Burma also known as “The Republic of the Union of Myanmar” was always on our radar as a place we were excited to visit and explore. The country appealed to us partly because until recently it has been closed to foreigners, and mostly because now it is opening up we wanted to see the country before the inevitable change occurs when somewhere becomes a tourist destination.
In this article I have chosen to use the name Burma as opposed to Myanmar. The two names mean the same thing and both have been used for centuries. Burma was used primarily in spoken language whilst Myanmar was the more formal term used when writing. The pro-Myanmar camp argues that Myanmar is the more inclusive name as Burma only refers to the country’s largest ethnic group – the Bamar. However, Burma’s democracy movement prefers the name Burma because they do not accept the legitimacy of the unelected military regime who changed the official name of the country. Internationally, both names are recognized.
Although the country is certainly opening up to the outside world, it seems to be doing so reluctantly. If you are travelling independently overland, this ‘reluctance’ may be better described as suspicion. We required (or so we were led to believe) that a special permission was needed to cross the land border between India and Myanmar, which was a bit of a pain to arrange and expensive ($100)! However, if you are travelling with a motorized vehicle you need more than just special permission, you must travel with a Burmese guide and will receive a much shorter visa; you will essentially being shepherded out of the country as soon as you enter. We’ve written an article on Cycling in Burma that outlines the visa requirements, our experience with the ‘special permission’, where we stayed, the not so secret police, transport and some other bits and pieces which may help if you are planning a cycle tour in Burma.
Crossing into Burma after months of being in India was a big change in many ways, but a very welcome one. I’m always amazed at what a difference a few kilometres can make; where life, the landscape, environment, cleanliness, architecture, religion and so many other aspects of life can be so starkly contrasted when you cross a border. Immediately we were in a much tidier environment, things seemed more organized, there were newish Japanese cars on the road everywhere, the architecture was different and people were waving at us with beaming smiles. It was great. It was also hot, really hot. For the previous few weeks we were in the hills of Manipur at a much higher elevation than the valleys of Myanmar. After a few days we had hit the highest temperatures of the trip, mid 40s, regularly our drinking water by the afternoon would be a like a bottle full of hot tea. Our routine changed to adapt to the temperatures; we were waking up at four thirty or five each morning and taking mid day naps in whatever shade we could find, the night didn’t bring much relief from the heat as we would sweat just as much when the sun went down. When we did manage to camp, we needed to find a raised platform (which are really common, they’re everywhere) to sleep on because the ground was too hot, even well after sunset.
Eating in Myanmar was also great, when you could find food! Our first day, and first introduction to Burmese cuisine was great! A big shift from the mighty curries of India that we had been enjoying, our first burmese meal was a spectacle. Dish after dish, rivaling that of a Spanish tapas extravaganza, this cacophony of flavours and variety made for two happy cyclists. Mango salads, steamed greens, stir fried chicken and pork sticky rice, it was a delight. Generally you could get a pretty good meal for around $2 per person across the country. The diversity continued as we cycled through the country, with Chinese influences apparent often and traditional Burmese cuisine still shining through. Tasty steamed dumplings with beef, buffalo or chicken, sticky rice with coconut wrapped in a banana leaf, bbq madness with pick your own skewers of veg, meat, mushrooms, fish, the list goes on. The smell of fermented fish was often in the air, as the Burmese seemed to really go nuts for the stuff. There were also surprisingly good donuts! Filled with shredded coconut, or plain, which are dipped into some sweet milky tea; and not to forget loads of tasty fruit. Mangos, lychees, pineapples.
Each little teashop would be a new experience, never knowing what might be brought out from the kitchen. But one thing remained constant from the moment we entered the country to the moment we left, there was always a jug of green tea on the table with a bowl of water filled with small communal tea cups for all to enjoy.
I ate my first bug in Myanmar, and it was surprisingly good. There are loads of carts rolling around with folks yelling ‘Bijou!’, which are these roasted crickets around the size of a thumb. After a beer and not enough to eat for dinner, I was totally up for trying the little critters. Turns out…. roasted crickets, are a tasty snack to have with a drink!
Packaging is a bit crazy in the country, in that everything seems to be wrapped inside another wrapper. ‘Wrapper-ception’ I regularly am unimpressed with the amount of packaging producers use to package their goods. However, for the first time ever I saw the reasoning for it here – ants.
