What a difference a border can make. We had just crossed the friendship bridge from Thailand to Myanmar. We had left a world of western luxuries to find a world still clearly struggling from recent hardships. After cycling over the border Jasi and I looked at each other and were lost for words. With our shoulders slumped and hands on our hips, Jasi finally spoke. Looking very dejected, she said: “We’re back in India”. With very little information available on bicycle touring Myanmar, what lay ahead was a wonderland.
Stray dogs roamed the streets, houses were supported by bamboo, red beetle nut spit stained the streets and general traffic chaos drowned out all else. The Myanmar people gave us beautiful giggly smiles and respected our space. The people however barely spoke a word of English. Our clearest English and most descriptive hand signals of “bus” were met with confusion and giggles. Our plan was to take a bus 20 hours north-west to the ancient town of Bagan and continue cycling back to Thailand from there. Myanmar had only recently opened its doors to tourists and in this moment, we felt as if we were the first!
On the last two-hour leg of our bus journey into Bagan, Myanmar we had to tie the bicycles to the roof of a van. During the two-hour journey, locals jumped on and off and were amazed to find us sharing the ride. Mid-journey the bus was full and there was no room for an old man waiting roadside. I thought he would wait for the next bus, but instead he climbed onto the roof of the van. The bus took off and I instantly thought, where could he be sitting, our bicycles lay across the entire roof. 200 metres down the road, the bus stopped again, I got outside to check where he could be sitting. He was sitting on our bicycles picking at his teeth. “get off my bicycle, stop sitting on my bicycle”, words I thought I would never say! He climbed down from the roof of the bus and gladly squished into the other half of my seat. He had not a care in the world.
As said, the people of Myanmar are very happy, always smiling and in their own way, beautifully decorated. The women and some men wear a pale beige-yellow facial paint on their cheeks. This facial makeup is made from a certain tree bark and lightens the color of their skin. Beautiful smiling women, with a little rice straw hat make a beautiful picture. The men here all wear a long checkered skirts, tied at the front with a knot. The people of this country have such a recognisable look.
The tourism industry is still finding its way here in Myanmar. As tourists, we must stay in designated hotels and wild camping is strictly prohibited. For the first time we were entering a country where it is illegal for local people to host us. We were not going to receive a family’s friendly invite for dinner or get the chance to camp by the local Wat (temple). Regardless of the restrictions and rules for tourists, there are now areas in Myanmar, where tourism is booming. Two destinations that took our breath away were;
(1) The floating villages upon Inle Lake. Here, the humble fisherman and their unique technique is the main attraction. What’s special about this technique is that they row the boat one legged. As they are rowing with one leg they balance on their other leg at the tip of their little banana fishing boat and throw a special basket net. To watch these fishermen in action feels as if time has stood still for years. Stroke after stroke was truly mesmerising to watch.
Whilst growing in tourism, Inle Lake is predominantly an agricultural force in Myanmar, producing 80% of their tomatoes. What’s fascinating about the tomatoes, is that they are grown on the water. Here, they have cultivated a special growing technique. Firstly they grow hyacinth flowers on the surface of the water. The flowers and the underneath weed bed grows so thick, that it is then capable of supporting the growth of the tomatoes.
(2) The ancient city of Bagan and its 2000 temples, pagodas and stupas. The temples were built between the 11th and 13th centuries. Upon seeing these temples, the overnight bus journey and our decision to travel Myanmar was justified. At sunset we climbed a temple with a makeshift bamboo ladder and looked out at the setting sun and the sea of golden lit temples. This was one of the most special moments of our adventure yet.
Travel is synonymous with the venture into new foods and cuisines. We have always put our faith in the local people and tried their food on our trip so far. Sometimes we tried purely out of respect for our kind hosts and other times we were just too curious. That was until we laid eyes on Myanmar’s cuisine. We couldn’t, we simply had to refuse. There were no spider heads, frog hearts or sheep’s testicles on the menu. It was just that the food hygiene practices spelt undeniably food poisoning for us. Cooked food is placed on the table covered by a flynet. The food is left waiting in 40-degree heat for the next customer. There’s no way of knowing how long your meal has been waiting for you. Enough said.
Not only the food, but also the weather made us struggle in Myanmar. For the past 10 months we have timed the perfect weather through every country. We have had only 5 days of rain and only a few days of uncomfortable hot or cold riding. Our luck had finally run out. Myanmar in May is melting hot! The monsoon rains haven’t yet hit and by midday the temperature soars to 40 plus degrees. Cold coconuts ordered roadside is our only respite from the heat.
To beat the heat, we have only one strategy, race the sun out of bed. At 6am the air is a refreshingly warm 30 degrees. In the process of escaping the heat, we have discovered a beautiful morning Buddhist ritual. As the morning light slowly awakens towns, the Buddhist monks aged between 5 to 80 years old walk the streets accepting food offerings from the local villagers. With their large food carrying pots in hand and dressed in their flowing burgundy red robes, they collect this food for the poor. The Villagers line the road ahead waiting with bowls of rice, chicken, mangoes and everything else. The monks then take the food to the temples where the poor are waiting to receive a meal.
Perhaps the most valuable lesson we have learnt on our travels, is to be grateful. Grateful for the opportunities we have and grateful for the peaceful and fair parts of the world we live in. I have never been so struck by such sympathy and yet feeling so fortunate as I was in the following moment. I was staring out at ten men and women, crushing rocks in a field of more rocks. The work seemed never ending, they were breaking their backs under 40 degree heat. What amazed me further was their capacity to smile, wave and laugh at how ridiculous we must have appeared to them. I couldn’t help but stare in wonder at these people and ask myself, “how are they smiling through all this?”. Are they making the best of their misfortune, had their past been far worse or have they simply no idea of what a life could be outside of these rock fields? Or are they just genuinely happy doing what they’re doing?
Unfortunately, time is starting to catch up with this and our bold plans for SEA will leave us very sweaty. Myanmar simply wasn’t our favorite country to tour and we were longing to return to the amazing food of Thailand. For these reasons, we decided to take a bus back to Thailand. Ironically, on our last day in Myanmar, we experienced some of the kindest help from strangers so far. On our final day, we were treated so well by the smiling Myanmar people. A family insisted to give us money for dinner (that we then spent on celebratory beer, chips and popcorn), another lady organized our bus ticket and gave us her number and all details should we encounter any problem and another man made four phone calls to check that our long distance bus was on time. Perhaps we didn’t give Myanmar enough time, but we leave having experienced a few magic moments and of their innocent giggly smiles in mind.
Talk to you soon
Matt and Jasi