There he was again. His bright red Adidas baseball cap giving him away. It was an unfortunate choice in attire for a third-rate spy.
Trailing two slow moving cyclists must grow tiresome. Especially when said cyclists stop frequently to snap photos, dash behind a tree to attend to nature’s call or just pull off on the side of the road for an after lunch siesta. Duty as a Myanmar tourist spy certainly involved none of the thrills and intrigue of a James Bond adventure.
For the pursued i.e. us, being followed, even if it was by a benign gentleman on a motorbike, became simply a bother. Being watched is always uncomfortable. It feels invasive to have your every move scrutinized. Plus it’s hard to stifle the urge to hurry up and stop wasting the spy’s time. The poor guy was probably counting down the kilometers till we pedaled out of his district so some other hapless agent could take over.
Putting up with a few minor hassles was part and parcel of cycling Myanmar. It wasn’t as if we were being trailed 24/7. But since we’d set off on the backroads west of Irrawaddy, these suspicious men on motorbikes were materializing more and more often. Some were bold, buzzing by and announcing, “I am Myanmar police. Follow me.” Most were friendly, smiling and waving back when greeted. A couple were borderline nasty, like the officer who caught us camping and whipped out a copy of Myanmar’s laws pertaining to foreign visitors and threatened us with expulsion if we didn’t move on quickly. Naturally, we complied. Double fast.
Crawling its way out of decades of military oppression, these things were to be expected in Myanmar. The real surprise was how unaffected the population appeared. People were friendly, not fearful. They spoke openly about their distaste for the current regime.
As foreign visitors we were indulged and doted upon. Strangers pressed small gifts in our hands—a cold bottle of water, exotic fruits, packets of cookies and sweets. Sometimes a fellow guest at a restaurant would pick up the tab or the owner would refuse payment and insist we eat for free. We were spoiled.
It was hard to wrap our heads around how genuinely happy the Burmese people appeared. Even those charged with the most menial of tasks, sweepers and rock breakers for example, went about their business with a smile. People were overwhelmingly positive wherever we went. Early mornings we’d pedal alongside groups of kids in impeccable uniforms making their way to school. The girls mostly giggled but the most courageous boy would often strike up a conversation.
“What is your name?”
“What is your country?”
“Where are you go?”
For many, this was likely their first interaction with a foreigner. Myanmar may be overwhelmed by visitors these days, but not where we went. Locals did double takes when we cruised by on our bikes. Once when we spent the night in the community hall of a tiny village near the Indian border, the head man set up a receiving area for us outdoors so all the villagers could come by and have a look. I normally object to the zoo animal treatment, but the Burmese are so sweet and sincere it’s hard to be annoyed for long.
Villages are simple but tidy. Women tend flower patches. Men build bamboo fences around their plots of land to keep out wandering goats and cows. Some folks have relatively fancy homes made of concrete bricks. Most live in more basic structures of thatch and bamboo. Running water is mostly unheard of in rural areas. Luckier families will have a bore hole and a hand operated pump in their back yard. Others will have to make a trip to the village well. Forget about getting electricity from the main electrical grid. Monasteries will usually have a generator that’s switched on for a few hours each evening. Surprisingly, in front of many huts small solar panels can be found. These are used to charge mobile phones and lights. Most cooking is still down over open fires. Gas bottles are a luxury item.
Bathing is mostly done down at the river. It’s a family affair and no one is shy or self-conscious. Of course you can’t romp around in your birthday suit in front of the entire village. You’re expected to wear a longyi—the sarong-like garment common in Myanmar. Usually a local woman would lend me one. River bathing is generally refreshing. I don’t mind unless a crowd gathers to gawk at my odd sun burned skin or observe the strange western practice of female leg shaving. Mostly people are polite.
Hungry cyclists will rejoice when they sit down to a meal in Myanmar. You’ll be served at least a half dozen tiny dishes of tasty beans, spicy vegetables, fresh salads and meats for those that want them. The cost? Generally not more than dollar.
Speaking of finances, Myanmar turned out to be one of our least expensive countries yet. We spent just $200 in 28 days. Now that’s cheap living.
If you’ve done any research into biking Burma, then you’ve probably heard about the astronomical cost of accommodation. Word has it that in touristy spots, a room that goes for $10 in Thailand will go for $30 in Myanmar. Ouch.
Luckily, we ended up spending just three nights in local guesthouses for a total cost of just $18.
We successfully wild camped on three occasions, three nights were spent in Yangon with a Warm Showers host, two nights in villages with the approval of the headman and the rest of the time we were welcomed by the wonderful monks of Myanmar.
Managing on a tight budget did mean we missed most of the main tourist attractions (including Bagan). Still, biking Myanmar was an immensely rewarding experience. We rode through parts of the country almost untouched by tourism. Roads were quiet, the scenery was at times spectacular and the welcome we received was nothing short of exuberant. Don’t delay; this is the time to bike Burma. Go now before the masses realize there’s more to the country than Inle Lake and the temples of Bagan.
Here’s the route we followed:
Myawaddy – Kawkareik- KyondoVillage -Hpa-An-
Thaton- Kyaikto –Bago-Yangon- -Satcot –Danu Pyu -Za Lun -Hinthada – Dambhi-Myokwyn-Ingapu-Mezaligon-Tugyi-Myanaung-Kyangin-Batye -Okshitpin –Mindon-Padan -Singaung –Segu-Pwinbyu- Salin –Seikphyu-Seikphyu-Pauk – Kyauk Tu –Tilin-Gangaw-Kalemyo – Kamphat- Tamu
And now a few of our favorite Myanmar cycle touring photos!