Myanmar: In the Southern Northwest, off the Beaten/Paved/Touched-since-the-‘60s Path

Given our time limit,the frailty of bikes that can’t handle rocky roads, and the frailty of bodies that can’t handle long days under scorching skies, we weren’t really able to explore Myanmar’s remote areas, such as the Burmese half of the Isthmus of Kra down south or the far northern reaches that protrude right up into Tibet.  A bit of a shame, since we had mostly traveled along Myanmar’s main traffic arteries so far, but also a bit of a boon, because even our timid foray into the less-visited southern northwest turned out to be quite a challenge.

Roads

We had about a week to go, under 500km to cover, and a few hints from a pair of German cyclists who had crossed into India a month previous regarding which roads to take.  Their advice: do NOT take the “new” hypotenuse road that links Monywa directly to Kalewa, because it’s hilly, muddy, rocky, and all in all miserable.  Also, don’t worry about the last 150km from Kalewa to the Indian border, which were made with support from the Indian government and are in relatively good shape.

Well-warned, we opted to go straight north from Monyway to Ta-ze, then cut west from there to Kalewa.  It would be about 300km rather than the shortcut’s 200, but along roads that looked decent on the maps and couldn’t possibly be as bad as the one that Jan and Karina had warned us about…or could they?

2014-05-25 to Pyainggaing 008b

Where the sidewalk ends.

2014-05-24 to Yeu 003b

At first, there were still people.  Little villages.  And oxcarts.

2014-05-24 to Yeu 010b

The villages grew smaller, and farther in between.  This one was so small that by the time we had reached the middle of it, the children had already run to the other end and alerted everyone to the presence of a bunch of weirdos on contraptions that look like a cross between a bicycle and a tank.

2014-05-24 to Yeu 012

Afterwards, not much but dirt, sand, and mud.

2014-05-25 to Pyainggaing 020b

Nor did it get much better.  However, I did develop the ability to spot patches that would cause me to fishtail, and through trial and error (i.e. several near-tumbles) figured out how to maintain control.  The answer: don’t pedal, don’t brake, just give yourself over to inertia.  Careful not to crack any teeth while grimacing.

2014-05-26 to Khettegyin 017

Sometimes it was windy.

2014-05-26 to Khettegyin 025

Sometimes straight.

2014-05-27 to Kalewa 019

Sometimes open.

2014-05-27 to Kalewa 017

Sometimes narrow.

2014-05-27 to Kalewa 014

But always hot and sandy.

2014-05-26 to Khettegyin 018

Later, some Indian engineers informed us that the road we had taken was called the “jungle road” and had been built sometime last century by the British.  Obviously, it has since fallen into a state of severe neglect and disrepair.  But, as always seems to be the case, just keep pedaling and you’ll make it…of course, it helped to have water filters, tents, camp stoves, ramen, and mangoes in our packs.

Scenery

2014-05-24 to Yeu 044b

Riding on such roads in such heat isn’t exactly pleasant, but I’ve found that moderate/bearable levels of self-inflicted suffering have the benefit of making me aware that I’m alive, which helps me to appreciate the beauty all around.  Kind of like how a slight sunburn makes breezes and showers all the better.

2014-05-27 to Kalewa 004

River in dry season.

2014-05-23 to Maungdong 009b

Sheep bleating in the distance.

2014-05-23 to Maungdong 046b

I do love me some clouds.

 2014-05-25 to Pyainggaing 012

And symmetrees.

 2014-05-25 to Pyainggaing 018

Hopefully you don’t have to be on a cyclo-masochist’s high to enjoy the scenery.

 2014-05-25 to Pyainggaing 019

2014-05-27 to Kalewa 033

2014-05-27 to Kalewa 027

On the map, the road went straight over the river.  In the real world, there was nothing resembling a bridge here.  Just a bunch of rickety little boats and a few helms-men-and-women assuring us they could take us, our bikes, and our bags across, no problem.

 2014-05-27 to Kalewa 002

Sunrise

Locals

2014-05-24 to Yeu 047

Burmese Baby.  Remember this guy, he’ll show up again in the next section.

2014-05-24 to Yeu 007b

On the way to school.

2014-05-24 to Yeu 011b

Functional?  Fashionable?  Phenomenal.

2014-05-24 to Yeu 020b

Baskets full of mangos.

2014-05-25 to Pyainggaing 011b

Geckos abound in these parts, but usually their bodies aren’t much bigger than a middle finger.  The biggest one I’d ever seen up to this point was at The Venerable Louis’ monastery on the edge of a national park in Thailand; even that one was only half the size of this one.

Oh, and dudeman confirmed through universal gesture language: it’s what’s for dinner.

2014-05-26 to Khettegyin 041 2014-05-26 to Khettegyin 042

In the evening of our second day out in the middle of nowhere, we passed through a village with two restaurants: one that opens for breakfast and one that opens for lunch and dinner.  There also happened to be a crew of NGO workers who were there doing work related to Gibbons.  One of them (the workers, not the gibbons) spoke Englih and helped us work out some accommodations in an unused bungalow belonging to a local timber company.  It was all fenced in, but news of our arrival traveled quickly and the kids soon came by to see what we were all about.

2014-05-26 to Khettegyin 058

Tired of the frisbee?  Ok, let’s play with Uncle’s other toys…

  2014-05-26 to Khettegyin 063

He’s already better than me.

