My Bicycling Adventure

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Myanmar: Yangon to Bagan


Getting there

Andrea and Kjell

Myanmar was going to be a very different ride for us, as for the first time we would not be on our own. We met Kjell and his wife Andrea fleetingly in the Philippines in January, and had kept in touch by e-mail. When Kjell told us they planned to go to Burma in November and invited us to join them, we leapt at the chance.

Getting the visa was the first trauma that we had to face. This would have to be done immediately after our return from Japan, in Manila. The Myanmar embassy is on the eighth floor of a nondescript old office block in Makati. You enter via a dark wood panelled hall and go into a poky waiting room with a table, a few chairs and a TV. On one side of the room is a small counter with a closed glass screen.

Woe betide anyone foolhardy enough to assume this is where to go for visa applications. Without any written or obvious information, each new customer has to learn that they must sit down in the waiting room and wait for someone to come in through the door from the back office to deal with them.

This usually means a wait of at least 40 minutes. Only then can you receive the application form. At the same time you will learn that the fee for a visa, U$40, and must be paid, in dollars, at a Chinese bank on the other side of Makati before the application will be accepted. So off we went to the bank and a frustrating search for a currency exchange.

Back at the Embassy we go through the same waiting process a second time and now have a receipt for the payment, a completed application form and the two passport photographs. But where, the official asks, is your digital disc of the photographs?  Luckily this could be done on the ground floor of the building, but once again, on return we had to wait 30 minutes to hand it in. By now it was nearly closing time on Thursday. Come back Monday afternoon we were told.

Monday afternoon we got a taxi to the embassy.
The doorman told us they are always closed on Monday afternoon. Tuesday morning we return.

Karen's visa is ready but Steve's photograph was not on the disc so we have to get another copy, three more thirty minute waits. By midday we at last have two visas.

Good dollars/ Bad dollars
The next challenge is getting US dollars which have to be in pristine condition, with no nicks, folds, tears or writing on them as hotels and money changers will refuse to accept them. With ATM's as rare as hen's teeth and nowhere that will accept plastic, that's a lot of clean dollars to source and carry around.

 On the first attempt we forgot to check BOTH sides of the notes and found about ten of the US$100 bills had ink prints on them. These were swapped at another exchange but two replacements were pre-2006, also not acceptable.

We had booked a return flight with Malaysian Airways via Kuala Lumpur to Yangon. It was cheap because there was a 12 hour stopover in KL on the outward flight. Our early afternoon flight out of Manila was cancelled and we were transferred to the evening flight, which was then delayed, so the stopover  time was reduced considerably.

Kuala Lumpur airport has a hotel, Sama Sama Express, within the Terminal One, with rooms bookable by the hour, so we had six hours sleep in a very quiet and comfortable room.

The second flight was straightforward and the bikes arrived with only a slightly bent mudguard. We had booked two nights at the Motherland Inn 2, which offers a free airport transfer and even though the bikes wouldn't fit into the mini-bus we weren't charged any extra for their separate carriage. We changed about a third of our dollars into Kyat at the airport at a good rate. This tip was thanks to Thorn Tree, the on line lonely Planet forum, which for such a fast changing country as Myanmar is a better source of up to date information than the printed guide.

The first thing that hits you on the journey into Yangon is that this country has predominately right hand drive cars, driving on the right side of the road, even though the change from left to right side driving was instigated in the early 60's. Motorcycles are banned from the city centre roads, making it much more peaceful than other Asian capitals. Bicycles are also rare in the capital, except for a few tricycle taxis, but we cycled around without problems.

The Motherland is a fairly basic guesthouse but everywhere is very clean and the rooms on the upper floor are quiet, have private bathrooms and air conditioning. It is a really busy place, with guests arriving at all times of the day and night, an international mix of young backpackers and older couples. The staff are amazing, dealing with the ever changing guests requests and  enquiries, booking planes, boats and trains, and organising all this on paper, with a pencil and eraser.

Most accommodation in Myanmar advertises 'free wi fi' but in reality it is virtually impossible to do anything except send and receive e-mail on-line currently. Mobile phones are popular but getting a pay as you go SIM card here is still just a dream. This is all set to change within the next year as a Norwegian company promises to bring their communication into the 21st century.


Crumbling buildings
The city was the last capital of British Burma and most of it was re-built in 1885 with a grid pattern of streets.

 A lot of these colonial buildings have survived,although many of them are crumbling, moulding, and apparently empty. A few are currently being renovated and more are earmarked for future work.

Typical tea house
We followed the walking tour plan in Lonely Planet, starting at a typical tea house with sickly sweet condensed milk tea and delicious samosas.

