“…that’s how I rate countries – how easy it is to get a smile.”
Chris Hickman, round-the-world cyclist
It is amazing what a single smile can do – that warm, uninhibited, ear-to-ear grin that can be found all over Myanmar. I had experienced a challenging last few months and encounters with the amazing Burmese people was exacted what a needed. The country welcomed me with open arms and helped me to find my way again. While Thailand is also worthy of the title, Myanmar is, without hesitation, a land of smiles.
As a country, Myanmar has gone through serious change in recent years. Until 2010, the country was ruled by a military junta and many areas were off limits to foreigners. That same year, Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy was released from house arrest. Every year, more and more travel restrictions are being lifted and tourists are flocking to the country. The general consensus seems to be that the time to visit Myanmar is now, before it becomes essentially spoiled by tourism.
With the tourism industry still being fairly new in the country, most travellers seem to stick within the “triangle” of Bagan, Inle Lake and Yangon. With a bicycle, you can ride a mere 5km to get off of the beaten path. But my goal was to really get off of the beaten path. My biggest draw to the country was mountainous, remote and only recently opened to tourists (sort of): Chin State.
My ride began in Mandalay, where I would head West into the hills of Chin. I spent a great few days in Mandalay with a wonderful couch surfing host Su Su who took me around the city. The first few days out of the city were flat, moderately busy and of course, quite warm – I was travelling in Myanmar at the hottest time of the year. I was greeted with never-ending smiles, waves and shouts of Min ga la ba! (hello!). At my first lunch stop I came to realize how huge the portions were. I simply said the word ta min (rice) and pointed to some vegetables and out came a table full of different dishes. When I would finish one thing, it would be refilled. All of this cost arounf $1.50.
The countryside of Myanmar is still very traditional, with ox carts moving up and down the roads and no sign of intrusion from the Western world.
Smart phones, however are in abundance in the country no matter where you set foot. When I would ask to take photos of locals, they too were keen to use their Samsungs to take photos of me. I enjoyed the reciprocal nature of this. Up until recently, a sim card was only accessible for the very wealthy in Myanmar. An Australian and long time resident of Myanmar in Yangon told me that he paid $6000 for his first sim card. Now, they cost about $2.
In one village I was offered accommodation for the night at a restaurant. It is illegal for locals to host foreigners, but I thought that I would take the chance. About an hour later, the head of the village appeared and informed me that immigration said that I would have to cycle 20km back the way I came to a guesthouse. At first I tried to protest, saying that I was too tired and it would be too dark, but I knew that I had little choice. So I raced back and checked into Pale’s one ramshackle guesthouse.
It had been a few months since I had cycled a proper hill and the ride to Kyaww village was a rude wake up call. About 10km from the village, completely beat and stupefied from the heat, I pulled up to a tiny village in search of a cold drink. Within minutes, literally half the village came excitedly running over to this tiny shop to check out this stranger on a bicycle. One very friendly and boisterous woman knew a few of words of English – “Where you come from?” “Very beautiful!” I was feeling quite out of it but got quickly infected by the huge smiles all around and laughter. When there are a lack of words, a good laugh is always a great way to connect. Drinks and snacks were thrusted into my hands and I started to come out of my stupor.
When my energy had returned I said goodbye to the enthusiastic villagers and slowly inched up the steep hill towards Kyaww.
I was relieved to finally have reached the village. I was given another warm welcome by some local guys in the military out for a few drinks at my guesthouse restaurant. They were eager to speak to me and practice their English. They said that I was the first foreigner that had ever spoken to. They treated me to some tasty Myanmar dishes and beer.
I was now getting closer and closer to Chin State and Gangaw was the last major town en route. It was still a bit of a mystery whether or not I was allowed to travel in the area. I had only read a report from one cyclist who had successfully travelled the area in 2014. Until 2013, foreigners required a guide to travel in Chin State. I had read that parts of the area were open, but overall it was still unclear. I decided to take the chance anyway.
I left Gangaw at sunrise the next day, taking a roundabout way out of town to avoid passing the police station in case they questioned my route. When I was clear of the town, I entered another village and hit the start of the dirt track towards Chin State – so far, so good.
The traffic became almost non existent, with the odd motorbike passing, clouding the air with dust. I passed through my first village in Chin State. Buddhist stupas were suddenly replaced by crosses. The entire state is Christian as a result of missionaries entering the region and spreading the faith. Myanmar as a country is about 80 per cent Buddhist, with a mere 2 per cent practicing Christianity. I stopped at a small shop and had several cans of my favourite super sweet lychee juice before heading off.
