Tamu (MM) – Chiang Khong (TH) / 15214 km / 7.42 Million Turns / December 8th, 2019 – January 10th, 2020
While travelling you feel you regularly end up in a real-life ‘Monthy Python’ sketch, often involving bureaucratic forms and officials. At the border crossing of India to Myanmar, we had one Indian border guard who could join in with John Cleese and Co straightaway. This guy was assigned to copy all of our passport details by hand into a big logbook. Unfortunately for him (and us), we quickly found out his knowledge of ‘our’ Latin alphabet was quite limited. Yes, he copied our names, but it went character by character, literally copying the shape of each S, T, H etc as if it was a Chinese sign to us. It only took 10 minutes to copy down Tom’s details, but then there was Sabine’s one left, a bit more tedious work you might guess if you know her full passport name. Fortunately, his lack of alphabet knowledge was more than compensated by sheer perseverance and after 25 minutes of copying each letter individually, it was all noted down correctly. Thank you sir, good day to you and I hope you only have Hindi to write down today after our foreign passports.
We crossed the bridge over a small river marking the border between the two nations. 2000 kilometres east of where we first entered this vast country, we now said goodbye for the second and last time. After a quick entry procedure in Myanmar (no Monthy Python situations here) and a swap of driving directions (Myanmar drives on the right, to oppose the former colonial ruler Britain) we headed into the first town.
A few years ago, when both of us had visited Myanmar on earlier trips before we had met each other, there were still quite many practical things to note when you wanted to travel here. Although it had opened up to tourists from 2011 onwards, ATMs were barely around and not reliable. Instead, one was expected to bring in crisp and perfect dollars bills to exchange to local currency or pay with directly. Getting a SIM card was nearly impossible, even for locals. This time though, the small border town had not one but two ATMs, accepted foreign cards and actually worked! Right next to the bank, a mobile phone shop sold SIM cards for a few Euros without even checking any passport details. What a change from 2014!
After a straight road that lasted more than 50 km it was time for our first lunch! Maybe not a feat we write about in every blog, but we can honestly say that this first Myanmar lunch was the most surprising and best lunch we had on this trip. While stepping off our bikes heading to the small roadside restaurant, we were already murmuring to each other that ‘good food’ is not something that was part of the good memories of previous visits to Myanmar. But there wasn’t much else around, so let’s give it a go, maybe the food has changed as much as the ATMs and sim cards. With hands and feet, we pointed out some things we liked, and Sabine tried to make clear in sign language that she did not eat meat or fish. It’s always an exciting moment once you have ordered and await what will be served a few minutes later…. Did they understand what we wanted? This time though, the plates with small dishes kept on coming and coming! For about 1 euro a person we got a table full of different types bean salads, fresh vegetables, soup, eggs, what a delight! Another positive surprise on our first day, we were happy to be back!
An issue many cyclists face in Myanmar is that camping is not allowed anywhere. As hotels are few and far between, there’s really little options for cyclists to sleep. If you camp on someone’s private land and are discovered by the police, the local landowner will be in severe trouble too. To avoid that situation at all costs, many cyclists ask temples (as ubiquitous as churches in Europe) for a place to spend the night. Most of them are ok with you staying, but you do need to hide a little and not make too much of a commotion. Fortunately, most monks in the temples are very hospitable and even though they cannot speak English, gesture you to the toilets, washing rooms and a sleeping area. The first night we spotted a temple on the map and entered the compound in the hope of finding a place to sleep. Since it was so close to the Indian border, the monk was clearly used to cyclists and he immediately gestured us to a little outhouse where we could pitch our tent, wondering how many cyclists passed here before us. Local children and elders working in the paddy fields next to the temple waved and smiled warmheartedly to us. Myanmar’s people haven’t lost their warm aura of happiness it seems.
After about two days of cycling we decided to take a boat for a stretch, as we heard the road was under construction and full of dust and potholes. The boat follows the second largest river of Myanmar, the Chindwin. We did not expect much of the boat, we didn’t even know if there would be a boat, as many information online is outdated. But arriving in the port town of Kalewa, there was indeed a boat at the expected time. Although our expectations were low, the boat was even lower (literally) as it looked more like an elongated canoe than a passenger boat. Inside, all available space was crammed with seats and passengers, and if there weren’t any seats, people still occupied those last remaining gaps inside the boat. While seated, the ceiling of the boat was about 50 cm above our head, so stretching legs or standing up was near impossible. Still, it saved us a day of biting dust and avoiding potholes, and views from the water always provide you with a different angle than from land.
