Week 9 and 10: Bangkok and Myanmar!

Day 1:

Picking up where our last newsletter left off, we hopped on the night train to Bangkok. Unfortunately, the only train that would take our bicycles was sold out of 1st and 2nd class seating. This left us in 3rd class, which wouldn’t have been a big deal during the day, but a tiny hard seat makes sleep nearly impossible on a 10 hour train ride. The train left around 8pm, and it was around 4am, with 2 hours still to go until Bangkok when I was deliriously scrolling through twitter and saw that Apple had posted a new ad featuring iMessage stickers. We had been contacted by Apple’s Ad Agency a few months back and asked if we would allow our stickers to be included in a potential upcoming ad. We of course said yes, but when we didn’t hear back for several months, we figured that the ad must have been killed. Upon seeing the news in my twitter feed, my heart sank - I thought the ad had gone through, but that our stickers hadn’t made the cut. However, when I watched the ad and saw that in fact several had been included, I was ecstatic. Marcy had somehow managed to fall asleep in one of those neck killing positions that you sometimes get into when you find yourself in the middle seat on a long flight. I was so excited about the ad that I shook her awake - the look on her face when she opened her eyes was not a happy one. But when I showed her the ad, I had her full attention. We spent the next few hours deliriously excited about what this news would mean for MarcyMoji. When we arrived in Bangkok just before dawn, we loaded our luggage onto our bikes and rode through the empty streets just as the city was starting it’s early morning routines. What a day.

Day 2-4:

The next few days in Bangkok were spent in a state of shock as we saw our downloads go from a handful a day to a few thousand a day - our highest day saw nearly 20,000 downloads - and we prepared to go to Myanmar. We stayed at an amazing hostel called ‘Granny Bike Bed’ - a cycling oriented hostel run by an amazing couple who also own two bike shops in Bangkok.

Emboldened by some additional revenue and knowing that we were about to head to Myanmar where western food would be in shorter supply, we splurged on Texas BBQ, fancy cafes, and steaks for dinner. Our visas for Myanmar were shockingly easy to obtain - a 10 minute visit and a quick form to fill out (plus $50 each) on the first day followed by another 10 minute visit two days later to pick them was all that was required.

Myanmar route planning wasn’t nearly as easy as the other countries we had been to in SE Asia, and I struggled to find the best route to take. In addition, March and April are the hottest months of the year - with temperatures above 100 every single day. In the end I decided that we would take buses from Bangkok to Yangon, and then bike from there up to Mandalay, where we would figure out a way to get back to Thailand. I though that we’d take a couple of easy bus rides and skip some of the country, and then focus on what I hoped would be some of the better riding that Myanmar had to offer. Things didn’t quite go as planned.

Day 5-6:

I had done my research and found several stories about the ease of putting bikes on buses in Thailand, so when we set off from our hostel to bike to the central bus station in Bangkok I thought we were in for an easy ride on a luxurious Thai bus - comfy seats, a/c,/ wifi, the works. Upon arriving at the bus stations, however, we were told repeatedly that it simply wasn’t possible to put our bikes on any bus. After talking with several different employees, we finally found one that was willing to help, but told us that we would have to wait until she could find a driver willing to take two crazy white people with giant bicycles loaded with luggage. Around 2 hours later, we were notified that a willing driver had been found, and that he would arrive in another 2 hours. When the time came, we unpacked and loaded our bikes into the bottom of the bus, struggling to position them in a way that they would be as minimally damaged as possible. Once they were on, we were then informed that we had put them on the wrong bus! Off the bus they came, after which we repeated the ordeal with the correct bus and finally hopped on to begin the 13 hour ride to the Thailand/Myanmar border.

After a night of fitful sleep, we arrive at the border town (Maesot) around sunrise and unloaded our bikes, re-packing on all of our luggage. We rode around 6 miles from the bus station to the border and met the friendly immigration officials who processed us through. I asked one of the guys if he knew of a bus that went from Maesot to Yangon, and he promised to help. He ended up selling us ridiculously overpriced tickets, but we were so tired we forked over the money and headed for the bus, which left in another 3 hours. We repeated the operation of trying to carefully place our bikes in the bottom of the bus and got settled in our seats for another long bus ride. This ride ended up taking a full 14 hours through bumpy roads, beautiful landscapes, and ear piercing Burmese glam rock pumped through the buses sound system. We arrived at our guesthouse in Yangon and collapsed.

Days 7-8:

Walking around in Yangon

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.

Outside of Schwedagon Pagoda, we mostly bumbled around Yangon, taking the train or riding bikes during the day and strolling around the downtown area at night.

Day 9:

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.

Day 10:

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.

Day 11:

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.

Day 12:

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.

Day 13:

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.

Selling watermelons at one of the many stops.
First class seats for the bikes!

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.

At last we arrived in Bagan, and rode the remaining 5 or so miles from the train station to our hotel. We ventured out shortly after for dinner and ate one of our most delicious Burmese meals yet - BBQ’d pork and vegetables, and avocado and tomato salad.

Day 14:

Bagan: so many temples

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.

Day 15:

We woke up early for sunrise and rode around the temples again, trying to get some of those famous 'hot air balloons over Bagan at sunrise' shots. The day was again spent lazing about in cafes and stuffing our faces with more delicious BBQ. At sunset we rode out for one last trip our the temples - there really are enough of them that you could spend a week exploring and not visit them all.

Herding cows at sunset around the temples of Bagan.

Day 16:

We decided to take a boat from Bagan to Mandalay, and woke up before dawn to get to the 'dock' for the 5am departure. I say 'dock' because we arrived to find a single two by four between the boat and the shore which we somehow managed to maneuver our bikes on without toppling over into the river. The ride itself was nice and smooth - possibly the smoothest form of transportation available in Myanmar. We arrived in Mandalay around sunset and biked from the 'dock' (again just a couple of two by fours) to our hostel in the center of town.

Asleep on the boat from Bagan to Mandalay. I love peanut butter.

Day 17:

We spent the day riding around town, searching for a bike shop with a couple of extra bike boxes they were willing to part with. At last we found one, and they offered to box them up for a for just a couple dollars. We would later come to seriously regret this, but at the time it seemed like a good way to avoid some hassle.

Day 18:

We woke up early and took a large taxi to the airport, where we flew to Bangkok. Once in Bangkok we stowed our luggage and bikes at the airport, and boarded another flight for Chiang Mai with just our backpacks. After traveling for so long with so much, it feels good every once in a while to jettison everything for just a backpack.

Created By
Andrew Williams
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