In many ways this was the start of a new leg of our journey. Having reached Mumbai and had a wonderful time with Magic Bus and exploring North India without bikes, this was now “bonus” time in the saddle. Having heard so much about cycle touring in Southeast Asia, we were excited to get going.
Unfortunately, it seemed like our very good luck stopped in Myanmar. We had multiple issues with the bikes for the first time. Until now, we had only had to fix the odd pannier rack screw and puncture. Now problems included Joe’s pedal thread breaking so having to hitchhike back 2 day’s worth of cycling to the nearest bike shop, Verity’s front wheel being buckled after being knocked off by a speeding scooter, and Joe skidding off a sandy road and somersaulting over his handlebars (although this last one was self-inflicted as he was distracted by the view!). Having had such a good run, we guess it was time for some hurdles and we are still lucky that everything was pretty easy to fix and no-one was hurt other than a few cuts and bruises.
The Holy trinity of cycle touring tends to be road condition, weather and food – and at times we struggled on all counts in Myanmar!
That isn’t to say we haven’t enjoyed it. Perhaps we wouldn’t have if it weren’t for the people – the shrieks of excitement from behind shacks as we rolled by and the huge smiles given by all passerbys (particularly those overtaking us in the back of overcrowded vans) have kept us sane.
This post may come across as more negative than we intend. We have enjoyed our time in Myanmar but this is perhaps the first country we have been on this trip where we feel cycle touring may not have been the best way to see it. A scooter/motorbike would have been perfect, indeed almost all of the tourist spots encouraged hiring a scooter to explore.
The roads were often single track with little traffic, but the surface was consistently tricky: either bumpy, gravel or sand. Many roads are being built, resulting in so much dust in the air we had to buy some face masks. We and the bikes were constantly covered in red dust and sand, making our attempts to wash kit on rest days needing even more rinses than normal to get the water anything other than brown! The sheer amount of manpower going into the construction was incredible. Men, women and children were involved in the whole process from chipping huge rocks into pebbles, sprinkling shingle and (our personal favourite) pouring on the tarmac with modified watering cans. It was all incredible to witness, but unfortunately made for road surfaces where we had to be constantly vigilant and focused.
We experienced our first serious heat in Myanmar, frequently not able to cycle between 2 and 4pm as it was just too hot to be in the sun. We were happy finding a shady spot to snooze in, but you obviously miss out on a lot of progress and also then have limited time afterwards to find a suitable camp spot before sunset. Luckily we soon discovered that every now and then there would be a random truck selling ice creams out the back – safe to say we took full advantage whenever we saw one!
Sitting pretty between India and Thailand we had expected that Myanmar would be a perfect mix of curries, rice and noodles. This hope was quickly dashed and we really struggled to find tasty, filling food. For the first time we started craving Western meals and found ourselves hunting out pizza and pasta in the cities. We were really disappointed not to enjoy the local cuisine but just couldn’t face raw aubergine and woody stalky salads with watery instant noodles. We often found ourselves having eggs with plain rice or noodles to avoid the dried boney fish curries. We love trying local food and it is often the best part of travelling to new countries. We had undoubtedly been spoilt for food in India and perhaps our culinary expectations had just been too high. We did manage to find some fun street food stalls and night markets. Being currently veggie we were limited to bbq’d quail eggs (surprisingly good!) and corn on the cob. Beer was suddenly advertised and available everywhere (even rural villages would have a Myanmar beer banner hanging off a tree!) which we didn’t expect in a society without huge disposable income. If we weren’t hiding in a camp spot, we enjoyed as many beers as possible! We have also continued to drink lots of tea the local way – here the style is a premix tea sachet with a dollop of condensed milk in the bottom. A serious sugar hit and pick me up!
Moan over, and setting the above aside, Myanmar is a beautiful country. The dusty plains of Bagan and the killer mountains around Lake Inle were stunning and we found some cracking back roads in southern Myanmar following a river and cutting through small rural villages.
