Saturday, July 16, 2016

Myanmar - Misty Mountains, Minorities and the First Puncture!


-  We have spent the last three weeks travelling through Myanmar – by bike, bus and train. (See "We Love Maps" page for a "Work in Progress" route we took.)
-  We have linked some of the more well-known tourist spots with some fantastic rural backroad riding – a real highlight!
-  We are now crossing Northern Thailand by public transport, to enter Laos at Huay Xai, where we will float down the Mekong for a few days before arriving in Luang Prabang.
- Andy claims first puncture at 3996KM and first case of Delhi Belli at 4076 KM

  - Yangon - Mandalay (Bus) 
  - Mandalay - Sagaing - Myingyan - Nyaung-U (Bagan) (Bike) 
  - Bagan to Kalaw (Bus)
  - Kalaw- Inn Thein - Nyaungshwe (Inle Lake) via a cool back road! - Pinlaung - Naypyitaw via very cool mountain roads (Bike) 
  - Naypyitaw - Bago (Train) - Hpa An (Shared van) 
  - Kawkareik (Bike) - Myawaddy - Mae Sot (Thailand)

Lush, green, rural, monsoon! Myanmar is definitely a place of local charm.  We were incredibly privileged to spend our first few days eating and being with with a extended & amazingly hospitable local family in Yangon.  They were from the Chin Province, but with some NZ connections.  It took us a few days to soak up the massive shift to life in Asia in a local neighbourhood where tourists would not normally hang out.  Incredible!!!

Mandalay.  7:30am, we leave our hotel, pushing down on the pedals and entering an endless sea of moto’s and bicycle tuktuks, which all seemed to swerve and mingle seamlessly into each other.  We continue onto winding rural roads dotted with men and women working in the fields, with all manner of old and decrepit vehicles passing us with a toot and a wave!

We hear incessant tooting, as every vehicle passing each other let's the other one know they're there.  Across the street a lady selling raw chicken is tipping her blood onto the gutter, as she chops up portions for sale.  We pass street stalls, selling everything from locusts to take-away bags of noodles and curry.

Further out of town we pass by a thriving market, with stalls of freshly caught huuuuge fish, paw-paws, mangos, bananas either side of narrow paths navigated by motorbikes, pedestrians and cart-pushers going about their daily routine.  From the next-door Buddhist Pagoda some charming Asian music rings out over the speakers, a pleasant change from the chanting that we've heard all morning from the local Temple or Monastery nearby.  We cycle on, having no idea what we might come across next on our road....

Exploring the extensive Burmese markets which are the focal point of each town centre

Checking our location in Mandaaly - heading south!

It seemed most trucks and tractors had no bonnets, which meant you would hear vehicles long before you saw them.

From Manadaly we followed the Ayeyawaddy River south for a while, fascinated with the life which happens on and around this great river – women washing clothes, ferries, container boats, canoes, trucks and endless supplies of goods being transported around. We found a man selling “jang yeh” – sugar cane juice which is squeezed in front of you from an ancient machine, corn ladies, cups of  “la pey yeh” (Burmese tea with condensed milk) and bowls of steaming noodle soup. Our fascination of having arrived in the largest country in SE Asia lasted several days, with just so much life and sights to absorb while biking!

Sugar Cane Juice - a refreshing treat!

Boats underneath U Bein bridge connecting villages accross a lake on the road between Mandalay and Sagaing

Just out to get some chicken for dinner! (All still live)

Our route took us through Bagan, a place of almost mythical mystery, a riverside area, with thousands of ancient temples and pagodas hidden amongst the scrub. As you climb to the top, you can look out and see the tops of hundreds of others poking through the trees – you would need days and endless energy to explore them all!

Bagan temples (a few of them)

On the road to Bagan

After sweating it out down on the central plains, we headed for the hills (and the rain) up around Inle Lake. We changed from Plan A to Plan B while on the bus, and then rapidly back to Plan A once we rolled into Kalaw, a cool mountain town nestled in the misty mountain tops. At the last possible moment we jumped off the bus and sought out “Joe”, a local guy who takes bike tours with tourists who was apparently a good man to talk to. He lived up to his reputation and next day we were on our way with a hand-drawn map of some sweet back roads “no problem!” he said!!

Pedalling the back road to Inle Lake

Stunning patchwork of crops, tea plantations, rice and trees

Bit of single track riding when the gravel road became too rough to ride (picture doesn't quite do it justice!)

Arriving in Indein Village for lunch, Inle Lake

It is always a highlight to get off the main roads on the bike and see normal life happening. Our roads through these parts were teeming with people working in the fields and as we rolled through the hills we felt a real sense of privilege at being able to bike these roads at this time.

Alternative form of transport

LOVED this old man!! His wrinkles told the story of a hundred years and he was wandering
along happily to somewhere!

Women working in the field, close to Indein Village

It is an interesting time in Myanmar’s history – as the country is rapidly opening up to development and foreigner access, there seems to be more slightly more freedom for locals and foreigners alike. We learnt about how traffic lights and road overbridges and sky TV have all arrived in the last three years, which has transformed life for many (well, the entertainment options at least!) One local, Su Su, asked us what suggestions we had for her country and while she had a list of excellent, well-needed environmental improvements (using less plastic bags, stopping deforestation etc) I told her I could only hope that in the bid to grow tourism they do not lose what is special about this place. Already there are stories of “fishermen” at Inle Lake dressing up and posing for tourists while you pay for the privilege of photographing them, but I hope this doesn’t become common place. 

