Published at January 14, 2019 at 3:30 PM
Published at January 14, 2019 at 3:30 PM
Myanmar, or Burma, is still a country with many secrets. For a long time (almost) inaccessible for foreigners / tourists, then for some time apathetic towards people who want to enter and explore the country by bicycle and not by plane to go to a resort and from there take perhaps a few organized trips. Myanmar, the country with the for us unreadable notebook (and figures), the country where English as a global language has barely made its appearance. Myanmar, a country on the road to openness and democracy, but also with some disturbing appearances in the world news. Since August 2017, the (country) borders have opened up further: you do not have to apply for a permit through shadowy intermediaries – in addition to a visa. In fact, the visa for Myanmar is “a breeze”, compared to that for India. Myanmar, a country with a very rich history, the land of the thousands of Pagodas, the one even more brilliant than the other, the land of many ancient empires and cities, often spelled in different ways. During our cycling trip we will visit several former capitals, one of which is currently the capital city: Naypyidaw. Indeed, one from the category: ‘never heard of it’. We are curious about this country, like every country or region that we visit. We have our own expectations (or prejudices) and now we are going to experience it.
On December 30 we are on the road for exactly half a year. At the border we are longer on the side of India than on the side of Myanmar. To begin with, we are immediately sent by the military in the wrong direction. Once we are heading in the right direction (again) there will be a military checkpoint with the well-known but nevertheless superfluous questions: What is the ultimate goal of your trip? Uhhh, Alaska. No, let’s just say Bangkok. How long does your journey continue? Uhhh, two and a half years. No, let’s just answer at the end of April). Everything goes painfully slow and it takes about half an hour before we can continue.
It is a brief search for the immense office / terminal of the Indian immigration and if we nearly want to shout: can we finally leave the country? The gigantic hall is completely deserted, all seats as you encounter at airports are empty. It is “we versus two officials”. The immigration official has a large BeatsByDre headset and ignores us until we try to attract his attention. We point to the empty counter of emigration, but he apparently also perceives his emigration colleague or more likely, his alter ego. With him we quickly score a check-out stamp. On to officer two, the customs official. This strong alcohol-smelling gentleman wants us to fill in a questionnaire about the amount of cash, whether we have nuts, vegetables, fruit or meat with us, etc. After checking the list the official even wants to check the luggage and we need to open the panniers for an otherwise volatile control: we did not had to when entering India. A bit strange when you leave a country, but well you never know if we hit a rhino along the way and took it with us.
Coincidentally, a cyclist arrives and we are no longer alone in the hall. His name is Aziz and he is French. He cycles with a big backpack on his back. He tells us that he first walked through China, then bought a horse to travel around Mongolia and bought a bicycle in China to continue traveling. He departs Myanmar and enters India. We ask him about his experiences and tell him about India. He confirms that the northern border crossing to Thailand is open, but that there is an area where you can not travel through. The only way to get to that border is to fly. He did that and shows a picture how he had packed his bicycle: wrapped in cardboard and tied up with tape. Hahaha. He also says that he could not always find a hotel in Myanmar and stayed at churches and monasteries. We ask the customs officer to take a picture of the three of us. The man is doing particularly badly job and we have a clue why. Or his hand is in front of the lens or we are not all on the pic. An Indian style selfie is a solution.
After a metal bridge over the river that forms the border, we arrive at a mini-office of the Myanmar Immigration Office. We fill in a simple small form and get a stamp in our passport. After a few minutes, we continue cycling after we have a question about which side they drive here. The answer is right. Driving on the right side is not the only difference with India. The Burmese border town of Tamu does not look anything like Moreh, the Indian border town that we left this morning. Tamu is clean and tidy. The roads are wide, in good condition and organized. And almost no-one is honking. We are kindly helped with money exchange and two lovely young ladies help us to activate SIM cards. Finally, the atm also appears to be working and we are able to fully explore this new country. The first impressions of Myanmar are well!
