Around the world by bike
(764km - 27days)
30 March - Mae Sot, Thailand - Myawaddy, Myanmar - 10 km
I packed up and cycled the short distance to the Friendship Bridge and the border control point. All went well and it as just a stamp in the passport and I was in Myanmar.
As always, I was taken by surprise that one can cross a line on a map and find oneself in a very different environment. Different looking people, different clothes, different food, different money, different language, yes, just about everything was different. I headed straight for the ATM and drew the local currency which was Kyat (1000 Kyat = 1 USD). Well, I had to buy a new wallet to store all the notes!! What a strange country it seemed to be. Myanmar is a place where men wear skirts (or sarongs) and have red teeth like Dracula and just about everyone has a painted face.
It was incredibly hot (around 40°C, I guessed) and by the time I finished my business it was already 12h00. I thought it a good idea to find a room for the night instead of heading over the mountains in the midday heat. It turned out to be a bit of a mistake. I found that the road out of Myawaddy is so narrow that the traffic goes in one direction the one day, and in the opposite direction the following day. Today was my day to get out of here…. LOL
31 March - Myawadd
I felt extremely lucky to catch a unique ceremony in Myanmar. As I woke this morning, I could hear loud music. I followed the clanging and the drumming and stumbled upon a ceremony filled with colour and spectacle.
During the summer school holidays, small boys enter the Buddhist Order for a week or more. Early morning small boys, dressed up like princes (in imitation of the Lord Buddha, who was himself a prince before setting out on the religious path) were carried shoulder-height through the streets to the temple. I understand that they spend the entire time being carried around on the shoulders of their older male relatives. The procession consisted of cars and trucks with very loud music, followed by what seemed like the entire village on foot, throwing popcorn and sweets at the youngsters.
It is said that in a foreign country, food becomes an adventure. It is no different here in Myanmar -fondue stalls (we shall call them that!!!) can be found every so often along the street. Meat on wooden skewers are placed into a hot soup (???) and eaten. It is, however, what is on the end of those sticks that I find surprising. Pig snouts, tongues and other weird looking pieces of meat.
1 April - Myawaddy – Pha-An
After everyone told me it is dead dangerous to cycle to Pha-An, I eventually gave in and took a lift to Pha-An. I could see their concern as the road was extremely narrow and not in a very good condition. With that the road was only open to traffic every second day. The buses, taxis and trucks formed a continuous line over the mountain. Although all the traffic moved in the same direction, one still had to get off the road to let the bigger trucks pass. I must add that there is now a new road not indicated on the map, but people still prefer the old road as the new road is costly in that it is a kind of a toll road (or so I understand).
It was easy to find accommodation in Pha-An as there was a whole plethora of guesthouses to select from. You know it’s hot when each street corner has a clay pot filled with water for communal use.
2 April - Pha-An – Thaton - 50 km
Early morning and my clothes were already clinging to my sweat-soaked body as I headed further north. It was a fascinating day on the road, which I shared with motorcycle salesmen loaded to the hilt, bicycle taxis with sidecars, and 3-wheel motorbikes carting their passengers to and from their destinations. It was truly like going nowhere slowly as the road was good but narrow and no one could go anywhere fast. The road was also lined with small stalls selling paan, snacks and rice dishes (but mostly they sold paan!).
I stopped early in Thaton - I did not read well and thought that the well-known mountain top pagoda was there, just to find it was in the next town. It did not bother me and I had a relaxing day in a guesthouse.
3 April - Thaton – Kyaikto - 68 km
I woke early and thought it best to get on the road before the sun started beating down again. My relatively early start also gave me the opportunity to witness the barefoot monks walking the streets, collecting rice and food from the villagers. The road was surprisingly flat and in a good condition, but as the previous day it was narrow…… not much one could do but stick as close to the side as possible. My mirror came in handy, as there is not enough space for a big truck and me. Soon, I spotted one coming along and dived off the road, just in case.
In Kyaito I bunked down in Happy Guest House, which was not bad at all and for my 16 000 kyat I got a nice air-conditioned room with breakfast included. The plan was to go to the mountaintop pagoda, but the heat kept me indoors and I was in no mood to cycle there.
