Myanmar is no stranger to change. It’s name for one, (though many people still refer to it as Burma). It’s capital city has shifted around the country at least four times. It’s been controlled by the Mongols, The British, been an independent democratic nation and a military dictatorship. Now with the first ‘fully democratic’ elections having just taken place and Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy winning a sweeping victory it’s now time for change once again. We were arriving just at the turning point.
7th to 21st December 2015
We eventually crossed the border from India with Max, Jens, Morgan and Poreh but being so newly opened for foreigners there were a few teething problems. For instance the Indian immigration wasn’t housed in the brand new building marked ‘immigration’ but instead was hidden in an unsigned compound 1.5km back in Moreh. Our permits hadn’t arrived from the travel agent either but the border guards made a phone call and it seemed everything was going to be OK without the paper copies. 30 minutes of waiting while passports were scrutinised and stamped then we were all waved through.
Straight onto smooth roads, quiet traffic and riding on the right. A complete contrast from what was behind us.
Our main worry for this country was accommodation. Officially only hotels with foreigners licences can offer a bed and camping is illegal making things difficult for frugal cyclists. We’d heard numerous stories of cyclists being followed by immigration officers or the police and forced to stay in expensive Tourist hotels at the end of each day. Others had tried to stealth camp but been woken in the night and moved on. But we’d also heard about a network of free accommodation that some people had been successful in using so we were going to try that, and keep looking over our shoulders.
I’m not sure how many people are traveling the world on bicycles at any one time but the degrees of separation between all of us are tiny. An encounter with another tourer on the road almost always results in an exchange of “who do you know?” and replies of “oh yes, we met them in Albania” or “he stayed in the same house in Dushanbe”. Max is one person who connects many of our traveling chums with several mutual friends showing up on Facebook. He met Reece at the border with Kazakhstan, sold some tyres to Tara in Bishkek and exchanged advice with Pete and Josh through an online chat. It’s a small world, but it takes a long time to ride around it.
The unusual convoy of tandem and Max’s laden bike with trailer set off from Tamu together having reassured the border guards we’d make it to Kaleya, the next town of any reasonable size, by the end of the day. In reality that was an unlikely target 140km away and so we planned to see how far we got before dark, then look for shelter. Apparently anywhere before Kaleya would be ” Very dangerous” according to the guard.
But it was quickly apparent that this was one of the friendliest countries we’d been to. Smiles and waves were plentiful. Kids loved to shout “bye bye!”, occasionally followed by “hello!”. When we stopped, face painted women and men in ‘longhi’ skirts were curious but not as invasive as the crowds in India. On that first day we were given coffee and cake as a gift and spent the night in a small catholic church. There was no sign of the dangerous people the border guards had warned us of and no police telling us to move on. So far so good.
Food in the north west of the country was very good. Flavoursome noodle soup and an endless supply of complimentary green tea accompanied each refueling stop. Dinner would be rice with several bowls of meat and vegetables to mix and match as we pleased. Soup was compulsory whether we wanted it or not and often arrived in one large bowl with 2 spoons for the three of us.
Despite entering the coffee growing tropics we could only get ‘3 in 1’ (instant coffee granules, creamer and 50% sugar) with a range of boastful brand names like ‘Super’, ‘Best’, ‘No.1’ and ‘Premiere’, or the more modest ‘OK’.
The universal question response was “OK OK”, which served a similar role as the Indian head wobble, meaning maybe yes, maybe no. So ordering coffee from somewhere that didn’t stock Premiere, our 3 in 1 of choice, could be confusing:
“3 coffees please”
The road turned rough a few km from Kalewa, perhaps marking the end of the Indian funding. We then had two roads to choose from: a shortcut that was reported by Bjorn and Jens to be a sandy nightmare and to be avoided at all costs. Or the main road that was reported to be a hellishly hilly slog to be avoided at all costs. Looking at the map we saw that the river Chitwan conveniently joined Kalewa to Monywa, our intended destination and we’d heard rumours of a boat that could take us there.
Sure enough, with tickets bought, a large, overcrowded vessel pulled into the sandy beach at 3pm and was heading downstream. Just before it landed a marauding party of several smaller boats charged into the side of it and discharged a crowd of women with plates of food on their heads. There was chaos as passengers tried to get off, we tried to get on with the bikes and the women tried to sell as much as they could to the captive audience stuck on the boat.
Eventually everyone and everything was on and presumably those who needed to get off were off. We took up a position on the roof and watched the river communities drifting past as our trusty barge steamed back down the river. Two men were stationed at the front of the boat with long poles to test the depth of the shallow river. By night a huge searchlight helped to try and navigate us around the sand banks but we still got stuck twice. All to be expected it seems as we landed at 3am, just 1 hour later than planned. Just time enough for a snooze under a tree before the cafes opened for breakfast.