ANTS, these little bastards have been left unchecked in the country of Burma. They are everywhere, in everything, and always there.
Lean you bike against a wall, guess who’s hitching a ride? Ants.
Open a package of any type of food. Eat half! Bad move, you know who’s having the other half? Ants.
Want to take a break from the heat? Have a rest in a Pagoda on a tiled floor, only to be woken up by the fiery bite of dozens of little red what? ANTS…. you get the picture.
I think we were both really happy with the variety of food that was available in Myanmar, or maybe it was just the change from the single (albeit delicious) cuisine of India.
For a load of reasons we were not as at ease touring in Burma. Camping is not allowed, nor is staying with locals, we are supposed to stay at hotels each night. We had heard of cyclists being followed by ‘secret police’ tailing them to the border of their jurisdiction only to be greeted by another subtle (or maybe not so subtle) tail in the next legislative region. We’d also heard of some run-ins with the police and army by other tourers. We were not sure what to expect, if it was all hype, or if we really had to be on our toes and sneak about cycling and camping each night.
The first two days of cycling were flat, easy and on some of the better roads we found in Myanmar. Part of the Boarder Road Organization, the road between the Indian border at Tamu and Kale in Myanmar was great. The road was often treelined, which was a god-sent in the heat and the sun, smooth and flat. Our first night we tested our luck and decided to rap on the door of our most recent hosts the Catholic Church. As we entered the grounds of the Church we quickly confirmed that we had managed to pick up a tail! Claire and I had pointed out a fellow on a scooter who happened to stop at the same time as us just behind us when we had a quick rest and some water. But had joked that we were being paranoid after hearing other’s stories. Our low budget spy fellow quickly dashed into action as he zoomed around the church on his moped, off-roading to cut off our advance towards any figure of the church. Lucky it was at this point that an unexpected turn occurred, another scooter showed up with a friendly fellow who invited us to his house to sleep for the night! We were elated, and felt some form of satisfaction having thwarted our tail’s attempt at keeping us away from the locals. He had to get permission from the village head but once that was achieved we were in. We chatted with our host, a teacher, preacher and father of two who kindly opened up his modest one room home to us. We surely were a spectacle as we set up our tent in the living room and cooked our meal as each new item we pulled from our panniers was another fascinating gizmo to our hosts.
The plan for our second day in Myanmar. Get money. Between the border and Kale (our target for lunch) was nothing but small villages, certainly no banks or ATMs. The flat pleasant road continued as we passed lovely raised homes on stilts with woven bamboo panels and the first few military compounds of which we would see many more on the roads to come.
Lucky for us, we managed to exchange the last of our Indian Rupees in Tamu for some Burmese Kyat (pronounced Chat), only a few dollars worth which was quickly disappearing. Kale was a small city, but a city nonetheless; airport, shops, and ATMs. We rocked up to the first bank we saw only to find out that they were closed till 7pm. What about the ATM? Also closed till 7pm. We rolled down the road, same story. Again we tried, and this time asked a bit more. Turns out on Sunday the bank is closed, and that includes the ATM. We managed to get into an ATM after explaining our situation to the security guards, but the system wouldn’t have it. No cash until Monday morning. Swizz. Hotels were a no no for us, especially in Myanmar (more to come on that later). We did check prices and they were $30 and up. So… we rolled on. We tried another guest house and decided to give a monastery a shot. Near the centre of town. We figured we would be spotted and dragged away, but we threw caution to the wind and gave it a shot.
We were a little nervous asking if we could stay, but the monks were extremely friendly and after meeting the head monk and getting the ‘ok’ nod we got put up in the main hall building on the monastery grounds. We inherited a band of curious kids who took load of photos of our every move, followed us around everywhere and were a blast to be around. One of the kids was also a novice monk and was super smiley, always. We were well taken care of, the monks offering us drinks, cookies and sharing with us their meals. We felt really fortunate, and also were really happy to be seeing everyday life in the monastery. Claire fell ill after our first night, and we were happily housed for another evening by our hosts.