The construction of the road from Tamu further into the country is a friendship project of India. Unlike most Indian roads, it is a very good road with the exception of the bridges. They are rather narrow and made of wooden planks and asphalt was poured on them. Rests of asphalt can only sometimes sometimes be seen in the middle. The planks are broken and splintered and there are broad cracks between them. On several bridges, people are busy knocking the high nails back into the wood. Just before and after a bridge is maneuvering between bumps and potholes. In particular, the gaps between the shelves are quite dangerous for our bicycle tires. As a precaution our shoes always go out of the clicks and we step over the bridges.
But what is especially striking are the cheerful people at the side of the road. It is reminiscent of the running events in the Netherlands where the runners are encouraged. Swearing from all sides, thumbs up, laughing and calling “hello”, “bye bye” or “mingalawa“. And even better: no more selfies. Another big difference is that we can hardly read anything anymore. The Burmese script has beautiful letters and numbers, but there is really nothing to do with it. In exceptional cases something of the Latin script can be seen, for example on advertisements or on traffic signs, where a small print beneath the elegant notebook shows the readable distance to the next city.
Around 3 pm on this first day in Myanmar we get a message from our Austrian and German cycling friends. They left (a lot) earlier in the morning from India and they let us know that they leave the village of Khampat and continue cycling. Khampat was for them and for us is the intended destination today. They will try to cycle another 75 kilometers further to the town of Kalay, where we know that there are hotels where foreigners can stay overnight. Not every hotel can offer accommodation to foreigners. The current adviser to the state Miss Aung San Suu Kyi once had to stand trial after she had sheltered an American after he had swam across a lake to her home in Yangon where she was under house arrest.
Khampat turns out not to be a small village, but a little town with 33,000 inhabitants. There must be a hotel or guesthouse or whatever? We see a busy café and go inside. We have seen a lot of commercials on the way for beer and we have become somewhat thirsty about that. In India you do not see beer signs along the road and certainly no cozy terraces. Here in Myanmar it is a series of inviting terraces. It is quite difficult for people like us who like to grab a terrace and a beer and have not come across it for weeks. It is already half past four and with more than 60 kilometers on the trip odometer we think it is allowed; left or right, in this town we will spend the night.
The cafe is full of young people but there is little English to speak. A boy, who speaks some English, comes from India and acts as an interpreter between the locals and us: he knows how to ensure that there is indeed no accommodation for foreigners in Khampat. There are dozens of churches of all kinds, and with the story of the French Aziz in our minds, we propose the idea to knock at the door of the Roman Catholic church. The young Indian thinks that is a good idea and wishes us good luck and he leaves.
A number of children play on the forecourt of the Roman Catholic Church. They point to the vicarage when we look around. A man from the vicarage comes to us, who presents himself as Father John. He speaks reasonable English and we ask him if we can set up our tent somewhere on the large walled area around the church. For the sake of certainty, we will show a picture of our tent. The cheerful father John welcomes us warmly and does not have to think about it for a moment or we can stay overnight. You do not have to set up a tent: he offers us the choice to spend the night in the tower room or in the presbytery. He shows us the room in the presbytery and we gratefully accept his offer to stay there. He tells us that he will make the room ready while we eat something on the main street of the town. Close to the main street we find a “restaurant”: an eatery in the sense that it is not a building but literally a tent in which is cooked and on the road plastic tables and plastic chairs are displayed. One of the people even speaks a word of English. We ask for vegetarian food and from his response we make it clear that vegetarian is not often eaten. Later it appears that this is the case for the whole of Myanmar. They serve white rice with fried vegetables in a sweet sauce, two different salads and spicy soup and it tastes delicious.
After dinner we walk further into the main street. There is a kind of fun fair. There is such a tug-of-war stall and there are games to play. We get into conversation with villagers when we watch a game where tires are rolled which then have to fall over one of the bottles in the field. One of them is lucky and wins a can of beer; it looks like he has already won a lot today. He gives the can of beer to us in honor of new friendships. Of course we should also try it. Roelie is not lucky, but Harry, in his turn, also drops a band around a bottle. Half the village laughs in a dent around this “white fellow” that apparently is good with tires rolling. The beer won by Harry he gives in turn to the villager in honor of new friendships. Together with our new, somewhat tipsy, friend, we try our luck at a next game where tennis balls are thrown to a rack. Bottles are in the gable and the intention is to knock them over. The level of difficulty is a lot higher than that of tire rolling, the price is the same: a can of beer. Roelie throws worthless and stops after one ball. Harry throws very hard but always misses target, under loud “ooh” and “aah’ cheering from the bystanders.
