Cycling in Burma/Myanmar
Burma was always on our radar as a place we were excited to visit and explore. Oozing with culture and colour, the country had been closed to foreigners for so long, and we were desperate to get a peek before the arrival of tourists en masse. With this in mind, we cycled through Nepal and North East India before crossing over the border to Burma in April of 2015.
I have chosen to use the name Burma as opposed to Myanmar. The two names mean the same thing and both have been used for centuries. The pro-Myanmar camp argues that Myanmar is the more inclusive name as Burma only refers to the country’s largest ethnic group — the Bamar. However, Burma’s democracy movement prefers the name Burma because they do not accept the legitimacy of the unelected military regime that changed the official name of the country. Internationally, both names are recognised.
It was difficult to find out any information about crossing the border by bicycle between Moreh (in the state of Manipur, India), and Tamu, Burma. It turned out that this was because we were some of the first people to successfully do it in recent times. With regular rioting and violence, the Indian government had imposed martial law on the state of Manipur in 1981 and it had been closed to foreigners since. Martial Law was lifted for a period of time around 2014/2015. However, only two months after we cycled through a government curfew and lockdown was imposed, with children unable to go to school, government offices closed and markets shut. This is one reason why crossing from India to Burma is so difficult. The second is the relationship between India and Burma, which can be best, described as tumultuous.
Crossing the border
Although the country is opening up to the outside world, it seems to be doing so reluctantly. If you are travelling independently overland this ‘reluctance’ may be better described as suspicion. We required (or so we were led to believe) a special permission to cross the land border between India and Myanmar, which was a bit of a pain to arrange and expensive ($100 per person!). However you can also fly into Yangon, the country’s largest city and start your cycle tour from there. This makes the visa process much easier.
The architecture was different and people were waving at us with beaming smiles. It was great. It was also hot, really hot.
Heading into Burma after months of being in India was a big change in many ways, but a very welcome one. It is incredible what a difference a few kilometres can make. Upon crossing the border we were immediately in a much tidier environment, things seemed more organised, there were newish Japanese cars on the road, the architecture was different and people were waving at us with beaming smiles. It was great. It was also hot, really hot.
For the previous few weeks we were in the hills of Manipur at a much higher altitude than the valleys of Myanmar. After a few days we had hit the highest temperatures of the trip, mid 40s, which turned our drinking water into a bottle full of hot tea by the afternoon. Our routine changed to adapt to the temperatures: we were waking up at 4.30 or 5am and taking mid-day naps in whatever shade we could find. The night didn’t bring much relief from the heat, as we would sweat just as much when the sun went down. When we did manage to camp, we needed to find a raised wooden platform (which are really common, they’re everywhere) to sleep on because the ground was too hot, even well after sunset.
An expansive Burmese meal
Eating in Myanmar was a treat; when you could find it. Our first Burmese meal was a spectacle. Dish after dish, rivalling that of a Spanish tapas extravaganza, this cacophony of flavours and variety made for two happy cyclists. Mango salads, steamed greens, stir-fried chicken and pork sticky rice — it was delicious. Generally you could get a pretty good meal for around $2 per person across the country. You have to take the good with the bad as the smell of fermented fish was often in the air — the Burmese seem to really go nuts for the stuff. There were also surprisingly good donuts, filled with shredded coconut, or plain, which are dipped into some sweet milky tea. And don’t forget loads of tasty and exotic fruit. ‘Bijou’ — or roasted crickets — is a very popular snack, especially with a beer or two!
All food in Burma is packaged to the extreme; it is like playing pass the parcel, with layer after layer of wrapping. This regularly bothered us due to the amount of plastic waste we were discarding, however for the first time ever I saw a half decent reason for it in Burma: ANTS! These little blighters are everywhere, in everything, and are always present. Lean your bike against a wall for a moment and guess who’s hitching a ride? Ants! Open a package of any type of food and eat half. Bad move. You know who’s enjoying the other half? Ants! Want to take a break from the heat? Have a rest on a tiled floor in a pagoda only to be woken up by the fiery bite of dozens of little red what? ANTS! You get the picture. It was insanely annoying!
We did hear of other cycle tourists being followed by ‘secret police’ on mopeds and others having run-ins with the police or the army.
Other than ants there were a few other reasons we were not always at ease cycle touring in Burma. Camping is not allowed, nor is staying with locals. You are supposed to stay at a ‘tourist-approved’ hotel each night. These hotels are often pricey by Asia standards, as the government takes a cut, $25 dollars is around the cheapest we found and it was pretty basic. In some of the larger cities we did find a couple of Warmshowers hosts too (Warmshowers is couch-surfing but specifically for cyclists and is awesome!).
