Right in the middle of the Moei river, the border between Thailand and Myanmar, the traffic has to switch sides. We swerve across and ride into Myanmar on the right hand side of the road. Entering Myanmar is a blast, a real rollercoaster ride. Switching the side of the road we ride on is only the start, as everything is radically different from Thailand. We experience one of our biggest culture shocks to date, in the best possible way I must add. From the very moment we cross the border I have a crush, and immediately fall in love with this country.
First Myanmar impressions
The process of leaving Thailand and entering Myanmar is fast enough. The Burmese official who stamps our passport constantly and confusingly telling the ingele in his office to change seats. It is musical chairs, with a Burmese music video providing the tune. He is patting the sweat from his face. Still, he is courteous and within minutes we are on our way into Myanmar. This is the first visit for both of us. A whole new country! This has us very excited and we jump right in. Traffic is mayhem. A hot and honking, smoking, swerving tide of tuk-tuks, taxis, bicycles, colourful trucks and mopeds rolls off the Myanmar side of the bridge, squeezes onto a pockmarked two-lane ‘highway’ and through the small border town of Myawaddy.
Mingling with the locals
The Myanmar people are very different from the Thai. We see many dark faces, closer to Indian or Bangladeshi looking than the light skinned Thai. People here look taller and sturdier than their Thai neighbours and they carry themselves beautifully, upright and elegant. They are cheerful and inquisitive, shouting and smiling and honking at us. The exuberant vibe is infectious and we cycle on with a big happy grin on our face. Some people wear the conical Tai Yai hat. Everybody, men and women alike wear the longyi. Women wear their colourfully patterned ankle-length wrap with a discrete tuck on the side and the men wear theirs, dark coloured and minimally checkered, with a big knot in the middle. Many people are chewing betel and the man who guards the cash machine grins at me with bright red betel teeth.
All women have adorned their face with thanaka, a traditional Burmese beauty product that protects the skin against the sun. The women make different patterns on their face with the yellowish paste made from ground tree bark. I try it too over the next few days and I really like it, it is cooling, non-greasy and indeed very effective against the sun.
I also try chewing betel but I’m not a big fan of the bitter astringent taste and the rivers of red saliva it produces. The effect is mild and pleasant, but the prospect of red and decaying teeth and gums puts me off for life. For a lot of people this is no deterrent though, and betel is after alchohol, coffee and tobacco the world’s most popular stimulant. It has been used for thousands of years, from India to China, by emperors and peasants alike.
All these different looks and sounds and smells make Myanmar exotic and exhilarating. Every sensation here seems amplified. Some people say that Myanmar is a ‘light’ version of India, or India for beginners. Strangely enough even the weather is different across the border, and over the next few days we experience our hottest cycling days yet.
Big friendly brother
We get a wad of kyat out of the cash machine of Myawaddy and start cycling on the main road towards Kawkareik, a small town 50km away. Myanmars army tightly controls the country, and we cross quite a few army check-points. The guards are very friendly and polite, and the only nuisance so far is the fact that we are only allowed to stay in designated and overpriced hotels for foreigners. These hotels have to pay a hefty tax for their foreign guests which goes straight to the army. It is strictly prohibited to stealth camp or stay with locals so we don’t even try this, although we have heard from other cyclists it is possible to do this if you keep well out of sight and away from the main road.
Meeting like-minded people
Kawkareik is a small town with a fabulous warmshowers host. Susu is not allowed to host cyclists in her own house but loves to meet up with everybody cycling through. She helps out with info about guesthouses along the way, explains Myanmar culture and teaches us our first Burmese words. We enjoy dinner together at her place and team up with Janneke Verhagen, another cyclist who has just arrived in Myanmar.
On the beaten track
After Kawkareik we venture off the busy main road and onto a small road. This much quieter road quickly turns into a rutted dirt track, traversing rubber plantations and later on dry fields and marshy patches. Every now and again we see a limestone cliff rise up over the shimmering plains, usually topped with one or more golden stupas. It looks magical. Along the way are tiny villages full of friendly faces but not many restaurants or shops. It is great to be able to get off the highway and (in this case quite literally) on to the beaten track so quickly and we enjoy the silence and emptiness. A wooden cart pulled by two oxen passes us when we are enjoying a short break in the shade. It is traveling at about 3kmph, with three smiling ladies in the back. Life is slow here and nothing much happens.
Yet even without the busy traffic and no climbing the heat and the bad road surface make it a hard slog. By the time we roll into Hpa An it is getting dark and we are covered in a rusty red cake of sweat, sunscreen, insect repellent and dust. We need two rounds of scrubbing under the shower to get completely clean. From Hpa An we make it to the Buddhist pilgrimage site of Kyaiktiyo in two days. After our overnight stop in the small and friendly town of Thaton a perfectly paved and gently rolling secondary road with zero traffic takes us all the way to Kyaiktiyo where we spend two days. This road is lined by palm forests and cute little villages.
A pilgrimage to the golden rock
There are a lot of tourists in Kyaiktiyo, and most of them are Burmese pilgrims. If there is one similarity between Myanmar and Thailand it would have to be religion. Myanmar has a very diverse population but the majority is devoutly Theravada Buddhist, although we have already seen Hindu temples, churches and a mosque as well. The big draw of Kyaiktiyo is a big boulder, precariously perched on the edge of a cliff face. Lore has it that two hairs of the Buddha balance the rock and keep it from falling down (although last year it was surrounded by scaffolding so there is some human help in maintaining the balance). The rock is covered in gold leaf, which is applied daily by the visiting (male only!) pilgrims.
