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Myanmar

 

 (764km - 27days)

 

30/03 - 25/04/2015

 

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30 March - Mae Sot, Thailand - Myawaddy, Myanmar - 10 km

From Mae Sot, it was a short distance to the Friendship Bridge, the border control point between Thailand and Myanmar. With already having a visa, all that was required was a stamp in the passport.

 

As always, it was surprising how one could cross a line on a map and find yourself in a very different environment. Different-looking people, different clothes, different food, different money, different language; yes, just about everything was different. After clearing customs and immigration, it was straight to the ATM to draw local currency, which was kyat and had an exchange rate of 1,000 kyat to 1 USD. It took purchasing a new wallet to store all the notes. Myanmar took me by surprise as it was a place where men still wore the longyi, had red-stained teeth from chewing paan and just about everyone had a painted face.

 

It was incredibly hot, around 40°C, and by the time my business was done, it was already 12 o’clock. 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 the wrong choice.

 

Once checked into a hotel, the owner informed me the road out of Myawaddy over the pass was very narrow, and the traffic only allowed in one direction the one day, and in the opposite direction the following day. Unfortunately, the traffic from Myawaddy to Pha-An was on that particular day, meaning I would have to wait a day before leaving Myawaddy. Little did I know it marked the start of a problem-studded visit to Myanmar.

 

31 March - Myawaddy

Early morning, loud music woke me and I quickly made my way out the door to see what was happening. After following the clanging and the drumming, I 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. These young boys, dressed like princes (in imitation of the Lord Buddha, who was himself a prince before setting out on his spiritual path) were carried shoulder-high through the streets to the temple. I understood they spend the entire day being carried around on the shoulders of their older male relatives. The procession consisted of cars and trucks with deafening music, followed by what seemed like the entire village on foot, throwing popcorn and sweets at the youngsters. It was all rather festive, and I felt fortunate to have caught this unique ceremony.

 

It is said that in a foreign country food becomes an adventure, and it was no different in Myanmar. “Wet Thar Dote Htoe”, literally "pork-on-a-stick”, consisted of pork offal (anything from pig lungs and intestine to tongue). It was cooked and eaten “fondue style” in soy sauce and skewered onto a bamboo stick. It was almost always eaten on the streets while huddling together on small kindergarten plastic stools, and by dipping the skewered meat in the bubbling, black sauce. Not an ordinary meal, if you ask me.

 

1 April - Myawaddy – Pha-An

After the fear of God was put into me about the road to Pha-An, I gave in and took the bus. Their concern was justified as the road was narrow and in poor condition, to put it mildly. With the route only open to traffic every second day, buses, taxis and trucks formed a continuous line over the mountain. Although traffic moved in the same direction, the road was so narrow and the corners so tight, three-point turns were required in places. I subsequently found there was a new road (not indicated on the map), but most still preferred the old route as the new highway was considered costly due to the collection of toll fees (or so I understood). I should have known not to listen to local advice when it came to whether one could cycle a particular route or not.

 

Once in Hpa-An, it was easy to find accommodation as there were a whole plethora of guesthouses to select from. One knew Myanmar was a hot country as clay pots, filled with water for public consumption, was scattered around town, something I last saw in Sudan.

 

2 April - Pha-An – Thaton - 50 km

Early morning my clothes already clung to my sweat-soaked body as the path from Pha-An headed further north. It was a fascinating day of cycling, shared with motorcycle salesmen loaded to the hilt, bicycle taxis with sidecars, and three-wheel motorbikes carting their passengers to and from their destinations. It was indeed like going nowhere slowly. Although the road was considerably better than the previous day, it was still narrow, and no one went anywhere fast. Nearly the entire way was lined with stalls selling paan, snacks and rice dishes (but mostly paan).

 

On reaching Thaton, it was still early, and the plan was to visit the famous mountaintop pagoda. Once offloaded, I realised the pagoda was in the next village. It didn’t bother me, and it was a relaxing day in a guesthouse.

