Burma (Myanmar)

Yangon, Myanmar

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!) – tin.apex@gmail.com

After finding an extremely efficient and helpful shipper in Bangkok (Nisarat at KPS INTERNATIONAL TRADE – mbl: (+66) 86-5752995 – nisarat@kpsthailand.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.

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The Tiger being crated up for her 12 day cruise from Bangkok to Osaka, Japan. Thanks Nisarat!

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Now you see her…

 

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.

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Welcome to Yangon! Taken later from my bike which I rented from Jeff at World Bike Tours

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.

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My newly rented cycle outside the entrance to Shwedagan Pagoda, Yangon

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.

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The very impressive 99m tall (real) golden Shwedagan Pagoda – the oldest pagoda in the world at 2,600 years

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The place was huge – a maze of dozens of temples you could wonder around for hours

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Burmese Buddhists ritually bathing Buddha

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Among the hundreds of tourists, many Buddhist Monks sat quietly in prayer on their path to enlightenment

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Burning candles represent the light of the Buddha’s teachings

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Another beautiful pagoda and thoughtful monk

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.

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Sunset over Yangon

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.

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As the sun went down, the lights came on…

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Everything was gold before now looked even more golden

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Some estimate Shwedagan Pagoda is covered in 60 tons of real gold, and it’s still being added in continuous upkeep programmes

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It’s spectacular during the day, but more so at night

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.

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Shwedagan Pagoda 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!

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Exploring the city on my new bike

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.

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There must be more golden pagodas in Burma than anywhere else in the world

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.

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Anyone fancy a beer in Yangon? The PM3 Beer and Music Pub looks good!

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’.

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Zach’s motorcycle hire shop in Yangon, and my new ride for the next few days – a classy Chinese 125cc Royal Newanbo

And it felt great to be back in a motorised saddle, even if it was only a moped 🙂

To be continued shortly…

Categories: Burma (Myanmar) | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mandalay

As soon as I had my freedom (my funky moped) I wasted no time jetting off to explore Mandalay and the surrounding area.  After all, what else does a man need other than a pair of wheels and a toothbrush?  Quite a lot actually, but we won’t get into that here…

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My Mandalay bed – Fortune Hotel

Mandalay is the second-largest city in Burma after Yangon, considered the centre of Burmese culture and the last royal capital (the last King of Burma died in exile in India in 1916).  As a Royalist, I thought it would be fitting to start my tour at his old Royal Palace, which was actually just around the corner from my hotel.

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The Mandalay Royal Palace is impressive – here’s part of the moat that boxes it in 2km square, right in the middle of the city (you can see Mandalay Hill in the background – a great sunset spot)

Completed in 1859 the Royal Mandalay Palace makes quite an impression.  Sat in the middle of the city, it is surrounded by a huge wall and moat 2km by 2km square, and is now home to 5,000 Myanmar soldiers.  Although Mandalay is a busy, noisy city of 1.5 million people, sat in the middle of the palace grounds, all you can hear are the birds as they fly around a pretty, flowered oasis.

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Welcome peace and tranquility in the centre of Mandalay

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Palace cannons made by Woolwich Royal Arsenal, UK

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Although most of the Royal Palace is a reconstruction (it was mostly destroyed by allied bombing in WWII), it is still an impressive place to visit

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The Royal Palace

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The original Palace Walls (2km square)

It is certainly a nice escape (if only to get away from the incessant beeping of horns in Mandalay that drive me crazy!) even if most of the buildings are modern reconstructions (the original was unfortunately bombed by us – the Allies – during WWII).

Next it was off to U Bein Bridge, the longest and oldest teak bridge in the world, near Amarapura (once a previous capital of Burma) about 30 minutes south of the city.

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The U Bein Bridge – the oldest and longest teak bridge in The World

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The Mean Machine and U Bein Bridge

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Lake Taungthaman

The bridge was named after the major who had it built in 1850 using wood from a previous royal palace, and spans 1.2km across Lake Taungthaman.  This seemed like quite a good spot to have lunch, so I did.  And it was a delicious multi-plated meal of noodles, soup, salad and spices.

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My delicious lunch (at the time)

Unfortunately, delicious as it was, it only took about 2 hours to go right through me, which almost caused major embarrassment in a temple I was visiting (that was the best 30 cents for a WC I have ever spent; I would have paid $300).  As I rode south west I found myself riding through quiet, wooded paddy fields, which were a welcome change to the city concrete.

