Myanmar PART ONE

I definitely should have been more switched on, for there sure were a lot of clues. First of all, the rock bottom price of 100 Bhat ($3) should have left no illusions to the quality of room. Secondly, the owner simply sat in his jocks watching Muay Thai as he pointed in the direction of any room down the hall. And finally, the non-descript stains on the bed sheet should have been the final nail in the coffin. I paid the price. Bed bugs were crawling all over me at 2am in the morning. I was quite taken back when I switched on the light to see my bed resembling a murder scene. Blood spots were scattered around the bed; indicating a healthy serving of my blood. By the time morning came, I rode out of hell and paid my way into heaven. AUD$10 gets you a king-size bed (minus the bed bugs), air conditioning, cable TV, and a fair slice of privacy. These two nights would be the only accommodation I paid for in the eight days it took me to reach Myanmar.

Thailand would have to be the perfect place for cycle touring beginners. The roads are immaculate, well signed, and always have a generous shoulder. Food is cheap and tasty, and a 7/11 convenient store is always close by if all other eating options have been exhausted. Cycling became pure joy as I could once again listen to music without having a constant fear of getting squished by a car. As the sun started to sink into the horizon, I would timidly enter a Buddhist monastery, with roaming packs of ferrel dogs alarming the monks of my presence. From nowhere, 10 monks would appear in their bright orange robes with a look of confusion hidden beneath their friendly aura. There would be no issues with me pitching my tent for the night, and I would then sit in awe watching everyday life unfold. The novelty of seeing a monk chop down a tree with a chainsaw will never be lost. Nor will watching ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ in English with Thai subtitles in a giant hall with 6 monks.

My biggest concern was that I knew very little about how to conduct myself. Was I committing any faux pas? My timid knowledge climaxed with me watching television with three monks one evening. I watched a mosquito land on my bare foot. I turned to the monks. They also saw the mosquito land on my foot. We all watched the mosquito in quiet unison whilst a bead of sweat fell from my forehead in stress. Never have I wanted to squish a mosquito more, and knowing my luck this would be the one to give me malaria. I backed out like a wuss, the mosquito flew away happy, and we all went back to watching TV again. Thailand came and went as quickly as a South East Asian rainstorm, and after 10 days I was crossing a river on my way to Myanmar.

A Monk Who Gave me a Room - Thailand
Police Officers Who Also Gave me a Room - Thailand

he 300km stretch from Kawthaung to Myiek has been off limits to tourists for a long time. There had been a few reports that some cyclists and motorbikes had snuck through coming from the north. My plan to try from the South was over before I knew it. I’d arrived at the immigration with bicycle in tow, with a well rehearsed story about how I was staying at ‘Penguin Hotel’ that night, and was getting the bus to Myiek the next morning like a good foreigner should. Of course I knew I wasn’t able to cycle outside of Kawthaung; a sign saying the exact same thing was placed on the wall behind his head. The immigration officer asked me directly, “You aren’t going to cycle are you?” I then blatantly lied to his face. We shared eye contact for a good 20 seconds, and he then rang a friend. Ten minutes later an English speaking Burmese man arrived with joyous rapture, knowing that he can practise his English for a while. For me, I was pissed off because my plan had been foiled before it even began. The man escorted me to the bus station where I would buy my ticket and leave that day.

The bus was scheduled to depart at 4pm, and my Burmese escort informed me that the bus takes five hours. With time up my sleeve, and a wallet bulging with Burmese Kyat, I did the most sensible thing and headed to the bar across the road. Seven longnecks and a one hour delay later, we were on the road to Myeik. Had I known my guide meant 5pm the next day - not 5 hours in total - beers probably weren’t the best idea. 300km in 24 hours.

A grossly overloaded bus departed with goods ranging from empty beer kegs, boxes of food, a touring bicycle and even a live chicken. I counted 24 people with 18 available seats. After stalling three times the bus eventually departed, much to the amusement of the passengers. My dry throat and headache from the beers had already reached its pinnacle, with the bus driver trying his best to make my life a living hell. He would boisterously honk his overly compensative horn at anything that moved. I’m sure he would daydream as he always gazed out the window completely oblivious to all the near misses he had. Roadworks were continual throughout the trip, with fist sized rocks causing multiple punctures - 7 in total. We once pulled over in the middle of nowhere with a flat tire and no replacement, and after a quick deliberation it was decided that the men would walk to the next village and find some help. The monk and I had the right idea and snuck back onto the bus and caught up on some much needed sleep. By the time the tire was on - 3 hours later - I shot a quick glance to the bus driver to see him nodding off to sleep whilst standing upright. Thankfully he pulled it together and got us safely to Myeik. Just.

