My friend Campbell and I decided it was a good idea to ride around Myanmar a couple of years ago. This five-part blog post will give you some insight into the things we learnt, the stories we heard, the people we met, and the history behind many of the things we saw.
Part Two: Weather
According to a book Campbell and I read about the weather in Myanmar, “Myanmar has all types of environment except desert”. This in fact was a lie! Probably not a lie by the definition of ‘desert’, but Myanmar felt very desert to us. Well over half of our riding was along sandy roads, of which our tires would regularly bog in.
The heat and intense sunshine was absolutely incredible! The Australian sun is intense but this was another level. It was about 30 degrees and humid in Yangon, but not 100km north of this region and it was 10 degrees warmer and the driest heat we had ever felt. I got sunburnt to the point where I had blisters all over me and so we actually purchased business shirts to stop the intense sun from attacking our skin. They worked wonders!
Being monsoon season in Myanmar we were expecting to be absolutely drenched everyday on the bike. It turned out that there would was less than five or six days on the bike where we got wet! The ancient city of Bagan receives less than six days of rain per year, which is unbelievable considering how close to the equator this place is. Desert by Alex definition? I think so.
The hardest possible thing about travelling Myanmar on the touring bike was trying to find a place to stay. Campbell and I had read that it was impossible to stay with local people as locals could end up in jail if the military found out. We also read that it was impossible to camp. I had visions before we left of having the sides of our tent being ripped open by crazy military members who would drag us into the unknown. We knew we could stay in hotels, and assumed there was always going to be a guesthouse to stay. How wrong we were; almost every guesthouse in Myanmar was for the local people only, as hotels need to have expensive licences in order to have tourists as guests.
It didn’t help that we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into on the route that we had chosen. It wasn’t until very late in the piece that we learnt of the black, brown and white zones, and looking back it made so much sense regarding what happened to us.
Our first troubles happened on the first day in the saddle. Not only was I riding in the heaviest rain that I had ever dealt with, but when we decided it would be time to stop, we found this amazing monastery full of monks. They were all very excited to see us and wanted to learn English and about our western culture. In return, they wanted to teach us about Buddhism. This sounded like an exceptional proposition to us! We bathed in their well, and got changed inside their monastery with an audience of two monks who wanted to have a good look at us naked. Two monks took us to a local Chinese restaurant where we were fed amazing food. We were then quickly ushered back to the monastery, where we were told we had to leave. A policeman was waiting there on his motorbike with a walky-talky next to his mouth. We expected to find accommodation in the next town.
It was getting dark so we rode as fast as possible to try to beat the blackness that was quickly coming over us. The road got absolutely horrible and we were hitting wheel-engulfing potholes that were seriously jarring my wrists as I wasn’t able to brace impact well. We found a place to stay in the next town 30km along the road however it was apparently “booked out”. We could see a key board full of keys indicating the rooms were clearly free. We literally begged to stay at their accommodation, however they pushed us out and told us to look elsewhere. It was now pitch black and we were riding through deep mud on small back roads.
A police motorbike took us to another place. As we arrived the owner ran outside, locking all of the doors, turning the lights off and shutting his front gate. He told us he was closed, and no more people were allowed. We couldn’t believe this. These people clearly had rooms for us to stay in and we had lots of money. Surely we just looked like massive cash cows to them? It was another 25km along the road where we found a place that would accept us. That means we did 55km on treacherous Burmese roads with just my miniature head torch – unbelievable.
This wasn’t the end of our troubles. At 1am when all we wanted to do was sleep, Campbell stood outside arguing with immigration officers and guesthouse staff who were trying to make us pay ridiculous amounts of money for their accommodation. All we got was nothing more than a wooden bed in a room smaller than my height. I was really proud of Campbell that night for not giving in under the toughest circumstances possible.
This occurred on so many more occasions. Only a day later, we had ridden our bikes into a new government zone. As soon as we arrived to Aunglan and tried to find accommodation, we found out we had the exact same problem as the night before. We were slightly more prepared this time, as we had gotten there at about midday. We spent over two hours arguing with a local guesthouse owner about how we needed to stay with him. A local who could speak a bit of English organised to get an immigration officer to help us out. She couldn’t speak any English at all, and told us we were only allowed to stay if we answered 30 or more questions about our reasons for being a tourist, and also under the condition that we caught a bus out of Aunglan that next morning. We agreed, were double charged for the hotel room, had an amazing time in this little town and were put on a bus the next day.
What were they hiding from two men on bikes that we couldn’t see from a bus window, I am not sure.