Religion in Myanmar
About 90% of the population are Buddhists. Theravada Buddhism has been the national religion for about 1,000 years in Burma and you can clearly see evidence of it around the country. There are pagodas, monasteries and monuments to Buddha everywhere. I tried to count the number of stupas we passed on the day we cycled into Mandalay and I stopped counting at 100. The gold pinnacle of a stupa is a sight that you will see in nearly every landscape you pass through in the country, no matter how remote. Monks seem to make up a sizeable fraction of society and come from a broad spectrum of ages. Their burgundy coloured robes really stand out, and in any town you will see a few dozen of them collecting alms in their begging bowls or just hanging out at teashops. We also saw many nuns in Myanmar; they are in segregated monasteries and sport pink robes with brown scarfs. The importance of religion can be seen in a variety of ways in the country; one the amount of the population that is a monk or nun and is therefore supported by donations and alms and the richness and opulence of many of the temples. Most of the temples and stupas in Myanmar are gold in colour, but some of the temples are actually made from real gold. Covered in gold leaf temples in some cases have pure gold measuring up to 6 to 8 inches thick! The richness bestowed on religious buildings is astounding and a sign of the importance to the country. Also the quirky and sometimes astonishing monuments to Buddha make Burma all that more interesting to travel through. From a forest filled with a grid of miniature Buddhas spaced 2 meters apart to huge reclining Buddhas 75m long.
Into the woods
We decided to ignore everyones advice, take the more direct and less populated route towards Mandalay along the “highway” as shown on our map. We headed into the countryside and were greeted with smiling faces, beautiful landscape and hot, hot weather. The first hiccup along the way was the road suddenly ended at a river. It turns out there was no bridge, and the highway we were on was not much of a highway. However, we were quite happy to get off the beaten track, so we loaded up our bikes onto a small, fairly wobbly boat and crossed the river into the wild. There was no turning back after we had crossed the river. Committed we cycled on to find some pretty remote, but beautiful riding through kilometres and kilometres of teak forests. The road condition varied from bad, to bad with sand, to bad with very, very steep inclines! It was tough cycling, but we were away from police tails and had enough food stocked up to be happy. It also meant that we could camp again! Which is always great. We passed through some small villages, and occasionally found a place or two that sold soft drinks or fruit, but otherwise there was very little on the road. The heat at this point was often unbearable, mid 40s and during the lunch time hours too intense to cycle in. We even found some little huts to sleep in in the forested areas!
We shifted our riding to early in the morning, waking at 5:30 am to start cycling before the heat intensified. Night brought little relief, as we continued to sweat laying in our underwear in our tent without the fly.
Mandalay to Bagan
Our next stop was Mandalay where we stayed with a warmshowers host couple who was the yin to our yang. Tamara and Peter are a British-Canadian couple who graciously hosted us for a few nights. While we refuelled and rehydrated after our foray into the wilds of the teak forests of Burma. We had a whistle stop tour of the city, and managed to cross the famous U Bein bridge. U Bein is the longest teak bridge in the world and is famous for it’s picturesque setting and the monks who cross the bridge each morning to collect alms.
Cycling south from Mandalay saw a change in the landscape from densely vegetated tropical to arid hot and dry. We stayed in monasteries each night where we were welcomed each time, and were able to bathe and often given some snacks. One night we spotted a giant Buddha on the horizon and followed the towering golden figure to take a closer look and ended up staying at the monastery, the following day we narrowly escaped being drenched by a heavy downpour and were whisked off to another monastery just in time to get some shelter.
Cycling in the countryside was great. We passed by farmers tending their fields, rice paddies, cattle pulled carts and loads of other interesting sights. We were given a few melons by some friendly farmers when we offered them some of our watermelon during a break on the side of the road.
Marco Polo described Bagan as “…one of the finest sights in the world, being exquisitely finished, splendid and costly. When illuminated by the sun the temples are especially brilliant and can be seen from the great distance…” in the 13th century. This former capital of a lost empire is still a marvel to this day. Although, partially rebuilt with a blatant disregard to authenticity, conservation practices, materials or records the archaeological area of Bagan is a marvel worth visiting. Sadly the government has rebuilt many of the temples in a far from sympathetic scheme. A UNESCO representative described the area as “A Disney-style fantasy version of one of the world’s great religious and historical sites is being created by that government.”
The site is spectacular and huge! Over 42 km2 there remains over 2,000 temples and stupas of the estimated 13,000 that use to exist in the area. It is amazing cycling around the area and experiencing the landscape dotted with spires of temples in every direction.