Then, a girl on a motorbike drove slowly past me “Hello! Are you hungry?”she asked. I was starving. I followed her to her house where she fed me rice, noodles, fish curry and coffee. She was a pastor at her local church. She tried to speak what English she knew and when she was unsure of a word it was replaced by the greatest laugh. That night, she told me that I could stay in Nabong village, about 20km away with a woman named Nitar that could speak some English.
The road started to climb steadily and the views to the surrounding hills began to open up. The fading light cast a glow on the land, exaggerating its contours. Finally, I was back in my element. With all of the kind encounters and this new hint of an exciting landscape I was feeling fully energized and back to my old self.
When I arrived in Nabong I asked for “Nitar.” When I was introduced, it took about 10 minutes of confused looks for me to figure out that I was speaking to the wrong Nitar. Eventually a boy took me to a small shop where he said I could stay the night. The very friendly other Nitar approached me and began to speak English. She had spent two years in India studying the language. I was given a sarong and taken to the back of the shop where I could wash with a bucket. I was fed well and given a place to sleep on the floor. I eventually fell asleep to the sound Christian sermons in English belting from a CD player. Chin people are very passionate about their faith. I wish I had slept better that night to prepare for the rigours of the next day, which would, in short, kick my ass.
Now, the hills really began to appear. The scenery grew increasingly spectacular as the rough dirt road climbed higher, clinging precariously to the mountainside. Landslides in August of 2015 had caused significant damage to the area and there was a fair amount of road construction as a result. I was often stopped with groups of motorbikes for upwards of 45 minutes while machines repaired the road. The steep grade and the rough surface eventually led to a lot of pushing.
I was starting to truly feel discouraged with my slow pace. When this happens, I sometimes stop and look towards the mountains to remind myself what I am working for. I pay attention to my breaths, bring out a smile and then it all comes into perspective. It was a spectacular, but very tough ride. Eventually Lohtaw village appeared, cradled by the dramatic green hills. In my state of fatigue, I knew this was the end of my day – a mere 37km.
With a clear lack of flat ground to camp on, I decided to push my luck again to see if I could stay in the village. Because of the police regulations, I never asked outright and would only accept invitations. I went to buy a drink at a tiny shop and the owner put two hands together and made the sleeping gesture. Hoping there were no police around, I accepted. I was fed another massive meal and surrounded by smiling faces all evening. I sat with an older woman for a few moments, watching the sun set over Chin’s dramatic hills through a window. Before bedtime, the family gathered around the TV to watch a music video of a local woman singing Christian songs to the backdrop of the Chin landscape. This became a new type of lullaby that eventually put my tired body to rest.
It is a common theme on my cycling tour that a tough day is often followed by a better one. While I was getting used to climbing a vertical kilometre, dropping a vertical kilometre and climbing again I had found my rhythm. In Chin State, my plan had been to camp the entire time to avoid attention from the authorities. This proved to be very difficult as finding flat ground seemed close to impossible, unless it was a village.
Since I had been successful for 2 nights staying in towns, I wondered if I would get lucky again. I passed many run down villages, where aid groups had set up various water pumps and facilities. Chin is the poorest state in Myanmar. Many shy faces peered out to observe this odd foreigner on a bicycle. Some looks were just of pure confusion or shock. Sometimes a slow grin emerged. I eventually rolled into Razua village just as the sun was setting. Arriving at a shop, many excited people ran over saying Min ga la ba! Immediately I was offered a place to stay behind a shop. Many people came over to help me carry my bags inside. It wasn’t long before I was approached by two men who spoke good English. One of them was the son of the village’s pastor and the other his friend and politician doing inspections of the area. The politician said that I could spend the night with him, but he would have to inform immigration. Shit, I thought. This was probably the end of my ride in Chin State. I left my bike at the shop and put my bags into a van to bring to the pastor’s home. I was given a warm welcome by the pastor and my own room to sleep. The pastor’s son took my passport and went to immigration to inform them of my presence. When he returned, he said everything was fine. I breathed a sigh of relief.
The politician asked me if I would join them for a special dinner. Dog was on the menu. He asked if I would be OK with eating it or if he should prepare something different for me. I am not vegetarian and I didn’t want to inconvenience my kind hosts so I (half-heartedly) agreed. The taste was actually better than expected.