Bizarrely the issue we were worried about most never arose. Hosting and wild camping is illegal in Myanmar and we had heard many stories of campers being found in the early hours and escorted miles to expensive foreigner hotels. We had been told that the police often followed cyclists to know where they were staying and what they were up to. However we camped everywhere except cities (where a cheap tourist hotel with hot shower was a welcome relief!) and didn’t have any problems. We did try our best to make sure we were hidden – cooking before sunset so the flames of our stove wouldn’t give us away and putting the tent up in the dark – but never ran into real trouble. The countryside is glorious and vast so it was a great relief to find it relatively easy to camp.
A couple of times we did have interactions with the locals but we luckily weren’t reported to the police. It is coming to “slash and burn” season at the moment, where dry crops are set on fire to clear the fields. Just as we were settling down one evening, we heard the worrying crackle of a fire nearby. Given that we were hidden in a gully we had no option but to give our position away and check with the farmer that the fire wasn’t coming in our direction! We went for a wander with our torches in the pitch black and eventually came across a man near the fire. Although surprised to see us, he soon understood what we were up to and ensured us we were fine to stay put. Whilst our mime skills allowed us to understand this important message, sadly we never quite got what he was apparently hunting with a little catapult. From the charades the animal was small, jumps up and pops out of holes in the ground. Any ideas, please let us know!
The other eventful camp was when we were woken up at 4am (still completely dark) by torches flashing into our tent. Initially we were convinced the police had found us and we were being woken up to move on. We had put up our tent in a seemingly unused patch of forest, however it turned out that we were in fact surrounded by trees which were being tapped for rubber. Peeking out of the tent we could see men hammering the trees and collecting the white fluid from the trunks. They never spoke to us and by the time the sun rose at 6am they had left. We quickly packed up and hopped on the bikes. It was only as we left that we noticed that the two trees nearest our tent had not been tapped – who knows why they didn’t disturb us but we were very grateful!
The people have been perhaps the smiliest yet, and that’s saying something after Azerbaijan’s golden grins!! At every (literally, every!) village we would be greeted by shouts of “mingalarbar!” (hello!) and hoards of waving children. We were often raced by grinning boys on bikes and overtaken by trucks overspilling with red robed monks and face painted locals who smiled at us in encouragement.
As hosting is banned we didn’t stay with any local families, but we did still experience Burmese hospitality when we stayed in a monastery one night. The area was surrounded by rice fields so we were struggling to see where we would be able to tuck ourselves away in our tent. When we saw a new monastery being built, we thought it was worth asking if we could camp round the back. After a discussion with the lead monk, we were welcomed inside and offered to put our tent up inside the main hall by the LED haloed Buddha. Despite ensuring the monks that we had food, we were ushered into another room and provided with bowls of rice, lentils and various dried fish curries and dips. Given that the monks eat only what they grow themselves or are donated by the local community, it was not only incredibly generous of them but it was also some of the tastiest food we ate. As is tradition, there were a number of small boys doing their placement with the monks. Ranging from 7 to 12 years old and dressed in monk robes, these cheeky boys were great fun and obviously enjoyed having some funny looking foreigners for a sleepover! They were particularly proud to show us their TV and scrambled about trying to find a cartoon in English so we could understand. We thought the evening may be scuppered when at around 7pm the village elders arrived and asked for our passports. It turned out that one of the builders had reported us to the local authorities! Luckily everyone was very friendly and the head honcho explained (in bizarrely impeccable English) that we were not allowed to stay… But as it was dark they would be worried for our safety and so just this once they would let us sleep there. Phew! Soon a number of locals turned up to the hall to seemingly socialize, pray and chat. We kept being told to go to sleep, but it seemed strange to get into our tent whilst surrounded in a large brightly lit hall. By 10pm no-one seemed to be leaving so we gave up and lay down. Eventually most people left, but we were accompanied for the whole night by a few snoring monks and locals on nearby reed mats.
Myanmar felt similar to Oman in that there are 4 or 5 “places to see”, but outside these areas there are no tourists whatsoever. Perhaps because we have been travelling for a while, we now much prefer the rural spots and seeing everyday life to the Lonely Planet’s highlights. That said, temples of Bagan certainly were beautiful and we loved Lake Inle with the houses on stilts out in the water. We were also impressed by Yangon, which had a lovely buzz about the city with many cafes, street food stalls and, of course, the gleaming Shwedagon Pagoda.
We are now across the border into Thailand and already excited by rumours of cycle lanes, 7/11 minimarts and camping on the beach.