(1 531km - 36days)
12 September – Bangkok
Linda arrived at 22h00, dead-tired after a 27-hour flight from Fort Lauderdale. We chatted over a beer and then it was straight to bed for her.
13 September – Bangkok
We had loads to chat about since Linda left in January. After a few cups of coffee, it was off to the Gecko Bar for breakfast. The canal ferry is always a fun way to get around Bangkok and we hopped on one to pick up my new laptop at the Pantip Plaza. There is much to see and do in Bangkok, and we used the river ferry to explore, and in the process paid a visit to the Temple of Dawn. We had one last job to do and hailed a taxi to the Myanmar embassy to collect my passport. With the hectic Bangkok traffic, we made the Embassy in the nick of time; then it was back to Khao San Road for a beer.
We ambled along to the Gecko Bar and then the backstreets of Banglamphu where we met up with Edward (Ted) Jones Whitehead, the author of the book Down Below. Now 95, he is still remarkably energetic and still with a twinkle in the eye. Typical of a real old seadog, he soon hauled out his packet of fags while he enjoyed a beer with us. A truly remarkable man.
14 September – Bangkok
After a breakfast of noodle soup, it was off to the supermarket to stock up on stuff we needed for the road. After collecting our laundry, Linda went off in her own direction and I headed for China Town looking for a cup water heater. China Town is always a remarkable place with massive and busy markets where one can find just about anything. The trick is to locate the right market for what one is looking for. I, eventually, found the electrical appliance market and bought two water heaters as they don’t usually last very long.
My bicycle was still at the bike shop, and we took a walk to see if it was ready but, as they had to replace damaged spokes, it would only be ready the following day. We grabbed a motorbike taxi back to Khao San road. With both of us on the same motorbike, we hung on for dear life as the bike sped through the traffic, making it to our destination just as raindrops started falling.
15 September – Bangkok
Our plans for catching a bus to the Myanmar border went by the wayside as my bicycle would only be ready at 11 a.m. We, therefore, had a late start to the day, and we strolled along the river to the Gecko Bar for breakfast. I returned to the guesthouse as the bike was being delivered, and I did not want to miss it. Linda took a walk to the Golden Mount, and later, we met up again and wandered the charming streets of old Bangkok.
The old man selling the second-hand false teeth and bridges was still there, and I was surprised to notice that the teeth were steadily getting less (I kid you not!). We popped into the fascinating amulet market where it always appears that they are selling more ominous items than just innocent Buddha necklaces.
That evening, we drank our Chang beers on the roof terrace of our guesthouse. We watched the weather roll in and took a quick walk to a nearby restaurant. No sooner had we sat down, and the storm arrived with one almighty bang! It bucketed down while we sat watching the thunder and lightning, and by the time we had finished our food, it was all over, and we could stroll back to our abode without feeling as much as a drop.
16 September – Bangkok to Mae Sot (by bus)
We got up early, packed, and checked out of our guesthouse, leaving behind the things we would not need in the next month. It was Sunday morning, and we hardly encountered any traffic on our way to the bus terminal. We were pleasantly surprised by the experience, as the bus’s seats were more comfortable than those of most aeroplanes. However, it was still a 7-hour ride to Mae Sot, a somewhat scruffy border town with some questionable border trade.
We found a room at the First Hotel, a remarkable building with a large Burmese teak staircase and intricate ceiling carvings. Our minds boggled at what all can be done with this impressive building. Then, it was off to the, by-now famous, Khrua Canadian restaurant. Dave, the Canadian owner, has been living in Thailand for the past 19 years and, together with his wife, runs a very successful restaurant serving western food to the farangs craving food from home. With rather full bellies after we were done, we returned to our room where we got ready for crossing the border into Myanmar the following morning.
17 September - Mae Sot, Thailand – Kawkareik, Myanmar – 55 km
We left Thailand via the Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge, which spans the Moei River and immediately landed ourselves in a somewhat more chaotic area. Once in Myawaddy, located on the Myanmar side of the river, we obtained new SIM cards, changed a few dollars, and were on our way.