4 April - Kyaikto – Bago - 90 km
It was another blistering hot day to Bago, the onetime capital of Burma. Even though I left early (for me that is), the heat soon started rising up from the road, as well as baking down from above. I stopped as many times as possible for water but still felt that I did not drink enough. Again, I was surprised that the roads were that good albeit a bit narrow.
Once in Bago, I at once spotted the bright green Emperor Hotel right on the main road. I’m sure I could find a better room, but the guy running the place was so nice that I stayed there. They should have called it the Everest Hotel, as the stairs were steep and felt straight up! Fortunately, there was a large storeroom downstairs to store the bicycle and the staff was kind enough to carry my panniers upstairs. They must have seen I was in no mood for those stairs. LOL.
5 April - Bago – Yangon - 90 km
I was determined to escape as much of the heat as possible and early morning I stuck my hat on my head and headed for Yangon, the former capital and then known as Rangoon. And I thought Yangon was the capital! I stuck to the “highway”; let's call it that for a lack of a better word. The road had two lines in both directions as well as a kind of shoulder. The shoulder was a bit bumpy with a few potholes, but it was a shoulder nevertheless. I could have taken the shorter route, but it appeared to lack a shoulder and with all the trucks and other traffic, I decided to stay on the bigger road. I did not expect the traffic to be quite as bad.
I was determined to drink even more water than the previous days as I felt that I was becoming severely dehydrated. The last 20 km or so in Yangon was a bit of a nightmare. Although it was a Sunday, the traffic was horrendous and it took me forever to find the hotel I had in mind. The Ocean Pearl Inn turned out to be not as cheap, but it was a good enough place to rest my head. I felt like I had to spend at least 24 hours in an air-conditioned room, like a diver needing decompression.
To my shock and horror, I discovered that my passport was missing. I unpacked all my panniers but all to no avail. I phoned the Emperor Hotel in Bago and asked the manager to have a look in the room, but he could not find anything. All I could think was that it fell out when taking a picture or buying water along the way.
In the process I met John from New Zealand, who was also staying at the Ocean Pearl. He had rented a car and driver and was on his way to Bago the following day. When he offered me a lift to Bago, I jumped at the opportunity, thinking that I may spot one of the many places where I stopped for water.
6 April - Yangon – Bago – Yangon - By car
After breakfast, I set off with John and the driver to Bago. Even though I kept an eye out for one of my watering holes, things looked rather different from the back seat of a car and going in the opposite direction. Suddenly all the stalls looked the same. Once in Bago, John dropped me at the Emperor Hotel. I thanked him for his kindness and went in search of my passport.
The manager at the Emperor Hotel was fantastic. He drove me from police station to police station and from immigration office to immigration office. As none of the officers could speak English, he acted as my translator. In the midst of it all, the town lost power and they could not type the letter.
While waiting for the electricity to be restored we went for lunch, and what a good lunch that was! Amazing how much better food can be when eaten with the locals. After lunch, there was still no power. I made good use of the time and visited the monstrous reclining Buddha said to have been built in the 10th century. Amazingly enough, this massive Buddha was completely overgrown and only rediscovered in 1881. Apparently, contractors, while building the Yangon – Bago railway line, discovered it. Today it is kept safe from the elements by a huge canopy making photographing it rather tricky.
Eventually, we had the letter typed up at a street kiosk. By the time we got back to the immigration office, the street had transformed itself into a market selling anything from fruit to meat and spices.
I was told to take the letters to Myanmar Travel Tourist in Yangon. Both letters, I must add, was in Burmese so I had no idea what it said. Finally, Tun-Tun organised me a taxi back to Yangon.
7 April - Yangon
What an absolute pain in the ass this passport became. First thing, I went in search of the address I was given in Bago where I had to take the documentation they gave me. After asking around, (the address was written in Burmese) I eventually found it and it turned out to be the immigration office. They sent me off to have passport photos taken and on my return, I found that they went to lunch! After all that, I walked away with a letter stating the Myanmar visa number and entry date. I was told that it was as good as a visa and that I should have no problems at the border.
