A Myanmarian Fortnight: Myawaddy to Pyay, Day by Day

2014-05-05 to Kyaito 064

 

Greetings from Myanmar!  First things first: I’m here, still kickin’.  Same for all my friends.  Everyone is suffering or has suffered through some level of exhaustion, sleep deprivation, bloating, diarrhea, heat rash, bedbug bites, and so forth, but that sort of stuff is to be expected given that we’re getting closer to India by the day.  Thankfully, my afflictions have been mild, so just about all of my memories are of pleasant surprises.  The roads are much smoother than expected, and all 800km so far has been paved.  Word had it that all hotels would charge $20 and up for a double room, but we’ve found many for half that and several for cheaper.  Eating vegetarian is easy, whether we opt for Burmese, Indian, or Chinese. 

Even so, riding has been pretty intense.  Myanmar is one of the biggest countries in the region but, due to visa limitations, we’ve only got 28 days to cover somewhere between 1400 and 1700 kilometers of it.  On roads of uncertain quality.  During the hottest part of the year.   It’s pleasant when we get out of bed at 4:30, starting to warm up when we hit the road at 5:30, slightly uncomfortable by 6:30, hot by any other standards at 8:00, and just plain hellish after 10:00.  Highs hit 40C/104F in the shade of the massive banyan trees that we pass by wistfully and 50C/122F a few feet above the black asphalt that we call home for five or six hours a day. 

Sometimes I find it hard to believe that this is the lifestyle I’ve chosen for myself for the time being: daily guaranteed doses of physical strain, sweat in my eyes, rank clothing, fitful sleep (unless we spring for an A/C room), and general continuous hardship. 

On the other hand, I don’t really mind any of that stuff.  Pushing my limits like this delivers a big high, leads to all sorts of random mayhem, and makes all the mundane joys that much more awesome.  Here are some thing that I’m already looking back on fondly:

 

 Day 1: to Kawakreik

a) Over a fairly massive mountain composed of many smaller ones.  Over 2000m of altitude gain; our first day was probably the hardest. 

b) Surprised by some incredible “La pe tok” (tea leaf salad) at a little country restaurant on the top of the mountain.  Fermented tea leaves that taste like pesto, mashed onto a base of cabbage and tomatoes, sprinkled with peanuts and lettuce. 

c) Find our first draught beer joint.  600 Kyat ($0.60) for a 330ml (1/2 pint) glass.   Get the feeling that this will be a beautiful month. 

 

Day 2: to Hpa-an

a) worst accident of my trip to date: on a totally empty stretch of road, some arse on a moped clips my back left pannier.  My bicycle goes down, and I with it.  Luckily, my knees and elbows break my fall, leaving me with some scratches and bruises but no significant damage.  The villagers who saw the accident ran out, helped me back to one of their shacks, and looked on amused as my friends tended to my wounds.  Only the ukulele case sustained permanent damage.

b) pass a temple where about forty kids are practicing some sort of traditional line dance, kneeling, bounching, spinning, twirling, and bobbing around. 

c) pass a giant concrete stage in the middle of a meadow.  Here, too, a squad of high schoolers is hard at work on their routine.

 

Day 3: to Thaton

a) breakfast at an Indian joint; roti and dosai for everybody, stomachs totally stuffed, $0.50 each!

b) break at a resort just outside of town; eat lunch, drain their keg, chillax fauxbo-style by their pool during the hottest part of the afternoon. 

c) decide on a short day; beers and board games at a restaurant in town.

d) visit a temple and get permission to stay from the monks.  Wash up at a hundred year old concrete cistern, set up our tents, hammocks, and other sleeping arrangements, then sit down for a meal of samosas, parathas, veggies, and mangos that had we had stocked up on.  Villagers gather around, chat with us in Thai, take photos, watch us eat, run home, and come back with even more mangos, rice snacks, and ice water.  Practically a perfect evening – until the police show up, inspect our visas, and tell us that we’re not allowed to stay.  The villagers argue on our behalf, but as soon as things start to heat up, we decide to split lest they get in any trouble.  The cops escort us to a nearby guesthouse.

 

Day 4: to Kyaitko

Ride all morning, spend the afternoon recovering, head out to the market in the evening.  At the far end is a temple which, when investigated, turns out to be more like Disneyland.  “Oppa Gangnam Style” is playing on a loop nearby, tons of snacks are for sale outside, and inside is full of golden Buddhas with neon halos.   

 

Day 5: to Bago

Ride all morning and into the early afternoon, finishing just as the temperature in the sun reaches 45C (113F).  Spend the rest of the day recovering with the help of cheap draught beer and and cheaper south Indian street food.  Get a killer deal on mangos in the market: 10 for $1. 

 

Day 6: to Yangon

Ride all morning again, make it to the capital, carry our bikes and gear up three flights of stairs pass out for a few days now that Phase 1 (of 3) has been completed.  Start getting to know Daniela, a Swiss girl who met Mirek and Katya at a party in Bangkok and decided to join our trip. 

 

Day 7: in Yangon

a) Take care of business – apply for permission to cross into India at Tamu.  It’s not officially open to foreigners, but if the price is right… 

b) Out to Chinatown for dinner with Chris’ couchsurfing host, Dareen, a Korean who has been living in Yangon for two years doing NGO work.

