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.
Life on a Touring Bike
One of the most common questions I have been asked about Myanmar was whether it was hard to tour on a bike. The answer without any doubt is YES! The reason for this was found out after the first days riding. It turned out that accommodation was almost impossible to find, plus we didn’t have a tent, plus we were not allowed to stay with local people or institutions. This slight accommodation issue forced us to ride very long kilometres per day, in fact, our overall average riding per day was over 140km (including all the days we didn’t touch our bikes!).
Everyday we asked locals about which towns tourists were able to stay without troubles, and prepared to reach these towns by eating large amounts of food the night before in combination with leaving as early as possible the next day. We pedalled well over 200km per day on quite a few occasions which would take between 12 and 14 hours to do due to the horrible road conditions and extreme heat.
The roads in Myanmar were the worst roads we’d ever seen and ridden. It was common across the country for roads to be under construction for 10 years or more! The stages for creating a new road included setting the foundation of large rocks, then filling the gaps in between the large rocks with finer rocks and finally putting tar and bitumen over the rocks to seal it up. Unfortunately for us, they only ever got to stage one of the process which meant we were forced to ride on the side of the road, often in sand. As soon as we would stop pedalling in sand, we would almost stop. As a bike tourer, we were also carrying our homes on the back of our bikes, which did weigh a considerable amount. So to recap, 200km – off-road – in sand – on a loaded touring bike – intense sun – incredible heat. This was definitely a feat-and-a-half for us!
Other things that we battled with were very large and overloaded trucks passing us at slow speeds, whilst leaving no space for us on the road. Giving ‘way’ was not an option for the truck drivers due to the sheer narrowness of the roads. Having said this, the trucks were used to our advantage sometimes. We often enjoyed sitting in their aerodynamic drag at 35-50km/h; that was a lot of fun and something I’d love to do again!
The food in Burma was not really directly comparable to any other country. Interestingly, it didn’t have much Indian influence, and was completely different to almost all Thai meals. The Chinese that we ate was not all that different to Chinese that we would have at home.
The most common form of food was rice, with between 5-10 different condiments for flavour. We always had the choice between mutton (lamb), beef or chicken for one condiment, then the rest were placed in front of you. We would get lots of chutney-style plates using different herbs, spices and fruits/vegetables. One dish that sticks in my head was an amazing mango chutney that had a slight sour tinge to it. The sweet/sour was a phenomenal sensation. We got to eat lots of bamboo, fish soups, vegetable soups, beans – as well as many dishes that we didn’t have a clue what we were eating.
Oh my gosh. Bagan; the city of temples. I could not believe what I was seeing when we arrived to this ancient city. 2500 brick temples constructed across a 10km x 10km area. Amazingly there were 4500 temples in this same area until recently when a violent earthquake destroyed many of them. Bagan really needs to be world heritage listed, as the temples – sometimes over 70m in height – are walked through by tourists including myself, chipping old bits of stone off the temples as I clamber over. The main reason given is that the junta has haphazardly restored ancient stupas, temples and buildings, ignoring original architectural styles and using modern materials which bear little or no resemblance to the original designs.
The temples are about 20 degrees cooler inside than outside in Bagan (where it was hovering in the mid 40s). This meant that locals and their pets spent their afternoon hours sleeping inside them. The red bricks used to construct the temples are the most amazing ochre red I’ve ever seen. They are often precariously balanced and very prone to falling over.
The reason there are so many temples here is that 900 years ago people believed that if they sinned they would be able to get into Buddha’s good books by constructing temples to worship Buddha. The people that did some really bad things would spend over half their life constructing them.
The paintings and statues on the inside of the buildings were stunning! Couple that with tiny staircases winding up towards a top level which would overlook all the other temples – I truly loved this place.