When we walk back to the church we see a lot of stars in the sky. Our cycling friends are still working on the stage of a total of 135 km. Probably under an even more beautiful starry sky. There is just no milky way to see through the lights around us. It could well be a very special ride for them.
Father John is watching TV with English football. He failed to complete the credit on time and the TV ceased to broadcast. We go to the guest room and are astonished when we see that the wooden beds are equipped with mattresses, sheets, blankets and mosquito nets. It almost looks like a hotel room. Shortly thereafter it becomes dark in the house. Khampat only has power between 6 and 8. Anyone who wants power outside of it must use a generator. A few lamps run on batteries and Father John tells us that he will turn on the generator of the church for the Mass tomorrow morning. It starts every day at 6 o’clock. Many villagers now find it too cold to come to the mass so early, according to the pastor. Mass is held in the local language and can not be followed by us. That sounds like a nice excuse to stay in bed.
At 5:30 am the church bell is ringing a number of times. Probably to call the villagers to come to the mass. We turn around again. We have lost an hour in India with regard to India. For us, it is therefore only 4:30. Moreover, it is New Year’s Day today and it could well be a later date.
We are cycling with one hand on the handlebar today. The other waves constantly to the people along the side of the road. At ten o’clock we stop on the roadside and we turn on our gas stove to boil water for an extensive coffee moment. In between we listen to the last day of the Top2000 of all times and sing along loudly with ‘Everyone is from the world and the world belongs to everyone’ of the dutch band The Scene; it can not be more appropriate. Next to the road is a large sign indicating that we are passing the Tropical Cancer. Around lunchtime we stop at a roadside restaurant where we clean our bikes. That was necessary after muddy/dusty India. And if you take good care of your bike, the bike will also take care of you.
At 25 kilometers from Kalay we fill our water bottles along the side of the road when a lady cycles towards us from the opposite direction. Her name is Sophie, she is from France, she lives in Scotland and has been on the road since April. She has a pile of photos on her handlebar bag. At the moment a young man is shining on top, probably friend or brother, who knows. She crossed Scandinavia and Russia and it became too cold in Mongolia after which she traveled to Southeast Asia. She does voluntary work along the way. She says that she did a train ride in Myanmar but that cycling would probably have been faster. The border with India is too far away for her today. We tell her that there are no previous accommodations but that she might be able to turn to Father John. She records his church in maps.me, as we tell her that her compatriot Aziz is cycling the same way one day ahead of her. After a little bit of chitchat, we say goodbye to each other. We look at each other: “tough, isn’t it, a young woman on her own on the bike”!
We cycle the last bit to Kalay and check in at hotel Moe where our cycling friends also stay and who have reserved a room for us. On the roof terrace we see each other again and drink a glass of beer before we go to a restaurant across the street. We even order a bottle of wine; it’s not New Year’s Eve every night! After dinner, Tanja and Jakob invite us to their room to have a nightcap. We will not make it until 12 o’clock. Harry immediately falls asleep in our own room. Roelie manages to look briefly at the fireworks before her eyes too close.
On the first morning of the new year, our plan to cycle to the old city of Monywa in a day or 3-4 is subject to some reservations. There is nothing to find on the Internet on the way: no accommodation and no church or monastery and not even a police station to inquire where to stay. Our cycling friends already had a different plan that now seems the most equitable for us: a boat trip on the Chindwin River to Monywa. That means a short stage to the village Kalewa on the Chindwin River on this New Year’s Day. It is a beautiful ride. It follows a river that crosses through a mountain and meanders like an old caterpillar through villages, past pagodas from left to right and up and down. After these beautiful 40 kilometers we are in Kalewa.
