Reflecting on Magical Mysterious Myanmar

With Myanmar having been on the bucket list for the past few years and minimal info available about bike packing it is fair to say we were going into unfamiliar territory…….yet again.

What we didn’t expect was to be warmly welcomed by the friendliest and most generous people we have ever encountered.

The Burmese are incredibly clever carrying their goods on their heads from selling food to carrying belongings. Then yesterday we saw a woman with a bird cage containing 30+ birds on her head.

After getting our head around men wearing skirts, we realised that the skirt wasn’t that impractical after all. The “longyi” is in fact a very versatile piece of clothing. They tuck their mobile phone in the back of it and in the front knot store scooter keys and money and as I’m writing this looking out the cafe window a man has just walked past with an umbrella hooked to the back. No manbag required. The loo obviously a little more problematic but they all seem happy squatting for a pee, anywhere and everywhere. They are actually very kiwi with jandals being the stock standard worn by everyone and go nicely with the skirt and we often cycled past a lonesome jandal on highways fallen off while on scooters. The longyi can be dressed up or down with a dress shirt, tee or singlet and after a few beers at the beer station the longyi wearer is often shirtless.

Speaking of beer stations. Wow they really do enjoy a cold one on a hot day. The beer stations are busy anytime of the day and whisky is ordered like a beer by the glass, hip flask or 750ml. Being cheaper than beer it ranged in price from NZ$1.6-5 for up to 750ml. We sampled a few local rough whiskys however tomorrow (as we arrive back in Thailand) are going to have to tell our dear friend Leo that Myanmar Beer is a winner for us.

Unfortunately though the Burmese are then happy to hop on their scooters half chopped and we did witness one bad scooter crash with a guy pissed.

We have survived the greasy diet of fried rice, fried noodle, deep fried bread sticks, samosas and coconut donuts. Alongside the breakfast staple of fried rice, oily eggs, sweet white toast with orange margarine and sickly sweet jam and Nescafe ready made coffee sachets. Surprisingly haven’t been sick once!!!

We have loved the tea house culture of drinking endless cups of tea, tasting even more special having been to the villages in Kalaw where it is grown.

The breathtaking scenery the sights we have seen, the waves and Malingabas (Hello) being called out, village kids running to wave at us has left us with incredible memories. For a country that has been and continues to go through many troubles we have been blown away in every aspect. Some of the rural villages are so incredibly poor, living conditions shocking and it appears to be a hand to mouth existence.

We have been told tourism has been down since 2016 possibly due to conflict in other states and travel warnings in Western countries. We have felt 100% safe the entire trip both on and off the bikes. Cycling just under 800km we have experienced the most courteous and at times helpful drivers.

We have relied heavily on the app for navigation and it only let us down once where we got lost in a Burmese forest for a few hours. With scary thoughts of having to spend a night in the jungle and the relief of hearing a motorbike and finding our way out. (Below)

We could go on and on but let’s just say we will most definitely be back to this beautiful part of the world as we have only touched on the magic of Myanmar, and it has totally exceeded expectations.

We’ve cracked out the loop

Myingyan – Sagaing = 93km (June 4)

Last big day of riding in Myanmar so up early and into it after enjoying our brekkie and the nice view with Irrawaddy river in the distance.

Tried to navigate our way out of town and as always the sign posts don’t help at all so totally reliant on app which works a treat most of the time, but if not……………..(story for a rainy day)

Heaps of hills for the first 50km but minimal traffic. Temps were 37deg so tough going keeping the fluids up. As with everyday riding in Myanmar we have had heaps to look at, friendly waves and lovely scenery.

Schools were back today after 2 month summer break. Cool seeing all the kids in their white tops and green bottoms. Seems to be a national school uniform and we watched assembly taking place, singing and all.

We rolled into Sagaing fairly well exhausted after a big day. We cycled across the massive Yadanabon bridge and the Irrawaddy river and got to see Sagaing hill in the distance covered in temples and pagodas. Was a magical sight. Sagaing is the capital city of Sagaing state, located only 20km south west of Mandalay and with numerous Buddhist monestries is an important religious and Monastic centre.

As we sit in our very average overpriced digs tonight we can hear the music from temples in every direction. Highly likely it will start at 4.30am tomorrow.

Needed to repair our money belt so found this guy this afternoon in Sagaing on the side of the footpath. Check out the mouth full of betal, his entire mouth looked rotten.

Sagaing – Mandalay = 22km (June 5)

Surprisingly no early temple wake up call. Had a great brekkie of the stock standard fried rice, greasy egg, Nescafe coffee. Thought we would see if our sewing man was up and about first thing as my shorts had had a blow out. Yep sure enough he was there at 8.15am. Such a lovely man and he refused to accept any payment despite our insistence. He said “I help you”. Once again the kindness of these lovely folk.

