Around the world by bike
(1 256km - 29days)
1 October Maesot, Thailand – Kawkareik, Myanmar
I first had breakfast at Krua Canadian, an European restaurant run by a Canadian. The owner has been living here for 17 years, and he is a mine of information. The food is excellent and comes just at the right time when most people have had enough of noodle soup.
Afterwards, I cycled the short distance to the border, crossed without any drama, drew 300 000 Burmese kyats, bought a new sim card, and then set off over the mountains. It was already midday by the time I left, and although the new road was open, it was still a slow process and steeper than it looked. There were no less than two truck accidents along the way; they were, obviously, not used to the new, faster road yet.
It started raining, and by the time I had cleared the mountains, I was soaked and happy to find a guesthouse in Kawkareik. Kawkareik is a tiny village where I’m sure no foreigner ever stops. After booking in, I took to the streets to look for food and felt like I was the circus that had just arrived in town. I don’t pass through these villages unnoticed, to say the least. I was dead hungry, as always, but there was no electricity in town (it only comes on around 6 p.m.). I managed to find some food, albeit cold food. Not even the roti man was frying roti’s; everyone was waiting for the electricity to come on.
12 - 13 October Kawkareik – Hpa-An 95 km
It was a bumpy ride to Hpa-An. The road was hillier than expected, terribly narrow, and in poor condition. Everything shook loose, and I nearly lost the tripod! I had to keep diving off the road to avoid the trucks and busses as there was just not enough room for all of us. Fortunately, there were plenty of roadside stalls where I could stop for a cup of tea just to take a break from the shaking as it got kind of irritating.
Again, there was no power when I arrived in Hpa-An, but this time I could find food without any problem as I found a room right in the market area. Than Lwin Pyar Guesthouse even had a ground floor room at a reasonable price, something I'm always happy about. I also stayed in Hpa-An the following day as it was quite an interesting place.
14 - 15 October Hpa-An – Kyaikto 123 km
The road was much better than the previous day, and although narrow, it was relatively smooth. Myanmar is very rural, and people live close to the earth. It is also the rainy season, and there was plenty of rice planting and other farming activities on the go.
On my arrival at Kyaikto, I was more than happy to pull into the Happy Guesthouse. It was a bit pricey but rather comfortable. The following day, I went to Mt. Kyaiktiyo (Golden Rock). What a mission it was to get there! From Kyaikto, I first took a pickup to Kinpun, but even that sounds easier than what it was. From Kinpun, trucks were running up the steep mountainside. They packed us in like sardines, and the narrow benches were hard as stone and only about six inches wide. It was not designed for foreigners!
Pilgrims come here in the thousands as it is said to be a place of miracles. The reason people come is to worship at a huge boulder that is perched on the very edge of the mountain. By now, the rock is covered with gold leaves, and a stupa has been built on top. It is said that it contains a hair of Buddha donated by a hermit in the 11th century. Apparently, the hair was salvaged from the bottom of the sea and brought here by boat. The boat subsequently turned to stone, and a rock resembling a boat is visible just a few hundred metres away.
16 October Kyaikto – Bago 95 km
At breakfast, I met two cyclists from Canada on their way to Thailand. It is so seldom that I meet other cyclists that we first had a nice long chat before leaving. It was smooth sailing to Bago, and I arrived very early. I stayed in exactly the same place as before as the Emperor Hotel has a ground floor garage for storing the bike, making it a rather convenient place to stay. The stairs are, however, relatively steep, but there is always a helping hand to get my panniers to the room.
17 - 19 October Bago – Yangon 90 km
The following day, I cycled into Yangon, and as before, it was a busy road. After about 30 kilometres, I turned off onto a smaller road, which turned out to be a rather bumpy one, so it was six of the one and a half dozen of the other. Once I reached Yangon, I headed for downtown and the famous Sule Pagoda.
Where else in the world will you find a 2 000-year-old golden temple forming the main roundabout? It's not only in the heart of downtown, but there are also some really inexpensive guesthouses in the area. I first checked out a few, but in the end, I went to the Ocean Pearl Inn, where I had stayed before. It was not cheap, but its value for the money was far better than the other options.
I had to wait until the following Monday to hand in my Indian visa application, so I had some time on my hands. I explored the area by foot until I could do the necessary paperwork.