The road led us up and over a mountain range with spectacular views. Although it was a steep climb, we were lucky that it was cloudy. Once over the high point, we sped down to the small town of Kawkareik, where we found a room at the Smile World Guest House at the exorbitant rate of $20! It was a dump, but there was nothing better in town, so we took it. The only one smiling was the owner.
A walk into town revealed a beautiful Hindu temple and a lovely Buddhist temple, but hardly any food stalls. However, we located a local restaurant, and when we were asked "Myanmar?" with a quizzical expression, we indicated yes, and waited to see what was placed on our table. The food arrived, plate after plate. We did our best but could not possibly finish all that was presented to us. Needless to say, we retired with full bellies.
18 September – Kawakareik – Hpa-An – 92 km
We left our abode and cycled down the main road, looking for something to eat. We did not find much other than fruit, which Linda bought, and I opted for a bag of fried stuff, including samosas, puri, and deep-fried dough. I was sure that it included enough calories to see me through the next week!
To say the road was slow going, bumpy, and potholed will be an understatement. We bounced along past people working in the rice fields and fishermen troughing their nets. The congested road led us through a few small villages where buses and trucks slowly made their way along this narrow, pot-holed road and we tried our best to snake our way around the potholes as best we could.
Towards the end of the day, the road deteriorated even further and became muddy and dusty as we made our way over the hills. The scenery was, however, sublime, and the roadside stalls sold an interesting array of dried and fried fish. We were more than happy to cycle into Hpa-An, where we found a much better room than the previous night.
19 September – Hpa-An – Mawlamine – 65 km
An early morning walk through the market revealed a scene that could easily have been in the days of Kipling: men with tanned faces and shaded by bamboo hats peddling sidecars in flip-flop feet; others with heavy bags of rice on their backs shuffled to waiting trucks; boy monks collecting food, and ladies with painted faces selling fruit and vegetables.
From Hpa-An, it was a short ride to Mawlamyine, and the road was much improved from the previous day. We turned off the short distance to the surreal Kyauk Ka Lat Pagoda. The pagoda balances precariously on top of a limestone pinnacle at the centre of a manmade lake. Back on the road, we passed the ever-present, optimistic fishermen using all conceivable methods to catch something for the pot. The most successful appeared to be the men snorkelling and spearing fish with a rudimentary spear made of bamboo. The road led us past small rural settlements where bare-bum kids played next to the highway and hens and chickens pecked in the dirt.
Our road abruptly came to an end at a river. Fortunately, a small wooden boat arrived that could give us a ride across the river. We followed a small rural road that eventually spat us out in Mawlamyine. Formerly known as Moulmein, the town is famous for its pagoda-adorned Mawlamyine Ridge.
We headed straight for the Sandalwood Hotel, after which we both wandered off in our own directions. I took a walk along the waterfront past old, crumbling colonial-era buildings and meandered through Mawlamyine's chaotic market area. It could easily have been 1826! I strolled along to the Kyaik-thanlan pagoda, erected in 875 A.D. and said to house a hair relic of the Buddha. I met up with Linda, and together, we walked to the Mahamuni Pagoda and down to the waterfront where we had a meal.
20 September- Mawlamyine
We spent the day in Mawlamyine as it is a rather unusual place. A walk through the morning market indicated the importance of chewing paan, as well as using traditional makeup. Although traditional makeup is used in many ancient societies around the world, it is rarely used in everyday life as is the case in Myanmar. Here, just about every woman uses face paint, and it is delightful to see both men and women still wearing the traditional sarong.
We stopped for tea at a local tea house where most of the clientele were men sipping their sweet milk tea, chatting with friends or reading the local paper. Then, it was off to see the enormous reclining Buddha located about 20 kilometres south of Mawlamyine. The evening was spent walking along the waterfront and drinking beer at local joints. It was not a bad way to end the day.