It is prohibited to cycle so we join the other pilgrims for a breathtaking ride up to the rock. Sturdy little trucks are converted into people carriers with little benches and once they are crammed to the brim they race the 12 kilometer up the super steep single road. The ride is a rollercoaster, including enthusiastically puking and cheering people. We arrive at the top just before sunset and we have a quick look around before we catch the last truck down. The rock is indeed impressive, and the religious fairground around it is quite entertaining. Men carry rich and lazy or infirm people up in sedan chairs, porters run by with an impossibly huge stack of suitcases on their back. Families and monks peruse the shops that sell anything from mini golden rock replicas to food. The atmosphere is more village fest than religious solemnity but this is one of the most holy places in Myanmar. It is possible to stay up at Kyaiktiyo and spend the night outside, to picnic and snooze together with the Burmese families. We would definitely have done this if we had known before.
Religion in Myanmar is fully intertwined with the everyday life of almost everybody, something that no longer exists in Europe. We see this every morning when monks walk in line along the road through the villages, collecting alms from the people. It can also be witnessed in the little Buddhist altars in houses and shops and in big new golden stupas being erected all over the country. One day we witness a procession with horses, flower offerings and a long line of beautifully dressed people going through town, celebrating little boys who are entering the monastery as novices. Many monasteries that we pass by on the bicycles have a speech or mantras or music blaring from their sound systems.
In the morning we say goodbye to Janneke who is heroic enough to tackle the small roads up North. She later tells us her stories of wild camping and even staying with a family, which is definitely possible if you keep away from the main roads.
We do a long day along ever smaller tracks through small villages full of surprised people. At one point we have wandered so far off the main road that the villages can only be reached by moped or ox cart. We reach the point where the river delta melts into the Andaman sea. This is the first time we see the sea since Turkey! The land here is flat as a pancake and hot as hell. The tracks we follow are so rocky or sandy it is hard to make good progress. After 110km we make it to our hotel, just before it is fully dark.
Bago is pretty mental traffic-wise. The main road to Yangon runs right through the city centre and is used by trucks, buses, tuk-tuks, bicycle taxis, cows and pedestrians alike. There is not much to see. A reconstruction of a historical royal palace, a gigantic reclining Buddha and Myanmars biggest stupa. Officially the Shwedagon stupa in Yangon is the biggest one, but in reality the stupa of Bago can claim this nr. 1 spot. We are daunted by the busy traffic on the highway that intersects this city and a bit depressed by the living standards of the people here. The city appears quite poor, with bad roads, plastic rubbish in the rivers and simple shacks or ruinous colonial buildings for houses, more so than any other place we have seen so far. The poverty is in stark contrast with the standard of living enjoyed by the tourists, who can stay at swish resorts, eat lavish breakfast buffest and get carted around by airco minivan. We indulge in this as well as there is little alternative but we don’t really enjoy it. Staying in Bago is almost unavoidable as it is an important connection for trains and roads.
We decide to leave the bicycles in Bago to avoid the hassle of train and bus travel with all of our gear. Then we set off on an epic 24 hour train journey to Nyaungshwe by Inle lake. Buying the tickets is an adventure in itself and involves showing up in the early morning and hanging around in the ancient ticket office with a few friendly betel-chewing railway employees and a lot of mice. A couple of frantic phone calls are made to Yangon to find out if there is a sleeper car. Eventually a handwritten ticket materializes. Alas, there is no sleeper car, so we opt for the upper class seat instead, with enough legroom to accommodate a three meter tall Ingele.
The journey is split in two parts: a pretty comfortable flat track to Thazi, in a new-ish Chinese train with air suspension. We witness a stunning sunset over the hazy flatlands while eating our take-away dinner. After another few hours of fitful sleep we arrive at 2am in Thazi to find out our connection to Shwenyaung doesn’t leave until 7am. There is nothing to do but lie down amongst the other waiting people and make ourselves comfortable on the platform, to get some sleep in before the most spectacular part of the journey starts.
An old train rocks and sways over a 1300m mountain pass, covering the steep inclines by making a few ingenious switchbacks up the mountain flank. Our train neighbours are a Buddhist nun and her two grandchildren. One is a mini monk, the other one a little rockstar with a tasseled leather jacket. When we make a stop little shops with fruit and snacks float by our windows, carried along on big dishes on the head of village women. The views are wide and mostly forested once we start climbing. The scenery is not very green however as everything is very dry and dusty in this season. We pass by the highest point Kalaw, a former colonial hill station and tea plantation.
Getting close to home
After months of continuous travel we are immensely looking forward to settling into a real home for a week. Our friend Patrick has generously offered us the use of his house, and as we are slowly trundling towards Nyaungshwe we are excited to get to his place. It is the first time since our forced two-week stop in Chengdu that we have the opportunity to unpack and relax for a while. I’m most excited about the kitchen. We will be able to make our own breakfast, at home! As we are getting closer to the end date of the trip we are both quite happily anticipating settling down in one place again. Our stay in Nyaungshwe will be a sweet little taste of this luxury: having a place to call home.
(sorry, no pictures. Internet says no)