Approaching voices in the distance sent a shudder up my spine. Eric and I fell into an immediate silence. It was our first night in Myanmar. We were wild camping. And suddenly we weren’t alone.
Finding a suitable spot to pitch the tent hadn’t been easy. Small settlements of bamboo huts and simple dwellings lined the highway. Empty space was consumed by military facilities. We hadn’t expected that. After rolling out of town we’d hoped to find farmland and forest. Near sunset, we’d followed a dusty track off the main highway and stumbled upon what looked to be a rural school under construction. Perfect. A stand of fruit trees blocked the view from the road. The half-built walls of the school would keep us well- hidden should anyone happen to pass by. Yes, it was a good spot. One in which we were unlikely to be discovered.
But now the steady click clack of footsteps approaching pierced the cool night air. Then they stopped. There was just one individual, I gathered, barking into his mobile phone. The man was just a few feet away, on the other side of one of the partially completed walls. He finished his conversation, took a few more puffs on his cigarette and then nearly walked right on top of us.
“Mingala Ba,” we called out cheerily. “Just having dinner, would you like to join us?”
The uniformed man grinned and broke out into a fit of laughter. He was obviously unfazed by the sudden appearance of two foreigners sitting in the pitch black night hunched over plates of steaming cauliflower curry.
“Hello brother. Hello sister,” he said. “Welcome. Welcome to my country.”
A strong smell of whisky permeated the air. The soldier was a happy drunk and, thankfully, unarmed.
It was his duty, he explained, to guard the school building. But we could stay and camp. No problem, sister, he assured me.
10 minutes later as I washed up the dinner dishes a military jeep came screeching to a halt. Right. No problem. I couldn’t blame the soldier. He’d be a fool not to report the presence of two foreigners. The country is gradually opening up, but visitors still face certain restrictions. One archaic and notoriously annoying law requires that foreigners stay at officially registered hotels and guesthouses. Inexpensive local guesthouses are generally off-limits without specific authorization by the immigration police. Camping is strictly forbidden, as is staying in the homes of local citizens. The country is ruled by a bunch of spoilsports.
Wild camping was risky. We knew that. Poke around the internet a bit and you’ll come across plenty of stories of hapless cyclists discovered camping in Myanmar. Most are swiftly moved on by local authorities. They were, like us, breaking the law.
Would that be our fate? Would we be compelled to pack up in the dark and cycle the treacherous highway until we reached a town with official tourist lodging? Or, worse yet, be slapped with a fine for illegal camping? A tinge of regret washed over me. Why hadn’t we just registered at the official guesthouse in Kawkereik and paid the ridiculously inflated price for the tiny cell that passed for lodging?
A visit from THE MAJOR
A polite gentleman introducing himself as Major such and such (I was too anxious to note his name) informed us that we had pitched our tent on a military installation. “But this is a school,” I protested.
Yes, madam,” he conceded. “It is indeed a school. A military school. Our battalion headquarters are just over there,” he said, motioning off into what I’d mistaken as some sort of orchard.
“I regret to inform you that camping here is quite impossible,” the major continued. “My men will be happy to assist you in returning to the town of Kawkareik. There we can assure your safety and you will spend the night comfortably indoors.”
It was all very logical.
Had I been cycling alone, surely I’d have acquiesced. “Yes, of course, sir,” I’d have muttered. “So sorry to cause you any inconvenience. Of course a guesthouse is much safer and more convenient. Thank you so much for looking after my welfare.”
Keep on Trying
Eric, on the other hand, wasn’t ready to concede defeat so easily. “Sir, as you can see my wife is very tired.” (I did my best to look weak and exhausted, slumping my shoulders and forcing out a prolonged yawn.) The Major might take pity on us and change his mind. Rules could be bent. Particularly by a powerful man such as The Major.
The Major nodded in understanding. I amped up my poor, pitiful look, wincing a bit from my aching back. He was clearly mulling over our situation. Hospitality runs thick in the Burmese blood. Finally the officer relented, but with one condition: we must stay put in the tent. No wandering about. The soldier would assure our safety.
Eric and I each let out a gentle sigh of relief, thanked The Major profusely and dove into the tent, fearful the kind officer would change his mind.
We could hardly believe our luck! In the morning we awoke to find two soldiers keeping guard and a smattering of villagers slumbering nearby. We’d slept like babies and hadn’t heard a peep from our neighbors.
Much of Myanmar is blissfully flat. After crossing the border from Mae Sot, Thailand, we’d had a 600 meter climb, but the word on the internet is that we could expect easy conditions almost all the way to the Indian border. I was thrilled. Over the past year, we’d had enough steep climbs to last a lifetime.
The first day in the country, I was struck by the unruliness of Myanmar’s roads. Massively overloaded trucks lumbered by as motorbikes darted between. Ox carts, cycle rickshaws and itinerant hawkers completed the chaos. The road over the mountain was a rocky rutted mess, so narrow vehicles alternated days traveling in a single direction.
We rode 5 days to reach Yangon. Roads were often narrow and busy. Trucks and busses whizzed pass with what felt like just inches to spare. To be honest, I didn’t much like the cycling. It was stressful and unpleasant. But that would change, just one day out of Yangon when we discovered Myanmar’s quiet backroads on the western side of the Irrawaddy.
It took us awhile to warm up to the cycling, but the people of Myanmar we fell in love with right from the start–glowing smiles, heartfelt greetings and genuine curiosity and interest. Long years of relative isolation have left the Burmese hungry for interaction with outsiders. Conversations quickly turned towards politics. Locals no longer fear repercussions for speaking out about their desire for increased democracy.
After our first tricky night camping, we decided to try staying at monasteries. This, to our great surprise, worked wonderfully (most of the time).
Myanmar must have the highest per capita number of Buddhist temples in the entire world. Travelers to this country are regularly afflicted by temple fatigue. Even the scruffiest village boasts a sparkling golden structure and an army of saffron-robed monks ready to tend to the people’s spiritual needs.
Soon we realized it was best to bide our time until dusk and rock up to a monastery in an out-of-the way place. The monks always welcomed us warmly. Often someone spoke English. Everyone always understood the universal sign for sleeping. The gracious monks acted as if having a tourist to stay was the most natural thing in the world. This reassured us. The last thing in the world we wanted was to get someone in trouble for offering us hospitality and kindness. Sometimes village authorities or courteous officers from the local police or would stop by and take down our passport details. In more remote places, no one was the wiser to our stay with the monks. We arrived late, left at sunrise and that was that. The monks had fun admiring our bikes (as always, the bells were a hit), enjoyed checking out photos on the computer, and had a good time practicing their English. We got a taste of Myanmar off the tourist track.
We loved Yangon. Crumbling colonial buildings stand in a charming state of decay. Buddhist and Hindu temples brush up next to churches and mosques. Fast food outlets and trendy cafes are popping up next to bustling traditional markets and there’s a feeling of hopeful optimism in the air.
Three days was just enough time to wander around the city, arrange permits for the India border crossing (we highly recommend Exotic Tours—just $50 per person rather than the hefty $100 fee charged by Seven Diamonds) and hang out with Alister and Jess, our outstanding hosts from Warm Showers.
After Yangon, the real fun started. We slipped off the main highway and discovered plenty of shady roads connecting small towns and villages where few foreigners visit. More on that next time!