Tanja, Jakob and Christoph have left Kalay earlier and arrived earlier and tip us where we can find the boat and ticket sales. We expect the boat to pick us up between 2 and 4 pm and take 6 to 9 hours to reach Monywa. We expect to arrive around midnight but do not dare to book a hotel. And that’s a good thing too. The boat arrives at 3 pm. The bikes are tied to the deck, the bags are placed on the front deck (and not much later replaced by Tanja in a hut) and we take place on dirty chairs. It is not a typical Asian overcrowded boat and he also sails quite fast: initially over 30 km/h, but when it gets dark the pace drops to 20 km/h. Apparently that is not fast enough: at 11.30 pm we are still about 60 kilometers away from Monywa. We now know that it will be a nightly expedition through Monywa to find a hotel. The captain, however, sails into a quiet side branch and turns off the engine. It becomes clear to us that we will have to spend the night here; the crew is going to sleep.
With the five of us we are in our ‘sleeping compartment’. That is the hut where Tanja put the bags. The size of the hut is about 3.00 m wide, 1.70 m long and 1.20 m high and that is quite a situation of “sardines in a tin” when you try to lie down with five of us between all the luggage. We put our own bags on the deck to create a little more space. On the steel floor is a horse blanket and we keep the sliding doors open for some fresh but also cold air.
At 6:30 am at sunrise the engine will be on again and we will continue sailing. In our cabin we cook water for coffee and tea and we slice the banana cake: ‘breakfast in bed’ we will say. Around 9 o’clock we arrive in Monywa. It is really bizarre. The boat is being stormed by taxi drivers (at least that’s what we make of it) who offer their services to the passengers. They run and yell into our cabin. We do not need a taxi. As one of the last we disembark, balance over the temporary pier of two sprung shelves and carry our bikes and bags onto the quay.
Christoph had a flat tire in Kalewa and together we help him change the inner and outer tires. Christoph has hardly brushed his bike since the Indian mud. We have warned him: “if you do not take good care of your bike, your bike will not take good care of you”. Presumably he takes our advice to heart because a few days later he reports proudly from Mandalay that after a cleaning job at a bicycle shop, he thinks he has the cleanest bike of the five of us. We grant him the honor and wish this super-friendly German that his bike will not let him down. Perhaps we have not completely removed the mud and dust of our own bikes: Harry’s bike shows a crack in the rear rim and also the wheel is out of round…
We decide to stay in Monywa, our friends decide to cycle towards Mandalay. We say goodbye to each other at a bakery with cappuccino and cake.
Monywa is known for a very large standing Buddha. Unfortunately, it is 20 kilometers from the center. We set aside our plan to cycle to it for a photo and back again. Roelie starts with Harry’s wheel. It turns out that not only 1 but even 12 spots to have a crack. Oops, can not actually happen. The spokes are too tight to change anything. Fortunately we are helped a lot by Mathijs of PilotCycles, but it is clear that a new rim is needed. It will not be easy to find a 29-inch wheel on the one side and a craftsman on the other hand who can brace the rim on the existing spokes. In Chiang Mai, Thailand, that will probably not be a problem, but that is still very far away. We decide to send some questions to various bike shops in the big cities of Yangon and Mandalay and ask Jimmy General Waste, to whom we came in contact via Facebook, for advice on obtaining a new rim. Okay, we can not do more at this time. In the nice and cheap Hotel Chindwin we look at the beautiful movie ‘Life of Pi’ and at sunset we can see from the roof terrace the enormously high golden standing Buddha in the distance, shining in the last sunlight. We sleep like babies that night.
Hotel Chindwin also turns out to have a good breakfast and that provides sufficient basis for the long stage of 113 km to Pakokku. The first 40 km we follow a narrow asphalt road that occasionally turns into an unpaved road and then only remains unpaved. It is a beautiful route through rural areas and somewhere halfway we are surprised by an old and overgrown temple complex. This is (in our opinion) much more beautiful than all that shiny golden splendor.
At the bridge over the well-known Chindwin River we turn into the wide asphalted motorway. The remaining kilometers we cycle on a good and very quiet road. We notice that there are few cyclists and few tuktuks. The cars, buses and trucks are much newer and more upscale than in India. In the old walled city of Pa Khan Gyi we turn to see an big and old teak pagoda. It makes little impression after the old temple complex this morning and we cycle further without visiting the temple (and without paying US$ 5).
We do not cycle much further, because Roelie gets a flat tire. On the side of the tire in the rear wheel we see a big crack. We put a “new” inner tube in it and reinforce the tire with duct tape both inside and outside and drive the last part to the city of Pakokku.
