After New Year and Harry’s birthday, the bleak days of January begin. At least that is what we experienced in the Netherlands. Usually there was a planned holiday around carnival to the sun to look forward to. Now we are already in the sun and while in the Netherlands people skate on natural ice, we sweating like horses. We have entered the flat lowlands of Myanmar.
If we leave from Meikhtila it is cloudy and a lot less hot. The route goes south and with the weak wind from the north in the back we fly over the AH1. We reach the first and only motel on the way to the capital Naypyidaw at lunchtime. Then we already conceived the nefarious plan to continue to the next stage and cycle in one day to Nayphyidaw. Rain has been predicted for the day after. A lot of rain. After all, the conditions are perfect today, but in the afternoon the wind settles down, the clouds disappear, the temperature rises and the oh so flat AH1 suddenly starts to swing in height. After almost 150 km of cycling we arrive in Naypyidaw in an area in the north of the city that has been designated as a hotel strip by planners. A gigantic deserted road with ditto roundabouts lies between gigantic but also deserted hotels that lack any architectural inspiration. We choose the least somber. The hotel is not that expensive but the well-deserved beer is. The pricey dinner is not measured in terms of our hunger, but we are simply too tired and go to sleep well.
The alleged rain day with 100% rain all day long is in reality a cloudy day with occasional drizzle of rain. For us it is a rest day and we use it to go to a supermarket. That is 9 kilometers away and downhill. For this one time we take a taxi. The wide deserted road leads to a super modern mall. We have not seen them in Asia yet. Coffee bars, jewelers, clothing stores, everything is highly modern. This includes the supermarket that sells three-quarters of non-food: TVs, refrigerators, clothing, etc. The costs for the taxi are earned back by buying pasta, tomato paste, fresh vegetables and some sausages. We can cook on the terrace of the hotel room. Only the sausages turn out to be a kind of sweet bifi. Oh well, it is therefore not very tasty but it’s cheap and nutritious and we need that because south of Naypyidaw there is again little to find accommodations: we are 130 kilometers waiting.
Naypyidaw turns out to be a very strange city when we cycle through it the next day. We pass through a residential area that is largely uninhabited and gives a gloomy feeling. The villas are walled and rolled up with rolls of barbed wire. Routeapp Komoot sends us on a route that does not exist. The first part is already there, is unpaved and is mainly used to dump waste. It is beginning to stand out that after the first so beautiful impression of Myanmar we unfortunately have to adjust our sentiment a little bit now. There is quite a lot of plastic and other waste next to the road here in the middle of the country. Not only plastic, but just (stinking) garbage from surrounding villages and towns. I
We return to the wide deserted roads that even lead to a 2×10 lane road. It is half past nine and we would think that it would be rush hour in the capital, but this road is totally empty. When a car passes us, we swing from lane 8 to 3.
Now that Komoot’s routeapp is temporarily ignored, we leave on the basis of routeapp maps.me this hideously wide road and again end up on a dirt road. This time we can happily cycle through and drive into a busy, messy and densely populated part of the city. The town planners and planners have not had a grip on this. This village is probably the old part of the city before it became the capital in 2005. We leave the city behind us when we return to the AH1 which goes all the way to Yangon. Another 500 km to go. The road is flat and good quality and also a bit boring. We cycle the 130 km to Taungoo (and sleep in the Palthi hotel in a room above a karaoke party hall), 65 km to Pyu (and sleep in the 115 miles Travelers inn located in a strip of restaurants along the highway that is forbidden to cycle on), 105 km to Daik-U (where the owner of the Hein Motel does not speak a word of English, asks a lot of money and has little to offer, but he has one advantage: he accepts foreigners)), 70 km to Bago and then after another 70 km we are finally in Yangon. Incidentally, 6 flat tires further. We then have only one reliable spare inner tube and hope to buy new ones in Yangon.