We did manage to wild camp a few nights and stayed in some monasteries. However, unless you are on a long cycle tour with a very tight budget I would recommend sticking to the rules and staying in approved accommodation. We did hear of other cycle tourists being followed by ‘secret police’ on mopeds and others having run-ins with the police or the army. We seemed to get lucky as, although we were followed by a low budget ‘spy’ on our first two days, after that he disappeared. We didn’t notice anyone else following us — perhaps due to the remote road we chose to take.
Religion in Burma
About 90% of the population of Burma are Buddhists. Theravada Buddhism has been the national religion for about 1,000 years in Burma and you can clearly see evidence of it around the country. There are pagodas, monasteries and monuments to Buddha everywhere. The gold pinnacle of a stupa is a sight that you will see in nearly every landscape you pass through in the country, no matter how remote. Monks seem to make up a sizeable part of society and their burgundy coloured robes really stand out. In any town you will see a few dozen of them collecting alms in their begging bowls or just hanging out at teashops. We also saw many nuns in Myanmar; they are in segregated monasteries and sport pink robes with brown scarfs.
Most of the temples and stupas in Myanmar are gold in colour, but some of the temples are actually made from real gold – covered in gold leaf which can measure up to 6 to 8 inches thick! The richness bestowed on religious buildings is astounding and a sign of the importance to the country. Also the quirky and sometimes astonishing monuments to Buddha — from a forest filled with a grid of miniature Buddha spaced two metres apart to a huge reclining Buddha 75m long — make Burma all that more interesting to travel through.
We decided to ignore everyone’s advice and take the more direct and less populated route towards Mandalay along the ‘highway’ as shown on our map. We headed into the countryside and were greeted with smiling faces, beautiful landscape and hot, hot weather. The first hiccup along the way was the road suddenly ending at a river. It turned out there was no bridge yet, and the highway we were on was not much of a highway. However, we were quite happy to get off the beaten track, so we loaded up our bikes onto a small, fairly wobbly boat and crossed the river into the wild. There was no turning back.
Now committed, we cycled on to find some pretty remote but beautiful riding through kilometres and kilometres of teak forests. The road condition varied from bad, to bad with sand, to bad with very, very steep inclines! It was tough cycling but we were away from police tails and had enough food stocked up to be happy. It also meant that we could camp again, which is always great. We passed through some small villages and occasionally found a place or two that sold soft drinks or fruit, but otherwise there was very little on the road. The heat at this point was often unbearable, mid 40s, and during midday it was too intense to cycle.
Our first city visit was in Mandalay, where we had a whistle stop tour of the sights and managed to cross the famous U Bein Bridge. U Bein is the longest teak bridge in the world and is famous for its picturesque setting and the monks who cross it each morning to collect alms.
Crossing U Bein Bridge
Cycling south from Mandalay saw a change in the landscape from densely vegetated tropical to arid and sparse. Along the way we passed by friendly farmers tending their fields, rice paddies, cattle pulled carts and kids splashing about in the communal bathing areas. We arrived into Bagan and were blown away — the site is spectacular and huge. Over its 42 square kilometres there remains more than 2,000 temples and stupas of the estimated 13,000 that once existed in the area. It is amazing cycling around the region and experiencing the landscape dotted with spires of temples in every direction.
Marco Polo described Bagan in the 13th Century as: “One of the finest sights in the world, being exquisitely finished, splendid and costly. When illuminated by the sun the temples are especially brilliant and can be seen from the great distance.” This former capital of a lost empire is still a marvel to this day. Although, partially rebuilt with a blatant disregard to authenticity, conservation practices, materials or records, the archaeological area of Bagan is still worth visiting. Sadly the government has rebuilt many of the temples in a far from sympathetic manner often using some artistic license in recreating lost structures. A UNESCO representative described the area like this: “A Disney-style fantasy version of one of the world’s great religious and historical sites is being created by that government.”
Ethics of being a tourist in Burma
Although dissolved in 2010, the military junta of Myanmar still exists in a large way. Many of the elected officials in the government are high-ranking retired military personnel. And although tax dollars may not be filtered into the wrong channels as blatantly as they once were, we tried to minimize our impact on supporting oppressive forces as much as possible. We chose to limit the money we brought into the country, which would make its way to the government and their friends. Entrance fees to large tourist sites in the country rarely go to the site itself for maintenance or upkeep. Therefore we always avoided paying, especially Bagan Archaeological site and Shwedagon Pagoda. Instead we opted to make donations that go directly to the sites themselves. Monasteries regularly have donation boxes or you can give them to monks directly. Also specific to Bagan, you can donate to the Archaeological Society directly. It is good to be informed on the current political situation before visiting as it changes so regularly. That way you can try to avoid being a part of the problem.