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It’s always nice to get on the uncongested country roads 🙂

Soon I was riding over the Irrawaddy River across an old iron bridge on my way to Sagaing, an important religious, monastic and meditation centre with hundreds of pagodas regularly punctuating the skyline.  The Irrawaddy, or ‘The Road to Mandalay’ as described in Rudyard Kipling’s poem, is still an important source of commerce and Burma’s largest river, running the length of the country from north to the south.  It looked pretty murky, but somewhere below the surface the vulnerable Irrawaddy Dolphin lurked (which looks like a Beluga Whale and is closely related to the Killer Whale), as well as the even rarer Irrawaddy River Shark, of which only 1 specimen has ever been found.

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Sagaing Hill across the Irrawaddy River with its hundreds of pagodas shining in the sun

Across the river I rode up Sagaing Hill, where many international students come to study Buddhism.  At the top is Soon Oo Ponya Shin Pagoda, built in 1312, from which the view of the Irrawaddy and Mandalay is amazing.

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View from Soon Oo Ponya Shin Pagoda, atop Sagaing Hill

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A lion-like Chinthe – guardians of the temples

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Soon Oo Ponya Shin Pagoda

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A Buddhist school on the way back down

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Arty attempt

Riding back to my hotel in Mandalay I stopped at a couple more pagodas on the river’s edge for some nice views across the water.  Like all rivers in Burma, the Irrawaddy is used daily as an important source of water for irrigation, cooking and washing people and clothes all along the banks.

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Daily washing routines in the Irrawaddy

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View across the Irrawaddy

I wanted to try and get to Mandalay Hill to watch the sun set, as I’d heard the views were the best in the area.  Arriving late, I decided against climbing the 240m hill with my dodgy ankle and ragged it up on my moped instead.  I was glad I did, because I just made it in time to watch another perfectly clear, red, round sun drop behind the mountains to the west, reflecting on the Irrawaddy as it went.

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Lots of other people obviously had the same idea as me

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Sunset over Mandalay

Few things are better than a good sunset, except maybe a good Beef Wellington.  And a pint of Directors.

I was very pleased with my first fun packed day in Mandalay, and I was very happy with my Chinese moped, which was doing everything I asked it to do.  It was basically a cheap Chinese copy of a Japanese Honda, but it worked.  Thousands were thrown together daily and knocked out to Asian markets with whatever name you wanted on it.  Mine was a ‘Newanbo’, but Zach had joked he could have a ‘Zachbo’ if he wanted.  Hmm, a ‘Bowenbo’ has a nice ring to it – I wonder if it will sell back home in Norwich?

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Mandalay at night

A great day was well ended by a good dinner and a few beers at Hunters Bar & Cafe (about the best Mandalay can do for nightlife) with fellow traveller Anna I’d met on the plane over, although I was so tired I almost fell asleep in my food.  A full day on a bike really does wear you out.  Goodness knows how tired I would have been had I been cycling 100km a day!  I was more and more pleased the way Madam Fate had dealt my Myanmar cards to me this trip, although I wished she would throw me a few a lottery wins every now and then.

One of the good things about Burma is it’s cheap.  Well at least food and drink are cheap, at around 3 USD for a good meal and 2 USD a beer.  Accommodation is the only thing relatively expensive, maintained artificially high because only certain hotels are permitted by the government to receive ‘foreigners’.  But at least you no longer have to stay in a Government owned ‘hotel’ (as you did until quite recently) and tourists can be sure their money goes directly to the many extremely nice private guesthouse owners.  Having said all that, 20 USD is the going average, so even that isn’t too bad.

Like all new tourist destinations, prices and experiences are likely to change pretty quickly, and so if you’re thinking of going, there’s no time like the present!

Categories: Burma (Myanmar) | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Exploring Burma on a Chinese Moped

Pyin Oo Lwin (Maymyo)

An early night in Mandalay and I was up at the crack of dawn to pack and get ready to take my mean 125cc rental ‘Newanbo’ moped further afield to Pyin Oo Lwin (Maymyo), Hsipaw and the Shan Highlands beyond; the foothills of the Himalayas.

Zach (Mandalay Motorcycles) was a great help giving me a map and explaining the areas I could and couldn’t ride to.  However, the restricted areas were small and sparse (mainly conflict zones, military zones or precious stone mining areas), allowing plenty of free exploring to be had.

