August 8, 2014 by melcogger
Separated by the Moei river, the towns of Mae Sot (Thailand) and Myawaddy (Myanmar) are worlds apart. Whereas Thailand has all the hallmarks of a modern state – infrastructure, technological advancement, fast cars and pop culture – Myanmar / Burma has only recently popped its head out onto the world scene. Men don lungis (circular shaped sarongs) and formal buttoned-up shirts while woman paste thanaka (a cosmetic facial mask made from tree bark) on their faces. Having experienced the longest ever military dictatorship of nearly 5 decades, the new ‘civilian’ government opened its borders to tourists only four years ago. In fact, the border we entered into has been open less than a year. This makes cycling Myanmar hot property as far as we and other tour cyclists are concerned. True, there are still restricted areas which are ‘no go’ for tourists, giving the impression that the country is still in a volatile state but this has not deterred us and the many others that have flocked to this new SE Asian gem. We originally planned only to cycle the southern ‘dog-leg’, however, after seeing just how different the country is to it’s neighbours we decided to extend a trip to the ancient ruined temples in Bagan. With only 28 days to cycle approximately 1800 kilometers our new plan would stretch us more than any other country so far. Over ambitious? Perhaps, but at least it’ll be an adventure.
Before we commence we have an announcement: we can safely say that we are the first South Africans to cycle into Myanmar / Burma. The evidence you may ask? There’s only one land border entry (opened in September 2013) and we asked the officials but they seemed confused: ‘Yes, yes’ they said, ‘South Africans from Nigeria just last month’. Not exactly conclusive. But there were a dozen check points towards Hpa-An and we enquired at every one, the answer being in the positive. There have been ten other cyclists but not one from South Africa. Others may have flown in and cycled around but we not claiming the actual first, we’re claiming the first to cycle into the country. Our little piece of history if any cares or if ever noted in the pages of time.
Illegal wild camping and ‘templing’
The caveat to allowing tourism is a high degree of government vigilance and regulation to ensure that tourists are ‘safe’. No doubt the residue of a military-controlled regime, Myanmar still has a large and organized network of police informers and spies. Apparently plain clothes policemen sit at tea houses and report any misgivings or new faces in town. For this reason no one dares to talk politics and we would never broach the topic unless directly asked a question. All tourists have to stay in registered, and more than often over-priced, hotels and guesthouses which means camping and staying at monasteries or with families is strictly forbidden. It’s not like we could plead ignorance because we had done our homework and despite this decided that we had no other choice but to break the law. We also are the type of people, believe it or not, that like to be settled and thoroughly enjoy a good night’s sleep. These two necessities would be heavily threatened by the police discovering us at a monastery or in a forest in the middle of the night and forcing us to move. It would be a matter of endurance: a series of battles in a 28 day war.
Traffic only flows westwards out of Myawaddy every odd day so having entered on an even day and needing some rest after the sprint out of Thailand, we took a weekend off. We only occasionally ventured out into town for meals and other errands but when we did we couldn’t help notice a definite increase in stares and smiles from locals. Our fame was even more pronounced when we left on our bicycles where, for the first time, locals were taking pictures and videos of us. Passing vehicles and motorbikes would hoot once normally to alert you to their imminent takeover then follow that with a flurry of hoot-hoots, smiles and waves. Somehow the people are friendlier than the other countries we have cycled, if that’s even possible. Monsoon rains persisted the entire day which made cycling the climbs over the mountain range just after the town slightly tricky on the thin one-way road. To avoid this, we merely edged off the road and let our friendly fans go by. We were spoilt by the views of rolling hills, mist, rain and the occasional sounds of banging tin as volunteers beckoned passing vehicles for donations for half built temples.