Soon enough, the boat was filled up and we made our way downriver, following the winding course of the Chindwin. We heard different arrival times; some people said it would take 4 hours, others 6, and still others 9. Given our experience with time durations provided by locals we set our minds on 10 hours on the boat. It seemed like we were going to make it, but then, about 1.5 hour before we’d arrive the captain turned off all the lights and the boat was anchored somewhere along the river bank in a pitch black night. Mechanical issues maybe?… Nope, no-one told us, but apparently the boat makes an overnight stop just before reaching the final town! Being cramped in our little chairs with about a dozen snoring Myanmar wasn’t ideal to catch any sleep, so we decided to get our sleeping mats and bags out and make our way to the boat’s roof. Under a starry night in between some spare car tyres, a bag of hay and a toolbox we tried to make the most of it. At first light though, the engine started rumbling again and we were treated by an amazing sunrise on the deck.
Two more days of cycling over (not-so-scenic) Myanmar roads brought us to the country’s highlight: Bagan! We took some back roads along the Irrawaddy river and for the first time since Pokhara found ourselves back in another tourist hub with scooters, avocado shakes and banana pancakes. We drove around the park to find a quiet and well-hidden spot to camp for the night, only pitching our tent after dark and breaking up before dawn (meaning another short night). The sunrises in Bagan are quite famous and well worth it, it’s an amazing sight to see the first amber rays hit the century-old temples. Previously you could climb several temples to get an even better experience, but these have all been closed now since they were destroyed by tourism. Sadly, it seems that although the main designated temples had stairs and were perfectly capable of handling the daily tourist streams up and down, some tourists found it necessary to get that ‘bucket list experience’ of finding a private temple to watch the sunrise and climbed temples from the outside instead of via the inside stairs. This behaviour has now resulted in significant damage on several temples and closure of all. There are some manmade mounts from where to see the sunrise now, but since these spots are limited it’s way too busy to get the same feeling as on the temples unfortunately. We were happy we had also seen Bagan back in the ‘good old days’.
From Bagan we took a bus to Yangon, Myanmar largest city, and the current home of Sabine’s sister Emilie. After a nightly dash in the most comfortable bus ever, we rung her bell in the early morning and had the first small family reunion of the trip, after nearly 9 months in. Emilie has been living in Myanmar for 7 years now, and founded a social enterprise active in cultural heritage, urban planning and restoration of historic apartments (see www.doheain.com for more information). Our timing was spot on as today was her company’s Christmas outing, and we were going to do something as unrelated to Myanmar as we could think of… ice skating! Although many Myanmar employees were a little wobbly on the skates at first, many were quick learners and soon skated across the rink without much assistance. After skating, we went for dinner and we ended the night in true Myanmar fashion again: in the karaoke bar!
The rest of our Yangon days were spent with exploring the city, going out with Emilie’s friends and seeing her projects around the city. It’s inspiring to see how many of these projects increase the livelihood of the city so much, transforming dirty and rubbish filled alleyways to playgrounds, football pitches and colourful hang-out places.
The last days of Myanmar were a little more rushed than we normally like to cycle, but we had good reasons for it, as Christmas was approaching. We had planned to meet up with cycling friends Sarah & Pedro (@_homeiswhereyoubikeis), Thijs & Nienke (@tochinabybike, but surprise, they extended to Thailand!) and Mari & Eva (@12brakeblocks). Our first day out of Yangon however, we found out we forgot an essential part of our water filter and thus had to return, only doing 16 km that day effectively. We decided to catch up the next day, as we’d always wanted to do a 100-mile day. The circumstances allowed for it: the road was flat and well-paved, not that many highlights along the route and no wind. Leaving at 7 am, we rode and rode and rode. First lunch at 10 AM after 50 km, second lunch at 2 PM at 110 km. We knew we could make it, but it would be very long day. At 99 miles (159 km) we were stopped by a local Myanmar who invited us for a glass of ‘skybeer’. It turned out he had some palm trees in his garden and these excrete a special alcoholic liquid. The last miles were done on a little slower pace, but in a cheerful mood as you might imagine. In the end we arrived at dusk in the city of Hpa-an, after a 175 km dash!