Amazingly my amazing Newanbo managed to fit both me and my luggage on the back, although I had left a bag of non-essentials with Zach.  Filling her up from plastic bottles of fuel via a nice old lady by the side of the road, I set out on my quest for rubies in the alluvial bedding plains of Mogoke.

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Nice lady filling me up at the Shell Garage

Interesting fact of the day:  90% of the world’s rubies come from Myanmar, and the red stones are prized for their purity and hue.  A large ruby mine is in Mogoke, 200km NE of Mandalay, and foreigners need a special permit to visit the town.

But unfortunately I didn’t have a permit for Mogoke, and so the rubies would have to wait.  Instead I set off for former colonial British Burma’s mountain summer retreat of Pyin Oo Lwin (also called Maymyo, or May Town) set high in the cool Sham Highlands two hours east of Mandalay.  Mind you, I almost didn’t make it as a car swerved violently out of its lane as I was overtaking it, missing me by inches.  Drivers obviously aren’t used to being overtaken by 125cc Chinese copy mopeds, so I’d have to be much more careful from now on.

The road to Pyin Oo Lwin is a wonderfully twisty mountain road and dual carriageway in many places, although that still doesn’t stop some traffic coming towards you on your side of the road (in typical SE Asian style)!  The road quickly gains a height of over 1,000m (3,500ft) from the plains and stuffy heat of Mandalay, bringing the cooler weather so valued in the heat of the summer.  By the time I arrived in the early afternoon it was getting quite cold, and so I looked for the hotel I had seen recommended on the web to warm up with a nice cup of hot tea.  Foolishly I had only brought T-shirts and shorts with me, which may not prove wholly suitable for the higher altitudes.  It’s amazing to feel the difference in temperature only 1,000 m in altitude makes.

I eventually found The Royal Flower Guesthouse tucked away down a side street, and am I glad I did.  The private owners here have got to be among the nicest, friendliest people I have ever met.  They couldn’t do enough for me, and the owner, a young father called Koko, sat me down with a cuppa for a good 30 minutes to explain all about the village and things I should see.  Koko and his family had only received their permit from the Government to operate as a ‘foreigner’ guesthouse last month, and they were all over the moon.

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Pyin Oo Lwin Botanical Garden Lakes

After our chat I sped off to explore the famous Botanical Gardens down the road and had a great lunch by the lake.  Even better that it stayed within me this time.  I am enjoying the Burmese food – cheap and spicy, they make good curries as well as the usual fried rice and noodles, and have lots of great puffy, doughy bread, like deep fried naan bread (tasty, if not completely healthy).

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Another lovely lunch of something spicey and deep fried

Then I found Crandacraig Hotel, the oldest hotel in Myanmar built in 1904 by the British Bombay Burma Timber Company for their expatriates.  Pyin Oo Lwin has many examples of old red brick British colonial buildings, and it was a surprise to find this fine example completely empty.  Perhaps a good investment for some enterprising soul?

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Candacraig Hotel – Myanmar’s oldest, built back in 1904

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It was a beautiful building, but shame it was completely empty

Next I rode up ‘Governor’s Hill’ where the summer British Government House stood until it was destroyed in WWII by Japanese bombs.  The existing ‘Governor’s House’ is a faithful replica and set in lovely Botanical Gardens and a vineyard.  I tried to find some of the wine, but no-one seemed to be around.

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Governor’s House and Vineyard – nice, but empty

At the bottom of the hill stood an old Christian Church called ‘All Saints Church’.  Founded in 1912 it was, in colonial times, the Church of the then British Government.

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All Saints Church

Another good day was ended with a good ‘Myanmar’ beer and free peanuts.  Again, I was surprised by the friendliness of the bar owners, particularly when they wondered out with a free bowl of soup for me.  It was delicious, although I wasn’t quite sure what animal the sponge-like lump of intestine lying at the bottom was from.

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Beer and peanuts – a real man’s meal

Train journey from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw

In the morning I woke up early to catch the 8:20 am train from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw.  I had popped into the train station the previous day to check the times, and whether my moped could come along for the ride.  It could, and so I decided on a little train journey across the famous Goteik viaduct.

Riding to the station I was freezing in the cold early morning mountain air and reminded myself to buy some warm clothes as soon as I could.  I’d been told to arrive by 7:30 am, which I did, because all the tickets were hand written, which took a while as you can imagine.  Even with this manual method, there still appeared to be less paper used than in the so-called paperless age of western world technology.

