A slow adventure in a country luckily still not on backpackers route
Myanmar has recently made headlines again because of the coup that re-established the military in control of the Country. When I visited Myanmar 3 years ago, you could definitely feel that the atmosphere was still quite tense and that police and the army were still making their presence felt in many aspects of people's life. The interaction between locals and tourists was definitely not encouraged: locals were not allowed to host foreigners in their homes and tourists could only stay in registered guests houses (this rule was definitely enforced as I found out when the police put me and my bike on a bus, when I tried to stay in a town that didn't have a guesthouse). As a matter of fact, even when the government was lead by Nobel prize Aung San Suu Kyi, the highest ranks of the army were still holding important roles in the government.
Faced with the ethical dilemma of visiting this Country despite the political situation or not, I decided to go ahead although I appreciate that, in this way, travel and tourism might be perceived as supporting non democratic governments (at least through the income generated). While this side-effect is probably true, I also believe that tourism has potential to help breaking down barriers and borders and that keeping a population isolated has negative effects as well.
Leaving politics aside, these are some of my memories of my slow adventure, cycling around this country for a month.
Welcome to Myanmar! Shouts the officer while he hands me back my passport with a brand new shining visa to add to my collection.
From the moment I started thinking about cycling across Asia, Myanmar was one of the countries I wanted to visit the most. I think the main drawing for me was that there is still quite a bit of mystery around it, considering that it only opened again its doors to tourists a few years ago and it's still not part of the traditional backpacking route that crosses SE Asia.
Crossing “friendship bridge” (the bridge that links Thailand to Myanmar), it's like stepping back in time: the road gets narrower and full of potholes, cars and buses have definitely seen better days and there are more pagodas that you can even imagine...and the traffic switches from from right to left halfway through the bridge so be careful there (not that cycling on the right side of the road makes it any safer anyway!)
For the first day in Myanmar I have also arranged to meet "Smile Angel", a fellow Burmese cyclist I met through Warm Showers (an online cycling community) and who will be my local guide in Kawkareik. I absolutely loved using Warm Showers on my trip as it gave me the opportunity to make so many local connections that otherwise I would have never made: in Indonesia I was hosted almost every night and they were all super helpful! In Myanmar, locals are not allowed to have foreign guests in their houses but we still had the opportunity to go for a cycle around town, visiting all the sites including a very informative tour of a noodle factory and have a meal together.
After four months of cycling in Asia, I was well used to the road rule whereby the biggest, fastest and loudest vehicle will prevail: for sure a bicycle doesn't fall in this category, so I decided avoid traffic by being extra adventurous and go off road! Cycling away from the main roads also gives me a unique opportunity to see an even more secret side of the daily life of this country: buffalos pulling huge carts full of hay bales become the norm in the terms of traffic and every turn brings more surprises...sometimes I have to push my bike on a train bridge or look around trying to find a bamboo bridge, which of course doesn't exist on my map, to cross a new torrent, result of the last rainy season.
It is also highly amusing to see the surprised faces and looks that I get by the locals: I am pretty sure they don't see many westerners here and even less going on a bicycle. I wish we could somehow communicate better but, unfortunately, all I have learnt to say in Burmese is “Mingalaba” (hello) but most of the times that is sufficient to get a smile in return and some fresh fruit as a welcome gift!
After a couple of weeks of cycling, including a break in the capital Yangon, I eventually reach Bagan, the ancient capital of the Myanmar Kingdom. This is definitely the main tourist attraction of the country and for a good reason: in its old glory it was home to more than 10,000 between temples, pagodas and monasteries, of which about 2,000 still survive to the present day. Like many sites (Angkor Wat in Cambodia is definitely another one) there is an issue with tourist overcrowding but, if you wake up early enough and asks locals for advice, you can still enjoy one of the most beautiful sunrises you will ever experience in your life without too many people around you. And while you walk around these buildings that date back to the 10th century, you can't help but feel like a new Indiana Jones.
For the last leg of my Myanmar adventure, I decide to park my bike and join an organized group on a 2 days trek from Kalaw to Inle lake: this way I will be able to discover a different side of this fascinating country and get a taste of a different way of slow travel. Getting to Kalaw was some of the hardest cycling I did in Asia as it involved a massive climb on a road still under construction but, for the same reason, it was also one of the most memorable, one of those moments that it is very difficult to explain in words. The night before the start of the hike, it was time for a little celebration in a local pub (also probably the only place open after 9pm). “Hi Snacks and Drinks” is definitely the place to be in town when it gets dark, attracting a nice mixed crowd of locals and tourists, all chatting to each other, sharing stories and playing live music, also thanks to a very friendly owner and a few rum sours, their signature drink. It is definitely nice to be in a bar where locals and tourists hang out together, instead of those typical overpriced backpackers dens, offering western food, full of foreigners and not a local in sight.
For the night on the trek we stayed in an old monastery; we arrived there in the late afternoon but, before dinner, we still managed to organize a football match with the young monks! The unifying power of football never stops amazing me: give a group of boys a ball and a couple of stones and in less than 5 minutes they will set up a football match! It doesn't matter that you can't speak the same language, where you are from or what you do...football has the power to turn people of all ages and cultures into friends!
The last day in Myanmar is spent cycling around Inle lake; the town itself doesn't offer a lot to see and it's a bit over touristy for my taste but being back on my bike gives me the freedom to explore and discover some more hidden gems.
One of my best memories of Myanmar will be the people: despite being still fairly shy and reserved, they were at the same time truly generous and kind: I didn't go a single day without being offered something being fruit, a drink or some help in fixing my bike. They were also some of the most ingenious I have met during my trip; I guess when you don't have a lot, you have to learn how to fix things rather than replacing them: that's definitely another lesson I will take home with me.