With Bagan brought our first stay in a hotel. Sadly we couldn’t avoid it, but took refuge in not paying the 24,000 kyat entrance fee to the archeological zone which goes not to the upkeep of the site but rather directly into the military junta’s coffers. A percentage of the hotel cost also goes to the junta so we were a bit bitter about having to shell out for a hotel. Also, unlike many of it’s neighbours, Burma is very expensive for accommodation.
Back on the road and train
After Bagan it was back on the road and a straight shot south to Yangon. The heat was no less intense than when we arrived, and the few short showers we experienced over the past few weeks did not give the impression that we were in the rainy season. The landscape south of Bagan remained fairly arid and bare, we even passed through several oil fields with the classic Pumpjack in every direction which was interesting to cycle through. There were a few patches of green where field workers were busy planting and picking, but otherwise the road was much the same, and had rolling hills with more climbs and descents, or at least it felt that way after a few days. Food was proving hard to come by (unless you wanted frozen noodles) and after a few days of really hot weather, slow progress and some boring landscape we decide to hop on a train to Yangon. This proved to be trickier than we had expected. We headed to the first town with a train station only to find that it ran a local train to the next village once a day, at 5 am. We were told to head on to the next village. Upon arrival we found that there was a single train per day, but luckily it left in the evening. Nothing fancy, no sleeper cars, no a/c, just a bumpy old beater of a train. But two tickets were 8,600 kyat plus 5,000 Kyat for the bikes for a grand total of just under 8 GBP, we weren’t complaining. The train was about 13 hours covering around 450km and bumpy as anything. The seats were too short for me to lay down on, Claire and the rest of the Burmese passengers seemed to fit on no problem! I opted to sleep on the floor below the seats spanning the length of 4 benches. We stopped occasionally at small cities where passengers changed and sales people would hop on the train and sell fruit, water, food and other wares to the passengers.
Ethics of being a tourist in Burma
jun·ta – noun : a military or political group that rules a country after taking power by force.
Although dissolved in 2010 the military junta of Myanmar still existis in a large way. Many of the elected officials in the government are high ranking retired military personnel. And although tax dollars may not be filtered into the wrong channels as blatantly as they once were, we tried to minimize our impact on supporting the oppressive forces in the country as much as we could. We read what we could get our hands on prior to entering the country to try to understand what the current situation was regarding the government and what steps we could take to not support what we did not agree with. This includes businesses which were aligned and flourished due to the Junta in the past. We chose to limit the money we ‘brought’ into the country and would make its way to the government and it’s ‘friends’. Entrances to large sights in the country rarely go to the site itself for maintenance or upkeep. Therefore we always avoided paying entrances for sights, especially Bagan Archaeological site and Shwedagon Pagoda. Instead we opted to make donations that go directly to the sites themselves. Monasteries regularly have donation boxes or you can give them to monks directly, also specific to Bagan you can donate to the Archaeological society directly. The turmoil related to democracy in Myanmar seems to continue to this day as in June of 2015 the military vetoed a change to the constitution allowing Aung San Suu Kyi (the lady) to run for president. New elections are due later in this year, and it will be interesting to see how things will develop following the vote.
After an eventful journey we arrived into Yangon in a rainstorm. We hopped on our bike and braved the city streets. Yangon felt like many other eastern cities. Far more developed than the rest of the country, but also disorganized and poorly planned. The city seemed to be in a perpetual state of gridlock with a seemingly nonsensical one-way system of streets. Mopeds and motorcycles are also banned in the city, a fact I hadn’t noticed even after a few days in the city! This surely adds to the traffic problem. We managed to find some food, our bearings and wifi. It was a day before my birthday, and we found that Claire’s parents had treated us to a hotel in the city for a few nights to celebrate. It was the lap of luxury especially when compared to the previous weeks in the saddle and on the road in Myanmar. Air-conditioning, elevators and a buffet breakfast (that place didn’t know what hit them) we rested and recuperated in style.
We managed to get into the city a bit and went to some of the bigger sights such as the Shwedagon Pagoda, Bogyoke market and “China Town” which was great fun. Our new friends from Mandalay Tamara and Peter made the trek down to Yangon and we naturally painted the town red. Peter and I indulged in some roasted crickets, it was my first foray into the world of insect eating. My review: a tasty treat to have with a beer.