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Pyin Oo Lwin Train Station

It is easy to notice the reliance on manual labour in Burma rather than computerised or mechanised methods.  Out of necessity, many people still work by hand in the fields, on the construction sites and in the offices.  Pack-horses and water buffalo are used to help transport goods and plough the fields, and I almost expected the train to be an old steam train.  It was like going back in time 100 years, before the Industrial Revolution.  And they all looked happy.  It was refreshing to see people going about their daily business not in a blind rush to be somewhere 5 minutes ago.  No-one seemed to be suffering from the disease of the (so called) ‘developed world’, where many people are overworked, stressed and have no time to really enjoy life.

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Don’t stand here in stations (see bit about the toilets on the trains later)

After a sociable while in the ticket queue talking to fellow passengers, 6 US dollars bought me a ticket in the ‘Upper First Class’ carriage (yes, I thought I’d splash out and treat myself) and another 6 US dollars bought my moped a not so glamorous ride in the cargo carriage at the rear of the train.  Funnily enough, while we were all waiting in the queue a western tourist did push to the front to ask what the hold-up was.  It was funny to see the looks of amused tolerance & well-natured patience from the ticket writers.  ‘Don’t worry, there is only one train today, and you will all get on it!’

I watched the storesmen load up the cargo carriage, each carrying huge sacks of fruit and vegetables on their backs up a tiny, skinny wooden ramp into the train.  Finally, 4 of them wheeled my moped up the ramp and she disappeared inside until Hsipaw, a 7 hour train ride away.

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The station storemen hard at work loading supplies

Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw Train

And there goes my moped!

Before the train set off I took the chance to explore the train to see what the ‘Ordinary Class’ carriages were like.  In fact, they were pretty much the same, except with wooden seats (as opposed to cushioned seats in upper class).  They were clean and tidy and there were not many passengers.  I don’t know why, but I was expecting something like I’d witnessed in Sri Lanka, with hundreds of people hanging out of the doors and windows.  The passengers were the usual Burmese happy and friendly, and more than pleased to have their photos taken.

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Friendly passengers in clean, uncrowded carriages

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A couple of handsome young men 😉

The train actually set off pretty much on time around 8.20 am and soon we were bouncing along the tracks like a slow roller coaster.  I must admit I was pleased I’d treated myself to the cushioned seats!  Along the way we passed through the green hills of the Shan Lowlands, farmland and small villages, frequently stopping at small stations for passengers and refreshments.

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Beautiful views along the way of the Myanmar countryside

Each stop was around 15 minutes, which was great as it allowed a little time to look around the often beautifully flowered stations, meet local people and buy some of the delicious food on offer, including fresh grown strawberries and traditional Burmese hot snacks.

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Stops at quaint little country stations were frequent for refreshments

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Delicious hot snacks

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And just in case you wanted your hair cut, alfresco style

After around 2.5 hours the train slowed down to cross the famous Goteik viaduct at a crawl so all the tourists could hang out of the window and take photos (well, I was hanging out of the door).  Quite an amazing experience!

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Approaching the Goteik viaduct

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No Health and Safety in Burma – I love it!

The viaduct is the highest bridge in Myanmar at almost 100 m, and when it was completed over 100 years ago it was the largest railway trestle bridge in the world.  It was designed and fabricated by the Pennsylvania and Maryland Bridge Construction company and finished in 1900 as a way for the British Empire to expand their influence in the region; it really is still an impressive sight.

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At 100m high, the viaduct is the tallest bridge in Myanmar – pretty impressive

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The gorge the viaduct crosses, 100m below

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The viaduct from a distance

True to Burma’s manual workforce, even the railway crossing signals were operated by hand.  Some of them looked a little young, but I’m sure they were very experienced!

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The Burmese Signallers looked rather young, but I’m sure were very experienced

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More signallers on their tea break. The real Railway Children?

Going to the toilet was an interesting experience, as they were basically just a hole directly over the tracks.  I actually remember trains being like this in the UK when I was a kid (not quite 100 years ago), but at least most people there had the good sense not to use them when the train was stopped at stations; something some Burmese haven’t quite caught on to, unfortunately (a great reason not to play on the tracks!).  It was also disappointing to see some people throwing litter out of the windows into the beautiful countryside – do some people really need educating about this, or shouldn’t it be an innate intelligence?