What we miss a little in Myanmar is that few people speak English. Without English, we get less contact with the local population and we get less insight into culture and customs. Google translate helped in other countries, but in the Burmese the possibilities are limited. We can not photograph texts or have them typed or spoken and then translated. Of course we understand something and we list a few noteworthy things:
> Every morning monks stroll along the streets with a big black bowl and a multilevel metal lunchbox. According to Buddhism, the monks are not allowed to have possessions. They get there food as a gift. Giving is important to walk the path to enlightenment. The lunch box is filled here and there. Then there remains a question mark behind us for the big black bowl, until one morning a child kneels in front of a monk. The monk takes sweets from the big black bowl and gives it to the child who shares the sweets with the other children.
> Men in Burma wear long skirts. They very often fix it again. In football or at chinlone, the very popular ball game that looks like foot volley and is played with a braided plastic ball, that long skirt is knotted into a short version that looks a bit like a diaper.
> Women, children and also a lot of men use thanaka, a paste of wood bark and water as cosmetics on their faces and it also gives protection from the sun.
> To get attention in a bar or restaurant, a sound is made that we know as air kiss: the lips spout and then suck air inwards.
Bago and Yangon are the respective capital 3 and 4 that we visit in Myanmar. Bago indeed looks quite like a capital with its huge Pagoda, huge reclining Buddha (from the 10th century, but restored as shiny brand new) and a large temple complex. On our way to our hotel we cycle to the Pagoda and the reclining Buddha; both are indeed impressive.
An even bigger Pagoda, the largest of Myanmar, is located in the largest city of the country: Yangon. Yangon has over 5 million inhabitants and was the capital until 2005, when the military regime choose Naypyadaw as the capital for unclear reasons. Most embassies are, however, still located in this city. Although our visit was born out of necessity, we enjoy this city of millions. Eventually we stay 3 nights. Rest day 1 is dedicated to Harry’s new rear rim, which is expertly woven by Ko Gyi from Bike World. It is already dark when we pick up our bikes again: a new rim, two new tires and 4 spare inner tubes richer. On the other side of the bike shop are a few huge eateries that remind us of Bangkok. We enjoy a beer, the delicious food and the lavish attention of the waitress who keeps circulating around our table and folding napkins for us. Above all, we enjoy “the buzz” of the big city that hangs there. We conclude that it is actually weird when we leave early tomorrow and have hardly seen anything of Yangon. Roelie finds a bicycle tour through the city on the internet and we decide to stay an extra day and to cycle this route tomorrow.
We leave early in the morning for our cycling route through the center of Yangon, a journey of almost 30 kilometers. The morning peak provides a lot of car traffic, but nowhere is it jammed. It all goes organized and very striking: (almost) without honking! After a while we are overtaken by a young Burmese man on a mountain bike and in a professional looking outfit (except for the flip flops). We start talking cycling and after a while we stop to chat more extensively. The biker is called A-J, or so he calls himself and is on his way to work. He asks what our route is, what we want to see. We show him our planned route and mention a number of “highlights” on where we are heading. A-J offers to guide us. As an accomplished bicycle tour guide, he takes us to the immense Pagoda (99 meters high), to parks and zoo and to the modern downtown. He teaches us how to quickly navigate through the busy traffic. Scooters and motorbikes are not allowed to drive in the city. Cyclists are hardly there. Yangon is great to cycle if you just make sure that the drivers see what you are planning: so point out a lot of direction. It is also important to not always drive to the far right, sometimes it is better to cycle another lane. In downtown we say goodbye to each other and we order a delicious cappuccino and an even more delicious fresh banana yogurt at a posh coffee shop.
Meanwhile we get a message from our German friend Christoph, which we have not seen since Monywa, 10 days ago. He will arrive in Yangon today, if we want to drink a beer tonight and have something to eat? Of course, how nice to meet and chat again. We meet in a nice neighborhood full of catering and have a good time the three of us. We come to the conclusion that this may be the last time we meet and with a long embrace we finally say goodbye to each other.