They were making jeans and even had a Lee label on them…….must be the real deal………

Departed the hotel with some help from our strapping “security” who was the sweetest guy. He was super proud of his uniform and job and was thrilled with his tip.

Morning routine of loading up the rigs

Short ride into Mandalay but with a population of over 1.2 million concentration was at a premium.

We started off on a very quiet stretch of highway.

But in no time we were in full swing with the traffic. Cars, trucks, horse and cart, motorbikes, dodging people walking on the road, monks collecting their elms, and trying to avoid the odd betal spit from hitting your feet. It was organised chaos.

We found one of very few westernised cafes in Myanmar, Cafe Nova and biked in for a well deserved coffee and choccie cake.

Aircon was bliss after the heat outside

So we have completed the loop, just under 800km in Myanmar and back at the Hotel 8 in Mandalay where this awesome adventure into the unknown began 22 days ago.

40deg in Mandalay, and feeling pretty chuffed!

Are they sheep or goats?………. or shoats

Nyaung U – Myingyan = 70km

Have had a great rest in Nyaung U and loved our stay at the Bagan Star Hotel where the staff were exceptional. There was even a bit of a song and dance on the street yesterday with this parade outside the hotel.

The hotel staff ever so kindly gave us a bottle of wine last night which we think was to thank us for the glowing trip advisor review we did. The excitement of having a lovely wine was short lived as it was corked. So they then give us a bottle of bubbles that also had to go down the sink, but we couldn’t tell them that. Think wine and the Myanmar heat may have something to do with it, so it was back down to our favourite beer station.

With our favourite barman Sanuu. He works 14 hour days, every day of the week, and lives out the back. The nicest guy with pretty good English and would be an orthodontists dream!

We were stoked this morning it had rained over night and temps were a little cooler at 32deg with perfect cloud cover.

Undulating hills on a pretty good road sharing with the little trucks, big trucks, mini vans and scooters we smashed out the k’s today with fresh legs.

Plenty to look at and we passed through some of the poorest villages we have seen yet. Maybe they just looked worse due to the rain and mud.

This was the road we were on all day today so not bad condition. Still can’t decide if these were goats or sheep. They had face and ears like goats and tails and fleece like sheep. We decided they were Shoats.

Arrived in Myingyan at midday and found a roadside stall for a cuppa and snacks.

Samosas With unidentified filling and donut thingies with coconut inside. They are scrummy and 10c each a bargain.

Here they are being made by hand.

Found some digs which once again have the friendliest staff and so many of them. Not the best cleaning standards but perfect for one night. Even includes brekkie tomorrow which will be good before our big 95km day to Sagaing.

Some of the amazing wildlife we have seen on our travels but normally running across the road as we bike past. Today this fella was just down the street.

Bagan bucket list…..tick

Bagan sightseeing = 30km

Considering The Nevs and temples don’t have a lot in common it seems strange that Bagan, home to over 2200 pagodas, temples and ruins was on the bucket list. Yesterday we got on the bikes and explored the town and surrounds and it was spectacular even for easily bored temple sightseers.

Housekeeping first though and found this lovely lady down the street offering laundry service. Felt a little bad leaving her our dirty bike clothes and in return she gave me the flower necklace.

So you get the idea, in every direction as far as the eye can see the Bagan plains is smothered with pagodas. Once again lucky it was the low season as had the area to ourselves but unfortunately maintenance was taking place on many of the big temples so they were covered in scaffolding.

Then it was time for a drink stop in New Bagan. The Bagan area is divided into 3 sections, Old, New and Nyuan U which is where we have chosen to stay and pleased we have also as not much happening in the other parts.

We will be staying on here 2 more nights before cycling the 200km back to Mandalay. Will be tough going as the temps are close to 40deg again.

2 days of “Wet bums”

Meiktila – Kyaukapadang = 96km (May 28)

The forecast rain rolled in yesterday afternoon so we went to bed mentally prepared for a wet day of riding. This was actually quite exciting as it also meant it would be cooler and not 42deg as it had been.

Good brekkie and we departed the lovely Peace Path Palace Hotel which was far from a palace but perfect for one night. Wet……… yep it was pouring but still managed to see the “Golden Goose” Meiktila’s main attraction as departing the city.

Not many pics today as it was torrential rain and a big day of undulating hills we wanted to smash out the k’s.

It was actually super enjoyable riding, we were soaked and smiling and noticed a huge difference riding in the cooler 25deg temps.

We arrived at the Triple Lion Hotel and were greeted by more friendly smiles offering us an umbrella………hmmm a little late for that after 6hours in the rain. Got ourselves and our clothes cleaned up and chilled out preparing ourselves for another wet day tomorrow.

