The Road to Mandalay

by Karey Meisner

When my partner Pam mumbled "cycle touring" between gulps of rough red, I waited for the previously hinted at trip through Arthur's Pass to resurface. But no, Myanmar was now on the radar. My mind seized on military juntas, repression, Aung San Suu Kyi and house arrests... and then less morosely on teak forests and colonial servants dressed in white. I mumbled something. Life continued. A few months later a collection of travel guides landed on our kitchen table. I remained in denial. It was not until we were actually winging our way to Myanmar that I allowed the excitement to sink in.

We arrived in the southern city of Yangon (formerly Rangoon) in mid December after the standard Jenny Craig packing game, coupled with an Oscar-worthy 'smoke 'n' mirrors' performance to convince the airline staff that our bikes and cycling accoutrements really were within the weight limit. An absence of tents helped - camping is illegal for foreigners so our accommodation options were limited to government-approved hotels. Ensconced in a better-than-average version on our first night, we set about planning the business end of the trip - a difficult task from overseas due to the lack of accurate information. Inspired by, or perhaps in spite of Rudyard Kipling, we had anticipated catching the train north to Mandalay and then meandering back to Yangôn. However, while trying to purchase tickets earlier in the day we learned that long stretches of the road around Pyinmana were closed due to the construction of the new capital. Plan B to ride an alternative route through the dry zone was soon scuttled. The lack of government approved hotels, large distances between villages (up to 160km) and desperate tales of dusty roads necessitated a re-think.

We settled on a route travelling east from Bagan up to the vast central plateau and into the eastern mountains. For the return journey, we'd retrace our route out of the mountains before seeking new roads as we got closer to Bagan. We estimated it would take about two weeks. For our last week we booked flights to a resort in Ngapali on the Bay of Bengal. Our future secure, or at least less cloudy, we exchanged some green backs for Kyats. In true third world fashion we became instant billionaires with a 10 centimetre thick wad tucked away in our hydration packs. After three days sightseeing around Yangon - a vibrant and safe city - we assembled our bikes and pedalled off to the train station. Some questionable bicycle surcharge fees duly paid, we boarded our colonial-aged train. First class is mandatory for tourists and we scored sleeping births for the overnight journey to Mandalay. While the mattresses were thick enough, it was like sleeping on a park bench during an earthquake.

Mandalay offered further sightseeing and allowed us bicycle 'practice'. While similar to Yangon with its colonial grid pattern, the streets were wider and the traffic less intense. It soon became apparent that the primary road rule is to 'keep merging' - surprisingly safe when cars, dogs, bicycles, scooters and pedestrians all travel at moderate speeds. We had a giggle one day when I convinced a young tri-shaw driver to let me do the pedalling. A couple of days later we embarked on a short day trip to Sagaing, with a stop at Amarapura to check out the world's oldest and longest teak bridge. It spans a small lake to one of Myanmar's 51,000 monasteries. One of the few tourist traps - young girls with their beautifully applied thanahka face-paint, quietly waited on the bridge for money in exchange for taking photos.

From Mandalay we took the overnight ferry to Bagan down the wide, slow moving Ayeyarwady River. After a day of cruising the temples on our treadlies, we were confident and eager to be on the open road. "Very unusual"... said the man collecting road fees on the outskirts of town. "You have come in dry season but three days rain". A three-day monsoon had just passed. Too excited to register his warning we set out on the tar sealed road. The first 10km were bliss. Then we left the seal and hit the sludge. Clay and sand caked our tyres. It took six hours to cover the next 65km.

Fortunately that was the worst we encountered. The roads were generally sealed, however with seemingly no weight limit for trucks there was an endless minefield of potholes to dodge. Cycling along the 'centre line' was best. A friendly toot from behind and we would move to the side, only needing to dismount when large trucks came by.

 

A couple of days riding landed us in the village of Pyi Nyaung at the base of the mountains. Deliberately planning to not make it to the next town with its 'approved accommodation', we were allowed to stay in the village after much deliberation among the dudes at the monastery, police and other villagers. Unlike the open plan raised bamboo huts of most villagers, we lodged in a permanent materials home. We did our best to communicate using our phrase book, however the tonal language is challenging. Most success was with their 10 year old son who was deaf.

Cycling and Asian food is an assured recipe for a good time. Menus revolved around garlic, ginger, coriander, lime and chilli with fresh vegetables. During the day we would stop at local teahouses, receiving three small dishes and tea for a couple of bucks. Evening meals comprised three or four very large dishes and a few beers for NZ$6. Heaven on a plate. One evening in Mandalay three waiters attended us. Two served food while the other fanned away flies.

 

It was a dusty climb from Pyi Nyuang into the mountains, culminating with a 25km haul up to Kalaw. Beware of too much hinto (sticky rice with onion and leeks wrapped in banana leaves) plugging the digestive tracks. Kalaw was a favourite... cooler temperatures and a perfect base for trekking into the surrounding hills to visit the various tribes. We did manage to lose one of our caches of US dollars. After the initial distress we got excited at the prospect of some lucky local finding it, and enjoyed dealing with the local police (their motto: "May I help you?").

Left poorer, but feeling virtuous, we continued to Lake Inle - the eastern most point on our trip. Although still hundreds of kilometres from the Thai border, tourists are not allowed far beyond here, presumably to avoid us witnessing the insurgency in those regions, or maybe we weren't to be trusted around the opium fields. We had a pleasant outing on the lake, hiring a long boat from a local who by the end of the day was off his face from chewing the highly carcinogenic betel nut wrapped in cheroot leaves.

 

Returning to Bagan was pleasant and uneventful. Riding into each village was always rewarding though. Children chanting "tada" would run along beside us. As cyclists are somewhat of a rarity, the villagers would gather as soon as we stopped. Betel nut stained smiles would watch our every move. Once or twice kids offered to wash down our bicycles.

We finished with a flourish on the last day with a smooth gradual descent from Mt Popa into Bagan. Grins all round, before heading to the beach at Ngapali, a micro culture of Europeans and quiet cabin-lined beaches. Quite a contrast to our time in the hinterland, but none-the-less a fitting way to complete a truly memorable adventure.

Nitty Gritty

  • Myanmar is more commonly known as Burma. After seizing power in the 60's, the military junta eventually changed the country's name in 1989. 
  • There is a philosophical dilemma about supporting dodgy regimes with tourist dollars. There are persuasive arguments on both sides, but we hit the go button after learning we could channel up to 80% of our spending into the local economy. 
  • Lonely Planet's Worldwide Destinations has a useful summary of the issues. 
  • Travel in the cooler, dry season- from Nov to Feb with temperatures below 30 degrees. 
  • Our route was through the most popular part of Myanmar for tourists. Distances between major towns with government approved hotels ranged from 40 to 140km. We cycled the 1000km in 17 days: 12 days in the saddle averaging 83km/day on roughish roads at a relatively slow 15-18km/hr. 
  • Visas last for 28 days but can be extended day by day for US$3/day. 
  • Pack your own bike spares. Bicycle mechanics are plentiful but lack parts for anything exotic. 
  • Bottled water is available at even the most remote villages, and cheap at around 25c/litre. When the water needs more nutrients, 800ml bottles of good quality lager (usually served with locally grown cashews or peanuts and tea leaf salad) is readily available for NZ$1-2.