21 September – Mawlamyine – Thaton – 70 km
After breakfast, which was included in the room rate, we headed in the direction of Thaton. We passed numerous temples and stupas, and every mountaintop was adorned with a golden stupa. We turned off the road to a nearby waterfall, again, with a stupa at the top. After walking up the stairs to where we assumed a Buddhist monk was living, we snapped a few pics of the plains below and then headed back to the bicycles.
It was an easy ride as Thaton is located on the Tenasserim plains; the way was flat and cycling was easy going. We arrived in Thaton early and found a good enough room at a local guesthouse. There is not much to do in Thaton. We took a walk to the Shwe Sar Yan Pagoda, which is not the most spectacular of Burmese temples but is a pleasant enough way to spend a few minutes. We ambled back to the guesthouse, stopping for food and beer at a roadside restaurant that had tables on the pavement. We sat outside eating our food and watching the daily life of Thaton go by.
22 September – Thaton – Kyaikto – 70 km
It was easy riding to Kyaikto, where we found the conveniently located Happy Guest House. We offloaded the bikes, had a shower and lunch, and then headed to the Golden Rock. The famous Golden Rock of Myanmar or Kyaiktiyo Pagoda is located on top of a mountain, and getting there involved first getting a motorbike taxi ride to where we could board a large truck that headed up the mountain. The truck can take about 40 people, and once full we headed up the steep mountain pass. Due to the severity of the gradient, no other vehicles are allowed up the pass. We hung on for dear life as the truck, what felt like recklessly, sped up the mountain. On top, we found a small village and no less than three hotels. The fog rolled in and, in no time at all, we could hardly see one another. We made our way up the rock, precariously balanced on top of a cliff. With no view of the surrounding mountains, we soon headed back down the mountain again. A no less scary ride.
23 September – Kyaikto – Bago –119 km
A rather lavish breakfast was included in the room rate, and we had our fill of fried noodles and egg before heading out of Kyakto. We followed rural roads that took us past tiny settlements where time appeared to have stood still. Our way slowly deteriorated, turning into a small footpath and, eventually, came to a complete halt. We had no other option than to return to the main road, making for a longer day than expected.
On reaching Bago, we headed for the Amara Gold Hotel, which Linda located on the map, and which also turned out to be more than adequate. It had outside rooms, making for easy loading and offloading of the bikes.
24 September – Bago – Yangon – 81 km
There was no option for rural roads, so we stuck to the main road heading to Yangon. As always, the road was busy and, as we neared the city, the heavier the traffic became. We pushed on and miraculously made it to our destination unscathed.
Yangon is an old city founded at least a thousand years ago by the Mon people. According to local legend, the city's most famous landmark, the Shwedagon Pagoda, was founded during the time of the Buddha. Since then, the town has been built around it. Yangon is a fascinating city, a place where Buddhist monks walk the streets barefoot, men wear the traditional longyi clothing, and bicycle rickshaws remain a popular form of transport. Its beautiful old buildings from the time it was under British rule and its riverside location all make it an exciting place in which to linger. We headed to the Sakura Tower with a rooftop bar and restaurant where we had a drink and snapped a few pics of the city. Then, it was off to the Vista Bar for supper and a drink and from where we had a magnificent view of the Shwedagon Pagoda.
25 September – Yangon
We spent the day in Yangon as there was a multitude of things to see.
26 September - Yangon – Okkan -101 km
Again, we followed the main road as there were no other options. Getting out of the city of Yangon was a nightmare, and the main road did not make for very exciting riding. Eventually, we found ourselves back amongst the familiar rice fields and could relax somewhat. We continued past lone monks and fishermen as well as men in lungis, under bamboo hats, peddling bicycles with sidecars. Women with painted faces sold their wares, balanced on their heads, at bus stops and parents sat on their haunches outside schools waiting to collect their little ones. As always, we cycled past numerous Buddhist temples, some more lavish than others. Rudimentary houses and small roadside stalls lined the road. Kids under umbrellas returned from school as we made our way past forgotten graveyards.