In the meantime, I received an email from the South African embassy in Bangkok stating that I should go to the UK embassy for an emergency travel document. Off I went to the UK embassy just to find that this time they were on lunch!
I waited and once inside explained my story again. This time I was sent to have my letters (given to me by the police in Bago) translated. That little exercise turned out to be quite interesting. Down an alley typists, translators, photocopiers, etc., were sitting on the pavement, on plastic kinder garden chairs, doing business. I joined the line at the translator table and waited. Once I had the translated document in my hands, I set off to the internet café to have the email from the South African embassy printed out. By that time, it was too late to return to the UK Embassy. Time for a beer.
8 April - Yangon
It was back to the UK embassy after printing out the email from the SA embassy, which sounds easier that it is. I could not access my Yahoo account as I was using an internet café and the code they sent me never came through on my iafrica account.
By the time I eventually got all I needed the embassy was closed for lunch! I did the same and, of course, there was going to be a fish and chips restaurant close to the UK Embassy! I had my lunch and went back to the embassy but the passport photos I had was of the wrong size and there was nothing to do but go back to the shop and get new ones.
Eventually I filled in all the forms, made copies of all the relevant letters, attached the right size photos and paid the required fee. The lady at the Embassy admitted that they had never had a similar request and were not sure what to do.
She was going to contact the South African Embassy in Bangkok and check with them, promising to pass all information on to me via email. We agreed that I would stay put in Yangon for the next day or two, just in case I had to provide them with more info.
9 April - Yangon
I joined the free walking tour and it was an interesting and informative walk around the old part of Yangon. The city has some wonderful old colonial buildings, some renovated, some in the process of being renovated, and others still on the to-do list.
The best time to be out is around sunset when the streets are lined with food vendors and markets spilling out into the bus lane. Each shop blasts its own music louder than the one next-door, causing a cacophony of sound while pedestrians push and chuff their way along the crowded pavement. This was my absolute favourite time to go out and look for street food. Stalls were frying and cooking, producing the most wonderful food, from yummy samosas to pork offal on skewers.
10 April - Yangon
If you’ve never lost your passport while in a foreign country you have not travelled, me thinks. LOL………… only kidding, it is not a requirement. In fact, it is a royal pain in the ass, but not the end of the world. There was nothing I could do but wait. I’m not the first person in the world to lose a passport and I will not be the last.
Waiting a few days makes no difference to me. It is, however, a slight problem when it happens in Myanmar before the annual Thingyan, the Burmese New Year Water Festival, celebrated over a period of four to five days. I believe the phrase “Son of a bitch!” left my mouth with alarming frequency when I came across this charming little discovery.
In the meantime, Yangon was preparing for the annual water festival and it was time for me to move on. The Embassy was closed and will only reopen on 20 April, so no good sticking around. I can just as well continue on my travels.
11 April - Yangon – Okkan - 111 km
I did not get away very early and the roads were already congested by the time I left. I tried a different route out of the city to the one I came in on to see if I could miss some of the heavy traffic on the main road. It was a bit of a roundabout way, but it seemed to have less traffic. Once on Route 2 North, the road was very narrow and bumpy. Couple that with heavy traffic and it is quite a hair-raising experience.
Fortunately, busses and trucks (although moving at high speed) seem to be accustomed to slower traffic, including bicycles, oxcarts, tricycles and scooters. The only good thing about the road was that it was shaded, which made a huge difference.
Along the way I picked up 30 000 kyat ($30). It must have blown out of someone’s pocket. The 3 x 10 000 notes was neatly folded and I felt terrible for the person who lost it. It is a huge amount of money for the villagers. I did keep an eye out for someone who looked like they were searching for something.
Once I reached Okkan, I spotted the rather nice looking Okkan Hotel. The rooms were frightfully expensive at 30 000 kyat but seeing that I picked up the money I spent it on a room.
12 April - Okkan – Gyobingauk - 90 km
The water festival had not yet started, but already people were throwing water. I did not mind as it was a relief from the relentless heat. I swear even the bitumen was melting.
