‘I have the necessary papers right here’ drawled the cowboy in a thick Texan accent, his strange voice filling the tiny portacabin office of the border checkpoint. It was early in the morning, purposefully so, to avoid any potential queues; our forms were filled in quickly, photographs taken, occupations fictionalised, passports stamped; we didn’t get to speak to the man in the Ten Gallon hat but were certain we’d see him again.
Our crossing to Myanmar was already living up to expectations. Our excitement was palpable. Would we be able to get cash from ATMs before Yangon? Were the roads really as bad as we’d heard? Was the country really like Thailand 30 or 40 years ago? Myanmar was the country everyone was talking about. The ruling military junta had relaxed travel restrictions to allow foreigners to enter and travel independently for the first time in fifty years. Thus making it top of many travellers ‘must see’ destinations for 2015.
Quite by chance our visit would come just a few weeks after Novembers historic elections were won by the National Democratic Party. The NDP fronted by Noble Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kiu were swept to power in a landmark vote. This would be a very exciting time to visit this fascinating country.
Our visas gave us just 28 days to cross from Myawaddy to Tamu. The plan was to travel overland into North East India at Moreh in Manipur. The minimum we would need to cycle to do it all by bike was just over two thousand clic. With a short stop in Yangon to get Indian papers for Johnny, we’d be cutting it fine.
To the bat cave
We rode into Hpa’an like heroes. Crossing the 10,000km milestone that day had put me in good spirits. We pulled up outside the aptly named Happy Guesthouse and dismounted in search of a beer. We were on the front porch shooting the shit with a couple of backpackers when the cowboy walks by, ‘howdy’ he grunts. ‘Oh, hello- I think we were at the border together?’ I said. ‘Thas right. I remember your face. Where y’all headed?’ he asked. ‘Yangon, up the coast to Ann across to Bagan, then north over the border to India’ I boasted, confidence peaking after two cans of Myanmar beer. ‘You’re going to India on a BI-CY-CLE?!’ He squarked incredulously. ‘You guys are CRA-ZY’ he added, whistling through his teeth, emphasising the ZY like a dozen EEEEEEs. ‘Where are you going?’ I enquired. ‘Me? I’m going to the bat cave’ he said, tipped his hat and walked away without another word.
The Golden Rock
There was not a huge amount of up-to-date information available about cycling in Myanmar. We’d read that there would be a heroic climb up and over a craggy mountain before reaching the first proper town and that ATMs may or may not accept UK bank cards amongst other unconfirmed facts. It was with some surprise then that we found ourselves on a brand new highway that skirted around the mountain rather than over it. The new road had been built with Indian money and was less than six months old. Already there were signs of serious accidents due to speeding. Crushed trucks sat derelict beside the asphalt next to huge swathes of concrete barrier smashed to pieces and thrown over the cliff edge were an alarmingly regular sight on this short stretch of dual carriageway.
In the town of Kyaikto we met an older couple from England; Peter and his wife were visibly shaken by the white knuckle ride from Myawaddy. It was not surprising to see that we weren’t the only ones terrified by the daft decision to put right hand drive vehicles in the right hand lane of the road. A generals wife had had her fortune told in which the teller gave the proclamation to change the side of the road that traffic flowed. That was a dozen or more years ago but the mass importation of cars in recent years had not altered to meet the I’ll judged prophecy.
In our haste to reach Yangon to secure visa and permits (seemingly endless paperwork and checkpoints would be a prominent feature throughout the month) we completely missed the fabled Golden Rock. We spent the night in town without even becoming aware of the pilgrimage up to this precarious religious monument. Later on in our journey we would hear a lot about this famous landmark from Burmese people everywhere. Easy come, easy go.
Two significant things happened while we were in Yangon, besides securing Johns Indian visa and permission letters to cross the land border- we both fell seriously ill with suspected food poisoning and John turned 38. To celebrate the latter we had a slap up dinner at the Rangoon Tea House (our favourite tea supping Internet spot), then on to the Savoy for live jazz. Sadly, we arrived too late for the jazz, so we made tracks to the 50th Street Bar, a legend in Yangon drinking circles. We got chatting to a young Brit at the bar about all things Burmese over a cold beer. Then Dickfingers turned up.
