Thailand - Myanmar - Thailand
(1 531km - 36days - 12 September - 17 October 2018)
12 September – Bangkok
Linda reached Bangkok, jet-lagged after a 27-hour long haul flight from Fort Lauderdale. After much chatting over a beer, it was straight to bed for her.
13 September – Bangkok
There were loads to talk about since Linda left in January and after a few cups of coffee, it was off to the familiar Gecko Bar for breakfast. The canal ferry was a fun way to get around Bangkok, and we hopped on one to pick up my new laptop at the Pantip Plaza. There was much to see and do in Bangkok, and the river ferry made easy exploring, as well as easy access to the Temple of Dawn. One last job remained, which was to hail a taxi to the Myanmar embassy to collect my visa. With the hectic Bangkok traffic, the cab made it to the Embassy in the nick of time.
That evening we strolled along the backstreets of Banglamphu and in the process met up with Edward (Ted) Jones Whitehead, the author of the book Down Below. At 95, he was 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 enjoying a beer. A truly remarkable man and an honour to meet him.
14 September – Bangkok
Breakfast was a bowl of noodle soup, and then it was off to the supermarket to stock up on bits and bobs needed for the road. After collecting the laundry, Linda went exploring, and I headed for China Town looking for a cup water heater. China Town was a remarkable place with massive and busy markets where one could find just about anything. The trick was to locate the right market. I, eventually, and after much directing from the locals, came upon the electrical appliance market. I wasn't sure if I would ever be able to locate the market again and bought two.
My bicycle was still at the bike shop, and a walk to the shop revealed a broken spoke that needed replacing, meaning it would only be ready the following day. A motorbike taxi took us back to Khao San road. It was a tight squeeze being three up on a small motorbike, and, helmet-less, we hung on for dear life. The bike sped through the traffic, making it to our destination just as it started raining.
15 September – Bangkok
Plans of catching a bus to the Myanmar border went by the wayside as my bicycle wasn't going to be ready until 11 a.m. After a leisurely start, it was back to the Gecko Bar for breakfast. While Linda took a walk to the famous Golden Mount, I returned to the guesthouse to wait for the bicycle to be delivered.
With all done, it was time to explore more of old Bangkok. The old man selling the second-hand false teeth and bridges were still there. I was surprised to notice the teeth were steadily getting less (I kid you not!). Equally fascinating was the amulet market - they sold more ominous items than just innocent Buddha necklaces. In fact, it looked downright voodoo-ish!
That evening, we drank our Chang beers on the roof terrace of the guesthouse, but the approaching storm made for a quick escape to a nearby restaurant. No sooner seated, the rain arrived with one almighty bang! It bucketed down while we sat watching the thunder and lightning. By the time the meal was finished, the rain was over, and one could stroll back without as much as feeling a drop.
16 September – Bangkok to Mae Sot (by bus)
After leaving behind the things we wouldn't need in the next month, it was on the bikes and off to the bus stop. Fortunately, it was Sunday morning and traffic light, and once at the bus station it was a pleasant surprise to find the bus more comfortable than expected. However, it was still a 7-hour ride to Mae Sot, a scruffy border town with a questionable border trade.
The First Hotel was a great choice as it was a remarkable building with an imposing Burmese teak staircase and intricate ceiling carvings. Our minds boggled at what all could be done with such an impressive building.
Then, it was off to the by-then famous, Khrua Canadian restaurant. Dave, the Canadian owner, had at the time of our visit been living in Thailand for the past 20 years and, together with his wife, ran a very successful restaurant serving western cuisine to the farangs craving food from home. With full bellies, it was back to our accommodation to get ready for crossing the border into Myanmar the following morning.
17 September - Mae Sot, Thailand – Kawkareik, Myanmar – 55 km
It was a short cycle to the Thai/Myanmar border via the Friendship Bridge, that spanned the Moei River. Once in Myawaddy, located on the Myanmar side of the river, we found ourselves in a more chaotic area. Amidst the dust, tuk-tuks, bicycle rickshaws and trucks, we managed to obtain new SIM cards and changed a few dollars. Quite a feat, taking that we had no command of the local language. Together with minivans, busses and what seemed like an endless procession of motorbikes, we cycled out of Myawaddy.
The ride over the mountain was a steep climb but came with spectacular views; fortunately, it was a cloudy day. Once over the high point, we sped down to the small town of Kawkareik, where a room at the Smile World Guest House came at the exorbitant rate of $20! It was a dump, but there was nothing better in town, and the only one smiling was the owner.
A walk into town revealed a beautiful Hindu temple as well as a lovely Buddhist one, but hardly any food stalls. After being seated at the only open restaurant, we were asked in a quizzical manner, "Myanmar?" and after indicating "Yes", waited to see what "Myanmar" meant. The food arrived and consisted of rice and a large number of small bowls and plates filled with exotic dishes. So much was served that even after trying our level best it was impossible to finish it.