The next day we cycle back to Bago. In order to prevent us from cycling the same road again, we opt for the eastern route. Bad choice: the road is narrow, has a bad surface, is extremely dusty and full of freight traffic. We suspect that this road is used a lot to avoid the toll road. Along the side here and there something sticks to dry. When we inspect it further we see that it is a crushed rolled out and dried creature and ask a boy on a scooter what it was. He says ‘mouse’, but in our opinion the lap is too big for that. Probably it is a specific form of mouse that is called rat. The waste at the roadside might be a good habitat for rats.
From Bago we cycle to the village of Kyaikto. Since a short meeting in Meikhtila (see previous blog) we have kept in contact with Jaap and Alie, a cycling couple from the Netherlands, via WhatsApp. Now they arrived in Kyaikto and tell us that they have found a nice and cheap hotel with swimming pool (!). We are still 30 km from Kyaikto and ask them to already reserve a room for us.
On the road to Kyaikto we see in the distance a gigantic Buddha statue on a hilltop. Fifteen kilometers further it appears to be on the edge of this town and although the road to the hilltop is extremely steep, we can not resist it and decide to take a look. The sculpture is still under construction and is completely in bamboo scaffolds; it looks like acupuncture XL. The statue is huge! First we make a few selfies halfway up the hill at the foot of what the stairs should be for the pilgrims who will visit this in the future. The builders of the stairs encourage us to go even further up. The road gets even steeper and out of breath and sweaty we arrive at the top. We cycle as far as possible between all construction activities to the front of the image. It comes to mind that today we have passed the milestone of 10,000 bicycle kilometers. With toilet paper Roelie forms a one and 4 zeros. We put them on the ground, pebbles on them to keep them from blowing away and then we ask one of the supervisors to take a picture. Proud of the milestone and very satisfied with the photo, we cycle back down to the hotel some 500 meters away.
Jaap and Alie are waiting for us with a cold bottle of beer. Great to chat in Dutch with these two cyclists. Jaap and Alie flew to Mandaley and from there cycle through Myanmar and Thailand. They are experienced Asian cyclists and they give us a lot of information about the countries that we will visit on this continent. We exchange experiences and adventures with these fun people.
Both Jaap and Alie and we book another night. We decide to go to the famous Kyaiktiyo Pagoda (known by foreigners as the Golden Rock) 20 kilometers away, before we want to jump into the pool in the afternoon. The Golden Rock is mentioned as one of the five highlights of Myanmar that you should have seen. Jaap and Alie have read some things about the trip to the Golden Rock and decide not to visit. We have not read anything and go; it turns out to be a remarkable trip. First of all we are picked up by a “taxi scooter” at the hotel. The three of us on the small saddle are brought to a busstation pick up point in the village. The bus is a pick-up and is used for transport on smaller distances here in Myanmar. We saw hundreds of them on the road, mostly stuffed with too many passengers. Our pick-up is fortunately not full of people and we get reasonably comfortable to Kin Pun, the village at the foot of the mountains where the Golden Rock is. In that village we are unloaded and get on a narrow road full of stalls that leads upstairs. This must be the way to the Golden Rock, we think and start to walk. It is true that it is the way to the Golden Rock, but it is the walking route for devout pilgrims and monks; the hike lasts 5 hours. Fortunately, we ourselves climb an hour and take a break and find out that we still have 4 more hours to go. We decide to start the descent and head back. Somewhere in the village would be a pick-up point where you are transported to the holy place with a larger trucks. Once back in the village our driver points to the place of that pick-up point …, he could have done that before, but okay.
We arrive at a spot with a dozen mini trucks that are made accessible to passengers with an increase. We would say that 30 people fit into such a loading platform, but the carriers think that more than twice as many people can. Pffff, not normal and very uncomfortable: everyone is far too hot and sits sweaty half on the lap of the neighbor. We are larger than the average Burmese and can not lose our knees. What follows is a roller coaster on the way up where the driver apparently wants to give his boring day a boost by breaking his speed record to the Rock. The road is fortunately closed for all other traffic; with the bicycle it was also not possible to do it, with percentages of around 30. Three girls next to us do not get well from all those turns at abnormal speed. While one tries to aim her stomach contents into a plastic bag that is too small, the other one falls on Roelie’s shoulder.