The whole 7 hour train journey went very quickly, and it made a nice change to travelling by motorcycle.  I’m not sure why, but for some reason everybody waves to other people on trains as they pass, and it never grows old.  It is a very social experience with many other interesting passengers to meet, affords beautiful views of the countryside and I highly recommend the journey if you’re ever in the area.

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The scenery got better as we approached Hsipaw

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Typical Burmese view of a hill with golden Pagoda on top

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I’m glad I wasn’t in the ‘Economy Class Carriage’

Hsipaw

The train rolled into Hsipaw station about 3.30 pm, a small town in Shan State on a bend in the Duthawadi River.  My moped was manhandled out of the carriage, I thanked them, and sped off to look for Lily House, a small guesthouse Koko in Pyin Oo Lwin had recommended.

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Seven hours later we rolled into Hsipaw and I reclaimed my moped

Although Hsipaw is a small town frequently visited by tourists via the railway, its maze of small streets and unnamed roads made it quite difficult for me to find my accommodation (added to my lack of navigation system and no clue as to what road it was on anyway).  Eventually I was pointed in the right direction by a kind local, and dropped my bags off ready to explore.

I decided to ride up to see some old ruined pagodas to the north coined as ‘Little Bagan’, explained the helpful lady at guesthouse.  It turned out they were little indeed, and old, and stood next to a wooden monastery surrounded by fields, like a mini Burmese Giza.

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Who needs to see big Bagan when you can see this Little Bagan much quicker?

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Eventually nature always wins – this tree looked really weird sprouting from the top of the temple

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Wooden monastery next to Little Bagan. Good job monks don’t smoke

Don’t worry about getting confused wondering who to see for what in Hsipaw.  In the guidebooks I had found Mr Food, Mr Book and Mr Bike. I was looking for Mr Beer, but the only one I know is in Manchester (hi Dave!).  Instead I settled for Mrs Popcorn who had a place just around the corner from Little Bagan.  However, on arrival I discovered I was slightly late, as Mrs Popcorn had stopped serving it 10 yrs ago.  Fortunately she had started a new sideline in exotic fruit juices, but decided to keep her old name as many Burmese couldn’t pronounce Mrs Rambutan Apple Mangosteen; in fact even I found it quite a mouthful – but a very tasty one.

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Always give way to cows (and anything else bigger than you, which on a Newanbo 125 is everything)

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After my trip to Mrs Popcorn’s the sun was getting ready for bed

Happily satisfied with my healthy shake, I sauntered back down the bumpy road (as much as a Chinese moped can saunter) and stopped to offer a seater to Ronaye, who was a fellow traveller I’d met at Little Bagan, and who had kindly pointed me in the direction of Mrs Popcorn.  She accepted, and we sauntered & bumped together back down to the guesthouse (where she also happened to be staying) in Chinese moped style.

As sunset was approaching, we decided to alter course at the last minute and continued onto Sunset Hill, which housed a pagoda and gong on the south side of town.  Unable to ride all the way up, we climbed the last few meters and arrived just in time to see the sun set (well, we would have done had Sunset Hill rotated round 10 degrees to the west).  Then we were joined by another Lily House guest at the top who’d arrived on her cycle – I’d obviously chosen a popular guesthouse!

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Sunset Hill in Hsipaw (although not very sunsetty)

On the way down it only seemed right to try and find a substitute for Mr Beer down by the river, which we did in the form of an Australian bar, although the Australian part had moved home 6 years previously.  That didn’t matter though, because they still sold cold beer with a beautifully relaxing view across the river, and homemade rice wine (in a whiskey bottle, as all the best ones should be, apparently).

Evening soon turned into dinner next door (which happened to be a great local restaurant) with excellent company and interesting conversation, as serendipity often orders for you on days such as these.  On completion it seemed only right to offer both ladies a lift home on my ‘Newanbo 125’, and recognising class when they saw it, they accepted in a heartbeat.  Actually, they accepted with great reservation, but it was better than walking (although only marginally quicker).  I don’t think the local’s we passed had ever seen a ‘Newanbo 125’ carry 3 grown adults before and still move, but we were moving, largely because it was downhill all the way.  Had we been in Sri Lanka we could have easily also squeezed on 2 children and a goat.

