Cycling Southern Myanmar

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September 13, 2014 by melcogger

We didn’t give ourselves much rest after our mammoth 19 hour bus ride to Yangon then to Mawlamyine, although this would be sorely regretted in the days to come. A tight schedule and the entire peninsular still to conquer, meant that we had to do with the little sleep we gained in our windowless, dingy, overpriced room. The plans to subvert restrictions on wild camping and staying in temples hadn’t changed and despite being caught once, we couldn’t shrug off the feeling that we may win after all. Southern Myanmar would be tough though. The restriction on travel had only recently been lifted which meant that suspicions would be high. Our subversion tactics would be the same: overshoot what we knew we could achieve in a day (130km to be safe) but make it look as if we were heading for a town with a guesthouse. It worked like a charm, in theory that is.

Mawlamyine to forest about 30km after Thanbyuzayat

The days seemed to be clearly divided into morning and afternoon sessions, even more so than ever. Mornings are as normal as one can get cycling in foreign lands, leaning on the uncertainty of the unknown and enjoying every moment of it. We noticed that as the day drew on stress of finding a suitable hiding place without being seen mounted. Every thought was bent on it. Our heads sprawling from side to side, surveying the landscape for that perfect spot. Our criteria: cover of trees, a small stream to wash, and oh please God, we prayed, NO RAIN while we set up camp. It was also vital to get as far away from a major town as possible, for obvious reasons.DSCF5831

So there we were at 15H30 at a local brothel enjoying a free coke with the pimp and the girls, having traveled through a major town at a safe time and avoiding suspicion of where we were going to sleep, when we were informed by the aging pimp that we were going the wrong way. Shit! We left the brothel, making a note of its location because the girls looked underage, promising to notify someone, anyone, and back tracked to Thanbyuzayat to find the correct route. It’s the first time I (Jonty) have made such a bad and obvious navigating blunder and I’m eager to set it right. I race back and Melissa is forced to keep up and in the process of going over a slippery railway line, falls to disgruntled yelps of surprise. I felt bad and scurry back, feeling like I have failed in my husbandly duties.

We make it 30 kilometers out of town and near night fall turn into a line of trees which offers sufficient protections from ‘those prying eyes’. (I hope you can sense that we are not entirely sure whether the police actually care. Paranoia may have exaggerated some of our judgement. The question constantly niggled at us as we rode but we can assure you, with all the objective facts at hands, writing this in the comfort of Thailand, that they did care and we were followed). We didn’t get a stream that night but had a couple of snow towels (a type of cloth baby wipes) that our friends, the monks, had given us previously. An early night, on and off sleep, numb limbs, streams of sweat, and the occasional prod to edge Melissa back to her 1/2 meter side of the tent. We always wake up surprised that we haven’t got caught and the feeling makes for high spirited morning cycling until hunger sets in. We’ve done it again. Vagabonds on bicycles with the world as our home. Life goes on for the Cogger team, two lawyers breaking the law.

Forest to Makeshift Shelter

We desperately needed to wash that next morning to scrub off what the rain couldn’t. Small streams on the side of the road which were surprisingly clean provided a good option and often we opted for these, but fortunately this morning we stumbled upon a well among a cluster of huts. We went straight for it. We must look weird to the locals and a woman approached us and said something in burmese. We couldn’t understand what so we carried on. A kind of motto we have adopted on our travels is ‘we’re tourists, we can get away with it’. Some other activities or liberties involve: eating on the floor outside shops when there are no chairs; cutting our toe nails pretty much anywhere; taking the entire bus stop for our lunchtime siesta; simply standing in air conditioned shops for what seems like hours; stopping at any random house to use the toilet; eating our own food at restaurants when we only ordered a coke; not objecting to 5 star treatment at banks which often means jumping large queues; and pretending we don’t understand something when we don’t like it. It turns out that the woman who approached us washing only wanted Melissa to use a private bathroom in her house for some privacy. Sometime pretending we don’t understand shoots us in the foot.DSCF5773

Road conditions until now were fairly good, not nearly as bad as we had expected, and we managed to cover 100km each day. When I say fairly good, I mean a single lane road marred with countless potholes and small bumps but on the whole ‘fairly good’. There is very little traffic in this neck of the woods but when trucks and busses do stampede past, we give them the respect they deserve otherwise death would surely ensue on a thin road that barely spans their own width. We worried, though, about a sudden change from orange (secondary road) to yellow (normally bad) after Ye as indicated on our map.

