Take care if you travel to Myanmar on a bicycle. It might just be that you have to go back again and again. It’s addictive, says Adam Platt-Hepworth.
Yangon, Myanmar. 25 May 2011. Myanmar! It’s like a drug!” So said an over-dramatic Hungarian woman I was talking to in a Phnom Penh bar a few years back. At the time, I thought she was a little unbalanced. But after a recent bicycle ride through Myanmar, I agree; it is like a very addictive drug. I think I will have to go back. Here is my story.
Cars are a relative rarity in rural areas
I go through immigration, wrestle my boxed bicycle into the back of a 1970s Corolla and set off for the hotel. There are 19 of us on this bike ride, headed by the energetic Aye Win, born in Myanmar but who has been living in Australia since he was four years old. The perfect cross-cultural guide.
Pagan is such an astonishing place it has been listed as a UNESCO world treasure
We take a bus up to the delightful Lake Inle, and get acquainted with the local people. They are friendly, elegant and charming to a fault. From Inle, we cycle up to Kalaw through the lush, green Shan hills with black-clad Pa-O people working in the fields. We continue on to Pindaya before dropping down to the Ayeyarwaddy basin and the dry zone that surrounds Mandalay. In this sandy flat area, we pass through villages with huts made of wood and rattan, typical of the Bama, Myanmar’s majority race. Most people keep a few bony cattle and some horses. There are no cars or electricity.
Inle Lake boasts the unique leg-rowing fishermen
When I first travelled to Myanmar, I expected to find a cuisine similar to Thai or Lao food. It isn’t – Myanmarese food is not as spicy and is more subtly flavoured. A typical meal will offer beef, chicken, fish or even tofu curries, plus a wide range of side dishes with peas, beans, pickles and many other tasty ingredients. The traditional breakfast is mohinga, a freshly cooked rice noodle dish with a mild fish curry sauce. But my favourite foods are found in the tea shops dotted everywhere: sweet and savoury snacks from samosas to coconut-filled doughnuts and bean cakes.
Our next stop is Bagan, known for its thousands of pagodas built on a wide plain next to the Ayeyarwaddy River, and its sunsets. Oh, the sunsets . . . We then hit the hills again up to Popa Mountain Resort, set on the side of an inactive volcano, and the remarkable Taung Kalat monastery, which tops a rocky outcrop. The scenery is stunningly diverse and the people are the friendliest I have ever met. We wrap up our great adventure in Yangon, happy to have ridden 600 kilometres through a wonderful diverse country.
See you there!
You can get to Yangon from Bangkok, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur with AirAsia, SilkAir and Malaysia Airlines, with Bangkok Airways being the most bike-friendly. Rooms cost anything from US$15 to upwards of US$100 for super swanky. The best-value rooms cost about US$65 a night. As there is a shortage of foreign visitor arrivals in Myanmar, look for bargains at the posh Park Royal in Yangon or Hotel By the Red Canal in Mandalay.
Manadalay's palace and lakes are delightfully unspoiled and calm
The roads are mostly good, sometimes bumpy, but usually relatively deserted. Cycling is definitely my favourite way to see any country. The most popular time to visit is between November and February; it’s cool and the rains are over. June, July and August are also great as everything is green - but you will definitely get rained on.
I just wonder how many more people will see Myanmar the way it is now before a wave of progress engulfs it. I had better take some more of that drug before it gets too popular!
Adam Platt-Hepworth is a keen bicycle adventurer based in Cambodia. He helps run Grasshopper Adventures for riders who want to get off the beaten track. Write to him at: firstname.lastname@example.org