Betel nut seller

Just outside the doors was a small stall selling betel nuts wrapped in green leaves and flavoured with spices and sesame. An English speaking guide persuaded us to try one. An interesting but 'never again' experience.

Street book stalls
Strolling around the streets of the old city was very interesting. The old telegraph office appears to be unchanged since its construction .Second hand book sellers, using the pavement as their counter, sell ancient dusty reference books dating back to the early 1900's.

Yangon colonial buildings
The huge, grand, old buildings contrast with the dilapidated pavements and scruffy food stalls.

Kebab seller

Everywhere there are people with little stalls selling everything from drinks and snacks........

typist public services such as typing or telephone calls...........


......and clothing repairs and alterations.

And the most memorable thing is the friendliness and helpful nature of everyone.

Strand hotel

To escape the late morning heat we spent an hour at the Strand Hotel, built in 1900, which has been refurbished but retains many of its period features, with the welcome addition of air conditioning and amazing sandwiches with western style breads.

The bar and restaurant are open to visitors but the room prices are way above our budget.

Refreshed with beer and lunch we ventured into the vibrant, noisy and colourful Indian market area and purchased a couple of traditional longhis.

Mahabandula Road
From the upper floor of the market is a pedestrian bridge across Mahabandula Road where you can watch the frantic, unrelenting and diverse traffic along this main thoroughfare in complete safety.

Botataung Paya

This is a country where life revolves around the temple, with Buddhism the most prominent religion.

Weaving saffron coloured fabric for monks robes

The temples are like small villages where people eat sleep and work

Yangon to Nyaungshwe - plane + taxi

Kjell and Andrea had flown into Mandalay, arriving three days before us, and planned to cycle to Nyaungshwe, near Inle Lake to meet up with us.  A land journey there from Yangon would take at least 16 hours so we decided to fly, booking the tickets through the hotel and hiring the hotel mini-bus to get to the airport. The closest airport to Inle Lake is He Ho, about 30km north-west.

The Yangon domestic terminal was very basic, check-in was at a small table, the luggage weighed on floor scales. Baggage allowance was 20kg so we had to pay excess charges. In the departure lounge we met a group of four Belgian ladies on a mountain bike tour. They were also flying to He Ho but their bikes had been transported there by road.

With only two doors out of the terminal there was little chance of missing our flight, but with announcements only in Burmese it was difficult to know what was going on. About forty minutes after the timetabled departure time we were told that the inbound flight was delayed because of fog at He Ho and offered free tea and sandwiches.

Slow transport on the way to Nyaungshwe
Two hours late we boarded the small twin prop aircraft for the one hour flight, arriving by 2.45pm.

With sunset at 5.15pm there was not enough time to put the bikes back together, ride to Nyaungshwe and find our hotel before dark. So we piled everything into a taxi for the 45 minute drive to the Princess Garden hotel, on the southern edge of the town.

Nyaungshwe Pagoda
It was the only hotel we stayed in that had a swimming pool. We had booked a room in the hotel building but because of termite problems were upgraded to a bungalow in the garden.

Nyaungshwe Child
Andrea and Kjell had arrived the day before, travelling by bus from Mandalay instead of cycling.  Logistically cycling there would have been very difficult, because of long distances between towns with tourist accommodation. This was a persistent problem on this trip and necessitated several changes of plan. We met up that evening for a meal and to plan the next part of the journey.

Nyaungshwe -  3 days

The breakfast at Princess Garden was very good and by the end of the four weeks got our vote for 'best breakfast in Myanmar' as most of the other offerings were pretty rubbish. We decided to ride down the western shore of Inle Lake to Inthein. 

Nyaungshwe bridge and canal
Despite the early hour, the canal side of Nyaungshwe was already heaving with local tourists, swarming out of a line of coaches and onto the large canoe style boats that tour the lake.

Taking the shopping home

Leaving them behind we continued on a  narrow, unsurfaced lane to Kaung Daing. A  wide band of marshes and rice paddies surround the lake on this side so there are no views over the water.

Busy traffic on the road to Inthein

There is a hot spring near Kaung Daing. It was crowded with local young men and cleanliness was questionable so, instead of bathing, we climbed the steps up to a small pagoda opposite. There was a view of the lake, some interesting pictures depicting the Buddha's life and tea and biscuits provided by one of the monks.

Road to Inthein

The map showed an unsurfaced road continuing south from there but in fact it was tarmac and in good condition. Most of the traffic we saw was ox-carts.

Market shoppers
At Kanywa we visited a small local market, with most of the customers arriving and departing by boat.