On Monday, 19 October, I discovered that I did not have the right-sized photo for the visa application (ahrggggg), but I at least obtained the required permit to enter the restricted area at the India/Myanmar border. At $100, it was not cheap, but there was little I could do but pay up. Except for the receipt, I got nothing to show for it. I was told that the permit would be forwarded to border officials, and that it would be there when I got there. The strange thing was that it was date-specific; I had to give them the exact date of when I intended to cross the border. Come hell or high water, I will have to be there on that date.
On my way back, I stopped at the very famous Shewadagon Paya, the holiest of places in all of Myanmar. It is a massive complex of temples and pagodas, shrines and “zedis,” and it is rather popular. No matter what time of day you visit, there will always be masses of people paying their respects. I did not like the crowds so did not linger; just snapped a few pics and left again.
20 October, Yangon
The following day, I was ready with my forms and photos for the Indian visa, and I did not even have to pay anything for it. Bargain!!! The only drawback was that it took three days, which meant I could only collect it on that Friday.
21 - 22 October, Yangon
I did all I had to do so had some time to explore more of Yangon. I took a walk to Canon to see if they could fix my camera, which had been playing up. They did not repair cameras, but we reset all the settings, and after that, it seemed to be working OK.
There were not many tall buildings in Yangon, but I did go up to the 20th floor of the Sakura Tower to get a shot of the city from above. It cost me a rather expensive cup of coffee, but I enjoyed both the view and the coffee.
I also heard about the circular train one can take, and so off I went to the station. I bought my ticket and got on the next available train; however, it was somewhat uninteresting, so I got off again and took a taxi back to town. A pickup taxi is exactly that; it is a small pickup with a canopy and benches for sitting on. From time to time, one also needs to share it with the chickens. The traffic was really bad, so I walked the last kilometre or two, which was far more interesting. I passed mothers catching nits on their kids' heads, monks doing their laundry, and numerous food stalls and street vendors. What a fascinating world it is.
Head lice - I do like this intimate scene between mother and child. Although it is kind of gross, head lice are non-disease carrying lice. Interestingly enough, they spend their entire lives on the human scalp and cannot jump or fly and humans are the only known host of this particular parasite.
23 October, Yangon
It was my last day in Yangon, and I was keen to collect my passport from the Indian Embassy. I could, however, only do that after 3 p.m. I first went to the supermarket and what a modern complex it was! It was so entirely different from downtown (where I was staying) that one could hardly believe it was the same country. I just bought the necessary and then returned to the downtown area to collect my passport. The collections queue was a long and rather interesting one. Of course there were Burmese, but it was the foreigners that were the most interesting, both in looks and reasons for being there.
I spoke to Eric, a French/Peruvian guy, who was a bit like me, as he had no plan and just went wherever the wind blew him. Then there was another French guy, a bit of a hippie-type who was also wandering around the globe. He was on his way to meet his mom, who also sounds a bit of a hippie gal, now living in India.
Later that evening I went for a drink at the Vista Bar, as it was rumoured to have great views of the Shwedagon Pagoda at night. I was not disappointed with the view, but I failed to get the pictures I went there for. The reason for that being that the vibration from the speakers (albeit providing excellent music) did nothing for my long exposure focus. Sigh! I decided to walk the five kilometres back to my room and what an interesting walk it was. All the food stalls were out and people were sitting on plastic kindergarten chairs eating their pork offal and other delicious looking foods. I find it rather difficult to sit on those tiny chairs as it feels like my knees are coming past my ears.
24 October Yangon – Okekan – 110 km
I was more than happy to leave Yangon and get back on the bike. It was not as hot as in April, something I was happy about. It was not cool by any means; all I'm saying is that it was not as hot as before. I followed the potholed road north in the direction of Mandalay, passing small villages where water buffalo grazed in the rice paddies and oxen pulled carts laden with freshly cut rice stalks.
When a person travels by bicycle, you get used to people staring at you. I find them as interesting as they find me. Today, however, someone exclaimed “Sweet Jesus!” I've never had a “Sweet Jesus” before; I must have looked particularly haggard.
In any event, I continued along the bumpy road until I reached the small village of Okekan and thought it a good place to call it a day. The Okkan Hotel was conveniently located on the road, and it felt that each and every member of staff came out to help unload the bike and carry the panniers to the room. They giggled and laughed, brought me cold water, switched the air-con on, and put my bike in the store room. I was treated like royalty!
