Myanmar is one of the best countries our trip has taken us through. It has taken us a lot of time to come to this realization and, unfortunately, we weren’t aware of it at the time; we knew that we were cycling across a unique country and we tried to make the best of it but it’s important to understand that it wasn’t always easy and that this, the challenging times we had there, also reinforces our feeling of awesomeness towards our Burmese experience.
Compared with the rest of the Subcontinent, Northeast India (Blog – Video) was a total different beast and we knew that Myanmar would be the beginning of a brand new part of the world that we had never discovered before; Southeast Asia. The first anecdote comes from before stamping out of India; you see, in many countries hard borders are an abstract concept. In fact, citizens of bordering areas can come and go as free as birds with no one to answer to. As foreigners though, we are expected by law to stamp in of country A and into country B and pay a tax (often called Visa) in-between. This particular border is particularly loose and it was hard for us to find the Indian Customs office. We accidentally rode into Myanmar without even realizing it until some motorbikes came at us on “the wrong side of the road” meaning that we were no longer in India.
Anyway, U-turns were made, directions were asked, a small hill was climbed and the Customs Office was found. It was heavily militarized of course. We don’t get it, who would attack a Nuclear Power???
As always, as soon as you cross that imaginary line you fall into a totally different dimension. For example, India is notoriously busy, noisy and dusty and Myanmar is pretty much the opposite. Even the roads become immediately cleaner!! How? Do they actually sweep all of their dust over to the Indian side???
We checked-in in Tamu, the first town. The hotel was very clean and inexpensive and after a well deserved shower (aren’t they always?) we had a lovely meal and were even able to chat while dining (almost impossible in India because of the noise coming from the streets) and planed our first week in this new land. We had a very important appointment in Bagan, about 500 kms South, where Daniel and Ana were coming to spend 2 weeks with us and we were very eager to get there on time.
The first day was almost a dream; apart from clean and quite roads, we were also bathed in a sea of the best smiles we have ever seen to date! Yes, other countries are very smiley too, but in Myanmar those smiles are always extra-large, 100% genuine and they always manage to make you feel welcomed and happy. Village after village we cycled pass groups of school children as young as three who immediately started running alongside us whenever we were spotted. It was great to have this much excitement around us again since in India people are a lot more discreet in way and a lot less human interaction went on.
We also made several food stops along the way and managed to have some conversations with locals up to the moment where, feeling that we didn’t have a lot of daylight left, we started “fishing” for a place to sleep.
Having previously read numerous blogs about Myanmar, we knew that, similarly to most countries in the world, wild camping is illegal. There, however, it is strictly enforced by the authorities. Concurrently, it’s also forbidden to stay with the locals or sleep anywhere which is not a registered tourist accommodation. That’s fine, they are clean and cheap remember? Thing is, they are also very far away from each other! That evening, for example, we had already cycled almost 100 kms and the closest hotel was over 50 kms away. So that was obviously not an option!
As we were waiting for some Shen Noodles (delicious by the way), we started questioning the women of the shop about a safe place to camp and one of them invited us to her house. We were in a biggish town (where there was probably some sort of Police outpost) and we knew this might be a problem so we insisted she asked for permission, she left on a motorbike, came back as we were about to finish our meal and told us that the Police had told her “no way”. We eventually rode 20 kms in absolute darkness and found a sweet wild camping spot by a river.
As we said earlier, we knew that it wasn’t going to be easy in Myanmar so we considered ourselves lucky to have found a quiet spot to set camp and continued unknowingly that our next few days were going to be nothing like we had ever hoped and expected. In order to get to Bagan in time for our friends’ arrival, we decided to take the most direct route there (Monywa – Kalaywa Highway) which also looked like the quietest. In fact, the first few hours we noticed very few vehicles on the road and thought we had hit jackpot. Suddenly though, the tarmac disappeared and the dirt began, the road condition rapidly deteriorated and the next two and a half days of our lives were pure hell!
We basically pushed our bikes through long sections of ankle high, clay rich mud. The road had been transformed into a sticky river which crossed the jungle and which will soon be a splendid dual carriageway linking Mandalay with the Indian border and which is also devoid of any sign of civilization apart from a couple of “houses”, two very friendly temples (thanks Buddha for that!) and the roadwork’s HQ (i.e. a big tent) where we miraculously got fed!
In hindsight, we truly appreciate having lived through that ordeal as it has made us stronger than any other challenges faced before and which allowed us to experience every single emotion known to humans, from absolute misery and despair to utter joy and ecstasy. Just to mention one amazing anecdote from this episode; after a day and a half of hardships, we managed to pitch our tent at the top of a small mountain pass just as a storm was coming over the crest and we showered in the middle of the jungle naked and in the dark … pure euphoria!
At that time is when we started filming our VLOG Series to show more about our day-to-day, adventures, etc. Link to the first episode HERE
We eventually arrived to Bagan and had an amazing time with our friends who we hadn’t seen in well over a year. We discovered the pleasures and pains of backpacking and realised that we love touring by bike even more! Two top tips that we can share on this particular part of our travels are that Mandalay has a lot more to offer than what it seems and that we found Inle Lake to be a small heaven on earth! If you’re interested in knowing more about these (and more) wonderful sites, episode 2 of our Vlog Series will amaze you; HERE
Daniel and Ana also bought us foodstuff that we had dearly missed (thanks again guys!) and some well deserved replacement items since some of our gear was either in bad conditions or was inappropriate now that we had entered the Tropics. A good example is our tent; we had started our trip with a 3-seasons tent which is great for the cold but terrible for the warm and humid SE Asian nights. So we got a brand new one which is 90% mosquito net and we were really eager to test it out. It being the wet season though it meant that most of the land was under several inches of water and inaccessible. The small chunks of earth which would have been good for camping were also off-limits to us because Burmese people have the “duty” to report any foreigners not sleeping in touristic accommodation which is, quite simple, a huge pain the backside!