I had some very interesting conversation with the politican and learned about his involvement in the pro-democracy movement in his region. I also learned more about Chin State and the lack of funding from the government. Many people don’t have access to basic health care and because of the remote location there is a lack of transport to get patients to a proper facility. This was a horrible truth that I would witness first hand the following day.
The next morning I was taken out for a tasty breakfast with my hosts. I learned later that sitting at the table next to us were two police officers that wanted to know why a foreigner was in the town. The pastor’s son had offered to drive me (at a cost) to Madupi the next day, 100km away, where there was a guesthouse. After their discussion with the police, this offer now became mandatory – cycling was no longer an option and I would have no choice but to take transport. I was grateful to be in the company of these two very kind men that I believed helped get me out of a tricky situation. Technically you needed a permit to be in this area that I didn’t have.
Before loading the van to go to Madupi, my friends drove me around the town on their motorbikes. We drove and then hiked to a high point where a giant while cross loomed above the village. The views all around were amazing. The pastor’s son pointed to a valley in the distance with a village above. He said that in that area an entirely different language was spoken and in the next valley an entirely different language again. The main Chin language itself is very different from Burmese, using the roman alphabet. We headed backed down the hill and I packed up my bike into the van and we started the trip towards Madupi.
We were stopped many times by construction along the rough, narrow road. After one road block my driver stopped and went towards a crowd of people gathered by the side of the road. He informed me that there was a very sick woman that needed to be transported to Madupi. When we drove in closer I saw that she was on the back of a motorbike, slumped lifelessly onto the driver. Her feet were tied down to prevent her from falling off. We were in a van large enough to transport her, but due to the lack of ventilation we were unable to take her. We passed her several times along the road, collapsed into someone’s arms, surrounding by a group of people with motorbikes. It was a tragic and eye opening thing to witness. As the politician had explained to me the night before, this was the reality faced by the people of Chin State. With a lack of proper transport and infrastructure for the sick, these people were essentially on their own. It took over 5 hours to cover the 100km to Madupi. The entire time I couldn’t get the image of that poor sick woman out of my head and I felt guilty that we were unable to help her.
Stretching between Madupi and Mindat, the end of my Chin state ride was a rollercoaster of a mountain road – stunning in every sense. With about 100 miles between the two, I knew I would have no choice but to camp, somehow. I didn’t want to be kicked out of a village for a second time.
The road cut through lush cloud forest that morphed into a drier landscape dotted with conifers as I gained elevation. Eventually the road topped out at 2700m.
I passed a few tiny villages where many happy Thanaka painted faces beamed away at me. I was able to camp twice successfully and enjoyed the cooler nights in the tent.
In Mindat I saw English signs again and evidence of tourism. It had been a thrill to ride through such a remote, untouched part of the country. For me, this was the absolute highlight of cycling in Myanmar. Sure, I had pushed the boundaries of the law a little bit – but I was lucky that everything worked out.
From Mindat I had a 2000m descent ahead of me into the sweltering lowlands. Chin State had given me all that I had hoped for and I knew that the road ahead wouldn’t be nearly as thrilling. While the maximum temperature in the hills reached into the high 20s, I would be riding in 35-40 degree heat for the rest of my time in the country.
The heat hung on me like a heavy coat, which made cycling hard work. I would start my rides at 6am, when the temperature had already hit 28 degrees. It would be bearable until about 11am and afterwards became overwhelming. Sugary lychee drinks helped to keep me going. I pushed myself to reached Pauk village, where a local had told me there was a guesthouse. It looked like a decent sized place on my map. When I arrived, I thought that the locals had misunderstood me when I said “Pauk?” and they nodded. It barely looked like a village, with a few houses along the road. I said the word for “guesthouse” in Burmese and an ethusiastic girl ran to my side and started to walk with me. She took me to a home that didn’t appear to be a guesthouse – rather, just someone’s house. A smiling woman came outside and told me to bring my bike in. When I asked “dal be lout lae” (how much?) She just shook her head – no payment necessary. She was a local teacher with a heart made of pure gold. Her house was largely empty – it had once been a shop, but she had lost everything in a fire. Despite having so little, she refused to accept any type of payment. I was honoured, but slightly skeptical, expecting immigration to show up at any time and kick me out. Instead, the girl that brought me there took me by the hand and we walked over to a family home. There, I was seated at a table on the floor and food, sweets and tea were shoved in my direction. One of the women there got a boy to take down my passport details in a book. This didn’t seem very official, but it didn’t bother me one bit. Next I was taken to the girl’s house where I was able to wash and had my face painted with Thanaka.