The plan for sleeping was at best vague as we couldn’t possibly know what to expect. At around 17h00 we would start looking for a monastery. Many were scattered on hill tops and in little towns so it wouldn’t be a problem. If it was, however, and we couldn’t find one, we would cycle until near dark and pull off into the bushes. Sleeping in guesthouses was a port of final and last resort. This plan went horribly wrong on our first afternoon when the police stopped us at a checkpoint before a small town (which we intended to cycle through) and showed us a large map of all the registered guesthouses for foreigners and insisted that we chose there and then. Added to this, the waiter at the restaurant we had just eaten at (who had taken a huge fancy to us) followed us the entire way into town and wouldn’t leave until we’d found a suitable room. Each time we said good-bye, each time more forcibly than the next, he’d rock up out of nowhere. Shame, I have no doubt that he merely wanted to help but damn he was irritating. Especially since we only looked at the guesthouses as a rouge to escape police scrutiny. Eventually we lost him and hurried out of town before more damage could be done. The only problem was the fans. It was very obvious that we didn’t intend to sleep there or any other guesthouse, for that matter, since the next one was more than 100km away. ‘Hellos’ became ‘where you sleep?’. Everyone seemed to pick up their cellphones as we passed and every look portrayed suspicion and knowing. Criminality tends to result in paranoia, or was it? Seventeen kilometers away from town, when the coast was clear, we slipped off the road into a rubber tree plantation. We thought it was counter-intuitive to do so on the opposite side of the road than the direction we were traveling. Behind a dense cover of bushes, only 15 meters from the road, we pitched our tent trying to be as quiet as possible. Like soldiers in battle, we lay in our 2 x 1 meter mobile home revising the day’s events and strategizing next moves in hushed whispers. One lesson was to stop before we reached a town and the inevitable check points. Every noise that night was amplified by the shrouded darkness and shrill of breaking the law. We had won the battle although the war would rage on.
Every morning after ‘templing’ or wild camping is a tender one. In Thailand these were easily overcome by an iced ovaltine and a croissant from the local 7-Eleven. In Myanmar we made do with a large selection of instant 3-in-1 coffees, samosas and fried bread. Breakfast became very important, firstly to station ourselves and mentally prepare for the day and, secondly to fabricate a story for the many police check points along the way. Huge distances between towns with registered guesthouses and the implausibility of us cycling these in one day meant that our stories grew slightly fanciful. We relied on the police believing we could cycle super-human distances, even before breakfast and sometimes it worked, although you could see the suspicion mounting. When asked what time we left our guesthouse, we would respond: ‘Before sunrise, yes, very early, big distance to cover today. Can’t talk, must keep going.’
We planned to wild camp the next night towards Hpa-An but, shock and horror, my odometer was acting up again so we pressed on to the next town to try fix it. We didn’t have a reliable map and internet is next to non-existant so staging the kilometers per day is vital for progress. We could of instead used Melissa’s shockingly accurate and useful ‘internal’ odometer, as she has become adept to guessing distance without her own actual odometer to assist, but this would require a lot of concentration all the time. Unsurprisingly we couldn’t find a bicycle shop – don’t know what we were thinking, Myanmar is still in the dark ages – but at least we enjoyed a nice stay in a single bedded matchbox room. There is supposedly one bicycle shop in the entire country in Yangon so we altered our route for a visit to the economic capital.
En route we visited Kyaiktiyo where a golden rock hangs precariously on the peak of Mt Kyaiktiyo some 3600 ft above sea level with spectacular views. Or so we had read because the day we submitted the peak, mist and heavy rain obscured everything beyond 10 meters view. Oh well! Melissa berated me for wanting to see it, especially since it cost $20 but, you know, we cycle 1000s of kilometers to places we may never come again, we may as well see the sites. At least we got to see the stupa on top of the rock which contains one strand of Buddha’s hair, supposedly found at the bottom of the sea by a hermit and transported to the top of mountain by boat which subsequently turned to stone. The gravity defying golden rock was interesting and said to be among the holiest of Buddha sites. The fancy expensive hotels located 20 meters away must be really holy as well but who’s being skeptical?
Most people were wearing rain jackets due to heavy rains and high altitude which made it quite chilly. We had ones ourselves which provided just enough heat to ward off the cold air. As we waited to depart on the truck (mandatory because of the steep climbs to the summit) we couldn’t help notice a young man huddled tightly to himself in an uncontrollable shiver. Some commotion had started because of it. Women had tried to give him money to buy a rain jacket but, probably too prideful to accept, he refused. The women persist which attracted more attention until he acceded to their demands, walked across the street, bought and put it on, all to applause from the crowds. We love Myanmar!