 

3 April - Thaton – Kyaikto - 68 km

It was best to get on the road before the sun started beating down. My relatively early start allowed me to witness the barefoot monks walking the streets, collecting rice and food from villagers. The road was surprisingly flat and in good condition but, like the previous day, it was narrow. There wasn’t much one could do but stick as close to the side as possible. My mirror came in handy, as there wasn’t enough space for a large truck and me. Soon as one was spotted, it was best to dive off the road, allowing it to pass.

 

In Kyaikto, I bunked down in Happy Guest House, and for my 16,000 kyats got a comfortable, air-conditioned room with breakfast included. The plan was to go to the mountaintop pagoda, but the heat kept me indoors, as I was in no mood to cycle to where trucks headed up the mountain.

 

4 April - Kyaikto – Bago - 90 km

It was another blistering hot day to Bago, the one-time capital of Burma. Even though leaving early (for me that is), the heat soon started rising from the road, as well as baking down from above. Fortunately, there were many places to fill up with water but still it felt I was dehydrated. Again, the road was surprisingly good, albeit a bit narrow.

 

Once in Bago, one couldn’t miss the bright green Emperor Hotel right on the main road. I’m sure there were better places, but the manager’s helpfulness made me stay put. They should have called it the Everest Hotel, as the stairs were near vertical. Fortunately, there was a large storeroom downstairs to store the bicycle, and the staff kind enough to carry my panniers upstairs. They must have seen I was in no mood for those stairs.

 

5 April - Bago – Yangon - 90 km

Determined to escape as much of the heat as possible, it was early morning when I stuck my hat on my head and headed for Yangon, the former capital and previously known as Rangoon. One can’t blame anyone for being under the impression Yangon is the capital. Cycling was along the “highway”; let's call it that for lack of a better word. The road had two lanes in both directions as well as a shoulder. The shoulder was somewhat bumpy with a few potholes, but it was a shoulder, nevertheless. There was a shorter route, but it appeared to lack a shoulder, and with all the trucks, it was best to stay on the larger road. Still, I didn’t expect the traffic to be quite as heavy as it was.

 

The last 20 kilometres into Yangon was a pure nightmare. Although it was Sunday, the traffic was horrendous, and it took forever to find the Ocean Pearl Inn. It wasn’t the most inexpensive accommodation, but it was comfortable, and I was thankful for the air-con.

 

Discovering my passport missing came as an utter shock. Unpacking all the panniers and phoning the Emperor Hotel in Bago was all to no avail. It must have fallen out when taking a picture or buying water along the way.

 

That evening 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 I may recognise some of the many places where I stopped for water and could enquire if they found a passport.

 

6 April - Yangon – Bago – Yangon - By car

After breakfast, I set off with John and the driver to Bago. Even though keeping an eye out for the many watering holes of the day before, things looked completely different from the back seat of a car and driving 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 extremely accommodating. He drove me from police station to police station and from immigration office to immigration office. As none of the officers spoke English, he acted as my translator. In the midst of it all, the town lost power, and the police couldn’t type the letter needed.

 

While waiting for the electricity to be restored, we had lunch, and what a good meal it was. Amazing how much better food can be when eaten with the locals. After lunch, there was still no power and it was a good time to visit 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 constructing the Yangon–Bago railway line, stumbled upon it. Today it is kept safe from the elements by a vast canopy, making photography somewhat tricky.

 

After the visit, the power was still not restored, and we took the letters to be typed to a street kiosk. On returning to the immigration office, the street had transformed itself into a market selling anything from fruit to meat and spices.

 

After signing the letters, the officers instructed me to take it to the “Myanmar Travel Tourist” in Yangon. Both letters were in Burmese with the result I had no idea about the content. Finally, Tun-Tun, the manager of the hotel, organised me a taxi back to Yangon. Phew, what a day.

 

7 April - Yangon

What an absolute pain in the ass the lost passport became. First thing in the morning, I went in search of the address given to me in Bago. After asking around (the address was written in Burmese), it turned out to be the immigration office. If only they said so. The immigration office, in turn, sent me to have passport photos taken and, on my return, found the office closed for lunch. All that was achieved by this rigmarole was a letter stating my Myanmar visa number and entry date and I was told it was as good as a visa and should have no problems at the border.