Then she took me back to the teacher’s home where I would stay the night. Using a translation app on their phones, the ladies asked me if I wanted to go to a “fun fair” in the town. They each took a hand and I was paraded around the town like a celebrity. We even passed by a row of police that didn’t seem too bothered by the fact that a foreigner was there. First we went to the fair, then the monastery, the local school and then to some friends’ houses. At every location a table was laid out in front of me and loaded up with food – curries, rice, chocolate, candy, fruits – it was overwhelming. Everybody was very excited to have me in their village. That night there was a concert on at the fun fair and I was invited. It was one of the most bizarre performances I have seen in a while – in a “so bad it’s good” type of way. Really, it was like something out of a David Lynch film. Three men heavily made up wearing ridiculous gaudy costumes performed a slow, uncoordinated dance while singing out of tune. In the background were flashy lights and a row of women in fancy sarongs slowly waving fans back in forth. Some locals were getting rowdy towards the front and a bunch of police descended on them to break up the mayhem. Everytime I saw an officer I avoided eye contact in case they questioned my presence there. When my host saw me yawning, she suggested that we go back to her house. I didn’t object. As entertaining as the show was, I had reached my saturation point for the absurd.
My evening in Pauk was one of the most memorable village stays I have ever had.
My next destination was Bagan, the most famous site in all of Myanmar. I was looking forward to meeting a cyclist friend Dan, the Self Propelling Particle from the UK, whom I had met last August in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
Bagan was an ancient kingdom that existed between the 9th and 13th centuries. At its height around 10,000 Buddhist temples were constructed on the plains. Now over 2000 remain. Despite the very touristy nature of the town, it is definitely a place worth seeing. The most impressive part is the sheer scale of the place. In reality, however, the majority of the day was spent hanging out in air conditioned room, only emerging to watch the sunrise and sunsets over the temples.
Sometimes I feel guilty being so lazy, but Dan and our new Swiss cyclist friend Michael were of the same mindset.
On the way out of Bagan I cycled the first 40km with Michael, who was on his way into Chin State. I was thrilled to run into Ania and Szymon, a Polish couple I had met cycling on the Pamir highway! The cycling touring world is really a small one.
From Bagan, my daily encounters with the wonderful people of Myanmar made up for the hot and dull cycling. Many smiles, along with “minga la ba!” “where are you go?” were the bulk of my daily conversations. I stopped often for cold drinks and to recover in the shade. I was sometimes given a fly swatter/make shift fan to cool myself off. Sometimes, the locals would even offer to do the fanning for me! Luckily, all along the roads were clay pots filled with cold drinking water, which was a great relief on a hot day.
There was a great deal of burning for agricultural purposes taking place, saturating the sky in a thick haze. Most of Route 2 was tree lined, but some exposed sections were hellishly hot. With such a dry, charred landscape burning it had an apocalyptic feel.
Time was starting to run out on my visa and I would have no choice but to skip some sections by bus. With temperatures exceeding 40C and the traffic getting increasingly heavy I didn’t hesitate.
In Yangon I reunited with Philip and Victor – two other cyclists whom I had met in Bangkok. I was also happy to meet Yoli, a solo female cyclist from Spain – only the 6th I had ever met!
I made a trip with Philip to Aung San Suu Kyi’s house where she had been under arrest for many years. Unfortunately, no bit of persuasion could get us inside, so we took photos by the entrance.
In Yangon I also visited one of the ‘must see’ sights – the 99m tall Shwedagon Pagoda. It is made with 27 metric tons of gold leaf and adorned with thousands of diamonds. I was very impressed.
After, I decided to skip another busy section of road to the border with Thailand at Mae Sot. On the way, I was able to ride a nice, traffic – free road: the old highway from Kawkareik.
Reflecting on my ride in the country, I realize that the biggest draw to this place is the interactions with the local people. While the stunning Chin State provided me with first rate adventure cycling, the remainder of my route offered little in terms of scenery.
I will always believe that good humans are everywhere, but there really seems to be an overabundance in Myanmar. Seeing so many smiles on a daily basis is like therapy for the soul. It was something that I really needed and to this amazing country I will be forever grateful.
What’s next?: Currently I am in Chiang Mai, Thailand and will fly to Taipei to spend three weeks cycling around Taiwan.