There are also numerous colonial buildings in the streets of Yangon in various states of disrepair. Many of which are in use and noticeable if you look past the signs and other junk tacked onto the buildings. However, there is a large proportion, which are derelict and disintegrating. Frustratingly, some of the sites are closed to foreigners and the guards enforce the rules strictly. Believe me, I tried. There was a lot of shouting in Burmese.
To the border
Following our foray into the capitol we headed east to the border with Thailand. A day late due to Claire getting ill (being hungover) we had to put the hammer down to get out of the country in time. We managed to make some tracks the first day, and decided to have one last stop in Bago to check out the snake pagoda (pagoda with a live snake, a big one inside) and the three giant reclining Buddhas in the city. It was an interesting experience tracking all of the sites down on our own, we got to see some interesting places in the city and it’s surroundings. Getting lost is great sometimes. We continued to stay in monasteries on the road, which felt like we were returning home after we were spoiled in the hotel in Yangon. It was around this time we had realized that we lost half of our tent. We spent a half a day retracing our steps with the help of a local and his moped, no luck. But we narrowed it down to one specific camping spot before we took the train, gone forever. So if you are reading this and going to Burma, by bike help us find our fly, footprint and compression sack!
With most of a day down the gutter and our time running out we decided to do what any hardcore cycle tourers would do. We hitchhiked. After only a few minutes of waving down anything big enough to carry us and our bikes and 18 wheeler stopped with two friendly Burmese drivers in the cab we squished into the back of the cabin after heaving our bikes into their empty flat bed. With no common language after a few hours we figured out we were going to the same border town as the truck drivers. It was only about a hundred kilometres away but it took hours to get there. We realized it was a blessing in disguise that we were hitching as we were going to just make it out of the country with the lift! We were travelling in a convoy with a few other trucks. We made a few stops for food and also to drop off some bribes (we think) as wads of cash were wrapped up in a piece of paper and held together with an elastic band. The cab was also filled with a few stacks of 5,000 notes. There was some sketchy business happening for sure. How much was ‘normal practice’ for Burma we will never know. The guys were friendly throughout, offering us fried crickets and water regularly and were really cool about us being there (because I don’t think we were allowed to be with them), they got us to hide at check points. The landscape was amazing, really different to anything else we had seen in Myanmar so far. There were green fields stretching out for miles, forests and limestone mountains typical of the north of SE Asia.
As the sun went down we veered off the highway and met with a shady fellow. After some confusing interactions the convoy headed off the main roads and somehow ended up on a small dirt track. At this point Claire and I began to feel a bit nervous. It was clear that we were trying to avoid some checkpoint (maybe someone wanted too big a bribe), but when we stopped in the jungle on a dirt road and the truck drivers turned off the headlights, we were both feeling a sense of “what have we gotten ourselves into?” Luckily it was simply a wrong turn and soon enough we were back on the road. We headed for the last stretch of the road to the boarder, and right before the road climbed to Myawaddy we stopped. It was at the foot of the mountains at the border and was also the beginning of the one-way road we had read so much about. The road alternates directions each day as it’s too narrow for more than one vehicle. Today was traffic from Thailand, therefore, we were stopped for the night. We were kindly given the truck’s cab to sleep in and the fellows slept in a hammock in the back of the truck.
Five hours later we were off again bright and early around 5 am. The climb in a truck was hard work, both Claire and I were happy to not be on the bumpy gravel road, but even more happy to not be sharing that road on a bicycle with trucks as big as the one we were in. The line of trucks all climbing to the border was long, stretching several kms back and there must have been at least 25 huge trucks in the convoy. The climb took around a half an hour and after a few more checkpoints hiding under a blanket we made it to the border town of Myawaddy. We did our best to spend what Kyat we had left in the market and on breakfast, as our trucker friends refused to take any money from us.
Burma was amazing, and we will never forget it; we felt privileged to visit the country now as it makes its transition as it is opening up more to the world. The people were unbelievably friendly, welcoming and made our time in the country what it was. Myanmar will certainly go down as one of the highlights of our trip despite (or maybe because of) the challenges we faced while in the country.
Thailand was beckoning us and we were happy to make the jump back into civilization.
For more photos of our time in Burma click HERE
Planning on cycling in Myanmar, check out our Guide to cycling in Burma.