We have been quite aware that we are amongst an early wave of tourism and have felt somewhat challenged to make considered choices – I want to encourage healthy life-giving tourism, not a cheapening of culture! Despite this economic growth, there are still many issues facing the people here - land-grabbing for these development projects and continued human rights cases see many people living under the power of the military still. We learnt a small amount about the refugees living along the Thai border - camps that have been in existence for 30 years with no sign of reintegration or repatriation. The conflicts here are deep-rooted, very much on-going and complex. Check out this video if you are interested, or read the entire website (awesome info!) There is a really good background to Burma here.

Monsoon season is not perhaps the best time for cycle touring but I have loved cycling through lush green valleys, with rice fields and bananas palms and corn crops everywhere, while looking up to the hills on either side – to the west a gathering mass of monsoon storm clouds rolling over the tops while on the eastern side puffy piles of cumulous, bathed in sunlight, highlighting the greenness all around. As the storm clouds sweep through the valley it has been with a mixture of awe and relief once the cooling rain finally found us, and then regret that it passed all too soon.

Biking towards Pinlaung

Enjoying a patch of sunshine before the next shower

Joe (Burmese bike guide) had assured us that the route he suggested from Pinlaung to Naypyitaw was “mostly downhill” and about 70 miles (105km). “Definitely do-able in a day! Leave 7.30am and you’ll be there by 5:30pm!” Despite Google telling us it was a 140km section, we set off hoping that Joe’s local knowledge would prove correct. After some solid up-hill sections, we did enjoy an amazing 30km of downhill, stretching out impossibly far in front of us!! What he forgot to mention was the looong uphill that also stretched out impossibly long before us just a few short hours later!!!

Crickey! Hope that sign is not accurate...

Reasonably accurate!! On the road to Naypyitaw

Limestone cliffs outside Pinlaung village

Enjoying some downhill

More downhill

Quarry site - getting the rocks out old style

Road to Naypyitaw (many tea plantations, some on impossibly steep slopes)

We kept cycling and at the 80km mark found ourselves at an intersection – a short way to Naypyitaw through the hills and a “military zone” shown on Google Maps, or the long road to a neighbouring village. The local villagers we asked assured us that we definitely should take the longer route, so despite our misgivings, we continued on this road.  More climbing, more hills, to the point where we flagged down a passing truck – if it was going to be a 140km day then we needed to hurry up! I was stoked for the next 10km, as we chugged our way up steep hills, but then cried on the inside as we chugged our way down yet another 15km stretch of impressive downhill! Ah well, you win some, you lose some!!

Our truckie friends assured us we could sleep in the village where they left us (Thakon), however as it turned out, it was only a guesthouse for locals. The is one of the challenges about cycling in Myanmar – there is still a lack of accommodation in some places (unless you sleep at a monastry or have a tent), so 6pm saw us back on our bikes, heading into the sunset and ensuing darkness for the final 40km to the next town.

Night riding 
Often when travelling, the journey is as much a part of the trip as the destination and the train journey between Naypyitaw and Bago the following day was no exception! We clanged and clanked and rattled and rolled our way through endless miles of rice fields, utterly surprised that we never jumped off the tracks. Truly a great Burmese experience! We had met Captain Lin, a local who had felt sorry for us at 9pm the previous evening as we wearily cycled into town. He stopped his big 4WD and asked us to please join him, a ride for the final few kms to the hotel complete with chilled water and cake!

I think the sight of two foreign cyclists on a lonely stretch of highway was more interesting that what usually happens on a Tuesday night and he proved to be so helpful! After dropping us at our hotel, and confirming the train departure time, he told us he would be back in the morning to deliver us and our bikes to the station, to take us for breakfast and a tour of the city! Well, the train left at 8am, so no tour of the city but he was so desperate to shout us breakfast (after buying our train tickets for us also!) that we were still slurping down our “mohinga” (fish sauce noodle soup) as the train tooted, and trundled out of the station with our bikes on board!!

Eeek!! SO.... we jumped in his truck, and raced along the empty highway and through town to reach the next station – such a relief to arrive there before the train and see it roll in on time!

The clattering train to Bago

Our final few days saw us arrive and explore a small part of Hpa-An, a village dwarfed by majestic limestone cliff-mountains (when you can see them!), caves and a garden with about a thousand bhudda statues arranged in rows. We were stoked to make it to the summit of Mt Zwegabin before the clouds rolled in again and cycled away the following day towards the border with Thailand.

From the summit looking back towards Hpa-An village

We saw no other cycle tourists except for on this last leg – a couple who raced past us going the other direction and two guys – 18,000km into a 50,000km trip! Three years in total! We checked out each others bikes and swapped a few names and numbers of useful people before telling them they should definitely come and stay when they reach NZ in 2017. We cycled off in opposite directions to the cherry call of “See you in NZ!” We then heard stories about a girl from Hong Kong riding a bamboo-framed bicycle and the following day had the good fortune of meeting her in our hostel! Very cool!!!!

It has been a real highlight being here, certainly a cool chance to explore some of this country – it is huge though, with many different minority groups all living together. There is certainly much much more to learn and understand about life here. ......

We hope and pray that there can be some respect shown for the many minority groups still very much without freedom and equality in this country.  That the opening up to foreign investment and development isn't at the expense of the people and the environment and largely for the army's benefit. That they realise that how we do things in the west often isn't what they should aspire to and we have a lot we could learn from them.  That the many displaced people from this country are not forgotten and pushed back inside before they are really safe in their home towns.  As someone living in Thailand put it "The light at the end of the tunnel is a lot closer than it was, but they're still not out of the tunnel."


Miri (& Andy)

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