On recommendation of the sky-beer mister, we headed for the back roads the next days as the main road was under construction again. We planned to spend our last night in Myanmar at a temple again, but unfortunately it all went a little differently. Upon arrival at the temple, we were greeted by the monks, who called in the very friendly village chief. He was very happy to host foreigners and was very interested in our travel story, but said he did have to report us staying with the local police precinct 30 km away. We felt it coming of course, this police officer was strict and stern. No, No, No! Foreigners cannot stay anywhere except for a registered hotel. Pleading and diplomacy didn’t help but only made things worse. The officer arranged a pick-up truck for us to get to his town, where we were put into a gruffy hotel for a rip-off price. The village chief drove with us in the truck, giving us a note that said: “I send my love to you, good luck and may God be with you every time. I’m so sorry not to help you”. We felt really sorry for him as he was so helpful and friendly towards us, but the government was putting him in such a difficult position. Similar to Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and many other countries on this trip, the government and its authoritarian, dictatorial and cruel policies is so completely opposite to the kind and warm hospitality displayed by ordinary local citizens. We still carry the village chief’s note in our wallet to this day as a reminder of the universal hospitality we received in every country we passed.
We were now close to the Thai border, and after again making a switch in driving direction (Thailand drives on the left again), we crossed the chaotic border at Mae Sot without much trouble. Time was catching up though and we hopped on a bus to Bangkok, where we’d meet the rest of the Cyclists’ Christmas crew before heading to our Airbnb in Hua Hin. Bangkok was hot, incredibly humid and chaotic, but also the first ‘modern’ city since ages and we mostly rode around doing all kinds of errands: Bike shops, the Decathlon, Fujifilm, hardware stores, iPhone repair centres, we buzzed around the city getting things done. Still, even when not doing proper sightseeing, on the bike you still see a lot of the city, and being Bangkok, beautiful temples pop up right next to huge skyscrapers!
And then, almost Christmas time! It was so great to meet up again with each other! The last time we saw Thijs & Nienke was in Bishkek (September), Sarah & Pedro in Tajikistan (August) and Mari & Eva already way back in Tbilisi (June)! Now it was time for some proper holiday and celebration time! We booked an Airbnb including a swimming pool, BBQ, communal fitness area (need to stay in shape of course…no joking, no-one touched it). Everyone turned out to be eager chefs, so days were mostly filled with making delicious breakfasts, lunch, dinners and cocktails. If one wasn’t in the kitchen, most time was spent in or near the pool. You noticed many were up to some proper rest days as for all of us, we had to speed up to make it in time for Christmas to Hua Hin. On Christmas Eve, we made it a mix of Portuguese summer vibes, Dutch Sinterklaas and English Boxing Day, with ‘surprises’ to be opened, poems and socks filled with sweets by Secret Santa.
After a somewhat atypical celebration of New Year’s Eve in a small Thai village bar, where clearly people thought it was just a regular Tuesday night, the time had come to say goodbye to each other again. Each couple went in a different direction. We headed up north to Chiang Mai, to start cycling again from there to Laos. We were happy to be back on the bike by now, as we’d already spent two weeks in Thailand but hadn’t cycled for nearly two weeks, with the various stops in Bangkok, Hua Hin and Chiang Mai. Since all are big tourist hubs, you do notice there’s a big difference in how local people treat you here and outside of such hotspots. Especially in Thailand, overrun by millions of tourists each year, we felt it more strongly than normally. Fortunately, the section towards the Lao border made up a lot for the earlier experiences with a little cranky and curt Thai; people were smiling and waving to us again, and we passed by small rural villages hardly touched by tourism. In the end, we wished we could see a bit more of this ‘real’ side of Thailand, but the hard truth of the matter is that one cannot see it all. Although touristy, we did like our time in Thailand a lot! Of course seeing our friends and celebrating Christmas was the big highlight, but the abundance of street food (papaya salad being our definite favourite), well-stocked supermarkets, bamboo huts to camp in (more on that in our upcoming Laos blog) and gentle riding (except for 20%+ gradients in the north) made cycling in Thailand almost too easy!
Talk to you soon,
Tom & Sabine