18 September – Kawakareik – Hpa-An – 92 km
After leaving our abode, priority was to find something to eat before heading for Hpa-An. The roadside stalls didn't reveal much other than fruit, which Linda bought, while I opted for a bag of fried snacks, consisting of samosas, puri, and deep-fried dough. I was sure it included enough calories to see me through the next week!
To have said the road was slow going, bumpy, and potholed would have been an understatement. We bounced along past people working in rice fields and skilful fishermen casting their nets. The congested path led us through a few small settlements where buses and trucks slowly made their way along a narrow, potholed road. We followed suit and tried our best to snake around the muddy holes.
Towards the end of the day, the route deteriorated even further and became muddy and dusty as it made its way over the hills. The scenery was, however, sublime, and the roadside stalls sold an interesting array of dried and fried fish. It was an exhausting ride, and with a sigh of relief, Hpa-An came into view, where much better accommodation was available than the previous night.
19 September – Hpa-An – Mawlamyine – 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 peddled sidecars in flip-flop feet. Others with heavy bags of rice on their backs shuffled to waiting trucks; boy monks collected food, and ladies with painted faces sold fruit and vegetables.
From Hpa-An, it was a short ride to Mawlamyine, and the route much improved from the previous day. A short detour led to the surreal Kyauk Ka Lat Pagoda. The pagoda balanced precariously on top of a limestone pinnacle at the centre of a manmade lake. Back on the road, our path led 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, and that in between the rice paddies. We cycled past small rural hamlets where bare-bum kids played next to the highway and hens and chickens pecked in the dirt.
At a small river, the road abruptly came to an end. Fortunately, a tiny wooden boat arrived and gave us a ride across from where a minor way led to Mawlamyine. Formerly known as Moulmein, the town is famous for its pagoda-adorned Mawlamyine Ridge.
The Sandalwood Hotel was our abode of choice and, after offloading, each wandered off in their own direction. 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 we walked to the Mahamuni Pagoda and down to the waterfront for a meal.
20 September- Mawlamyine
The next day was also spent in Mawlamyine as it was an 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, however, rarely used in everyday life as is the case in Myanmar. As in Myanmar, just about every woman uses face paint, and it was delightful to see both men and women still wearing the traditional sarong.
A local tea house made for an excellent place to watch the world go by. The clientele was mostly longyi-clad men with red, paan-stained teeth, sipping their sweet milk tea and 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. That evening was spent walking along the waterfront and drinking beer at local joints. Not a bad way to end the day.
21 September – Mawlamyine – Thaton – 70 km
Included in the room rate was breakfast, after which the path headed in the direction of Thaton. The route ran past numerous temples, and golden, stupa-adorned mountaintops. A short detour led to a nearby waterfall, again, with a stupa at the top. After walking up the stairs and snapping a few pics of the plains below, it was back to the bicycles.
It was a comfortable ride to Thaton, located on the Tenasserim plains; the route was flat and cycling easy. Arrival in Thaton was early, and a local guesthouse made a good enough digs for the night. There wasn't much to do in Thaton but to walk to the Shwe Sar Yan Pagoda. It wasn't the most spectacular of Burmese temples but still a pleasant enough way to spend a few minutes. The amble back to the guesthouse was past a roadside restaurant with tables on the pavement, which made for a perfect place to watch the daily life of Thaton go by while having supper.
22 September – Thaton – Kyaikto – 70 km
It was smooth riding to Kyaikto, where the conveniently located Happy Guest House lured us in. After offloading the bikes, a shower and lunch, it was off in the direction of the Golden Rock. The famous Golden Rock of Myanmar or "Kyaiktiyo Pagoda" was located on top of a mountain. Getting there involved first getting a motorbike taxi ride to where large trucks ran up the mountain. The truck could take about 40 people and, once full, it headed up the steep mountain pass. Due to the severity of the gradient, no other vehicles were allowed on the road up to the pass. Hanging on for dear life, the truck, (what felt like) recklessly, sped up the mountain. On top was a small community and no less than three hotels. The fog rolled in and, in no time at all, one could hardly see each other. We made our way to the rock, precariously balanced on top of a cliff. With no view of the surrounding mountains, it was soon back down the mountain for a no less scary ride.
23 September – Kyaikto – Bago –119 km
A lavish breakfast was included, consisting of fried noodles and egg, and then it was on to Bago. Rural roads took us past tiny settlements where time appeared to have stood still. Our path slowly deteriorated, turning into a small footpath and, eventually, came to a complete halt. There was 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 turned out to be more than adequate. With its outside rooms, it made for easy loading and offloading of the bikes.