After Bagan it was back on the road and a straight shot south to Yangon. The heat was no less intense than when we arrived; it did not feel like rainy season. The landscape south of Bagan remained fairly arid and bare, we even passed through several oil fields with the classic Pumpjacks in every direction, which was interesting to cycle through. There were a few patches of green where field workers were busy planting and picking but otherwise the road was much the same, with rolling hills and more climbs and descents. Food was proving hard to come by (unless you wanted instant noodles) and after a few days of really hot weather, slow progress and some boring landscape, we decide to hop on a train to Yangon.
This proved to be trickier than we had expected. We headed to the first town with a train station only to find that it ran a local train to the next village once a day, at 5am. We were told to head on to the next village. Upon arrival we found that there was a single train per day, but luckily it left in the evening. Nothing fancy, no sleeper cars, no a/c, just a bumpy old beater of a train that dated from the British Colonial period. Two tickets were 8,600 kyat plus 5,000 kyat for the bikes, making for a grand total of just under £8, so we weren’t complaining.
Workers in rice fields
You aren’t supposed to bring Burmese kyat in or out of the country. Be warned: ATMs that say 24 hours often are not and actually keep banking hours, so they will not dispense money after 7pm or on a Sunday. If you stay in a hotel, they will ask for US dollars. Make sure you have pristine US dollars that are undamaged and without any marks at all.
The train took about 13 hours to cover around 450km and it was as bumpy as anything. The seats were too short for Andre (at 6ft 1) to lay down on, but myself and the rest of the Burmese passengers fitted no problem. Top tip if you plan to take the train —bring a pillow!
After an eventful journey we arrived into Yangon in a rainstorm. Yangon was far more developed than the rest of the country, but also disorganized and poorly planned. Dotted around the city are numerous beautiful colonial buildings although sadly in various states of disrepair. The city seemed to be in a perpetual state of gridlock with a seemingly nonsensical one-way system of streets. Mopeds and motorcycles are also banned in the city, a fact I hadn’t noticed even after a few days there! This adds to the traffic problem: too many cars on the road.
Yangon to the border
With our visas soon to expire we headed east to the border with Thailand. We managed to make good progress on the first day, and decided to have one last stop in the town of Bago to check out the Snake Pagoda (with a gargantuan live snake inside) and the three giant reclining Buddha. We managed to get lost many times trying to track down these sights by ourselves, which on the up side meant we got to see all of hidden Bago’s quirks and charms.
Detours, heat and the tough roads meant we soon realised we were not going to make the border in time by bicycle. So we did what any hard-core cycle tourists would do and hitchhiked! After only a few minutes of waving down anything big enough to carry us and our bikes an 18-wheeler stopped with two friendly Burmese drivers. We squished into the back of the cab after heaving our bikes into their empty flatbed. With no common language, after a few hours we figured out we were going to the same border town as the truck.
Although only a hundred kilometres away it took hours to get there. We were travelling in a convoy with a few other trucks. We made a few stops for food and also to drop off some bribes (we think) as wads of cash were wrapped up in a piece of paper and held together with an elastic band. The cab was also filled with a few stacks of 5,000 kyat notes. There was some sketchy business happening for sure. How much was ‘normal practice’ for Burma we will never know.
The guys were friendly throughout, offering us fried crickets and water regularly. The landscape was amazing, really different to anything else we had seen in Myanmar so far — green fields stretching out for miles, forests and limestone mountains.
As we reached the last stretch of the road to the border, and right before the road climbed to Myawaddy, we stopped. At the foot of the mountains is the beginning of the one-way road we had read so much about. The road alternates directions each day, as it is too narrow for more than one vehicle to use at one time. Today was traffic from Thailand, therefore we were stopped for the night. We were kindly given the truck’s cab to sleep in and the gentlemanly drivers slept in a hammock in the back.
Heading to the border in a lorry cab
Five hours later we were off again bright and early around 5am. The climb in a truck was hard work, of us were happy to not be cycling on the bumpy gravel road, but even more happy not to be sharing the narrow road with trucks as big as the one we were in. The line of trucks all climbing to the border was long, stretching several kilometres back and there must have been at least 25 in the convoy. The climb took around a half an hour before reaching the border town of Myawaddy where we bid farewell to our trucker friends who refused to take any money from us.
Burma was a blast and we will never forget it. We felt privileged to visit the country now as it makes its transition and opens up more to the world. The people were unbelievably friendly, welcoming and made our time in the country what it was. Burma will certainly go down as one of the highlights of our trip despite (or maybe because of) the challenges we faced while in the country. However, Thailand was beckoning us and we were happy to make the jump back into civilization.
Friendly young Burmese monk
This article first appeared on https://www.cyclinguk.org/article/great-rides-cycling-burmamyanmar
To read more about Claire and Andre’s cycling adventures, visit their website at www.puncturesandpanniers.com.