We stopped for a light lunch at a roadside stall and no sooner did we leave, and we found ourselves in Okkan where there was a rather comfortable hotel. The staff was incredibly accommodating, and I got the idea that not many foreigners overnighted in Okkan.
27 September – Okkan – Gyobingauk - 93 km
After a breakfast, that was included in our room rate, we biked on to Gyobingauk. Not that there was much to see in this small town but purely as it was midway between Okkan and Pyay. It was easy cycling with most of the way, past rice paddies and temples.
28 September – Gyobingauk – Pyay – 90 km
Again, we were given breakfast after which we continued onto Pyay. Our route was flat and the road good, making for easy cycling. We cycled past the usual rural life in Myanmar and watched people fishing and paying their respects at the temples. In Pyay, we looked around for a suitable room and found the very upmarket Hotel Irrawaddy right on the Irrawaddy River. We were given a huge discount and got a double room for only $25. Compared to the other places, we saw it was a bargain.
29 September – Pyay
There is indeed something very romantic about Myanmar. I don’t know if it is the rich colours, the hazy sunrises and sunsets, the ladies with their painted faces, or the men cycling bicycles with sidecars, or maybe it’s a combination of all these wonderful images. I woke this morning to the chanting of monks, drifting across from the very impressive Shwesandaw Paya and, once again, fell in love with Myanmar. Perched atop a central hill, this temple is slightly taller than Yangon’s Shwedagon Paya and dates from 589 BC.
30 September – Pyay – Aunglan - 75 km
We left Paya as lady monks were collecting food. They seemed more jovial than their male counterparts. The road was bumpy but flat as we made our way past beautiful scenes of rice fields with blue skies and colourful temples. We crossed an area similar to the Pampas in Argentina and, just like there, it was cattle farming area.
Men on oxcarts cheerfully greeted us, in conical hats, and we waved goodbye. The road followed the Irrawaddy river, and from time to time we were next to it and, at other times, the road headed inland.
1 October Aunglan – Magway – 140 km
It was a long and slow day as we cycled along a bumpy road with many steep little hills.
2 October Magway – Chauk – 120 km
Our legs felt tired as we cycled 120 kilometres to Chauk. The road led slightly uphill for the first 90 kilometres and then it was a steady downhill ride to Chauk where we located a brand-new hotel for $30. We could not be happier.
3 October - Chauk – Bagan – 45 km
It was a short and easy ride along a rural road into Bagan. We cycled past a multitude of ancient temples on the road leading into Bagan and could not help but snap a few pics.
4–5 October - Bagan
Bagan (Pagan) was the capital of the first Myanmar Empire. Situated on the eastern bank of the Ayeyawaddy River, Bagan covers an area of 42 sq.km. The area contains over 2,000 well-preserved pagodas and temples of the 11th-13th century. The city is estimated to have been built around AD 849 and Bagan became a central powerbase in the mid-9th century under King Anawrahta, who unified Burma under Theravada Buddhism. Over the course of the next 250 years, Bagan's rulers and their wealthy subjects constructed over 10,000 religious monuments in the Bagan plains. In 1287, it was overrun by the Mongols during their wide-ranging conquests.
Today, over 2,200 temples and pagodas still survive, and I’m not exaggerating if I say there are temples everywhere. The people of Bagan live and work amongst these ruins; cattle graze and kids play in the dusty roads around them. It is indeed a magical place, especially at sunrise and sunset.
6 October - Mandalay
Making the tiny gold leaf sheets that worshippers use at temples is an industry that has existed in Myanmar since ancient times. While walking the streets of Mandalay, I came upon an alley where I heard a rhythmic pounding and, on closer inspection, I found muscled gold-beaters beating small packages with big hummers.