24 September – Bago – Yangon – 81 km
From Bago to Yangon there was no option for rural paths, and all one could do was to stick to the motorway heading into Yangon. As always, the road was busy and, as one neared the city, the heavier the traffic became, but miraculously we 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 developed around the pagoda. Yangon was a fascinating city, a place where Buddhist monks walked the streets barefoot, men wore the traditional longyi clothing, and bicycle rickshaws remained a popular form of transport. Its beautiful old buildings from the time it was under British rule, and its riverside location all made it an exciting place in which to linger. The Sakura Tower with a rooftop bar and restaurant was a great place to have a drink and to snap a few pics of the city. Then, it was off to the Vista Bar for supper and a drink from where there was a magnificent view of the impressive and beautifully lit Shwedagon Pagoda.
25 September – Yangon
The following day was spent in Yangon as there was a multitude of things to see and do.
26 September - Yangon – Okkan - 101 km
Again, there was no other option but to follow the main road and getting out of Yangon was a nightmare. The main road didn't make for very exciting riding but, eventually, reached the countryside, and we were back amongst the familiar rice fields and could relax somewhat. The route continued past lone monks and fishermen. Men in lungis, under bamboo hats, peddled bicycles with sidecars, and women with painted faces sold their wares from woven baskets balanced on their heads. Parents sat on their haunches outside schools waiting to collect their little ones and, as always, the path led 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.
A light lunch was from a roadside stall, and shortly afterwards we rolled into Okkan where there was a 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 breakfast, we biked on to Gyobingauk. Not that there was much to see but purely as it was midway between Okkan and Pyay. It was effortless cycling with most of the way past rice paddies and temples.
28 September – Gyobingauk – Pyay – 90 km
The road that continued to Pyay was flat and in good condition, making for easy cycling. It was a very rural area where people fished with rudimentary nets and paid their respects at the temples. In Pyay a suitable hotel was found in the upmarket Hotel Irrawaddy right on the Irrawaddy River. We were given a considerable discount and got a double room for only $25. Compared to other places, it was considered a bargain.
29 September – Pyay
There was indeed something very romantic about Myanmar. I don't know if it was the vibrant colours, the hazy sunrises and sunsets, the ladies with their painted faces, or the men cycling bicycles with sidecars under conical hats. Maybe it was a combination of all these beautiful images. I woke 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, it's slightly taller than Yangon's Shwedagon Paya and dates from 589 BC.
30 September – Pyay – Aunglan - 75 km
We left Paya while lady monks were collecting food, and 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. Halfway through the day, the vegetation changed and became similar to the Pampas in Argentina and, just like there, it was a cattle-farming area.
Men on oxcarts cheerfully greeted us while ladies in conical hats worked the fields. The road followed the Irrawaddy River and, from time to time, ran flush next to it and, at other times, headed inland.
1 October Aunglan – Magway – 140 km
It was a long and slow day of cycling along a bumpy road with many steep little hills. The heat made for exhausting cycling and we only crawled in Magway reasonably late.
2 October Magway – Chauk – 120 km
Our legs felt tired as we cycled the 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 a brand-new hotel for $30 was available. We couldn't be happier.
3 October - Chauk – Bagan – 45 km
It was a short and comfortable ride along a rural road into Bagan. The route into Bagan was along a multitude of ancient temples, and one couldn't help but snap a few pics.
4–5 October - Bagan
It's said that Bagan was the capital of the first Myanmar Empire, located on the bank of the Ayeyarwady River. It covers an area of 42 sq.km. The plains of Bagan contain over 2,000 well-preserved pagodas and temples of the 11th - 13th century. Bagan is estimated to have been built around 849 AD and became a city of great importance in the mid-9th century under King Anawrahta, who unified Burma under Theravada Buddhism. Over 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, however, destroyed 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 while local people still worship at the old temples. It was indeed a magical place, especially at sunrise and sunset.
Eventually, it was time to move on, and a boat trip up the Irrawaddy River connected Bagan with Mandalay. The boat ride avoided a two-day bicycle ride along a rough road to Mandalay and allowed us to enjoy the mighty Irrawaddy River, the backbone of that country.
6 October - Mandalay
Making the tiny gold leaf sheets 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. On closer inspection, I found muscled gold-beaters beating small packages with big hammers.
For the process, I learned that, at first, refined pieces of gold are liquefied and turned into thin, flat gold sheets. Each piece was then put between two layers of bamboo paper and pounded with 6-lb hammers for about 30 minutes. This resulted in a small, flat part of gold leaf mostly used for offerings at pagodas.