The first hotel in Pakokku seems too pricey and we cycle to guest house Myint 2. We are refused because we are foreigners and at a second guest house we are not welcome for the same reason. We are welcome in the third guest house; there are no passports to be shown and no forms filled in: aha we are ‘under the radar’. Pakokku is a big city but not touristy. We are somewhat concerned about ordering dinner, but on GoogleMaps we find two buffet restaurants close together and close to our guest house. A buffet seems ideal, no problems with unreadable menus and language problems when ordering, but choose what to eat yourself. We take a seat in one of the buffet restaurants and while we are looking around where the buffet is located a huge amount of dishes with a huge amount of food for just the two is disposed on our table. We are baffled when the dishes we touch are also supplemented and topped up. We are also pleasantly surprised when we have to pay € 4 for all of this plus two liter bottles of water. But what a waste of food, or would they … In the evening we take a Probiotic as a precaution.
Joehoe it is party !! Myanmar celebrates its Independence Day on January 4. But where is the party? We really do not see anything at all. The shops are not closed, we do not see children playing games and the people are not dressed up, no really nothing shows that it is a public holiday. Maybe offices and factories are closed, but there is often little to see. Moreover, the day does not start very festive for us: the front tire of Harry is flat. There is a thorn in and besides that we change inner tube we also do a tire change on Roelies bicycle. The tire with the crack goes to the front wheel and the good tire, with a profile as if it is still new, goes to the rear wheel.
When we leave Pakokku, we first look for an ATM that wants to give us money and after a number of failed attempts to try our luck in Bagan, the supposed tourist center of Myanmar and our destination today. To get there we cross the huge bridge over the Irrawaddy River. A short while ago, the for us well-known Chindwin River has joined this mighty river. The road to Bagan looks like a dune landscape but it is nice and tropical with palm trees and cacti. It is pretty hot today. Around 30 Celsius, but full in the sun and with a lot of short climbs, it seems to be at 40 degrees. The sweat gushes from our faces.
If we reach the borders of Bagan, suddenly everything is readable again for us. The Burmese script gives way to Latin alphabet (English). The streets are decorated by inviting terraces. That this area is a tourist highlight, we also see in the number of western tourists. Apart from the handful of long-distance cyclists, we have not seen any ‘white’ people for weeks until we cycle into this region. Less visible but probably in much larger numbers, the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, Thai and because of Independence day many Burmese tourists gather around the restaurants and pagodas. The traffic swells with large buses and electric scooters.
Bagan was the capital of the Pagan Empire, the predecessor of modern Myanmar, long ago (from about 850 to 1250 AD). The city was abandoned in fear before the Mongolians invaded the empire. The deserted city was then not destroyed and therefore the ancient pagodas have been preserved in decent condition. The thousands of pagodas are located in a widespread area. Many are standing in scaffolding to be renovated. And many new ones have appeared between the old Pagodas. These are not our favorites. We love the ones being overgrown, crumbled and really old. Further outside the city and from the main roads there are many to see and fortunately there are no buses parked there.
We cycle to the village of New Bagan that almost completely consists of hotels, restaurants and shops and a lot of traffic. Very different from what we have seen so far and because of that we also feel that we can enjoy it less. It is a bit disappointing although of course we are also part of it.
Two cheap hotels we saw on GoogleMaps turn out to be fully booked on Independence Day. In the end we manage to capture the last room of hostel “Ostello Bello”, where we are welcomed by a Finnish lady. Advantage of much tourism is that we can also try another kitchen than the Asian: we eat across the street a pretty nice brick oven pizza. Satisfied we dive into the bunk bed. Yes this is really a hostel, but one with (in our case) a private room with one bunk bed and a private bathroom. Since Harry once fell out of a bunk bed, it seems best that he sleeps downstairs. And so happens.
When we get up, we get the good news that a bicycle shop in Yangon (Rangoon) has a rim in stock that meets all specifications and can also mount it. Yangon is more than 600 km from our current location and not on our route. But it is also not very far if you cycle to Thailand: it will cost us extra 4 days. Our route is reversed, which means that we have to leave Inle Lake (the other tourist highlight in Myanmar) and that we will cycle long stretches on main roads. But we are happy that we can be helped.