Once on top it’s very busy; all those pilgrims, of course, attract a lot of people who try to sell everything. Shoes out and the legs covered and then we are ready for the Rock. Or not: we are held back by people in uniform. It appears that (only) foreigners have to pay an entrance fee (10,000 kyat or nearly € 6 per person) for entering the sanctuary. Well, it does not fit in our daily budget, but we have already come this far and have already paid quite a few kyats for transport, what do you do? Yes, pay. And then we see the Golden Rock. The Golden Rock is for Buddhists a holy place where many pilgrims travel every day. It is in fact a rock that seems to have a shaky base, but which is kept in balance by a hair of Buddha. Yes, now we have read something more. The rock is just like most pagodas in the land of gold paint. But pilgrims also stick gold to it; only those pilgrims(and only men) may touch the rock. Well, what can we say: with proper respect we walk around it, but honesty dictates that after all hardships and money investment we find the Rock rather disappointing. Of course we are non-believers, but we do not experience mysticism either. Somewhat disappointed we are already quickly in a truck where this time more than 70 people are trying to cram and in the descent there is apparently also a personal record to break for the driver.
Once we have arrived back in Kyaktio we look for a terrace and when we have a cold beer we can only come up with one advice for non-Buddhist foreigners: do not do it, it is a tourist trap. And then a cyclist passes by: incredible, it is Christoph! We call him back and take him to our hotel, where he meets Jaap and Alie. It immediately clicks between these three nice people and what follows is a fun afternoon and evening, with lots of talk and laughter.
The next day after an early breakfast together, the roads diverge: Christoph goes via Thaton directly to Hpa-An, Jaap and Alie go via Thaton and Maywlamyine to Hpa-An. We also want to go to Thaton but first want to remove the crank by disassembling and cleaning our bottom bracket and changing some other smaller items on our bikes. Cleaning the bottom bracket takes more time than expected, it is already a little later in the morning and warm and the pool beckons. To a short doubt we decide to stay in this nice hotel for a day and jump into the water.
The visit Thaton and the next city of Mawlamyine is a tip from Jaap and Alie. Thaton is not that far (70 km) and easy to cycle. On the way we see the first 7Eleven store that we invariably link to our previous holidays in SE Asia. The shop is in principle open 24/7 and has a nice mix of eastern and western merchandise. We stop and go looking for an ice cream. In front of the store a cyclist is reading in the Lonely Planet about Myanmar. It is Kevin from England. “Are you the Dutchies with a noise in the crank?”. Uh yeah and we soon understand that he met Jaap and Alie earlier in Thaton. Kevin has seen a lot of the world by bike. We chat for a while and as always among cyclists who meet each other, information is exchanged about the underlying / coming route.
Thaton is a nice town with, yes … a lot of pagodas. The hotel where Jaap, Alie and Kevin have been sitting has a rooftop that offers a view of all that gold that is shining in the afternoon sun around us as well as we have checked in.
The next city, Mawlamyine, is the fourth city in the country and was the capital of Burma during the British colonial period. It was then called Little England because of the large number of English who lived there. That is still pretty good to see; some colonial houses and a few large churches that all look pretty rundown. Quite a contrast with the splendor of the pagodas and temples but also with the fancy mosque in the center. For a moment we hope to see the Andaman Sea, because this port city lies at the mouth of two large rivers. The Black Sea in Turkey was the last time we saw a sea during our trip. But the mouth is still a few kilometers away and can only be reached by boat. In our view, the city has little to do with the body and no nice center or a river boulevard. Mmmm, have we “cycled” for this? We now crave mountainous and sparsely populated regions. Behind the border with Thailand we have found a challenging route through National Parks to Chiang Mai that will offer us that, with probably also opportunities for camping. That would be nice! We skip the initial plan to first head north to Hpa An – with its 1000 Buddhas – and then go southeast to the border; we decide to cycle directly to the east, to Thailand. The last overnight place in Myanmar will be the village of Kawkareik, where we have made contact with Su Su. On the way there we meet three men from Thailand and Jens from Germany.