 

Day 8: in Yangon

Laze around Yangon.  Contemplate going to the major tourist sites, but don’t.  Argue about whether to stay another day.  Decide to leave. 

 

Day 9: to Okkan

a) I, with neither digital nor paper map, got separated from the group on the way out of Yangon.  Not surprisingly, I got lost and went 5km or so in the wrong direction before turning around.  Cycled my ass off to catch up, somehow passed them, then waited for an hour at a bus stop out of town until they caught up to me.  Reunited again!

b) First massive rainstorm of our trip.  Mirko says at 1:20, “let’s find a restaurant.  Very soon it’s going to rain very hard.”  At 1:23, all six of us are totally drenched. 

c) Guests at the soft opening of the only hotel in Okkan.  Burmese boss who has lived in San Fran for 26 years treats us to mangos, gives us some language lessons, and has her staff help us find good vegetarian food.  We treat them to their first ukulele performance. 

 

Day 10: to Gyobingauk

a) Parade with three young boys in gold suspenders riding horses.  Invited back to their party, but instead of watching the proceedings, we became the topic of interest.  Everyone just sat and looked at us and took our pictures. 

b) Lottery party with monks picking the numbered tickets and soap, undershirts, and dish detergent for rewards.  A squad of little kids gives me a tour of the temple and shows me how to pay respects to seated mini-buddhas, larger-than-life reclining buddhas, and stupas. 

 

Day 11: to Pyay

Ride all morning, spend the hot hours at a forest cafe eating lunch, drinking tea, swinging in hammocks, and practicing ukulele.  Get to town, grab a guesthouse, scarf some street noodles, try a new brand of draught beer (“Dagon [no typo] Extra Strong”), and meet Steve and Stephan, a pair of Burmese brothers eager to practice their English with foreigners.  

 

Day 12: in Pyay 

Hey, it’s Buddha’s birthday!  Head to the temple, where the ladies are all dressed up in their Sunday best and the dudes are determined to get their party on.  Drums, bamboo clappers, break dancers, a guy dressed up as Jack Sparrow dancing around on what looks like a primitive animatronic tortoise.  The more traditional folks spend the evening praying and pouring water onto small Buddha statues or over the roots of Bodhi trees. 

 

Day 13: in Pyay

Take another day off because it looks like the schedule will allow it.  Amble around town, watch the sun set over the river, check out a tree full of bats. 

 

Day 14: in Pyay

The others set off for Bagan as we had planned but I stayed behind with Minseong, who had been stricken ill with some sort of stomach stuff.  Cook turmeric and rice porridge, enjoy having an excuse to sit around in the air conditioning all day.  Show off my travel skillz by leading a pair of Swiss gap year newbie guys, who had been paying about $10 for their meals, to a local Indian joint where we had curry and rice pancakes for $0.50 each. 

 

Other Myanmar Constants That I Wish I Could Upload Pictures Of:

– adorable village babies, kids, girls, and women with Thanaka (tree bark powder) makeup applied to their faces in all sorts of patterns.

– Kids and youth with incredible, bright, glistening, perfectly straight teeth.  

– ….who become adults with mouths crammed full of blood-red betel nut residue.

– kickass bicycle rickshaws.  They’re old steel-frame bikes with a sidecar attached; the sidecar has one seat facing forward, once facing backward.  Generally the seats are occupied by old people, fat people, kids, baskets of mangos, or ten-meter lengths of bamboo. 

– giant wooden carts with man-sized wooden wheels pulled by a pair of bovines. 

– horse taxis

– hand-cranked sugar cane presses

– regular power cuts

– Indian breakfast!  Roti (flatbread) cooked in a tandoori (big ceramic jar) oven served with a savory chickpea dish on the side.  Chai tea on the side, and veggie samosas if you’ve still got room in your belly. 

– banyan trees

– and so much more.  Wait another month until I get a real connection!

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8 Responses to A Myanmarian Fortnight: Myawaddy to Pyay, Day by Day

  1. wd says:

    When I find that moped who knocked you off your bike I’m going to make him regret it!

  2. Murray says:

    Living it up in Burma, brother!

  3. Sue (A friend of you moms) says:

    Michael, as always I have enjoyed catching up with your travels. Glad you were not hurt in your bike accident. I am assuming after staying behind a day you were able to catch up with your group. I’ll watch for the next blog entries.

    • Michael Roy says:

      Luckily I made it out of the accident incident mostly unscathed – a few bruises and scratches but nothing serious. I didn’t even need a day off. Thanks for checking in on me!

  4. lea says:

    I’m still following youuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu
    here we are , because i’m HAPPY !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    by the way, I guess I missed a lot this few months, so finally you got it ! bicycling in Burma ! One of the biggest challenge you had when we met. Did you cross the border from thai to Burma , and did you find other ways ?
    I miss you and always happy to read some pages of your blog (I will not lie and said I read it all, I guess if I did I will find the answer to my previous question )
    Have a good day
    Lea

    • Michael Roy says:

      Yup, the border crossing was a little expensive but all in all not too difficult. The only hard part is riding 1700km in just 28 days…especially when the country is so awesome and you just want to stay 🙂