For the process, I learned that, at first, refined pieces of gold are liquefied and turned into thin, flat gold sheets. Each piece is then put into two layers of bamboo paper and pounded with 6-lb hammers for about 30 minutes, resulting in a small, flat piece of gold leaf that is then mostly used for offerings to pagodas.
It felt like every corner I turned into had an ancient monastery. These were beautiful wooden buildings dating back to the 1800s. The Shwenandaw Monastery was up first and is one of the finest examples of traditional 19th-century wooden monastery buildings in the country.
Carved from teak, the monastery is located just outside the Mandalay Royal Palace and used to be part of the palace. I understand that when the capital city was moved to Mandalay, the building was dismantled, transported to Mandalay, and rebuilt there as part of the new all-teak Royal Palace in 1857.
No less impressive was the adjacent Kuthodaw Pagoda, situated on a 5.2-hectare site. It contains the entire Theravāda Buddhist scripture. Carved on 729 marble stelae, it is known as the ‘World’s Biggest Book’. The site was created between 1860 and 1868 by Myanmar's penultimate king, King Mindon (r.1853–1878). Kuthodaw Pagoda was recognised publicly in 2013 with its acceptance of the site on UNESCO’s ‘Memory of the World’ register.
The last one for the day was the equally impressive Why Shwe In Bin Monastery. The monastery is built in traditional Burmese fashion and was constructed in 1895 by Chinese merchants. At present, 35 monks live in the monastery, and I could hear them chanting as I roamed the grounds.
At the puppet factory, I was astounded by the workers' skill and expertise. All the puppets and clothing are handmade. I could carry on and on about the amazing work that is being done here.
My last stop for the day was at the U Bein Bridge, said to be the world’s longest teak footbridge. The bridge spans Taungthaman Lake and seems to be an extremely appealing spot for tourists. That said, I did not see any other Caucasians exploring the area. The bridge and the local fishermen would make fantastic pictures at sunset, but I was unfortunately too early for that.
7 October – Mandalay – Thabyewa, Tha Phay Wa – 142 km
It was a short 76 kilometres to our planned destination for the day, and we left our hotel at leisure. As we were in no hurry, we first cycled to the U Bein Bridge. It was easy riding to where we planned on staying for the night. Once there, we, however, discovered that the two guesthouses, contrarily to what we had confirmed the night before, did not allow foreigners. There was nothing we could do about the situation, and we continued along the road to Meiktila, a further 75 kilometres down the road.
Fortunately, we were well rested and found the cycling easy. Dark clouds started forming, and no sooner, we heard loud thunder, and rain started bucketing down. We packed away our phones and headed down the road, with rain beating down on us. Eventually, the storm finally dissipated, and we picked up a slight tailwind, making for easy cycling.
Seventeen kilometres before Meiktila, Linda suddenly pulled off the road, and I wondered if she wanted to get water from a roadside stall but then realised that she spotted a guesthouse. The rooms were a mere $10 and came with air-con and a hot water shower. There was no arguing about whether to take the room or not.
8 October - Thabywea – Meiktila – 17 km + Inle Lake – 173 km (by bus)
We discussed our route for the next few days, and there seemed to be of little importance along the way. Instead of cycling back, we made up our minds to instead take a bus to Inle Lake and spend our last few days in Myanmar at the lake.
We cycled the short distance to Meiktila bus station where we quickly located a minivan to take us to Nyaung Shwe, the gateway town to the lake area. We had our doubts about whether or not our van was capable of making it over the steep mountain pass but, miraculously, we arrived in Nyaung Shwe with only having to stop for two quick repair jobs.
Our driver dropped us right outside Inle Inn where we got a very comfortable room for $18. As it was already late by then, we only had time for a quick meal down the road at the local Indian restaurant.
9-10 October – Inle Lake, Nyaung Shwe
I was up early as I had arranged for a boat to take me out on the lake to see the sunrise and maybe get a glimpse of the local fishermen. These iconic fishermen of Inle Lake, also known as the “Leg-Rowing fishermen” of Myanmar steer their boat with one leg. They stand on one leg while wrapping their other leg around one oar, leaving their one hand free for fishing.