The visibility of Myanmar’s predominantly Buddhist faith is incredibly clear. In every village there are conical, golden pagodas peeking over trees or from behind buildings. Buddha smiles at us all the time, from roadside shrines, from within a temple housing half a million icons or in the form of a huge 130m tall statue standing on a hill outside Monywa. Inside we climbed 27 floors following a set a murals depicting the path to enlightenment. Starting at some gruesome images of hell in its feet up to peace and serenity somewhere near the statues shoulders (disappointingly not in its head as we’d imagined).
After a night amongst piles of cans and plastic in a recycling ‘centre’ hut we push on to Bagan. This must be Myanmar’s star attraction and it feels strange arriving in a town full of western tourists, something we haven’t really seen since Kathmandu. It deserves the attention though with a dusty plain punctuated with over a thousand temples and pagodas built over the course of the last thousand years. Climbing to the top of one of these monuments is like stepping into an ancient civilisation. Ornate towers rise above the tree tops. Gold pagodas catch the sunlight. Horse drawn carriages trot along the sandy tracks while farmers in bamboo hats work the land.
We spend two nights in the Jasmine Guesthouse and on the second morning rise early to catch the famous Bagan sunrise. It’s a wonderful moment with the early morning mist adding to the atmosphere and dozens of balloons drifting over the plain.
Also staying in the Jasmine are Didier and Kayla who of course already know Max. They chose the hilly route from Kalewa and ran into an immigration officer while trying to find somewhere to stay. He forced them into a taxi to take them to the nearest foreigners’ hotel, 60km away. An expensive evening for them and a warning for us.
Being December, the cold season, the temperature is a chilly 30°C most days. The village houses are simple straw-walled constructions, often with a living area at the front with no walls at all which is ones of the benefits of living in country that has no winter. It’s an odd experience for us being used to the dark, cold, wet weather that we’d expect back in the UK at this time of year. We don’t miss it that much though
A rolling desert takes us across to Mount Popa with a steep climb up to Popa village where we stay in a part built building amongst an army of statues. Mount Popa is a volcanic plug that was blown off the top of the adjacent mount Taung Ma-gyi (mother hill). On its top, up 777 steps, is a monastery that attracts monks and monkeys in equal numbers. As well as being Buddhist it also contains temples for spirits known as Nats born out of very ancient Burmese beliefs. These are depicted as wax work models that are part amusing, part disturbing and get given money and food to keep them happy.
It’s the morning of my birthday as I watch the sun rise from outside the mountain top pagoda. Then by the end of the day we’re in Meiktilla looking at a barge in the shape of a mythical golden bird that houses a large temple.
We meet a man on a scooter who offers to help us find the local monastery, then explains to the monks that we need somewhere to stay for the night. This is the free accommodation plan that we’d been hoping to try. Sure enough we’re shown into a large room and told to make ourselves at home. Some students that are also staying there offer to make some dinner for us rounding off a wonderful start to my 38th year. The room we’re staying in is also the TV room and after a hard day of chanting monks like nothing more than watching WWE wrestling and European football while smoking cigars. The sound of the roaring crowd as Chelchester City score another goal lulls us to sleep.
A spine of hills runs down the centre of Myanmar. We were on the west side of it and on the east side sat Lake Inle, another Myanmar ‘must see’. The climbing was not too severe and the road surface mostly good so after two days we arrived at where we thought the lake should be. As we headed to the shore there was a commotion in a small booth by the road side. We waved, shouted Minglabar (hello) and sped past. Shortly after a boy on a scooter raced after us telling us we needed tickets. “Tickets to see a lake? You must be joking!”. We don’t stop, he gives up and we continue on. But not for long. Another scooter catches us up, this time the rider is in uniform and doesn’t look happy. “Why didn’t your stop?”, he asks. We’re liberated from $10 each for the tickets and sent on our way. It seems crazy to charge to get to a lake that is the home to thousands of people but we’re left with no choice.
We find a village, Kaung Daing, arrange the hire of a boat for the next day and spend the night in an outbuilding next to a pagoda.
Lake Inle is a huge water borne community. Towns, villages, markets, shops and restaurants are all perched on stilts around the marshy shoreline. On the lake itself there are boats everywhere, carrying passengers, ferrying supplies or being used for fishing. Children paddle themselves to school while their mums head off to the floating market. The arrival of the outboard motor is probably the only thing that has changed this way of life for centuries.
The technique used by the fishermen is unique in that they stand on one leg on the bow of their boat and use the other leg to push the paddle through the water. This leaves their hands free to position their nets. It’s an extraordinary display of balance and control that presumably results in several dunkings before it’s perfected.
The first stop on our boat trip is Nga Phe Chaung Monastery, formerly known as jumping cat monastery. Disappointingly the display of cats trained to jump through hoops no longer takes place as the abbot who trained them has died. The monks who are left must be too busy watching football to have time to train the cats.