 

In the meantime, an email from the South African embassy in Bangkok stated I should go to the UK Embassy for an emergency travel document. Off it was to the UK Embassy, only to find them on lunch.

 

Nothing one can do but wait and, once inside, I explained my predicament. This time I was requested to have my letters (given to me by the police in Bago) translated. An exercise which turned out to be quite interesting. Down a small alley, typists, translators and photocopiers were stationed on a pavement. From plastic kindergarten tables and chairs, they were doing business. Zombie-like I joined the line at the translator table and waited my turn. With the translated document in my hands, it was off to the internet café to have the South African Embassy email printed. After all was done, it was too late to return to the UK Embassy and time for a beer.

 

8 April - Yangon

Printing the email from the SA Embassy sounds more straightforward than it was, as I couldn’t access my Yahoo account at the internet café and the code sent never came through. By the time all was done, the Embassy was again closed for lunch and after lunch found the passport photos the wrong size. There was nothing to do but go back to the shop and get new ones taken. As Mark Twain said: “The truth can be stranger than fiction.”

 

Eventually, all forms were filled in, copies made, the right size photos attached and the required fee paid. The lady at the Embassy admitted they had never had a similar request and weren’t sure what to do.

 

She intended contacting the South African Embassy in Bangkok and would check with them, promising to pass all relevant information on to me via email. We agreed 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

The free walking tour of Yangon was an interesting way to pass the time and was an informative walk around old Yangon. The city had some beautiful, old colonial buildings, some renovated, some in the process of being restored, and others still on the to-do list.

 

In the meantime, an advert, with a reward, was placed in the local newspaper for finding and returning the passport. This wasn’t something that would have been possible without the help of a very kind Burmese man I met at the newspaper.

 

In Yangon, the best time to be out was around sunset when the streets were lined with food vendors and markets spilt onto the bus lane. Each shop blasted music louder than the one next door, causing a riot of sound while pedestrians push and shoved their way along the crowded pavement. This was my absolute favourite time to be out. Stall owners were frying, cooking and steaming, producing a variety of delicious food, from yummy samosas to pork offal on skewers.

 

10 April - Yangon

Although the passport was by then a royal pain in the ass, it wasn’t the end of the world. There was nothing I could do but wait. I wasn’t the first person in the world to have lost a passport, and I wouldn’t be the last. Waiting a few days made no difference to me.

 

It was, however, a slight problem as it happened just before Thingyan, the Burmese New Year and Water Festival, a festival celebrated over a four-to-five-day period. I believe the phrase “Son of a bitch” left my mouth with alarming frequency when I came across that little discovery. I couldn’t have made this up, even if I tried.

 

In the meantime, Yangon was preparing for the festival, and it was time for me to move along. The Embassy closed for the festivities, and there was no point in me sticking around as I could just as well continue my travels while Myanmar celebrated the New Year.

 

11 April - Yangon – Okkan - 111 km

I didn’t get away early and, by the time of leaving, the roads were already congested. I tried a different route to avoid the heavy traffic and, although somewhat of a roundabout way, it appeared less congested. Once on Route 2 North, the road was again extremely narrow and bumpy and, coupled with heavy traffic, it made for a hair-raising experience.

 

Fortunately, buses and trucks (although moving at high speed) seemed accustomed to slower traffic, including bicycles, oxcarts, tricycles and scooters. The only good thing about the road was that it was shaded, which made for a more comfortable ride.

 

Along the way, I picked up 30,000 kyats ($30). It must have blown out of someone’s pocket as it was three, 10,000 neatly-folded notes. Picking it up made me feel bad as it was a considerable amount of money for villagers, and I kept an eye out for someone who looked like they were searching for something.

 

On reaching Okkan, the Okkan Hotel was frightfully expensive at 30,000 kyat but, seeing I picked up the money, I didn’t feel bad spending it on accommodation.

 

12 April - Okkan – Gyobingauk - 90 km

After breakfast, which was included in the room rate, the road headed further north. Again, the road was narrow and the traffic scary.

 

The water festival hadn’t yet started, but already people were throwing water, which was a relief from the relentless heat. I swear, even the bitumen was melting.

