People with disabilities may encounter problems which restrict them from moving around and seeing interesting sites even in many developed countries.
For instance, some metro stations in Paris do not have ramps or escalators, only steps. One of the least accessible countries in Europe is Italy; I also read complaints that Venice is not wheelchair accessible. In Tokyo, I did not see old or disabled people in the crowds, because many sidewalks are uneven and there are no elevators in some subway or train stations.
Should disabled people travel to the third world countries, because in many of them the accessible travel does not exist? After my trips to many of such countries, I am sure that anyone with any disability can and should visit these travel destinations. Just be especially careful planning your trip to this locations and be ready to skip some sites and events.
Trip to Myanmar
The extreme example or the country “inconvenient” for people with disabilities – Myanmar (formerly Burma). We went to Myanmar when it just opened for tourists.
We traveled around this country by plane, bus, and boat. We stayed at 4 or 5-star hotels. But to see the real life of ordinary people, my husband and I walked on the streets as much as possible.
In the city of Mandalay, we stayed at the “Hilton Mandalay.” This hotel was luxurious enough to host ASEAN Summit (Association of South East Asian Nations) during our stay. It was fun watching the vehicles with delegations from different Asian countries arriving at the front entrance of the hotel, and to see bodyguards and soldiers with dogs and metal detectors. I almost felt like I belonged to that group of dignitaries.
Just a few blocks away, it was a different picture. At the end of the bus tour, my husband and I decided to go to the supermarket. We asked the bus driver to let us off next to the supermarket.
We bought the stuff we always buy in Asian countries (teas and spices) and decided not use a taxi, but to walk back to our hotel. I did not realize what a hazard the innocent walk in Mandalay could be. The two primary dangers were crossing the streets and trying to stay on the sidewalks.
Crossing the streets
We already had some experience of crossing the streets without cross lights in Vietnam. After many unsuccessful attempts to do it in Saigon, we learned a trick: we would glue ourselves to the backs of local people and follow them to the other side of the road. It proved to be the safest way.
In Mandalay, we also decided to behave like locals. We would start walking across the street at an even pace while the bicycles, motorcycles, mopeds, cars would whizz around us. The secret was to keep the steady pace and let the motorists to maneuver around us.
On the majority of Mandalay streets, there was practically no room for the pedestrians – all available spots on sidewalks were taken by the parked cars and motorcycles. We had to weave around them and try not to step in the middle of the busy road. Needless to say, the people with limited mobility wouldn’t be able to use such sidewalks at all.
Additional hazard – some sidewalks had missing cement tiles. The holes under them were at least a foot deep. These openings were filled with dirty water, trash, even sewage. Trying not to step in the gaps and break our legs, we had to walk very slowly, grabbing the branches of the trees where they were reachable or holding each other’s hands.
At the beginning of our walk, we presumed that despite the humidity and heat, it wouldn’t be difficult to cover about three miles from the store to the hotel. But after about 45 minutes I gave up.
One mile from the hotel, we flagged a taxi and got back to the “civilization” in less than 5 minutes, and in one piece. I would not recommend anyone with any disability to explore Mandalay city without using a taxi or hiring a car with a driver.
In Bagan (the ancient city with over 2,000 Buddhist monuments) a few fellow travelers had to skip two exciting sightseeing opportunities. One was a ride in a traditional horse and a buggy.
The sitting was extremely uncomfortable even for people without disabilities. Everyone had to sit in a very awkward position. After about 10 minutes, an older man from our group complained to the guide about the severe pain in his back.
Luckily for him, the guide was able to rearrange the group, and the man got himself a “private” cart where he could lie down for the rest of the tour. Lying low, he couldn’t see much, but at least his back was better.
Another popular event for tourists in Bagan is to watch a sunset from the top of one of the temples. We watched it from the Shwesandaw Pagoda. To get to the top, we had to take the shoes off (we had to do it everywhere in Myanmar – taking shoes off before entering a temple) and climb the huge steps to the very top (no railing, no elevator, no ramps).
The view was fantastic – numerous temples and stupas in the middle of the jungle with the sun slowly turning from yellow to orange to red. Unfortunately, about five or six people from our group were not able to enjoy this magnificent view. They decided to stay next to the bus after they realized how difficult this climb would be for them.
We found many other sights in Myanmar which were challenging even for people who were not handicapped but had problems with knees or back. There were several such people in our group, and they had to skip many sightseeing opportunities.
During the same trip, our group took a boat ride to see the ruins of the biggest stupa in the world. The bus let us off in the parking lot next to the river. The walk to the river was short, but the path was unpaved and very uneven.
At the boat ramp, we had an unpleasant surprise: there was no ramp. During high water, it is easy to go from the shore to the boat using a safe, stable ramp. In November, when we were visiting Myanmar, the water level was low, and the regular ramp was useless.
Our group had to use a makeshift ramp (a long narrow board placed from the bank to the boat). Two men were holding a bamboo pole which served as a railing, and the tourists had to walk on this wobbly board, grabbing the bamboo pole. Some older people were so scared that the boat crew had to carry them. It was not an adventure for anyone in a wheelchair, with a walker or a cane.
It was fun for me to watch how one by one the tourists were walking on this shaking board. When it was my turn, I was as afraid to fall into the water as everyone else.
Should handicapped people travel to the third world countries? Definitely yes! Otherwise, you can miss a lot of colorful and exotic areas in the world with unique cultures and customs. Just plan your trip carefully.