This inevitably brings us to the question of why? What does a farmer gain from calling the cops on some foreigners camping in a field for the night? Very long story short; corruption and very bad military government. Myanmar has been under a Military Junta for many years now. It sadly means that there isn’t much freedom going on in the country and even things like water and electricity are commodities which can only be found in the capital (more on that later) and touristic spots. It also leads to some supposedly ethnical cleansing going on in the south of the country (most of the world says it’s happening, the Burmese government says it isn’t and not much is being done about it). This genocide is, again, supposedly funded by taxes that the tourists are charged for staying at foreigner’s hotels and for entering certain areas of the country which makes the whole travelling in Myanmar thing a bit eerie.
This is by far the worst thing that we experienced there and which led to a certain number of quirky events which we won’t forget easily. We had several encounters with the police force which kicked us out in the middle of the night and wouldn’t let us sleep in monasteries (although the monks were more than happy to have us as their guests) despite the fact that we were very far away from any kind of tourist accommodation, we witnessed police treating locals less than well or local people being intimidated by them and we experienced, first hand, what happens when governments plan badly and 99% of the population lives in extreme conditions while 1% blatantly has way more than they should. We managed to secretly film getting kicked out by armed forces in the middle of the night, episode 3 of the Vlog … you know what to do … HERE
Anyway, back to the road. Luckily for the less adventurous travellers or those who are in a hurry, Myanmar has a backbone of well maintained highway which are quite busy but also pretty safe and on which every single bike tourer’s need can be easily satisfied. We’re not like that though, so we opted for small countryside roads and had a blast! We were always a bit tense at nightfall because of the previously mentioned police trouble we had and it wasn’t always easy to find our daily chow (whenever we’d come across fruit and vegetables we would always fill our panniers to the brim!) but if we’d go back, we wouldn’t change that for anything!
In our mind, no hotel can compare to sleeping under a sky full of star, next to a monastery whose toilet facilities include a bucket and a well! Those showers stay in your memory forever!!
It was on one of these local roads, during a coffee break, that we discovered a magic ointment that would change our lives forever; if you’ve ever been to Myanmar you know that we’re talking about Thanaka. It’s a yellowish paste made using ground tree bark and it’s used as sunscreen. It’s very friendly to both the environment and the skin and almost everyone wears it over there, and so did we! One year has passed and we still have some and we even wear it back home in Europe where it’s a great conversation starter!
Along the same roads we also started noticing something which in our hearts will always be typical of Myanmar but that it’s, in fact, quite common in other SE Asian countries too; this time we’re talking about wayside clay water pots. It’s not only part of their Buddhist heritage (giving water to strangers is the least humans can do), but many locals still swear that they only drink from clay pots because the water is naturally fresh and has a better taste. Whether that’s true or not, what we found truly astonishing about them is the fact that they are literally everywhere! Even in the middle of nowhere would you find a little bamboo marquee with a small stool which served as altar for a clay pot with an improvised lid and a cup laying on top of it. We filmed and “documented” one said pot here (link to the precise minute of the video); Click here
A very unusual site in Myanmar is its capital, the new one. Not long ago, the government decided to build a brand new city in the middle of the country in order to get away from the many issues facing Yangon where tropical storms cause tens of deaths every year and whose urban structure is antiquated and impractical. And so Naypyitaw rose out overnight and it’s ready to host ten million people. Problem is, no-one wanted to move there. This has resulted in a ghost city! Empty buildings, empty shopping malls, empty highways and an empty international airport! Link to a specific video about this HERE
Anyway, if we enjoyed Myanmar (most of the time) and it’s many funny quirks, the part of the country which we preferred cycling through was, by far, between Bagó and the border with Thailand at Myawaddy. It’s actually difficult to explain why, it’s mostly not down to one particular thing but to a multitude of factors which include amazing and unique sites (both natural and man-made) and lesser police presence making bike touring a lot easier.
Once again, there is a whole episode of our Vlog Series dedicated to this beautiful region, link HERE
And so our Burmese adventure came to an end. The last week or so were spent slowly gliding between limestone formations and rubber tree plantations and having long lunchtime breaks mainly because the weather was getting hotter and hotter but also because we weren’t really in any hurry.
The almost utter flatness of the previous two weeks was broken by two very steep climbs just before the border and we spent most of our last morning in Myanmar paying a fine at the border because we willfully overstayed 10 days there (it’s legal in practice and you pay 1$/day/person).
In summary, Myanmar remains high in the list of extraordinary countries we have cycled through and will hopefully improve in terms of quality of life for its residents. In terms of adventure and witnessing an authentic country, it’s probably as good as it gets (in this part of the world anyway) at least from what we have lived; apart from a few, well preserved touristic sites most of the country is a playground for exploration. We pray that they will find a way to balance tourism and their heritage and that there will always be Burmese smiles for everyone!