Pyay was about 170 km away and I found Gyobingauk nicely in the middle, making it two relatively easy days.
In Gyobingauk, I found the Paradise Guest House, which was not much of a paradise, but I was surprised to find that the $10 room came with air-conditioning. Ok, it was not the most effective air-conditioning but it at least kept the room slightly cool.
13 April - Gyobingauk – Pyay - 90 km
There was a marked difference in the traffic, hardly any buses and trucks. It must have had something to do with the holidays. It was the start of the water festival and kids were having a blast, there was no escaping getting wet. They could now throw water and shoot their water guns without getting into any trouble.
You can imagine their delight as they saw me coming along. They ran as fast as their little legs could carry them to fill up their containers. I was thoroughly drenched and I’m sure I got a double dose. They kept me cool all the way to Pyay where I sought out the well-known Myat Lodging House. The place was a bit of a dump and not cheap at all.
The previous day was merely Thingyan Eve while the 14th was the start of the real thing. It was virtually impossible to take any pictures, as there was water everywhere. Stands with hosepipes and huge speakers were constructed along the road and no one could pass without being blasted by both water and music. Don’t think you can take a side road, as they have smaller stands manned by the little ones and they are even more deadly. I stayed in Pyay for the day enjoying the festivities. The most fun, however, seems to be to cruise the streets on the back of a pickup.
15 April - Pyay
I left in a spray of water, and not far down the road the back wheel of the bike started making a strange noise. It got progressively worse and although I generously sprayed a lubricant it was all to no avail. In the end, I turned around and headed back to Pyay hoping to find a bike shop. It was wishful thinking as everything was closed, and would remain so until 21 April. By that time the bike was dry and the noise was gone. I was convinced that it was the back hub. Maybe the Q20 worked its way into the hub.
I took a room at Myat again and was unsure of how to proceed. I was convinced that, once wet, I would have the same problem. I could take a ride to Bagan where there were more bike shops, but it was an expensive option. In the end, I decided to take a ride to Bagan the following day, not that I had much of a choice. The only upside was that it would get me off the road, as I did not trust the motorbike riders with bottles of whiskey stuck in the back of their pants.
I did the unthinkable and took a lift to Bagan where I thought I might find a bike shop. In hindsight that was a stupid thing to do. I should have waited another day. Little did I know that the 16th was the end of the water festival. I was under the impression that it lasted until the 20th. I was annoyed as the owner of the Myat was dishonest and gave me the wrong information as he wanted to give me a lift to Bagan for an astronomical fee.
It was a very long day in the car to Bagan and the water festival did not make things any easier. Eventually, we arrived in Bagan where I took a room at the View Point Inn. It was an interesting place with a large variety of rooms, even a dorm.
What an amazing place it is. The temple-studded plains of Bagan stretched 26 square miles across central Myanmar. It is a most remarkable area and to my mind falls into the same jaw-dropping category as Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Petra in Jordon. Bagan’s kings commissioned more than 4000 Buddhist temples of which around 2 000 still remains.
It was New Year’s Day and all the madness of the previous days was gone. Suddenly everything was quiet and somewhat normal, except that just about everything was closed. First thing in the morning, I set off by bicycle to explore the temple area. It soon became too hot and I retreated to my room. Later that evening, I set off again to try and see the sunset over Bagan but there was no sunset.
I decided to stay one more day and see if I could get some pictures, but the light did not improve. I searched for a bicycle shop but even in Bagan I could not find any. I did find a guy that did some work on bicycles and he had a look at the bike but could not find anything wrong. Once the bike was dry, it seemed OK and all I could do was hope that it lasted. I was double annoyed with myself for taking the lift as I missed out on a large part of the route.
I was also disappointed with my pictures and it felt like I should go back and try again. So, all in all, it was not a good few days.
19 April - Bagan - Myingyan - 55 km
Mandalay was about 160 km from Bagan, and Myingyan was conveniently located along the road. Although it was a short day, I felt tired and was happy for the short distance. I found a room at the Kaung Kaung Guesthouse just at the entrance to the town. The rooms were terribly expensive and no negotiations could bring them down in their price. I looked for another guesthouse but could not find one. Eventually, I settled for a room. I was doubly annoyed when I discovered that their Wi-Fi did not work, after asking them first if they had Wi-Fi and then I specifically asked them if it worked. I hate it when people are dishonest.