Su Su is one of the few Warmshowers hosts in Myanmar. It is forbidden to offer foreigners accommodation, but cooking for foreigners is allowed. Many cyclists arrive in her village and visit her. The feedback she receives on Warmshowers does not lie. Everyone loves her and advises others to visit her. We have signed up a few days ago and she can receive us. Before we reach Kawkareik, Su Su sends a message that we are going to meet two other cyclists: Frouke & Kerin. They arrive when we have just checked in at Honey Guest House. They find a place to sleep in the guesthouse one door further. At a game center 3 doors away we talk about our travels. Frouke and Kiran are on their way to the Netherlands and have a route behind them that we have ahead of us. Enough to discuss and in the meantime Su Su arrives. We meet again at 6 pm and then Su Su takes us to her home. With the five of us we first cycle to a noodle factory where all restaurants from the village are customers. In the evening, rice is boiled and ground into a white paste that is cooked in slivers by a press in hot water. There are already many bins ready for the restaurants to serve as breakfast the next morning. In the dark we cycle through the streets of Kawkareik to the house of Su Su. We help her with cooking and enjoy a wonderful evening of fun. Su Su shows a box full of cards and gifts she has received from other cyclists. There is quite a lot of Dutch people: a calendar, tulip bulbs and nuggets. She would very much like to come to the Netherlands once. She wants to see tulip fields and the bulb houses. Bulb houses? We do not know that. We look it up on the internet and discover that it is in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, 25 kilometers from our former home. Some learned again and that of Su Su in Kawkareik who has never seen the sea himself.
The next morning we are back in her house at 7 o’clock to have breakfast. Su Su spoils us with a big breakfast. Frouke asks if Su Su can tell something about herself. She does and says that she grew up in Hpa-An with her parents, 2 brothers and sister. Her father died when she was 18 because of stomach problems and her mother then starved himself and died less than a year later. Her older brother left for Yangon and got a cardiac arrest at a bus stop and died. Now she is the oldest and financially caring for sister and brother who are out of home and studying. She has had all kinds of jobs and now works at a government office and issues driver’s licenses. A heartwarming sweet woman who is sometimes lonely and therefore enjoys the visits of cyclists. She is 28 years old and yesterday was her birthday when we ate with her.
After breakfast Su Su comes with even more surprises. She knotted a wristband last night for us as she has learned from a French woman. What an angel is this lady, her facebook name (Smile Angel) can not be more appealing. Then comes a stone on the table and she makes thanaka, the paste of barn and water for a facial cream, which we see all over Myanmar. It protects against the sun and keeps the skin young and wrinkle free. Frouke and Roelie get a complete make-up, the men only a lick on their hand. Then it is time to leave. We have to cross a mountain and Frouke and Kerin stand for a long stage to Hpa-An. Saying goodbye is difficult once again. The atmosphere and the company is so special that you would like to stop time.
At a store around the corner we buy water for the climb with 1000 altitude meters and then Su Su suddenly stands next to us again. She forgot to give us a snack she had made for us. We gratefully accept two packages in banana leaves. This lady deserves the Nobel Prize for cyclists.
It is already around nine when we cycle out of the village and see the mountain looming before us. We follow the old road on which there is almost no traffic anymore now that a new road has been built. The old road is crossing a higher pass than the new one and it take us 3 hours to get to the top. There we open the banana leaves and feast on sweet rice with red fruit.
After a descent of 16 km we arrive on the new road and cycle another 17 km to Myawaddy, the border town. We check out Myanmar. It’s a wrap. We have not been able to unravel the mystical character of the country. There is so much that we have not seen, experienced or understood. It tastes like more. Who knows, maybe we’ll come back again.
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