 

Pyay was about 170 kilometres away and Gyobingauk nicely in the middle, making for two relatively short days.

 

In Gyobingauk, and down a dirt road, was the Paradise Guest House. It wasn’t much of a paradise, but surprisingly for a $10 room, it came with air-conditioning. OK, it wasn’t 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 traffic, hardly any buses and trucks. It must have been due to the holidays as it was the start of the water festival and kids were having a blast, and, therefore, no escaping getting wet. It was a time children could 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 and I was thoroughly drenched by the end of the day. I had a feeling I got a double dose, but they kept me cool all the way to Pyay where the well-known Myat Lodging House was my abode of choice, although a bit of a dump and not cheap at all.

 

14 April - Pyay

The previous day was Thingyan Eve and, on this day, the real festival started. It was virtually impossible to take any pictures, as it was a very wet affair. Bandstands with hosepipes and huge speakers were constructed along the main road, and no one could pass without being blasted both by water and music. One couldn’t even think of taking a side road, as that was where they had smaller bandstands manned by the little ones, which were even more vicious. The following day was also spent in Pyay enjoying the festivities. It seemed the most fun was had by those cruising the streets on the back of pickup trucks while getting absolutely soaked.

 

15 April - Pyay

With my inability to wait, I left Pyay in a spray of water, but not far down the road, the back wheel of the bike started making an almighty noise. It got progressively worse, and although I generously sprayed a lubricant, it was all to no avail. In the end, I thought it best to return to Pyay, hoping to find a bike shop. It was wishful thinking as everything was closed and would remain so for the next four days. I was convinced it was the back hub, but by the time it was dry, it seemed OK again, or maybe the lubricant worked its way in.

 

I was unsure of how to proceed as I had no patience to wait until the festival was over and was convinced that, once wet, I would have the same problem again. One could take a ride to Bagan where there were more bike shops, but it was an expensive option. The only upside was it would get me off the road, as I didn’t much care for the motorbike riders with bottles of whiskey stuck in the back of their pants.

 

 

16 April - Pyay - Bagan (By car)

The unthinkable was done, and a lift arranged to Bagan. In hindsight, it was a stupid thing to do as little did I know it was the last day of the water festival. I was under the impression it lasted another four days. I was annoyed as the owner of the Myat was dishonest and gave me the wrong information as he was the one who wanted to give me a ride to Bagan at quite a hefty fee.

 

It was a very long day in a car to Bagan, and the water festival didn’t make things any easier. Eventually, we arrived in Bagan, where accommodation was found at the View Point Inn, a convenient place with a large variety of rooms, even a dorm.

 

What an intriguing place Bagan turned out to be. The temple-studded plains of Bagan stretched 40 square kilometres across central Myanmar. It was a most remarkable area, and to my mind, fell into the same jaw-dropping category as Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Petra in Jordon. Between the ninth and 13th centuries, Bagan’s kings commissioned more than 4,000 Buddhist temples of which around 2,000 remained at the time of my visit.

 

17 April - Bagan

 

The following day was New Year’s Day, and all the madness of the previous days gone. Suddenly, everything was quiet and somewhat normal, except just about everything was closed. First thing in the morning, it was off by bicycle to explore the temple area, but it soon became too hot and it was best to retreat to the coolness of a room. The sunset over Bagan didn’t quite live up to expectations either as it came without any of the usual beautiful colours expected.

 

 

 

18 April - Bagan

The following day was also spent in Bagan to, hopefully, snap a few more pictures, but the light never improved. The search for a bicycle shop also didn’t reveal much, and the only person found couldn’t find anything wrong, and all I could do was hope the bike will hold up until reaching Mandalay. I was doubly annoyed with myself for taking the ride as I missed out on a large part of the route. Add to that poor quality pictures, and it felt like I could do no right. All in all, it was a trying time in Myanmar.

 

 

19 April - Bagan - Myingyan - 55 km

 

Mandalay was about 160 kilometres from Bagan, and Myingyan was conveniently located along the road. After such a long time off the bike, I should have been a ball of energy but instead felt lethargic and couldn’t get going and was happy for the shorter distance. A room at the Kaung Kaung Guesthouse at the entrance to the town was home for the night. The rooms were pricy, and I was unhappy with the lack of Wi-Fi. Apparently, “Have Wi-Fi” didn’t translate into “Have working Wi-Fi”.