Stupidly, we didn’t notice a big mountain pass on our map right at the end of our day as we started to look for a plekkie to camp. This meant trouble. To our right were steep valleys and our left sharpe mountain cliffs. To make matters worse they were still constructing the road so men, woman and children (hmmm) were all about, most washing in the many streams flowing down the mountain side or playing one bounce soccer. At this point I started to stress. I wasn’t sure how long the climb went and darkness edged on. To make matters even worse, there was a police checkpoint at the top. I thought, ‘this is it, what now?’ We thought of just declaring our predicament to the policemen, aptly shifting our problem into theirs but we would only do so when they asked. It seemed obvious, it was18H45, almost completely dark now, you’re policemen, surely you know the law, there’s no guesthouse within 200km and we are on bicycles not super bikes. To distract them we made small talk, commenting on the landline phone wired to the motorbike battery used instead of a cellphone and other such things. In the end, miraculously, they gave our passports back and bid us good bye. We practically sprinted down the rocky road before they could realise their own stupidity.DSCF5793DSCF5795

Racking our heads from side to side in this mountainous terrain I wondered if it was even possible to pitch a tent on a 30% gradient and more importantly how we would sleep. While sliding down the muddy hill, I noticed an abandoned hut among some trees on the mountain side, scaled it and took a look around. Not only was it uninhibited, relatively clean and sheltered from the road but we had an en suite bathroom in the form of a hose channeling water from a mountain stream. Washing ourselves proved to be problematic not only because it was pitch dark but headlights from oncoming trucks shone straight into our 3 star hut. At one point I was caught between soaping myself up completely naked and hiding from the glaring lights. We couldn’t help suppress giggles at the mess we found ourselves in. Did I say at the beginning of Myanmar that we wanted adventure. Hmmm…DSCF5801

 

128km towards Dawei

Road conditions had well and truly turned awful now. At some points on our maps, the road disappeared altogether. Imagine cycling in a cobbled river bed, tagged rocks jeering out in every angle. We managed a steady 7km/h, navigating torturous routes among the less harmful rocks where motorbikes ventured before. Occasionally we would happen upon a good patch of paved road and we would bet on how long it would last. A tricky game because if you were hopeful, more than often it only lasted 2km and back to a forceful and unsolicited bum massage.DSCF5813

We often wondered why Southern Myanmar was a restricted area but when you see children as young as 12 years old building national highways, the reasons for excluding international attention becomes clear. In 2013, a Global Slavery Index by the Walk Free Foundation reported that there are 384,000 Burmese people living in slavery. These include men, women and children conscripted into forced labour by the government and the army to build roads, military bases, even towns and act as porters to transport military supplies. It is so blatant it’s staggering! Even in big cities like Yangon, poor families ‘sell’ or ‘give’ a child to a tea shop to serve as waiters. In return the family gets relieved of that burden and the child gets fed and a table in the restaurant to sleep on at night. People we asked about it seem indifferent and don’t feel any need to challenge the practice. The saddest part was that while we cycled past rows and rows of children lifting heavy rocks with tears in our eyes, they were elated to see us.

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Finding a place to camp that night was difficult because of scattered development along the way to Dawei. At every opportunity we also saw people hovering about. This went on until darkness took us and insects attracted to our headlights intercepted our view. Squint-eyed and closed-mouthed Melissa eventually told me that she’d had enough so we looked for a monastery. Luckily one was close at hand and we popped in for some gracious hospitality. They even put on an english movie for us to watch and provided cookies and hot ovaltine. A movie night with our friends the monks.

We were only 16km away from Dawei so we leisurely made our way to a guesthouse the next day for a date with laundry, sleep and ‘The Book Thief’. It took two days for our clothes to dry in the damp weather which inadvertently worked as an excuse to continue relaxing.

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One thought on “Cycling Southern Myanmar

  1. Barbara says:

    Mel and Jonty…..what can I say ….you guys are truly amazing and very brave. I really admire you. Love Barbara

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