Kyaukapadang – Nyuang U (Bagan) = 59km

Was a wild wet and windy night and awoke to more heavy rain but we decided to suck it up and hit the road. Rain was so heavy there was surface flooding and debris as we biked through Kyaukapadang.

Our mums always said no prizes for looking good as I rolled on the sun protector sleeves for warmth. Must remember to tie my pants next time. This was my lovely gift from a hotel in Pluak.

Approx 1.5 hours later the rain stopped and we started to dry out. Nancys back tyre was causing a few probs so we stopped on the side of the road to try get it sorted. 2 minutes later a man on a scooter pulls over “May I help you?”. Then a truck pulls up and we have more helpers/observers offering to help. Once we said we were all sorted they gave us a bottle of water and the guy on the scooter was wanting to give us his mangoes (hanging off his handle bars in the pic) He had probably ridden 10km to get them for his family in the Rain! No way we could take them but once again showed us that the Burmese are the most warm hearted generous people.

Was super enjoyable riding the undulating hills as we arrived into Nyuang U. Looked at heaps of places to stay and heaps of choices as it is the low season (start of wet season) town is super quiet. We decided to go posh at the Bagan Star for US$35 per night normally US$70 in the high season and it is worth every penny. They have 80 rooms here and in the high season are fully booked and last night there were only 5 rooms full (10 guests). Feels like a ratio of 10 staff per guest as they all fuss over the crazy kiwis on their bikes.

We have decided to stay here 4 nights and explore Bagan. Just back from great breakfast only people dining. Now time to get on the bikes and potter around as the forecast is for storms everyday. We have done 360km this week so won’t be anything too strenuous today.

Moving forward

Thazi – Meiktila = 25km

Enjoyed a few beers last night at one of the local Thazi beer stations celebrating 2000km.

Departed the “Wonderful Guesthouse” in Thazi with truly wonderful hospitality from this family. They sent us on our merry way forcing water and coke in our hands.

Short day today as 90-100km planned tomorrow to Kyaukapadang as no town to stay at in between. Took our time getting to Meiktila, was a road with plenty of bumps and potholes but not much traffic but lovely rural countryside.

Arrived Meiktila before midday and checked out a couple of rubbish dump hotels that we passed on. Then got to the Peace Path Hotel, lovely staff pretty good room with aircon, nice lake view (across a roof first) and brekkie tomorrow included all for NZ$26.

Went for a stroll around this city which is the 3rd biggest city in the Mandalay state with population 177,000. In 2013 Meiktila made headlines for riots and violence between the minority Muslims and Buddhists where over 43 people were killed and it left 10,000 Muslims homeless and refugees. (It is said that 90% of Burmese are Buddhist)

The busy streets of Meiktila below

The “pink monks” are girls or ladies aged 10yrs and up living in the monestries

Dam hot so beer o’clock a little earlier today. 80c a glass.

2000km into Thazi

Kalaw – Thazi = 93km

Departing the beautiful town of Kalaw at 7am we almost immediately started our descent out of the Mountains with approx 20km of downhill and stunning scenery. So why you might ask are we looping back to Thazi where we caught the slow train to Kalaw 10 days ago. Well these mountains today are that very reason. It would have almost been impossible to have ridden the other direction and with distances too far between accommodation and hills too tough we definitely made the right call. We are now back making our way towards Bagan.

This highway road was steep, with heaps of sharp corners, plenty more roadworks by hand taking place and plenty of trucks and mini buses, so Betty and Nancy rolled down cautiously.

We waved and waved and were constantly calling out Malingaba (hello) to these super friendly people that would greet us as we passed on through.

Yep you have seen right!!!! Then we see 2 elephants. What the hell!!!! Certainly wasn’t for a tourist attraction as no tourists in this neck of the woods.

Drink stop was needed at the 50km as we were well and truly out of the Mountains and noticed a huge increase in temperature with it knocking on the door to 40deg. These hard case guys even started using a hand made fan on us and saying ‘aircon’.

Another village with heaps to see. Then the last 20km was hard work with the heat sapping our energy on a busy flat road that looked and felt like a desert with dry baron land and cacti growing. (Didn’t stop for pics as the end was in sight). It was on this stretch we yet again were tooted from behind (a warning that they have seen us and preparing to pass) that a truck slowed right down and pulled alongside us. The driver then leant out his truck window and handed Andy a cold bottle of water. The kindness of strangers and these lovely folk or we looked totally buggered and needed it.

Rolled into Thazi staying at the same guesthouse, same room as before. Reckon our well deserved beer o’clock will be at the same place also as we celebrate hitting the 2000km today.