Hsipaw to Mogoke

In the morning I tried to get up as early as I could to start my ride up into the Sham Highlands to the north towards Mogoke, but I’d be lying if I said the previous evening’s entertainment hadn’t taken a tiny toll.

After a good breakfast with Winford, a friendly American who’d travelled up on the train with me, I said my farewells and kick started the Newanbo into action.  I planned to ride a few km down the road to Kyaukme and then take the road northwest towards Mogoke.  Just before Mogoke (as I didn’t have a permit to go there) there was a small village called Mong Long where I’d take a new road (recently opened) back south to Pyin Oo Lwin.  Not having looked at the distances very closely, I thought that looked doable in one day.

A few miles down the road I came across this beautiful pagoda sitting on top of a hill in the middle of nowhere, with a huge planet Earth on display outside.  It was pretty surreal, especially as there wasn’t another soul around anywhere.  I wondered around for a while, took a few snaps, and wondered if anyone actually used it anymore.

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Strange huge pagoda in the middle of nowhere with a huge planet Earth outside

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Completely empty – except for me

Further down the road the countryside started opening up with green fields and local women doing their washing in the river.

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Sunday Funday Washday

After an hour I arrived in Kyaukme, a busy local town with not many English speakers, as I soon found out.  I was trying to change some more dollars into local money as I needed fuel and the small petrol stations didn’t accept dollars.  Being a Sunday, the banks were shut, and I wasn’t having much luck until I asked a group of young students if they knew anywhere that might change them.  The students turned out to be medical students on a weekend break from Yangon, and extremely friendly as all Burmese have been so far.  They made a few phone calls for me, but not being able to find anywhere, they changed 60 dollars themselves for me.  Wow!  That really got me out of some trouble and once again proved how helpful many Burmese people have been to me.  Would they get the same helpful welcome in the UK?

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Trying to change money in Kyaukme on a Sunday is not fun

With a full tank of fuel once more, I started the ascent into the mountains, through yet more small villages and paddy fields.  However, I had wasted a lot of time trying to change money and it was approaching 11 am.  Pressing on, it wasn’t long before the road turned from solid tarmac to broken, pot-holed tarmac.  Shortly after that, even the broken tarmac disappeared and all that remained were pot-holes.

As I rose higher the scenery became more and more beautiful as green paddy fields stretched before me under a backdrop of rolling hills.

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Poor roads, great views

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It’s great having your own 2 wheels!

Occasionally I’d pass waving local villagers on mopeds or even weird antique trucks with barely enough parts left to function.

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Met the Flintstone’s coming the other way

Around lunchtime I conveniently came across a ‘truck-stop’ and stopped for a delicious bowl of Shan Noodle Soup.  Everyone inside was engrossed watching a TV programme showing Myanmar soldiers demonstrating how to fire mortars.  I hoped I wouldn’t need to remember that lesson in a hurry.

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Noodle soup and mortar lessons at the village truck-stop

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The motorway service station had run out of McDonalds

With an almost full fuel tank and a full belly, I was still confident I could still make the long ride ahead and sped off in the dust.

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Everything was going well…

Unfortunately soon after that, the road almost disappeared altogether and I was left riding over a bumpy track strewn with sharp rocks.  I slowed to a snail’s pace, worried the Newanbo’s tyres would explode upon first contact.  I wished I had my Tiger, as it would fly over such a surface.

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Until someone replaced the road with sharp rocks

Then the road turned to sand, and then back to rocks.  It was certainly an interestingly bumpy ride on the bike’s state of the art suspension.

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And then covered it with sand

After an hour or so I released the Newanbo was made from sterner stuff than I imagined, and started to speed up.  Soon I was having a lot of fun working through the gears, navigating my way through the rocks and picking out smoother tracks that had already been made by previous convoys of mopeds.  The 4 gears on the bike were enough in these conditions, and I was pleased it was a manual gear shift; an automatic would have struggled and not been nearly as much fun.

It’s hard to believe, but as I climbed higher into the hills the scenery just kept getting better, and I seemed to be spending more time stopping to take pictures than riding.  It was a beautifully sunny day, and the green rolling Shan Highlands stretched out to the north as far as the eye could see.

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The scenery was like something from a fairytale – the twisty, winding mountain road stretched out into the yonder

All along the way villages lined the hill summits and clung to the valley walls.  Most of them were suspiciously empty though, I assumed because the occupants were busy working in the fields or taking shelter from the midday sun.

