After receiving pre-approval for our business visas to Myanmar and getting through Thai customs and immigration (where I was stopped for carrying a potentially lethal weapon–said weapon being the pole-staff for my monkey king statue), we finally made it on the plane that would take us to Myanmar.
Our plane ride was approximately two hours long and consisted of little turbulence although there was a lot of cloud cover and storms along our flight path. On our descent, we finally broke through the cloud cover and I was able to see the geography of the world below us. My first view of Myanmar was a smattering of hills situated above a plain that mostly looked like scrub-land. The hills were covered in a dense jungle of trees dotted with white specks (these specks turned out to be pagodas in the center of small villages). While admiring the view and trying to see more of the world outside, the plane banked hard to the right and my lovely view was exchanged for a blue sky and blindingly white clouds. When the plane finally finished its turn and leveled out, the hills had been replaced by a plain of small villages below. The villages looked as though they were only populated by about fifty people each and each was connected by sinuous dirt roads which seemed to be guided more by geological features than their point of destination or departure.
As the plane’s altitude lowered and the flaps were dropped, I kept looking around outside. We were flying five-hundred feet over some of the villages now and I could see the people below; a man filling a bucket from a canal or a girl walking down a path. I started wondering where we were. Had we walked onto the wrong plane? Where was the city? Were we making an emergency landing somewhere in Thailand or Myanmar?
At one hundred feet, I could distinctly see bushes. ‘We are landing in the middle-of-nowhere,’ I thought to myself. ‘Maybe the city is on the other side of the plane?’ but when I looked out the right side, I saw the same geography and flora. When I looked back out of my window, I saw pavement underneath us in the middle of a clearing of bushes, palm trees, and dense vegetation, ‘Well, at least the landing strip is paved…’
We landed. As the plane slowed and we turned left to begin taxiing to the terminal, I noticed only a couple of buildings near the landing strip. Five more minutes passed and we stopped in the middle of the tarmac. Buses pulled up to the plane as I watched a prop-plane take off down the strip only about a hundred feet away from us.
Everyone clumsily walked off the plane and onto the buses. A Chinese boy was screaming and crying at the top of his lungs while Danielle and I boarded the bus. I stood in the aisle next to the boy and his grandmother which prompted him to reach out, grab a strap from my laptop bag, and pull. As he pulled, a young Indian girl about his age walked across the aisle and handed him a snack to console him. He promptly threw it on the ground and continued crying as the grandmother tried to arrest his hands from my laptop bag. I chuckled–my time in Shanghai had made me used to such behavior. I looked back at Danielle and she grinned deviously.
The bus engine had trouble starting and once it got going, I was afraid it wouldn’t get us to the arrival terminal since every couple of feet the motor would idle, knock, and re-start. One of the doors kept sliding back and forth, open and shut, each time we slowed down or sped up due to the engine and I kept fearing that one of the children would go tumbling out, their head splattering across the pavement like a watermelon.
After we arrived at the building, we were led into the airport where everyone immediately had to go through immigration, even if they were a citizen of Myanmar. While Danielle and I were filling out our immigration cards, a police officer approached us. Being familiar with Myanmar’s history as a military state, I felt a bit uneasy as the officer approached until he smiled and asked us if we were receiving our visas on arrival. I assented and we followed him to an office that was off to the side of the main lobby. A couple of foreigners were crammed into the small office with three Myanma officials who were processing and authenticating all the documents needed for immigration. We filled out our application forms, handed them our documents, and they proceeded with the process. At this point, it was getting a bit hot since there was no A/C in the airport and no fan in the office. Myanmar’s climate is hot year around and only experiences two seasons, wet and dry. It was currently the wet season so in addition to the heat, it was also humid. I was thinking about sweat when the power cut off. The woman in the corner holding my passport sighed and shook her head. A few minutes later the power turned back on.
Once our visas were done being approved, we had to go to the immigration desk. One officer was counting out the immigration cards for our current flight while the other officer took my picture. The power cut off again–another sigh. We waited about fifteen minutes for our bags to appear at the baggage claim, had to manually push our luggage through a security check, and finally made it out of the arrival area. Two Myanmas from our company met us at the exit.
“Hello, my name is Naing, pronounced like ‘nine’,” one said as he held out his hand. “This is Soe, like ‘So what?'”
They helped us load our luggage into the van, we all piled in, and left the airport for the highway.
As we left, I realized I had been right about my initial impressions. We were in the middle of no-where. The Mandalay International Airport is about twenty miles from Mandalay itself. As we drove down National Highway One, which links Mandalay with Yangon, 400 miles to the south, we got to see a lot of the countryside. Mango farms, palm trees, and rice fields covered the entire landscape as far as the eye could see. The only traces of human civilization were the highway, the white and golden pagodas, and farmers who walked their pasture animals along the road. It was a welcoming sight to see blue skies and nature as opposed to the skyscrapers and gray haze that has dominated my life for the last two years. After passing through the highway checkpoint, we finally reached the outskirts of our new home, Mandalay.