25 October Okekan - Gyobingauk 95 km
It was a Sunday morning, but the village was as busy as one would expect on a Saturday morning. It was rice harvesting season, and everyone seemed involved in the process. From cutting to transporting, everyone had a job. It was quite remarkable how labour intensive the process was. It was equally remarkable to see what all one could load on a bicycle! People in different parts of the world carry their wares in different manners. In South East Asia, they frequently use a bamboo pole with baskets dangling from each end. It appears that one needs to walk in a bouncing manner to get the rhythm right.
The most remarkable thing I saw today were the hundreds of huge spiders in their webs among the trees. They were easily the biggest spiders I have ever seen, definitely larger than my hand, and only in the one area. There were even little ones, but maybe the little ones did not belong to them. In Gyobingauk, I found the Paradise Guesthouse on the northern outskirts of town. It was not much of a Paradise but a good enough room for the night.
26 - 27 October Gyobingauk – Pyay 100 km
After a bite to eat at the nearby café, I headed for Pyay. The road was flat, and most of the way had a concrete shoulder that made for easy cycling. When people want to get your attention in Myanmar, they clap their hands. There was a lot of clapping and “hey you,” today! I felt like I was coming down with a cold or something as I did not feel very well, and it was a drag getting myself to Pyay.
I passed a multitude of salespeople, bicycling along the way; it is mind boggling what they can pack on a bicycle. Once in Pyay, I found a room at the local hotel, easily the worst place in which I have stayed in a long time. It was so dirty that it was downright scary! I gave it a good spray before settling in; who knows what-all could creep out from under that wobbly bed! Although there are a few other options in town, they are all very much alike.
I stayed in Pyay the following day just to take a break and see if I could rid myself of the oncoming cold. I did not do much except walk to the nearby temple and local market. I stocked up on vitamin C, and that evening I ate my fill at the local night market, a sure sign that I was much better than the day before.
28 October Pyay – Aunglan 75 km
With camping being against the law in Myanmar, I checked out accommodations along the way more thoroughly than I normally do. The only place that looked like it had some form of accommodation was Aunglan, which made it a relatively short day. The next place with accommodations appeared to be Magway, which was still 130 kilometres beyond Aunglan.
On cycling into Aunglan, I asked a local guy if there was a guest house. He was very kind and escorted me all the way to the guest house; he even helped carry the panniers into the hotel. The people here are so sweet. He looked so proud of himself that he could help me. The Win Light Guest House was once again conveniently located on the main road. It was a lovely place with spacious rooms and even a balcony, but it did not come cheaply at $25.00.
29 October Aunglan – Magway – 133 km
It was a long and slow day; it felt like I was stuck to the road. It was not even mountainous, and I did not climb to any substantial height; it was just up and down all day long. Fortunately the road, albeit narrow, was shaded, and that made a big difference.
There was not much to do but put your head down and keep moving forward. I had to remind myself that if I keep moving forward, I will get there…eventually! I pulled into Magway (which they pronounce as Magwe) as it got dark. I took the first hotel I spotted, right at the roundabout. Again, it was not cheap, and I most likely could have found a cheaper one downtown. But in the dark, it was not worth my while as most people don’t use their lights, and if I had an accident, I would have thought the extra $10 cheap.
30 October Magway – Chauk 120 km
Again, it was slow going. I even stopped to check if my brakes were stuck, but no, there was nothing wrong. It was just me! It was a gradual climb for the first 90 kilometres and then suddenly the road went down, down, down…..something I was happy about.
Chauk was a busy, dusty town with no real accommodation. I checked at the police station, and they pointed me across the road to the one and only guest house in town. The guest house gave me one look and announced that they were full!!! So, this meant going back to the police station to explain my predicament. This time, they came with me to the hotel, and after a lengthy discussion and $20 later, I had a rather basic room. I’m sure I was charged more than double the average rate, but what can a person do? I was annoyed, but that is just the way it is in Myanmar.
31 October Chauk – Bagan, 40 km
It rained through the night, and in the morning, the road was one big, muddy mess. I waddled across the street to my bike, which I had left at the police station, loaded up, and set off in the direction of famous Bagan. Fortunately, it was a short ride as I was in no mood for any more hills.