Let me say something about the scenery: Amazing! At first rolling hills over the mountain range from Myawaddy eclipsed by flat rice paddy plains on the other side. Towards Hpa-An sharp jagged lime stone formations jotted out from nowhere, normally with a random pagoda on the top. Unfortunately, the government has used most of the high lying land for rubber tree plantations so natural scenery is almost defunct. Fortunate for us is that these plantations provide excellent camping grounds. Between Bago and Yangon, vast areas of flat water-logged rice plantation where the road travels straight for ages. No camping grounds here unless you can float.
We stayed two more nights with our friends, the monks. One just before Bago and the other a day’s ride before Yangon. We need 14 nights free accommodation to pay off our tent (break even) and then we can really camp for free. Apart from an area to pitch our tent (normally provided for inside), we are fed, fueled, and doted on by the monks. We never ask for any of it and it always amazes us just how much pleasure it seems to give them when serving us. We try not to be bothers or greedily eat or drink everything provided (to be courteous, of course) but we’ve learnt how to receive. More than often it’s overkill. The temple stay in Bilin, perched on a rather large hill, is an example of the extraordinary generosity of the Monks living there. Apart from a full dinner and breakfast, topped with drinks and even 12 packets of noodles and more drinks to take away, we were given mattresses, blankets, pillows and a mosquitoe net. The elder monk has lived there for the last 26 years and explained that we were the first foreigners to visit during that time.
Monks survive from alms (donations) so what we receive are gifts to begin with. And they so freely pass on the little they receive. I wonder how little weight possessions would have if not owned. We ought to view what we have as guardians in a cycle of generosity rather than hoarding things so prizedly to our chests. It’s not just monks who are generous. While cycling in Myanmar we have been showered with gifts from shop owners, farmers and ordinary people. These gifts include: cokes, cookies, lots of bottled water, fruit, energy drinks, coffee, noodles, a lighter, ect. Then when someone helps us, for example with directions or how to do something, we try to off load some of our extra weight but they always refuse.
We stayed a night with warm showers hosts in Yangon, Al and Jess, and even had a night out with pizza and beer with them and their friends. It felt like a Wednesday night pizza special at Jolly Rodgers in Parkhurst, Johannesburg. Unreal. We left their place in downtown Yangon early the next morning to scout out a new odometer. It was a risk coming all the way to Yangon when we probably could of phoned to enquire first and sure enough, the only bicycle shop in Myanmar didn’t have what we needed. By the grace of God, we met a cycling fanatic, Kothanhtike taking his bicycle in for a service who knew of another shop nearby. Basically the shop assistant at Bike World lied to us saying that his shop is the only one in the country because it isn’t. Taking time out of his own day, he drove us there for free, phoned the shop owner (who only operates every other day because of his other pet hobby, golf), got the odometer, bought us a huge vegetarian lunch, and drove us back. Again, just because he wanted to help. He says he loves to tour cycle and wants to travel outside Myanmar but visas are difficult to obtain because the government is suspicious of what he’ll do when outside the country. Our friend Kothanhtike, insisted on cycling with us, I guess just to be part of it, so we went with it. He rushed home to get his bicycle and cycling gear and took such joy in directing us out of Yangon.
It was already 12h00 when we finally set off and we probably should have stayed another night but we thought we’d clock in half a days cycle. As Ron Burgundy would say: ‘Milk was a bad choice!’ Melissa fell ill shortly thereafter so we found a monastery and settled in for the evening, where we cozied up with 2 other locals apparently also jumping onto the ‘templing’ bandwagon. We tried to stay in a guesthouse but were refused because they weren’t registered to accept foreigners, you just can’t win. We even tried a Catholic Church who shoved us away on similar grounds. Not a good start for our journey north towards Bagan and perhaps an omen of tough times ahead, but more of that later.