After such a long journey to get to Yangon, we couldn’t have picked a better place to stay than the Bike World Inn. Jeff, the owner, has lived in Myanmar for the past 21 years and is the official distributor for Trek bikes in the country. We spent two days in Yangon exploring the city, and were amazed to find ourselves in what felt like a different planet compared to the rest of SE Asia. The highlight of Yangon was definitely the Schwedagon Pagoda. After nearly a year in SE Asia, exploring the many temples that the region has to offer, Schwedagon completely took our breath away. Built in 500 B.C., it’s impossibly old. When Jesus was born, this place had already been around for FIVE HUNDRED YEARS. Beyond it’s age, it’s a stunningly beautiful gold structure, kept incredibly clean (especially for the amount of daily visitors it receives) by a team of sweepers that form a line and slowly circle temple. And then there’s the people! Monks in robes, women dressed in incredibly colorful cloths - everywhere you look there’s another beautiful person to see. We ended up going back three times in the two days we spent in Yangon.
After two days it was time to leave Yangon, and our host Jeff advised us to take the train north to Pyay - he said that the biking between Yangon and Pyay was boring and we wouldn’t miss it. So we purchased two train tickets, which amounted to $1.50 for the 8 hour ride north. We sat and watched the Burmese countryside pass the windows and ate some local treats that were brought on board by vendors during the various stops. The most striking thing was that when the sun went down, the view outside the train windows went black - most towns have such limited electricity that no lights could be seen. Often when we pulled up to a stop, there would be just a few people at the station with headlamps to light the way. We arrived in Pyay late at night and rode the short distance to our hotel with the help of a very kind gentleman who had bought us apple’s during the ride and told us in halting English about his son who was studying in America. The unexpected kindness of complete strangers has been a constant throughout our trip, but Myanmar has brought it to a whole new level.
We spent the day working on MarcyMoji and exploring the tiny town of Pyay. Auntie Mo's, a restaurant just down the street from our hotel, served up delicious Burmese food and we went for both lunch and dinner. Delicious, freshly made salads, chicken curries, and tons of all you can eat veggies on the side. The Shwesandaw Pagoda was just a few blocks from our hotel, and we headed there around sunset. As with the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, this was a beautiful mixture of golden spires and incredible people. Words can't really do it justice so I'll let the photos below speak for themselves.
We started our first day on the bikes in Myanmar early. Heading north from our hotel, within the first five minutes we found ourselves riding directly through the local market. Fish, chickens, beef, pork, and baskets of fresh vegetables surrounded us as we hopped off our bikes and pushed them slowly through the early morning pedestrian traffic that swarmed through the area. I wish I had taken a picture - the market itself probably looked about the same as it did 100 years ago, and here were two white people with shiny bicycles and all their possessions strapped to the sides, wading right through the middle. We were.. a sight. After making it through the market, we hopped back on the bikes and headed north, finding a main road that would take us all the way to our next city. The ride itself was hot, dusty, and bumpy. Nearly all the roads in Myanmar are hand made, and smooth rides are nowhere to be found. After 5 or 6 hours on the bike we arrived in Aunglan, our destination for the day. Asking around, we found the one hotel in town after a brief search. The unique thing about Myanmar is that most hotels are off limits to foreigners, who are required to stay in official government sanctioned hotels at rates 3-5 times those of neighboring countries, and frequently with lower standards. Our hotel that night definitely fit the definition of 'low standard' - piles of dirt and trash lined the hallway as we made our way to the room, which wasn't much cleaner. It would be one thing if we had paid $6 for the night, as we often did in Vietnam, but paying $40 for the pleasure of staying in such a place isn't something that we enjoy doing. Still, we were exhausted and without any way to know if the next hotel was 5 miles or 50 miles away, we decided to stay for the night. Both Marcy and I had massive headaches from such a dehydrating day and sleep didn't come easily.