Building a highway by hand part 2

Tea drying down the lane and village kids taking a break from their outside shower to see the fluro clad aliens on their doorstep.

Trying again to get the last missing 5 pics from last blog post. Battling with Myanmar Wi-Fi but hey if that’s our biggest stress life isn’t bad.

Loving Kalaw but super excited to be hitting the road tomorrow again.

Building a highway by hand.

Nyuangshwe (Inle) – Kalaw = 58km (May 24)

A tough ride through the Mountains was on the cards today to get from 880m elevation back up to Kalaw at 1320m but reached heights of 1450m. Started off with a stunning 10km ride before we got to the main highway and hit the hills.

Then through the rural villages.

This was our first day of riding on a main highway in Myanmar and yes there were lots of trucks and traffic but so far we have found the drivers to be incredibly courteous and patient. They don’t seem to drive like lunatics unlike in Cambodia and Thailand where the roads often feel like race tracks. Maybe it is because in Myanmar their vehicles are older, incapable of reaching death defying speeds…? Instead we just get left with a parting shot of black exhaust smoke.

Plenty of roadworks taking place and watching them build sections of the highway all by hand was incredible. This guy below is running with a hand held container of hot tar. Meanwhile the ladies are getting the gravel and spreading it by hand.

So it was a dusty steep day but really enjoyable as Betty and Nancy spent some time rolling along the dirt on the side of the road.

We arrived in Kalaw at 12.15pm and was a nice familiar feeling rolling into our favourite restaurant for lunch then back to the same hotel and even same room. Yet again warmly welcomed by the same friendly staff.

Kalaw and Mt Biking surrounding villages = 21km (May 25)

Feeling great after our ride yesterday we thought we would explore the surrounding villages. With Kalaw being a mountainous region it is renowned as one of the best green tea growing regions in the country. Hence there are heaps of tea shops around and free tea served up at every restaurant.

Checking the bike version of maps me is sending us the right direction as we have a story for a rainy day where it didn’t!!!!!!

Our village boy that followed us wasn’t so sure we should be going this direction.

Steep terrain but amazing views.

Drying the tea and turning it. Lane way full of it outside drying.

Village kids surprised to see westerners on their doorstep as yep we got a little lost but pleased we did.

Climbed back out of the valley and on the rocky terrain coming down Betty broke her last drink bottle cage and Nancy broke her first! Insulation tape repair work required. Can’t believe how high brow Betty and Nancy are becoming visiting vineyards, tea shops/plantations and cafes in Myanmar.

To Cafe Kalaw which is a cute spot with a nice view and A great to way to finish our morning adventure ride in the Mountians. Rest day definitely required tomorrow for both Betty and Nancy and us.

Wine in Myanmar?

Hanging in Nyuangshwe (Inle Lake) May 21-23

Chilling out for a couple of days in Inle, maybe as we love our hotel so much.

We didn’t think we were going to be able to top Cambodia with this adventure but this has taken our trip to a new level. Myanmar is truly stunning, it is very clean (unlike Cambodia) and you can tell it’s a proud nation.

So incredibly poor with 37% of the 55 million people living on or below the poverty line. The average minimum wage is NZ$4.8 per day or annually NZ$1650. Such a tough existence in the villages and towns with the daily routine of collecting the water from the well, showering outside, chopping/collecting the wood so they can get the fire pit going to boil some water and cook some food.

Trying to absorb it all here in Inle.

Tomato’s are one of the main good sources grown on the lake and known as the finest in Myanmar. Shame I hate tomato’s! We saw them coming off the boats into Nyuanshwe then being sorted, right down to the crates being made to store them.

A betel nut stand that are found everywhere. We have seen very few smoking cigarettes but stained red teeth and footpaths is the norm.

Stopped in for morning tea here and had a pastry filled with sweet coconut, where this lovely 12yr old boy was working incredibly hard. (School hols at the moment).

Then what do you know we heard that aside from the lake that a vineyard is a main attraction here. Betty and Nancy haven’t been to a vineyard yet so off we toodle the 6km to the Red Mountain Vineyard. Got ourselves a tasting tray of 4 wines each. NZ wine industry certainly doesn’t have to worry about Myanmar as competition but was great fun and lovely view over the vineyard and down to Inle Lake through the smoke haze.

Tasting the local dish of “Shan noodle salad” which is sold as a salad or soup. We are currently in the Shan State and this is their speciality made with onions and tomato’s. The salad tastes like a home made pickle/chutney and the soup smells and tastes like the liquid dripping out the back of a rubbish truck……!

So the pedals will be turning tomorrow as we make our way back up the Mountains to Kalaw. We plan on staying 3 nights as loved it when we were there last week. From there we will be making our way to Bagan so we have some grunty riding days ahead.