It felt like every corner I turned had an ancient monastery. These were beautiful wooden buildings dating back to the 1800s. The Shwenandaw Monastery was up first and was one of the most excellent examples of traditional 19th-century wooden monastery buildings in the country. Carved from teak, the monastery was located just outside the Mandalay Royal Palace and, I understood, was part of the palace. I also read that when the capital 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 contained the entire Theravāda Buddhist scripture. The scripture was carved on 729 marble stelae, and is known as the 'World's Biggest Book'. The site was created between 1860 and 1868 by Myanmar's penultimate king, King Mindon (1853–1878). The Kuthodaw Pagoda is included 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 was built in traditional Burmese fashion and was constructed in 1895 by Chinese merchants. At the time of my visit, 35 monks lived 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 were handmade. I could carry on and on about the fantastic work done there.
My last stop for the day was at the U Bein Bridge, said to be the world's longest teak footbridge. The bridge spanned Taungthaman Lake and seemed to be an extremely appealing spot for tourists. That said, I didn't 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, and, therefore, a leisurely start to the day, first stopping at the U Bein Bridge. It was effortless riding to where we planned on staying for the night. Once there, the two guesthouses (contrarily to what was confirmed the night before), didn't allow foreigners. There was nothing one could do about the situation but continue to Meiktila, a further 75 kilometres down the road.
Fortunately, we were well-rested and found cycling easy. Dark clouds started forming, and after a loud crack of thunder, the rain started bucketing down. It was a scramble to pack away all electronics after which we continued with the rain beating down on us. Eventually, the storm dissipated, and a slight tailwind made for comfortable riding.
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 she spotted a guesthouse. The rooms were a mere $10 and came with air-con and a hot water shower, and we couldn't be happier.
8 October - Thabywea – Meiktila – 17 km + Inle Lake – 173 km (by bus)
That evening the route was discussed, and there seemed little of importance along the main road. Instead, taking a bus to Inle Lake and spending our last few days in Myanmar at the lake sounded far more exciting.
It was a short cycle to Meiktila bus station where we located a minivan to take us to Nyaung Shwe, the gateway town to the lake area. It was doubtful whether or not our van was going to be capable of making it over the steep pass. Miraculously, we arrived in Nyaung Shwe with only having to stop for two quick repair jobs.
The driver dropped us right outside Inle Inn, with very comfortable accommodation for $18. As it was already late by then, there was only time for a quick meal at the local Indian restaurant.
9-10 October – Inle Lake, Nyaung Shwe
I was up early as I 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, steered their boat with one leg. They stood 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, it was fun trying to photograph the fishermen. Not an easy task in low light and on a moving boat.
11-12 October – Inle Lake
The Phaung Daw U Pagoda Festival was held annually for a total of 18 days and was one of the most famous festivals in Myanmar. Phaung Daw U Pagoda was the most well-known in the Inle Lake region and housed five small, gilded images of Buddha. These images were so covered in gold leaf that their original forms could no longer be identified.
The construction of a large boat with a Golden Hintha (Hamsa) Bird creation formed part of the festival. On this boat, the Buddha images toured around Inle Lake from village to village, taking the whole 18 days to do so. The leg-rowers of Inle Lake, dressed in shiny colourful costumes, towed the decorated barge.
Myanmar is a multi-tribe country with about 135 ethnic tribes. The oldest of these tribes, I understood, was 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 a tribe leader had a dream and foresaw that when his daughter gave birth, a tiger would attack the community and break their necks. He then decided all children had to wear necklaces. It's said that the practice dates back to the 11th century. The long-neck look is, however, not achieved due to the neck being stretched. Instead, the weight of the rings pushes the shoulders down, creating an illusion that the neck is longer. Although the women still wear these necklaces, most are decorative and removable.
13-14 October - Inle Lake – Mywaddy (Myanmar/Thailand border) by bus
So much fun was had at Inle Lake, we had to rush off to the border to get out before our visas expired. Tickets were arranged on the night bus, said to be a direct bus to the border.
The coach left shortly after 16h00, but it only made 30 kilometres before coming to a halt, and all watched in anticipation when the tool-box came out. After an hour, the verdict was the bus was "kaput", and a new coach ordered to transport us the rest of the way. It was a long night on a bus without a toilet. If someone needed to use the bathroom, one could ask the bus driver to stop, and all would pile out and do the necessary. It was, therefore, long after midday before reaching the border town of Myawaddy.
Linda and I loaded the bicycles and cycled to the Immigration Office, where one was stamped out. We waved Myanmar goodbye and headed to the Thai immigration for our entry stamps and then back to the First Hotel in Mae Sot. A meal and beer were precisely what we needed before hitting the sack.
15 October - Mae Sot – Bangkok by bus
After a slow start, we decided to spend the day in Mae Sot and take the night bus to Bangkok. This allowed 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.
The ride to the bus stop was in the dark, always a scary experience. The 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 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 the guesthouse in one piece.
16-17 October – Bangkok
I was unable to sleep, even though I hadn't slept all night. In the end, I gave up, took a walk around the Khao San Road area, and took the bicycle to Bok-Bok Bike for a service. Linda packed her bags as her flight to the Philippines was at midday and so came to an end a delightful trip.