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Myanmar part two

Over the last month, cycling has taken an unwanted back seat as a large scale earthquake, unplanned border closing and senseless red-tape have combined together and succeeded in stopping me in my tracks. When intertribal fighting and a 7.5 magnitude earthquake descended on Manipur State, India, authorities took it into their hands and shut the border indefinitely, leaving me in an unclear situation. Taking a flight was out of the question and even thinking about going back to China sent a shiver down my spine. So I made an easy choice and decided to have a mini sojourn in my five year sojourn, where Mandalay would become my basecamp.

Nick, a friend from home teaching English abroad, welcomed me with open arms as I arrived worn out and stressed with the above predicament. Soon after a few beers, nice food, and speaking unaltered Australian slang, I came to realise that a little break from the bike couldn’t hurt. Once more, another friend from home also flew into Mandalay, completing our three man ‘rat pack’. In a city where beer is as cheap as water, karaoke bars appear on every corner, and where time is only a relative concept, we managed to have quite a bit of fun. Truth be told, I got to see a part of Myanmar that I would have completely bypassed if I were by myself.

Mandalay Palace, Myanmar

Nightlife in Myanmar incurs the same new age innocence that has flourished throughout the country since the opening of borders. It’s as if they have blended western movies with their own harmless interpretation. We first visited a ‘dancing’ bar aptly named Box Sweat, where a mixture of girls mimed songs and danced on stage. We were ushered in, wide-eyed and ready to revel as three young men occasionally do. To our confusion, or better yet disappointment, dancing bars were entirely different to home. So this is what they mean by culture shock? Creepy men still leered in the dark surrounded by alcohol, but that’s where the familiarities ended. The only connections taking place were men paying for flowers to be given to the fully dressed women – a compliment for their singing perhaps?

​Most bars close around midnight in Mandalay, and Ryan, Nick and I would cycle home inevitably stopping at a KTV (karaoke) bar; the only places left open after midnight to quench our never ending thirst. We’d be steered into a private room with projector screens, tables, mirrors and microphones, with waiters then asking, “How many girls would you like?” Apparently you can hire girls to sing with you, and after looking at the bill one night we were given a little insight into the social standing of women in Myanmar. The room cost approximately $20 per night, whilst a girl only cost $2. I’d pay more for a can of Coke back home.

Hospitality Abounds, Myanmar

Whilst Nick was occupied with teaching, Ryan and I decided to hire a 125cc motorbike and venture out past Bagan and into Chin state. I could lie or say something cliché about the lust of adventure, but the only real reason we went out there was to try and see some opium fields and photograph tribal women with tattooed faces.

A five hour ride due West unearthed mythical Bagan, arguably Myanmar’s most photogenic attraction. In a 230-year building frenzy up until 1287 and the Mongol invasions, Bagan’s kings commissioned more than 4000 Buddhist temples. Whilst many have been destroyed, there are still thousands that sprawl around the surroundings. With no official starting point, our pending arrival could have been marked by the ever-increasing amount of temples and white people. More than likely it was the collection booth I noticed out of the corner of my eye; where I guess we were supposed to pay the $25 entrance fee. I considered telling Ryan to turn around, but a combination of speed and being a tight arse soon solved the dilemma. More money for beers I guessed.

We rented bicycles and rode around some of the temples in the setting sun, dodging other cyclists and kamikaze scooter riders. For me – in what has been a continual theme in Myanmar – people continually trying to sell you things have marred the major tourist attractions and their religious zeal. Shops were even set up adjoining the very temples that everyone comes to see. We rode down to the waterfront and a hawker sold us a boat cruise out on the river to watch the sunset. Ryan loaded up with beers and we headed out in our private long tail boat to gloat in the joys of travel and not having to work the next day. As usual, a few beers turned into many beers and we ended up drinking Myanmar beer, in a Swiss owned bar, talking to Koreans, listening to ‘The Beatles’. We had planned an early morning as we had plenty of kilometres to cover, but riding home I had a sobering thought about how drunk we really were

One of the hardest written languages I've seen, Myanmar

My throbbing headache started as soon as my alarm went of and would continue for the next nine hours we spent on the bike. We left the flat plains and started ascending into the mountains along steep, winding and often potholed roads. Ryan, being the forever anarchist, would deliberately speed over the crater like potholes knowing I was in a fragile state. I could distinctly hear laughs as I was jackhammered up and down at the rear of the bike, with my private parts copping the brunt. The afternoon soon arrived and we set about trying to find accommodation.

​After getting knocked back in two towns, where there were no hotels approved for foreigners, and with the sun setting, we knew night riding was an unwanted certainty. Complicating the issue, our front light would spontaneously switch off and the only way of starting the bike was by push starting. We never intended riding during the night and our attire was limited to thongs, t-shirts and one jumper. So we froze our way through the mountains and arrived at a petrol station, helplessly inquiring about accommodation in town. An attendant chaperoned us to a local place where the owner begrudgingly accepted us – consequently breaking the law. We were shown a room in what resembled a crack den and accepted straight away.

The next day we purchased some clothes for the early morning cold and then ran down the street in thongs push starting the bike; much to the local’s amusement. When we arrived back in Mandalay, eight hours later, we’d clocked up over 700kms in three days. By far the best attraction in Myanmar isn’t Bagan or Inle Lake, but the everyday people you meet in rural Myanmar. I’ll remember the faces of locals completely aghast at seeing two white guys cruising around on a motorbike and who would then instantly make you feel welcome and treat you as one of their own. It’s an attraction that not many tourists get to see and I was stoked to share the experience with one of my mates.

Thank you - A massive thanks to Ryan for coming out to Myanmar and spending some quality time together. Will cherish those moments for a while (except for when you filmed me going to the toilet). And of course Nick. To put me up for nearly a month and consistently treating me like a king is something that I will never forget. I hope after this ride is finished I can make a way to pay you back!

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