 

 

 

20-21 April - Myingyan – Mandalay - 110 km

It was a hot, dry and dusty day and the going slow. Just when I started wondering if there was something wrong with me, it turned out to be a false flat as halfway to Mandalay I started freewheeling. It was most likely around 40°C, and it felt it was only the mad dogs and me out in the midday heat. Around midday, most truck and motorbike drivers usually stopped at roadside shelters to have a snooze before continuing. I wanted to get to Mandalay, and I put my head down and cycled on.

 

With that, I reached the end of the road to Mandalay. Mandalay wasn’t as romantic looking as Kipling made it out to be. It was, in fact, a slightly dusty, sprawling city. The cheapest bed in Mandalay was undoubtedly at the AD1 Hotel, situated amid the onion market, making for a rather unusual location. It was an area where one could still get that old timeless Asian feel and, as my $13 room came with an en-suite bathroom as well as air-conditioning, I was more than happy.

 

22 April - Mandalay – Yangon - By bus

After another day in Mandalay, it was time to head back to Yangon to see if my passport had turned up in the meantime. Time was running out on my visa, and I took a bus to Yangon. 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 5h30 p.m. Even the short cycle from the bus station to the hotel turned out to be somewhat of a nightmare as the traffic was heavy and the streets without any lights.

 

23-24 April - Yangon

Unfortunately, no passport turned up, but the good news was my previous passport (which I never threw out as it contained a still valid American visa) was still valid. I thought once you received a new passport, the old one would automatically be cancelled. The old passport still had two blank pages, and there was, therefore, no need for an emergency travel document. After discussing the situation with the UK Embassy, they agreed to refund the fee paid. It looked like things were finally starting to turn in my favour.

 

I bought a ticket for the first available bus to the Thailand border but, as the traffic to and from the border was only on alternate days, the next bus was only in two days. With the bus to the border being nigh, it meant I would arrive at the border on the day my visa expired, making it out the country by the skin of my teeth. It sure looked like I had reached the end of my bad luck.

 

 

25 April - Yangon to the Mywaddy (Thailand border)

Expecting the same kind of bus as the one from Mandalay to Yangon, it was disappointing to find the bus precisely the opposite. It appeared the Mandalay-Yangon bus was a tourist bus; the one running to the border was a local one with seats extremely narrow and more suitable to tiny Burmese than Europeans, as two people could hardly fit next to one another.

 

It was an uncomfortable ride and hardly possible to sleep in such a confined space. The lack of toilet facilities also meant one couldn’t drink water as the bus seldom stopped. It was a slow process through the night, and by daybreak we were only in Hpa-An. From there on the trip went from bad to worse. After a breakfast stop, the bus proceeded onto the mountain road. The narrow road with steep and exposed drop-offs into the valley below didn’t instil much confidence. So narrow was the route and so tight the corners, the bus couldn’t always make the turn and had to do three-point turns – actually, it was more like six-point turns.

 

Close to the top, roadworks made for lengthy delays, and there wasn’t much we could do but wait, and what a long wait it was. This wasn’t your typical roadworks, as all work was done by hand and supplies carried in woven baskets dangling from shoulder poles. Eventually, our bus was waved through but not much further, as just as we were negotiating a rather tight corner, there was one huge bang. As we were mere inches from the cliff’s edge, people let out shrill screeches and instinctively moved to the opposite side of the bus, and there I thought they were all asleep.

 

It turned out not to be the tyre, as expectedly but something else. The driver and his cronies crawled in under the bus, and an hour or so later we were on our way again - this could have been in the 1800s. We were hardly on our way, or the bus stopped at a temple where 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 left the country on a different passport than the one I came in on. Once all was sorted out, I was immensely relieved to cycle off to Mae Sot, Thailand.

 

So came to an end a problem-studded visit to Myanmar. Priority was to get to Bangkok and the South African Embassy as soon as possible to apply for a new passport.

 

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