Having got so far behind writing my blog, I thought it may be a good idea to jump forward in time to the present and talk about my travels to Burma, before I forget it all, and fill in the gaps later when I discipline myself with the iron rod that’s required (or lock myself in a dark room with no distractions for a month). This sentence will not make sense in later years when I finally get it up-to-date and magically backdate the missing posts!
To bring us all up to date in a quick travel précis, since I wrote my last post about Kuta (Indonesia) back in September, I continued island-hopping west along Indonesia to Bali, Java (worst traffic in the world) and Sumatra, and then jumped across to Malaysia (shipped the Tiger on a real-life banana boat) and rode through into Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.
My original plan was to ride through Burma (Myanmar) into India, and work out the rest of my route back to the UK from there, but my plans were scuppered by the still very restrictive regulations that exist for independent travellers in Burma. I did manage to find a guy called Mr Tin who used to work for the Myanmar Ministry of Tourism, who said he could get me permission to ride through as long as I found 5 or 6 people willing to pay 1,680 USD each for the privilege. For about a month I did try to find them, advertising on every motorcycle, 4WD and backpacker website I could find, but only managed to find 2 more people that were interested. Unfortunately Mr Tin was not willing to arrange the trip for just the 3 of us, and so after a night of consideration, I made a bold alteration of course and decided to ship my bike to Japan and ride back to the UK across Siberia, Mongolia and ‘The Stans’. Quite a change, yes, and much colder, but the more I thought about it, the more I actually preferred it – everything happens for a reason (I hope!)
For anyone interested in arranging an organised ride through Burma, Mr Tin may be able to do it for you (if you pay him enough money and find enough people!) – firstname.lastname@example.org
After finding an extremely efficient and helpful shipper in Bangkok (Nisarat at KPS INTERNATIONAL TRADE – mbl: (+66) 86-5752995 – email@example.com ), I dropped the bike off at the warehouse and started planning my next move. It was going to take 12 days for my bike to get to Osaka, Japan, which meant I had 12 days to put my Myanmar visa to good use and do a bit of exploring. Well, it would have been 12 days had I not decided to fly to Hawaii for one week on the spur of the moment (well, I couldn’t miss that off my World Tour, could I?). In the end I was left with one week before Japanese customs started charging me lots of money for storing my bike.
I had had this (not very) bright idea of buying a bicycle and cycling from Yangon (the old British colonial capital Rangoon) to Mandalay, mainly because they were the only 2 places I’d heard of in Burma, which seemed a good enough reason at the time. Along my travels I have often bumped into cyclists (not literally, fortunately) and they all seem to be enjoying themselves (if very tired), so I thought it would be a good experience to see some of the world through their eyes.
After a bit of investigation I worked out I would need about 8 days minimum assuming I cycled 100km a day. With rest and sightseeing days, this could easily double, but I had already set myself a challenge – after all, it couldn’t be that hard, could it? This was despite the fact I only had 7 days (including arrival and departure days).
So, I booked a flight to Yangon on Bangkok air.
When I arrived at Bangkok airport the check-in queue was miles long, so I took a seat, checked in online with my Thai iPhone (which I do normally do before), moved to the empty ‘bag drop’ line and bagged myself seat 1F right on the front row. Much easier!
Off the plane first, I was through immigration in 30 seconds and headed straight for an ATM to get some local Kyats. Unfortunately none of my 3 bank cards worked, and so it was lucky I’d read beforehand that only pristine, un-creased USD would be accepted and changed at banks. Anything less than brand spanking new, you may as well be carrying monopoly money. I imagine some people find themselves in real financial difficulty if unaware of this.
So, off to the currency exchange counter next to the ATM and I had no trouble changing 300 clean, crisp USD into local 300,000 Kyats. Strangely you get a better rate for 100 USD bills, so I wished I hadn’t changed them all into 20 USD bills before I arrived, thinking they would be more practical. Even a mathematically challenged brain like mine could work out it was roughly 1000 Kyats to 1 USD, so that made things much easier.
I also managed to buy a local SIM at the airport which cost around 20 USD – worth it if only to access my primary navigation system, G Maps. Then I jumped into a pre-paid taxi (6 USD) and sped 30 mins through light traffic to my home for the night – World Bike Tours B&B in the north of Yangon, owned by Aussie Jeff Parry and his local wife, which I’d found on a Google search.
Arriving late afternoon, Jeff was extremely helpful and suggested I hire one of his new bicycles at 15 USD per day rather than buy one, and drop it off at his shop in Mandalay before I flew to Japan. I could tell, however, that he thought I was slightly mad thinking I could complete the ride in one week. But should timings get tight, I assumed I could always throw the bike on a bus or train to get there quicker (although that would be somewhat cheating).
We spent an hour or so fixing up one of Jeff’s bikes with a luggage rack (I didn’t have a clue how I was going to fit all my motorcycle luggage on it!), spare tubes, lights, locks and bungees, and soon I was ready to rock’n’roll. It was now around 4pm, so rather than waste anymore time, I jumped in the saddle and sped off under leg power (for the first time in about 14 years) to try and find the famous Shwedagon Pagoda.