I was unlucky with the sunrise as it was completely overcast but still had fun trying to photograph the fishermen. It was not an easy task in low light and on a moving boat.
11-12 October – Inle Lake
The reason for hanging around the lake was not only for its relaxed atmosphere but also to see the Phaung Daw U Pagoda Festival.
The Phaung Daw U Pagoda Festival is held annually for a total of 18 days and is one of the most famous festivals in Myanmar. Phaung Daw U Pagoda is the most well-known in the Inle Lake region and houses five small gilded images of Buddha. These images are so covered in gold leaf that their original forms cannot be identified any longer.
During the festival, a large boat with a Golden Hintha (Hamsa) Bird creation was constructed. The Buddha images tour around Inle Lake from village to village, taking the whole 18 days to do so. The decorated royal barge is towed by several boats, rowed by the leg-rowers of Inle.
Myanmar is a multi-tribe country with about 135 ethnic tribes. The oldest of these tribes, I understand, is the Padaung long-neck tribes. Surprisingly, they managed to keep many unique customs and rituals, including wearing many necklaces to have longer necks. Legend has it that once upon a time, a tribe leader had a dream and foresaw that when his daughter gave birth, a tiger would come to attack the village and break all their necks. He then decided that all children had to wear necklaces. Although the women still wear these necklaces, most are decorative and can be removed.
13-14 October - Inle Lake – Mywaddy (Myanmar/Thailand border) by bus
The coach left shortly after 16H00, but we only made it 30 kilometres before the bus came to a halt, and we all watched in anticipation when the tool-box came out. After an hour, the verdict was that the bus was kaput, and a new coach was on its way to transport us the rest of the way. It was a long night on a bus that had no toilet. If someone needed to use the toilet, they could ask the bus driver to stop, and all would pile out and do the necessary. It was, therefore, long after midday before we reached the border town of Mywaddy.
Linda and I loaded our bicycles and cycled to the Immigration Office where we were stamped out. We waved Myanmar goodbye and headed for the Thai immigration, where we entered without any problems. We headed for the First Hotel in Mae Sot and after a meal and beer, it was straight to bed for us.
15 October - Mae Sot – Bangkok by bus
We were very slow getting up. We decided to spend the day and take the night bus to Bangkok, allowing us the entire day to relax and do whatever we wanted. I bought myself a new mobile phone as my old one had seen better days. I bought the cheapest one on display, as it was the only one that would fit into my cell phone handlebar holder. The phones are getting larger and larger, and it was an excellent excuse for not being tempted to spend more money on a more expensive phone. The novelty was that I could take pictures with the phone, something I was not able to do with the old phone as the lens was so scratched that one could not see anything.
We cycled to the bus stop in the dark, something that is always a scary experience. Our bus left at 20h00 and it was 4h30 by the time we reached the Bangkok bus station. Although it was still pitch dark, we saddled up and headed into the city via a rather busy road, making for a somewhat hair-raising experience. Reasonable people might have had a cup of coffee and waited for daylight, but not us! We headed out in the dark and, fortunately, made it to our guesthouse in one piece.
16 October - Bangkok
I was unable to sleep, even though I had not slept all night. In the end, I gave up, took a walk around the Khao San Road area, and took the one bicycle to Bok Bikes for a service. It's always nice to be in crazy Bangkok, and that evening we went in search of food and beer, something that is never too far away.
17 October - Bangkok
Linda packed her bags as her flight to the Philippines was at midday. So came to an end a delightful trip.
I headed into the city centre and swapped my macro lens for a wide-angle lens, something that I think I will have more use of. This move left me with a 24-105mm, 70–300mm and my new 10–18mm wide angle lens. I was keen to try it out and headed down the road, camera in hand, to see what I could capture. I think it will be a handy tool for my collection.