Burma has always fascinated me. For this reason, in mid-March, I convinced my sister Alma and my high school classmate Vylma to alter our travel plans from Cambodia to the country now known as Myanmar.
We landed in Yangon, hooray, but we were blocked from entering the country, boo-hoo. “No visa, no enter,” the immigration official pronounced, looking inside our US passports. “But your embassy in Manila said we didn’t need a visa,” I argued. True, he agreed, but only if we held passports from Southeast Asia.
The employee I talked to at their Manila embassy, assuming I was a Filipino citizen, misled me. You better believe that we pleaded. Cajoled. Groveled. “Look at our wrinkles,” I shamelessly said. “We’re harmless. We just want to see your temples before we die.”
“Ah, AirAsia will take care of you,” the official soothed us, while handing our passports to an AirAsia stewardess and practically pushing us back into the plane. We understood his words to mean that once we returned to Kuala Lumpur, the airline would help us get our visas so we could go back to Yangon on the next flight.
We were mistaken. In Kuala Lumpur, AirAsia personnel forgot that we were paying passengers and treated us with absolute disdain. A grim-faced woman in a black uniform waved us forward, using our passports she held in her hand as bait. “Get in,” she ordered, pointing to the passenger cart. “Get out,” she growled when we reached AirAsia’s office. “Sit there and wait for me.” Miss Politeness herself, I whispered to Vylma, rolling my eyes.
We sat “there,” the only bench in that vast, empty hall, facing the office door located about 50 meters away. Forty minutes passed and the door didn’t open, so we strode purposely to the service counter outside the office to inquire.
A haughty woman in a tudung, or Malaysian head covering, gave us the bad news. “Miss Politeness” had left for the day and we were being sent back to Manila. Unfortunately the next flight was at 9 p.m.
“Whaaat? No! No!” We cried in disbelief. “And when were you going to tell us? We’ve been waiting close to an hour!” I was angry.
“I’m telling you now,” Miss Tudung replied condescendingly.
It was 2:30 p.m., too late to apply for a visa to Myanmar. Kuala Lumpur did not require visas, and it lay just outside the terminal. “Please give us our passports…” Miss Tudung cut in icily, “No. You will return to Manila.” She said her officer had already issued a “do not land” order, meaning, “You have to go home.”
Again, the three of us pleaded, begged to speak to her officer, drew her attention to our ages. She and her young assistant, who just stared at us mutely, were unmoved.
At this point, Alma’s stomach announced itself. All we’d had for breakfast was coffee and ensaymada, and nothing for lunch. There was a McDonald’s outside the immigration checkpoint. To reach it, we needed our passports. Heartless Miss Tudung shook her head. “You’ll get your passports in Manila.” Alma lost her temper big time. “You are starving us! S— you!” she shouted.
“S— you, too! I’m through with you,” Miss Tudung hissed. Vylma’s face fell to the floor. I lifted mine to the ceiling. Miss Tudung’s assistant, whom I’ll call Miss India, spoke for the first time. “I will accompany you to McDonald’s.”
While Alma and Miss India bought food, Vylma and I went to the Malaysian immigrations office to seek help. Perhaps AirAsia was holding our passports illegally? Lugging our belongings, we walked what seemed like a kilometer up the escalator and down again on the other side, only to be told that AirAsia was just following immigration law. They were obliged to send us back to Manila after we were refused entry in Yangon.
I conceded defeat, hating myself for not double-checking about the visas. But AirAsia was also at fault. The clerk who processed our boarding passes in Manila neglected to check our passports for visas to Myanmar. The airline’s mistreatment of us was unconscionable.
Fries and sandwich
We found Alma seated with a bagful of fries and sandwiches outside the AirAsia office. She said Miss India had advised her to buy lots of food because we were on standby for the 9 p.m. flight to Manila and could very possibly stay imprisoned inside the terminal until the next morning, and well beyond that.
We were outraged that Miss Tudung withheld this information from us, but appreciated Miss India’s gesture. Up to that point, she was the only one who showed compassion.
Then Vylma noticed that Misses Tudung and India were gone, and the next shift was on duty at the service counter. “Go and talk to them, go,” Vylma urged. She was not ready to give up. “Nuryen” and “Erin,” their nametags read. “Hi, Erin, we are the ladies whose passports you are holding,” I smiled. She smiled back. Wow, I thought, they can smile.
Emboldened, I asked her to give us back our passports so that we could be free to roam about the terminal while waiting for our trip back to Manila. “Is that where you want to go?” Nuryen asked. I was taken aback by her question. Did this mean we could go somewhere else? “We really want to see Kuala Lumpur,” I replied.
The ladies conferred in Malaysian, and then Erin made a short phone call. What she did next absolutely floored me. She placed our passports on the counter within my reach, saying, “Our officer, Miss Effa, said we did not receive a letter of refusal from Myanmar, and we should give you back your passports.”
I reached for her across the counter, thanking her profusely. She reached back, and we held arms for a few seconds. “Please write a good word about Effa, Nuryen and me on AirAsia.com?” I promised Erin I would, and I did.
Alma and Vylma laughed in relief when they saw me approaching them waving our passports. We said goodbye to Nuryen and Erin, and took some photos. Unfortunately the photos are out of focus, leaving us a blurred souvenir of our smiling angels flanking the three of us.
Outside the terminal, Alma and Vylma danced while I sang Streisand’s “Free Again.” Our nightmare had lasted five hours, but now we were about to have fun in Kuala Lumpur. And for four glorious days, we did.