20 - 21 April - Myingyan – Mandalay - 110 km
It was a hot, dry and dusty day on the road and it felt like I could not get going. Just as I started getting annoyed with the road being so narrow, bumpy and busy, suddenly, I started freewheeling. I was, in fact, going slightly uphill and halfway the road descended down to the river again. It was most likely around 40°C and it felt that it was only I and the mad dogs out in the midday heat. Most drivers pulled off the road at shelters and had a bit of a snooze before continuing on. I wanted to get to Mandalay so I put my head down and cycled on.
And so approached the end of the road to Mandalay. Mandalay is not as romantic looking as Kipling made it out to be. It is, in fact, a rather dusty, sprawling city. The cheapest bed in Mandalay must surely be at the AD1 Hotel, which was situated in the midst of the onion market, making for a rather interesting location. Here one can still get that old timeless Asian feel. I got myself a $13 room with en-suite bathroom and air-conditioning.
I stayed in Mandalay the following day as well, but it was too hot to do any sightseeing.
22 April - Mandalay – Yangon - By bus
It was time to head back to Yangon to see if my passport turned up in the meantime. I was running out of visa time in Myanmar so I took the bus. The bus was cheap at $10 and very comfortable, with reclining seats and air-conditioning. It hardly ever stopped and we arrived back in Yangon at around 5.30 p.m. I cycled back to the Ocean Pearl Inn, where I stayed before, which was a bit of a nightmare. The traffic was heavy and it soon became dark with no street lights.
23 - 24 April
Unfortunately, no passport turned up but as I found out that my old passport was still valid, and it still had the two blank pages, there was no need for an emergency travel document anymore. I spoke to the UK embassy and they agreed to refund me the money I paid them. It looked like things were starting to turn in my favour again.
I bought another bus ticket, this time to the Thailand border. As the traffic to and from the border was only on alternative days, the next bus was on 25 April. It was a night bus which meant that I would arrive at the border on 26 April, just making it by the skin of my teeth to be out of the country before my visa expired.
The following day I wandered around the city but there was not much to see and I was kind of bored.
25 April - Yangon to the Mywaddy (Thailand border)
Seeing that it was a night bus, I slept late, had breakfast, and then packed my stuff. I had the whole day to kill so I was in no hurry and even went for a facial. I did not cycle to the bus station as I did not want to sit next to people with my sweaty body. It turned out that the bus was a bit of a disaster from the start. First they wanted 10 000 kyat for the bike and in the end I still had to pay 7 000 kyat, which I thought was a rip-off. The bus was everything but luxurious and the seats extremely narrow; two people could hardly fit next to one another.
I never managed to sleep at all and one can hardly drink anything as once the bus goes, it goes and very seldom stops. It was a slow process through the night and at daybreak we were in Hap-an. From there on things went from bad to worse. We stopped for breakfast and then got onto the mountain road. The road was extremely narrow with only a very narrow pavement in the middle and steep exposed drop-offs into the valley below. So narrow was the road and so tight the corners that the bus could not always make the turn and had to do 3-point turns.
Close to the top we encountered road works. There was not much one could do but wait, and what a long wait it was. This was not your normal road works, but all work is done by hand. Eventually, we were waved through and not much further, just as we were negotiating a rather tight corner, the bus got a blowout. As we were mere inches from the cliff people let out shrill screeches and started instinctively leaning the opposite way, not that that would have helped. And there I thought they were all asleep.
It turned out not to be the tire but something else. The driver and his cronies got out, crawled in under the bus, and an hour or so later we were on our way again. We were hardly on our way or we stopped at a temple were monks were handing out drinks in exchange for a donation.
It was past midday by the time we got to the border and, as expected, it took longer than usual as I now left the country on a different passport than the one I came in on. Once all was sorted out, I cycled off to Mae Sot village which was only about 5 km down the road.