One of the few good things about shitty accommodation is that it makes it much easier to get on the road early, which we did the next day. The ride was again hot and bumpy, and after only a few hours of sleep we made slow progress. We did pass through some villages that were a trip back in time - everything was made out of wood, and men and women could be seen riding ox drawn carts to the village well. But the lack of population density and any type of services surprised us and made the heat much more difficult to bear. We had endured serious heat all throughout SE Asia, but every other country had devised a way of making it through the hottest part of the day - cafes with hammocks in Vietnam, bamboo huts in Indonesia, etc. Maybe it's because the heat isn't as oppressive most of the year in Myanmar, or simply due to the lack of development and services overall, but Myanmar was lacking in this area.
Either way, after about 35 miles of riding, with another 20 to go until the next hotel, we saw a truck with an empty back and decided to ask the driver for a ride to the next town. He readily agreed, and when I asked him how much, he refused any payment. Elated at the thought of skipping the next few hours of cycling, we quickly unpacked our bikes and secured everything in the back of his truck. He had two companions and they at first tried to give up their seats in the van for us, but we refused and insisted on sitting in the back. After about an hour of driving, we pulled up to a shop of some sort, still about 10 miles from our destination. When he motioned for us to start unloading our stuff, we figured that this must be the end of the line for us and started to repack everything onto our bikes. When he saw us packing up, he quickly motioned for us to stop and said 'Wait' with a smile. So we sat down and watched as the driver and his two companions loaded and enormous amount of sugar cane onto the truck. We realized that the shop we were in sold sugar cane drinks - basically sugar, lime, and water - and we ordered two, half out of politeness to the shop owners and half out of thirst. They were surprisingly good, and when we went to pay we were told that the total was 50 khat, or 3.5 cents! The smallest bill I had was 1000 khat (still less than a dollar!), but the owner refused to take my money.
After the sugar cane had been loaded in, we loaded our bags on top of the stalks, and then wondered where we were going to put our bikes. Not to worry, our driver had a plan - we'd simply tie them to the outside of the truck! They were lashed securely and off we went - this time they were absolutely insistent that Marcy and I sit in the front, and after some half hearted attempts to refuse, we acquiesced and sat up front for the remainder of the journey to the hotel.
We woke up the next day with a decision to make - continue biking along a route we weren't enjoying, or take the train to the next town. After lots of back and forth, the train won out. We're not purists, and if we're not enjoying a particular section of road, then we're going to find a way to skip it. We left the hotel early and headed to the train station. There, the language barrier presented some difficulties, but we eventually were told that we need to come back in 1 hour to purchase tickets for the train which would then depart another hour after that. We spent that time at a tea house across the street from the train station, watching rural Burmese life go by. At one point a young woman came up and asked for a selfie with Marcy - she disappeared quickly after but then returned a few minutes later with gifts - papier mache dolls that she had purchased for us. Once again, Myanmar showed us the kindness of people who had so little to give yet were so willing to give it.
At last the train arrived, and we were shuttled on board. Unlike the previous train, this one was mostly open and we were able to fit our bikes on board right next to us - a major relief compared to the usual process of removing and rearranging all of our gear.
Seated next to us was the most adorable little girl in the world, along with her mother and possibly her grandmother. It was a good thing she was there to cheer us up, because although we were only going around a hundred miles, the train ride would take nearly 9 hours. This particular train had the unique requirement of needing to be jump started after each stop, a process which seemed to require every Burmese man within shouting distance and about 45 minutes. Like most railways in Myanmar, this one was extremely bumpy, and sometimes shook open the door of the toilet a few feet from us. Yum! Still, we were happy to be near our bikes and we spent most of the train ride introducing our new friend to the wonders of Snapchat filters and finger painting on iPhones. At one point an errant cow blocked the tracks, requiring the brakes to be applied suddenly while everyone at the front shouted to scare it away.
Most of the day was spent as lazily as possible - sleeping in, sipping coffee at various cafes, and biking around town. At sunset, we rented an electric motorbike and explored Bagan's famous temples - there are thousands, with tiny dirt roads connecting them over a massive area. We found a few good ones, hanging around to watch the sunset from the top of one before heading back to town.