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The higher I went, the better the views became

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The Shan Highlands

The occasional signal I received on my local data SIM card told me I was making much slower progress than I thought, and at this rate I would be sleeping on the mountain.  So, I piled on the gas and started having much more fun as I got more used to the bike’s handling.  In the beginning I’d wished I had gone for one of Zach’s new Honda CRF 250s, but now I was having so much fun bouncing along on the Newanbo, I really didn’t mind it.

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The villages clung to the hillsides

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The little Newanbo just kept on going!

Eventually I fell off with too much front brake on a sandy bend, and then re-evaluated my limits – Ooops!  (sorry Zack!).  However, it was a soft landing and no damage was done to the bike or me.

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Until I fell off !

Back on the move I passed a stricken fellow moped rider and stopped to see if I could help.  The local lad had run out of fuel (happens to us all at some point), so I offered him some of mine and soon he was disconnecting my fuel hose and filling up a small plastic bottle he had.  Once he was back on the road, I followed him at a respectable distance (to stop dust flying into my eyes) to make sure he got home OK.

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At the Bowen Petrol Station

Turned out it was a good job I did follow him, as he lived miles away, and ran out of fuel again before he got there.  No worries – up we filled her again.  As luck would have it, he actually lived in Mong Long, and we rolled into the small village together with just enough fuel each.  We went to his friend’s shop, had a drink and then I filled my tank back up ready for the long ride back to Pyin Oo Lwin.

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Finally made it to Mong Long after 6 long hours and filled up me and the bike with liquid

It was now 4pm and I hoped the new road was nearby so I could get back before sunset.  I eventually found it 15 minutes out of town further on towards Mogoke.  And it really was a brand new road, cut right through the mountains, with hardly any traffic on it.  After the poor roads I had been on for the past 6 hours, it was like riding in heaven.

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I suspected this may not be the new road to Pyin Oo Lwin

The Newanbo seemed to be running better and better, and we flew through the gorgeous new mountain passes with little effort (except for a few crawls up a couple of really steep bits!).  The lack of traffic meant I could take racing line (if there is one on a 125cc moped) and not worry about meeting a bus head on around the corner.

The road seemed to keep ascended forever, and the temperature dropped rapidly.  Soon I was freezing as the sun dropped lower, so I stopped and put on all 3 layers of T-shirts I had with me.  However, I was in awe of the road and the view of the Shan Highlands it presented.  It was clear to see why they called them the foothills of the Himalayas.

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This road is one of the best I have ever ridden

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The foothills of the Himalayas

Two hours later I rode into Pyin Oo Lwin just after sunset, and went directly to the local market to buy some gloves and a jacket.  I was pretty cold, and didn’t fancy freezing again on tomorrow morning’s ride.  I was also starving.

The sight of a local restaurant displaying piles of local food in huge metal trays on a self-service counter was too much for me, and I entered to take a closer look and dribble.  As I entered, a very friendly, and very drunk, customer invited me to join him at his table.  Not wanting to offend anyone, particularly as everyone had been so nice to me, I took a seat next to him and he proceeded to tell me what I assumed to be his life story in Burmese.  However, I didn’t care, as soon I had a huge plate of 5 delicious different dishes (that he had kindly recommended for me), and neither did he, because he had the company he wanted and a bottle of local whiskey.  In fact, it was quite the perfect relationship for the occasion, as I just stuffed my face, laughing at what seemed to be appropriate moments, and he drank, slurred on and looked very amused with his new dinner date.

Back at Royal Flower Guesthouse, Koko and his lovely family were very pleased to see me, treating me like a long lost family member, even though I’d only been gone 2 days.  They all wanted to hear about my travels and sat round eagerly to listen.  How nice Pyin Oo Lwin is!

The Road to Mandalay

All too quickly my week in Burma was over and I found myself back at Zack’s shop dropping the Newanbo off.  It was funny, but I was kind of sad to see her go.

I had had a fabulous time and I hope it will not be long before I get the chance to return again to this tremendous country.

Flying back to Bangkok from Mandalay (before flying on to meet my Tiger in Japan), Mandalay International airport was spookily empty.  The departures hall was empty and ours was the only plane on the runway.  I’m sure in a few years this place will be flooded with tourists, so now’s certainly the time to go!

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Mandalay International Airport Departures Lounge – or Ghost Town

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The only plane on the runway

Categories: Burma (Myanmar) | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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