I headed north from Myiek, finally rejoicing at the fact I was at last cycling in Myanmar. I was instantly taken back by the simplicity of village life in one of the more undeveloped parts of the country. Little kids ran around naked chasing chickens, men sat by the roadside chewing beetle nuts, and women attended the many roadside shops. Simple huts on stilts were the most common type of home. After nearly 40 years of government oppression the mood was thankfully as friendly as ever. People were some of the happiest I’ve ever met. Even if all the locals greeted me in Thai, assuming that I was like all the others visiting the area pursuing business interests.

​Draconian government regulations stipulate that tourists must stay in government approved hotels each night. Even if I had all the money in the world, it would be impossible to find accommodation in rural Myanmar; I struggled to even find bananas. I initially started off wild camping taking the usual precautions. Almost always in the middle of the night I would be awoken by a ‘police officer’ that wasn’t in uniform, had no identification and always demanded my passport. After giving a photocopy, I would then be told to pack up my stuff and cycle to the nearest town (sometimes 10km) in the middle of the night. After three straight nights of interrupted sleep I cut out the middle man and sought refuge with my Buddhist friends.

The Orwellian police presence continued when cycling out of major towns with a plain clothed officer following me on a motorbike with a giant walkie-talkie. The further north I cycled, the less prevalent police became. I guess this further reinforced my idea that something quite not right is happening in Southern Myanmar. It was quite bizarre to see large military bases in the middle of nowhere; not even next to villages. I once asked to sleep at a base and was of course told no, only to be given a 20km escort to the next town. My guess is that smuggling is rife, land grabbing by the government is commonplace, and natural resources are being exploited.

As I cycled further north, I started to see some attractions that make Myanmar a wanted destination. Kyaiktiyo Rock ‘The Golden Rock’ was my first taste of mainstream tourism in Myanmar. It is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Myanmar for Buddhists. Legend has it that the rock keeps its position thanks to a strand of the Buddha’s hair. I caught a truck for the 45 minute ride up the steep hill and watched with amazement how the driver changed gears, spat beetle nut juice, and talked on his mobile phone without crashing. Upon arriving at the top of the mountain, I was picturing monks coupled with serenity, perched high in the hills. According to many, simply viewing the rock should be enough inspiration to turn to Buddhism. It was pretty amazing seeing the rock dangle precariously over the cliff. But the hordes of people, shops selling usual wares and locals spitting beetle juice all over the floor, it was hard for me to ever consider converting. Perhaps the Buddhist principle of karma came back to bite me as I suffered two bouts of food poisoning in a week.

Kyaiktiyo Rock, Myanmar
Thanlyin River, Myanmar

I had reached Yangon with two important tasks to complete. I needed to organize a special permit to cross the border into India and I also needed to regain my confidence in Burmese food by eating until my heart’s content. The nice travel agent explained to me that they had stopped issuing permits because of the giant earthquake that had happened in Manipur state; the place I was planning to cycle. Both the travel agent and the Indian embassy had little idea as to when the border would open again. So I was left in limbo with the option of cycling to China becoming more of a reality. With my plans being thrown into chaos, it was a welcome relief to check into a four star hotel situated on the penthouse floor overlooking the Shwedagon pagoda. My family had thrown in some money for Christmas under the condition I spent it on a nights accommodation. For 24 hours I had a toilet that I didn’t have to squat over and second-guess my accuracy. I didn’t have to mentally prepare for another freezing cold shower. And I didn’t have to worry about being interrupted by police.

Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar

With every setback a new opportunity arises. With the uncertainty at the border, I’ve had to travel to Bangkok to try and gain another visa for Myanmar. An extra 28 days in the country will allow me to cycle in the mountainous Chin State as well as taking part in a 10 day meditation course.

Thankyous – A huge thankyou to Mum, Rodger, Claire, Leigh and Scott for thinking of me this Christmas and shouting me a room at somewhere that I would never even dream of staying. It was simply amazing and I can’t thank you guys enough!

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