2014-05-26 to Khettegyin 062

They’re listening to Another Travelin’ Song.

2014-05-26 to Khettegyin 074

2014-05-26 to Khettegyin 044b

Cool little duders.

2014-05-26 to Khettegyin 054

Ok, now stop swarming uncle so he can go rinse 150km’s worth of dirt and sweat off of himself.

2014-05 Myanmar from Chris 115b

(Photo by Chris Buchman)

Another one of those times when you stop for tea and cookies and wind up with the whole village wanting to be your friend.  What a lovely place.

   2014-05 Myanmar from Chris 125b

(Photo by Chris Buchman)

Another sweetest family ever.  They were living in a tarp tent (visible behind Chris) at the top of a mountain and beckoned us over as we huffed and puffed our way up.  We took a little break in their shade, drank their water, and thanked them profusely when they gifted us a small whiskey bottle filled with honey they had gathered from the jungle.  If the right infrastructure were in place, they could probably sell it to Whole Foods for $20.

 2014-05-27 to Kalewa 021b

Heavy machinery passes for a playground.

2014-05 Myanmar from Chris 135

Three slightly creepy guys who kept pointing at our bags and motioning like they wanted to inspect the insides, and two slightly creepy guys who ride cyclobeasts all around places they don’t belong.

(Photo by Chris Buchman)

Shakies

2014-05 Myanmar from Chris 103

I would be remiss if I didn’t say a few words of thanks to my crew.  Who knew that six independently-minded, free-spirited travel junkies could manage to band together day and night for an entire month and enjoy just about every moment of it?  Actually, in a way, all the time and route restrictions relieved us of a lot of potential conflict.  No arguments about which way to go, our how fast; no soulsearching about whether it’d better to travel alone or in a pack; just six of us sharing one mission: Get across the border on or before May 29th.

Logistics alone don’t deserve all the credit, though.  Or even half of it.  Mostly, I have to say that I’m lucky have crossed paths and banded together with so many extreme athletes, intrepid explorers, and fauxbo extraordinaires.  May was a crazy month, with absurdly hot weather, insane demands from the road, senseless hassles from the authorities, and yet it was nonetheless one of the most enjoyable and memorable months of my trip.  I’m honored to have shared it with you all.

2014-05-24 to Yeu 017

Katja/Katya/Katko

2014-05 Myanmar from Chris 099

Miroslav/Mirek/Mirko

2014-05 Myanmar from Chris 101

12+ years on their cycles, 2ish decades on the road, no plans to stop.  Thanks for making me look sensible, guys!

2014-05-27 to Kalewa 007

Daniela, who spends part of her time teaching art in Switerland (it’s not as idyllic as it sounds, she’ll have you know) and part of her time managing some rental properties in Bangkok.  This was her third bicycle tour in Asia.

    2014-05-24 to Yeu 048

Chris stealing his umpteenth baby.  How do you say “biological clock” in Burmese?

2014-05-27 to Kalewa 031

I took this picture, but he took the first, third, fourth, eighth, ninth, tenth, thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth, and insists that I give him proper credit.

2014-05 Myanmar from Chris 136

2014-05 Myanmar from Chris 096b

Minsung Kim

2014-05 Myanmar from Chris 138

who may or may not have developed narcolepsy as a result of the rough riding conditions.

 2014-05-17 to Yenangyaung 029b

What’s for sure is that he contracted a case of Willy Wonka-itis.

2014-05-24 to Yeu 027b

Give me just a second to make myself look cool.

 2014-05 Myanmar from Chris 137b

Yeahhh, I’m an adventurer too. Disclaimer: I nearly fell off the bicycle just seconds later.

2014-05 Myanmar from Chris 095b

Three cheers for minimal gear.

    2014-05 Myanmar from Chris 116

Look, other people who are willing (and happy, even) to camp out behind random bamboo shacks in the middle of the jungle.  This is why we’re such good buddies.

It’s hard to see, but in this photo we’re all paying homage to a mango.

By the way, did I mention that the going rate for mangos in Myanmar is 10 for $1?  Yup, that’s right.  Stay tuned for the food post.

2014-05-25 to Pyainggaing 010b

Happy Trails, adios Myanmar!  We’ll be back someday…hopefully with 90 day visas and permission to camp.

This entry was posted in Myanmar, Southeast Asia, The Road and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Myanmar: In the Southern Northwest, off the Beaten/Paved/Touched-since-the-‘60s Path

  1. Marie and Damien says:

    Hi,

    We are a french couple, now in Yunnan in China, cycling from France to Thailand (through Laos and Cambodia). Then, we planned to come back by bike at home. http://toutdanslessacoches.wordpress.com

    We just met Kristin and Eric Brown (living in Thailand) on holidays who gave us your blog addres.

    We are really interest by your experience on south east asia, especially in Myanmar. Where did you get your visa ? we planned to do it in Bangkok. Was it ok to cross the border from Myanmar to India ? Somebody tell us that you have to pay in Rangoon 100 dollars more to be able to do that ? Did you always sleep in guesthouse ? camping are really forbidden and dangerous ? Did you meet especially others cyclist to cross Myanmar or was it a coincidencia ? And if you did it especially to cross Myanmar, how did you find them ? Once you are in India, everything was ok, you don’t need any special permit except the indian visa ?

    Thanks a lot for everything,

    Marie and Damien
    diabsdams@yahoo.fr