I am not often impressed by religious buildings, but this 99m (325ft) high pagoda and stupa (why didn’t they go the extra meter?) dominates the whole of Yangon and it literally sparkles like the sun in its covering of real gold plates. It is Burma’s most sacred Buddhist pagoda with (it is said) relics of the past four Buddha enshrined within. At 2,600 years old, it is the oldest pagoda in the world and suitably topped with a crown of 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies. The one at the very top is a single 76 carat (15 g) diamond.
I arrived there a couple of hours before sunset, and easily whiled away those hours looking around the numerous other pagodas and stupas in the surrounding grounds. I’m glad I lingered, because the sunset was incredible – a perfectly round, red sun slowly sinking over the hazy mist of a cooling Yangon City.
As the sun went down, on came the lights, and suddenly the temples were transformed into dazzling golden beacons visible against the night sky for miles around. It really was a spectacular sight.
Back on my bike (people have been telling me to do that for years) I cycled south into Yangon centre, but first stopped to take a snap of Shwedagan from across the lake.
Although there was a fair amount of traffic, there was nowhere near the amount I’d expected, particularly as there no 2 wheeled vehicles allowed of any kind. Yes strangely, by law, Yangon is a 2 wheeled free city. Even stranger is that no-one seems to know why this is. Several rumours exist, including a General’s son was killed while riding a motorbike, and hence they were banned forthwith. This is certainly not the most environmentally friendly policy in a city with 9 million people. So this may have meant, technically, I was breaking the law, but no-one seemed to mind (as far as I could tell), and it wasn’t long before I was almost getting squashed after taking a short cut in between 2 buses. Can’t blame them for not looking out for cyclists, as there weren’t supposed to be any!
I soon came across another brilliantly dazzling stupa lit up like a golden candle. They were, in fact, everywhere. Burma must have more pagodas and stupas than any other country in the world. So many, in fact, that it wasn’t long before I stopped looking at them, or else I’d never make it anywhere.
In the city centre I found a sports shop and bought a pair of cycling shorts. I thought my bottom would appreciate them, considering it goes numb after only 10 minutes on an exercise bike at the gym (not that I’ve done that for a while). Then I rode down to the port and the Yangon River, and back up north to try and find the hotel again.
On the way back I stopped suddenly and turned around to take a photo of something interesting I’d seen. I was on the path at the time and as I rode off the kerb onto the road to turn, the front wheel fell into an abyss and I toppled over head over heels. In the dark I hadn’t seen the kerb was so high (Yangon must have the highest kerbs in the world at over a foot high!) and I landed awkwardly and badly twisted my ankle. I tried to jump up quickly before anyone laughed at me, but it was too late – my ankle gave way and an old man rushed up to help me up – good old boy! Then, of course, a small crowd gathered around for the excitement. I could imagine them thinking ‘stupid foreigner riding a cycle illegally – that’s why they’re outlawed!’, but instead they were all really friendly and helpful, and helped me hobble back on my way.
So, while not quite as bad as cliff diving (in a previous life), my ankle was swelling quickly and I couldn’t put much weight on it. I cycled back to the hotel at a slow crawl using mostly one leg.
When I got back it was past 10pm and everyone had gone to bed. I did manage to get a bag of ice from the caretaker and iced my ankle up in bed. I thought, if I was very lucky, it might not be so bad in the morning.
In the morning, it was worse. I looked like one half Elephant Man, and had to resign myself to the fact that I wouldn’t be biking 1 km that day, let alone the over 100 km I needed to do to get to Mandalay in 6 days. Luckily, being a flexible kind of guy, I had a frank discussion with myself and quickly settled on a new (much better) plan. I would fly to Mandalay instead and hire a motorbike to explore the Shan Highlands of East Burma (motorbikes were allowed in most other places outside Yangon). Yes, my little dabble into the world of cycling may not have turned out perfectly, but it did make me realise I’m much more of a motorcyclist at heart, and I felt kind of naked without one. And my plan to cycle over 800km in one week was kind of crazy anyway.
Within 2 hours I was sitting in Yangon airport with a 70 USD one way ticket to Mandalay on Asia Wings Airways – the finest Myanmar has to offer. Typically the taxi driver had dropped me off at the International Terminal and I had to hobble half a kilometre to the Domestic Terminal with my bags on my dodgy ankle (my fault for not speaking Burmese, of course). But I made it, and a couple of hours later I was in Mandalay, first stop Mandalay Motorcycles (www.mandalaymotorbike.com) run by top guy Zach from the US, who’d settled down with a local several years ago.
It wasn’t long before I was united with my ride for the next few days – a classy Chinese 125cc Royal Newanbo, ‘The Spirit of Riding Performance’.
And it felt great to be back in a motorised saddle, even if it was only a moped 🙂
To be continued shortly…