The Burmese have an obsession with gold. The pagodas, temples, shrines, statues are all painted and sometimes gilded with gold. On the lake we find a temple where 5 small Buddha statues have been transformed into amorphous blobs due to amount of gold leaf that smothers them. Devotees can buy small squares of 18 carrot leaf then carefully paste them on while saying a prayer. Like many holy sights in the country only men can get near to the statues while women stay at a safe distance and can watch on a TV screen.
We stop at various handicraft shops, making jewellery, weaving lotus, hammering out knives, our boat driver hoping to earn commission if we buy some souvenirs. The shop keepers ask us for “lucky money” to purchase their trinkets but the panniers are already full.
One of these workshops is being operated by several women with gold rings extending their necks. It looks hugely uncomfortable but the women force a smile. There is some controversy surrounding this practice as it is largely being maintained to help bring in the tourists but it’s not clear whether the women are there willingly. Apparently they earn more money as an incentive but at the cost of a permanent deformity.
We quickly move on and the boat driver takes us up a narrow river to view over a thousand pagodas on a small hill. The level of the river is controlled by a series of weirs that have to be negotiated by lining the boat up with a gap in the middle of the wooden dam then opening up the throttle to power us up and over.
The boat trip was being used to see the sights of the lake, there’s no other way to get to any of these places, but it was also taking us south. We’d brought our bikes and kit with us and asked to be dropped off at Nan Pan at the bottom end of the lake. This saved us a lengthy ride up and round from the north as there was no road down the west side of the lake.
From Inle we had to get back over the hills. Our various electronic maps, online maps and paper maps all disagreed about whether there was a road heading in the direction we wanted to go but taking a Google satellite view as our most accurate source we ventured off to see what we could find.
Unlike the road to Inle this one was a bit tougher. In fact it was a lot tougher. Riding up a 22% gradient on a fully laden tandem is an exercise in brute force and determination. I’ve not tried it to be able to make an accurate comparison but i’d imagine dragging an anvil while turning your pedals through treacle would give a similar sensation. The motivation for staying on the bike and working the cranks is that walking would be even harder.
What goes up must come down, but really, must we go up again? Yes. And so it continued for 2 days. At the end of each day, the light was beginning to fade along with the energy in our legs as we looked desperately for somewhere to stay. As if by some divine intervention a monastery appeared from the twilight on both evenings just as we needed it most. The monks were more than happy to let us stay, bedding down next to a gaudy Buddha statue with coloured flashing lights burning all night.
As well as being very visible, Buddhism is also very audible in Myanmar. Loud speakers broadcast songs, stories and chanting at uncomfortably high volumes from the early hours. Sleeping through it isn’t really possible, especially 2m from the speaker, so it ensures we head off early each day.
On the third morning after leaving Inle we descended for the last time and returned gratefully to the plains. The road had existed and provided a scenic, quiet route that few tourists will find, but it wasn’t easy!
The road then opened out in front of us into a four lane carriageway, then six lanes, then twelve.
We were approaching the formal capital Naypyidaw, purpose built in 2006 by the military regime at a reported cost of $4bn. Most of this money seems to have been spent on an enormous road network as all the roads are vast multi-laned runways carrying very little traffic. After visiting the Uppatasanti Pagoda, an exact replica of the famous Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon only 1 foot shorter, we go in search of the city. It’s not there though. The roads lead to empty plots, an occasional park, a ‘Hotel Zone’ lined with 5 star luxury accommodation. I suspect they have more than a few rooms available.
Eventually we find a row of shops and restaurants indicating people do actually live here. The government thought that ‘if they built it, they will come’ but nobody wanted to move from the former capital (and in practice, actual capital) Yangon so only Government workers live here.
That’s not entirely true, Burak, our couch surfing host also lives here. A Turk who works for a mobile phone operator setting up base stations he’s bemused by his new home. He greats us with “Welcome to the ghost town”.
Until 2 years ago there was only 1 government owned mobile operator and if you wanted a sim card you needed deep pockets. Now things are loosening up and several companies and clambering for the rapidly expanding market. Burak’s company can’t get the network working quick enough to satisfy demand. It doesn’t help that in the still volatile north their equipment sometimes gets attacked.
We spend two nights in his serviced apartment, resting, washing clothes and maintaining the bikes. The staff are amazed that we are using the pool in ‘winter’. We don’t make use of the ‘KTV’ karaoke club next door though. This is very popular in Myanmar and what they lack in talent they make up for in volume. The view from the apartment is a huge, desolate wasteland. “That’s where the embassy’s will be built, if they ever move from Yangon”, Burak explains.
Whether Naypyidaw remains as the capital once the new government takes power in February 2016 remains to be seen, but as a country that likes change anything is possible.
If this little lot wasn’t enough for you, there are loads more photos in our Myanmar Gallery.