year-old in tow.

• A former tax consultant, Soh Wee Ling is a freelance writer and photographer who recently moved back to Singapore after more than 10 years abroad.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 12, 2019, with the headline 'Seeing Myanmar with a toddler on your back'. Subscribe