After a delicious combination breakfast where the west (yes, black coffee !!!) meets the east (yes, fried rice) we read a mail from Sourav Modak, the journalist of The Times of India whom we met in Imphal, India. He was there for a football match but was also interested in our story. He sends us the link to the e-article and a pdf of the sports page of the newspaper where the article is placed. We gonna be famous, haha!
It will be a nice cycling day. Leaving Bagan is quite difficult. Many very old Pagoda’s appear again and they are all worth watching from close up and taking pictures. The ancient Pagodas evoke so many questions and images of how they lived here so long ago. That must have been magical. At least that is what it is now.
We turn into a main road that leads us out of the Bagan region and after a number of awful chic hotels we return to the more normal Burmese atmosphere. Again “Mingelawa” is said. That was missing in the tourist area. We meet two times a parade where first a row of girls and young women with flowers and in beautiful dresses appear, followed by beautiful dressed up and made-up children (little boys) on horses, in turn followed with also nicely dressed children on ox carts. They are novices who celebrate their inauguration day. A few have hopelessly fallen asleep while seated on the horse.
After the second parade we turn off the main road and drive to Mount Popa. Mount Popa is an inactive volcano and one of the foothills is a perpendicular piece of rock on which a temple has been built. The brilliance of the gold of the temple can be seen from afar. To get to the rock at the temple, 700 steps have to be climbed. Important Buddhist ghosts are depicted in the temple and is therefore also a holy place and a popular destination for pilgrims. On the way there we see a lot of pilgrims in pick-ups and vans going to the temple. Along this road there are about 15 kilometers of 50 to 100 meters beggars calling for pilgrims to leave money. They then throw that money out of the car. Many jokers throw something out of the car which is not money but where the beggars are heading for. We as cyclists are left untouched.
And then we get again a flat tire, damn! While we are changing the tube we are asked “of alles goed gaat” (if everything is okay). Yes literally: “of alles goed gaat?”. It is Martin and Margot from The Netherlands who cycle a big tour around Mandalay and left like us Bagan this morning. They have been in Myanmar before and say that it has changed a lot in a short time. They can afford a bit more luxury than we do and spend the night in a resort close to the temple and they also climb the next day. We keep it at a coke at restaurant with Mount-Popa-view and then cycle on to our budget hotel.
The intended Hotel Gohn is equally difficult to find. On Booking and Google maps it seems to be in the village, but it is not there. The building that we find is completely deserted and overdue. We ask here and there and think that the location indicated on maps.me would be the right place and that is another 9 kilometers further out of the village. Fortunately, it’s right. Unfortunately, we do not find any English-speaking staff, but with sign language we get together.
And then it is already January 6: Harry’s birthday. We start the day festively by ordering a suitable breakfast with the same sign language. Well that does not work but we have breakfast (yep, fried rice again) and then start the day with… the fixing of two flat tubes. How nice is that on your birthday? In the case of a flat tire, we have the habit to change the inner tube and to keep the flat tire for later sticking. We start to worry about the tires, both the condition of two tires and the number of spare tires. The size of our 29 inch tires is very exceptional here in Myanmar; hopefully they can help us with new ones in Yangon (our questions are not answered …). With the inner tubes not only the size is a problem but also the type of valve.
Today we want to cycle to the town of Meikhtila which is 91 kilometers away. It will be a tough day. There is a strong wind from the north. We cycle to the northeast but the road meanders, or occasionally we bump into the wind and occasionally we have the wind in the back. What makes it heavy is that it is hot and there are a lot rollers in it. We’ll go on and off and if we have enough breath we’ll put a birthday song loudly.
At the A1 motel in Meikhtila we meet the Austrian Tony who is also traveling by bike. Together with him we go to a restaurant to have something to eat and exchange tips. If we want to leave, we get into conversation with Jaap & Alie from the Netherlands, who are – how is it possible? – also traveling Myanmar by bicycle and cycling to Thailand.
At a supermarket on the way back to the hotel we buy a few mini bottles of sparkling wine (or something like that) and we finally celebrate a kind of birthday in our room. The wine tastes like cherry lemonade and because cherry lemonade is delicious, it’s fine.