The road from Chauk to Bagan is a rather rural road, littered with small villages, temples and goats. It did not seem unusual to ride behind a woman who was herding her cattle down the road past 1000-year old temples. No one chased her on, hooted or hurried her in any way; buses, cars, and trucks all waited patiently until she turned off.
Even though I had been in Bagan not too many moons before, I was once again in awe of this remarkable place; a place in which just about everywhere you look, there are old temples jutting out of the forest. I did not stop too often as it started drizzling, and I wanted to find a room before I got soaked.
1 - 2 October - Bagan
As mentioned before, the central plains of Bagan are literally littered with temples. I'm not exaggerating when I say that there are temples everywhere! This time around I spent most of my time exploring the inside of these amazing buildings. I could, however, not resist climbing one of the higher temples and snap a few pics of the overall view.
Bagan dates back to 849 AD, but it was between 1044 -1283 AD that it reached its true greatness and that these temples were commissioned. Today about 2 000 remain and it felt that I visited all 2000!
On the morning of the 2nd of October, I woke to a steady rain and found my laundry still sopping wet. That was enough to make me stay put for another day. I hired myself a horse and cart to take me around to temples I have not visited, and it was a wonderful relaxing day. What I found most extraordinary is that people live and work amongst the temples; they farm, kids play, cattle graze and, most of all, they still worship at these 1000-year-old temples.
3 October Bagan – Pale 130 km
I knew that I had already wasted too much time and that I had to take a lift somewhere to get to the border by the 7th. I decided to give it my best shot and see how far I got. Again, it was already late by the time I left.
The road was not too hilly but narrow and bumpy in places; just before Pale it disappeared altogether but, fortunately, appeared not too far down the road. I cycled into Pale just as it got dark. Pale was a small village with a few shops spread along the main road. After asking around for a guest house, I was pointed to a building that did not much resemble a guest house but it had a good few rooms, all very basic with a toilet and shower in the back yard. I did not complain.
It made sense to take a lift over the slowest part of the route, especially after the owner offered to phone around and see if he could find me a lift to either Gangaw or Kale the following day.
4 October Pale – Kale By bus
Getting a bus was easier said than done. In the morning, I was informed that the small busses cannot take the bicycle and that the big bus departed only at 8 p.m. That meant losing another day, not something I had bargained on. There was not much I could do about it, so I settled in for the long wait. I was not looking forward to the bus ride over the mountain at night.
I took a walk down the road to find breakfast, and that alone was an experience. The little restaurant was tucked away and fitted with a dirt floor and a few wooden tables. A whole array of food arrived while people came to take pictures with me. In the end, they wanted no money for the food.
The day passed quickly, and the little village was quite lively with the pre-election activities. Truckloads of people drove down the main road, all with load music and huge speakers announcing (false?) hope for the future. Flags were being waved, and all seemed to have a jolly good time.
At around 8 p.m., the bus arrived and by then it was already filled to full capacity with both people and luggage. In some miraculous way, they found space for my bicycle inside the bus and off we went on the narrow road over the mountains. We bounced along, and there was not the slightest chance of catching some sleep. Not only did you have to hang on to your seat but the music also kept playing through the night.
The 270 kilometres took 11 hours, and we only arrived in Kale at around 7 a.m. the following morning.
5 - 6 November Kale – Tamu 140 km
I got off the bus and straight on the bike, heading for Kale. I knew it would be a long day and heard someone say one cannot do it in one day. I did not know what to expect so hurried along. I had a quick bite to eat at a roadside stall, and although I could have done with a bit of sleep, I wanted to get underway a soon as possible.
I had reached Kale before it got dark, something I was worried about as the sun goes down around 5.30 p.m. and it is pitch dark soon after that. Just as I cycled in, I spotted the Shwe Oakar Guest House, where I was to pick up my permit. It looked a good enough place to stay so I got myself a room and could not wait to have a shower and get some food and beer.
My permit stated that I had to cross the border on the 7th, so I had a day to relax before crossing into India. It was an exciting day as the elections were the following day and the town were busy with pre-election activities. Truckloads of voters took to the streets, waving flags and singing songs. They appear to be from the opposition party, I don’t blame them as there is no electricity in Tamu. The guesthouse where I was staying had a generator between 6 pm and 10 pm and it also used solar energy.