Dickfingers (don’t ask!) was living and working in Yangon pursuing opportunities in digital media. He’d met Becky, our new friend from London, the previous Friday and so the four of us made a night of it. Dickfingers took us to an underground night spot playing 90’s trance and packed to the rafters with Chinese ravers. It was surreal to say the least.
The food poisoning would stay with us long after the dissipation of our hangovers. The day we left Yangon, feeling rougher than we’d have liked due to dodgy guts, we thought to play it safe and take soup for lunch- something light and simple. The enormous bowls steamed with a hearty looking thick broth. John tucked in with aplomb. ‘Any good mate?’ I asked. ‘It’s tasty yeh, rich- bit heavy maybe’ replied John. The next spoonful revealed a goats eyeball staring emptily up at John. ‘What the fuck is that? I’m not eating that’ pronounced Johnny. ‘Looks like an eyeball mate’ I said helpfully, pushing my own bowl, with jawbone and teeth sticking out from the viscous liquid, across to the other side of the table.
The Land Of Look Behind
The military may have made it possible to get visas in an effort to bring in much needed foreign money but they haven’t quite given the green light for full scale tourism- yet. To travel in certain regions permits are required. For John and I to cross the land border at Tamu into Moreh we needed a letter of permission that cost a whopping $80 a piece. It’s also illegal to wild camp and for locals to host foreigners. The military want visitors to stay at accredited guesthouses, paying a premium for the privilege.
It seems the ideal tourist in the eyes of the uniformed elite are honeymooners and retired jet setters. People who spend big and don’t ask questions. Ngapali beach is pitched at these wedged up, carefree holiday makers; $200 a night five star hotels, fresh seafood and pristine white sandy beaches lined with heavy teak sun loungers. If it was straightforward to get to, it might just take off (it’s a minimum of three flights from the UK).
We were invited into the homes of many locals for tea and a chat but never to stay over. I wouldn’t ask directly to stay the night since a willing host would ask, nay, insist that you stay. I don’t think it fair to compromise a local given the governments directions and the very real threat of serious punishment. In the land of look behind you never know who may be watching – fifty years of military rule creates spies everywhere.
That said we did get the tent out successfully at the top of a big climb between Ann and Magwe. The 360 view was stunning. A truly magical place to spend a night under the stars. The next morning we met a group of three Polish cyclists heading in the opposite direction. ‘I have no good news for you’ bellowed the leading rider, ‘there’s 2,500+ metres of elevation coming your way’ he chirruped. ‘That’s OK. It’s a fucking massive climb up to Ann too’ -we smirked.
A sea of red and yellow faces
The people of Myanmar are at first extremely shy and reserved. The novelty of seeing a white, western face seemed overwhelming to the locals we encountered especially in the very quiet rural places that we cycled through. Many of the locals we met were involved in road building. Large groups of men, women and older, perhaps teenage children were employed in the construction industry. Crushing rocks, sorting them to size and throwing them neatly onto hot tar was a role performed almost exclusively by women. Driving of steamrollers or any heavy machinery in fact and supervisory roles were jobs solely of the men.
Some of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen were working at the side of the road, breaking rocks to be used in the paving of roads. The iconic yellow tree bark face paint used as sunblock and decoration magnifies the unique beauty of Burmese women. A beaming white smile from one of these beauties was a rare and exotic thrill, not least because so much of the population chew betel nut in epic quantities, which is spat into the street in a sea of red, staining the ground with thousands of sinister looking blood like puddles.
Brimming with optimism
The people are positively brimming with optimism. I’ve lifted this phrase from the advertising for the national brew, Myanmar Beer, I saw it on a massive billboard just outside Yangon and it struck a chord. As I’ve said our visit was just a few weeks after the historic election that put the NDP into power. The people of Myanmar have voted and the landslide result is an important indicator of where the country is going.
Much is being done to improve the opportunities available to the Burmese people, economically the country is embracing capitalism; fibre optic cable is being laid to bring high speed internet to cities and communities throughout the country; roads are being replaced, resurfaced and rebuilt by the dozen to accomodate the hordes of new motors driving about. It’s a time of rapid change for this antiquated nation.
We met a young lad at the Shewedagone Pagoda who stated simply, while taking our photograph, that ‘politics is the most important thing in life’. Right now that may just be the case for young Burmese people striving to make Myanmar a great new democracy.