Ruined stupas

We reached Inthein in time for a late lunch. On the
outskirts of this village is a large group of ruined stupas, covered in foliage and with their umbrella tops leaning at crazy angles. We tried to avoid paying the entry fee for the Shwe Inn Thein Temple  by cycling up the lane at the side.

Shwe Inn Thein Walkway
 But the sharp eyed lady collecting the money stopped us. So we had to leave the bikes, pay the money and the 'camera fee' and then brave the long trek up a covered walkway which is lined with souvenir stalls and insistent vendors.

Ruined, renovated and work in progress

Halfway up the hillside the walkway ends and in front of us were over 1,000 zedi, small stupas, most built between 200 and 300 years ago. Most of the lower ones are in ruins but further up the hill many have been, or are currently being, renovated, with plaques applied to advertise their benefactors.

View from the hill over Schwe Inn Thein
We continued up the rough track to a hilltop which had views over the temple site and lake.

Loading the boat
Returning to Inthein, we wanted to get a boat to take us and the bikes back to Nyaungshwe across the lake. There was only one boat near the bridge and Kjell and Steve went to negotiate a price for the trip.

 Loading the four bikes, four passengers, the boatman's wife and young daughter from the narrow, slippery jetty took some time and the bikes position had to be adjusted to balance the boat.

Inle lake passenger boat
Once the boat set off down the waterway, the water spray from the bow splashed continuously over the front two bikes.

Houses on stilts

It was a long but scenic journey back, through villages of teak house built on stilts above the water.....

.....golden pagodas, floating gardens,.....

Expensive resorts on Inle Lake shore

.....and onto the lake with its shores lined with
expensive resorts. At dusk we arrived back in the town, meaning that the boatman and his family would have to make the return journey home in the dark.

The main reason for starting the tour at Lake Inle in the middle of November was to experience the Fire Balloon Festival. This is held on the outskirts of Taunggyi, about 15km east of Nyaungshwe, at the time of the full moon which this year was November 17th.

We hired a taxi for the evening, leaving the hotel about 5.30pm. On the road to Taunggyi it seemed like the whole population of central Myanmar was on a pilgrimage to the festival. Every available form of transport was filled to capacity and beyond with passengers. Cars, taxis, buses, lorries, vans, motorbikes, with people sat on the roof, clinging to the back steps, hanging onto the sides.

There is a long hill up to the town, about 600m of climb, slowing the heavy laden vehicles to a crawl. The faster moving motorbikes wove their way through the vehicles, from left side to right and the whole width of the narrow road was filled with climbing traffic. Luckily nobody wanted to go downhill. The problems were compounded by many vehicles pulling in for 'comfort stops'  or simply to allow overheated engines to cool.

From the outskirts of Taunggyi it was another hour of slow crawling to the festival grounds.  Our young driver turned down into arena area and we wondered where on earth he would be able to park. Several officials tried to turn him back but he was insistent and drove into the VIP area, where he got the last parking place. He shepherded us  a couple of hundred yards through the crowds to a covered stand reserved for foreigners, complete with a security guard.  We later realised that the roof was to protect us from falling debris.  We joined about two dozen other international tourists, mostly in small groups with guides.

The temple and arena
The event was not quite what we had expected:  serenity, stillness, large numbers of small paper balloons floating into the night sky. Instead there was a huge arena, packed with local young males, many very drunk, chanting and dancing.

Around this were hundreds of food and drink stalls and a large fairground. The temple was lit up like Blackpool illuminations.

Inflating the first balloon
A huge paper balloon was carried into the arena with much ceremony and then inflated with hot air from a brazier. Once it was fully inflated a huge wooden crate was attached, containing fireworks to be ignited once the balloon was high in the sky.

Fire ball

This first  one rose up about 200m and then the edge of the balloon caught fire. A small panic reaction rippled through the crowd below as the flames engulfed the whole balloon, and within about a minute it started to plummet back to earth, propelled by the weight of the fireworks.

 It landed and exploded into a huge fireball, all the rockets igniting  simultaneously. A fire engine quickly dowsed the flames and we were assured that there were no casualties but it was difficult to imagine given how crowded the arena was, and the intensity of the explosion, with  rockets firing off in all directions, that that could be true.

Later, better behaved balloon
Over the next three hours, four more balloons went up without incident, producing  lovely showers of fireworks from very high in the sky. At midnight we decided to leave, to avoid getting held up in long queues of departing traffic later on. According to the guides there were still ten more balloons to go up.

Our enterprising young taxi driver had rented out the boot of his estate car to a family to sit and watch the show. They had to sit on the ground for the rest of the night.

Day three was spent riding down the upper east part of the lake. The road here is in  poor condition, very rough and potholed and in the process of being widened and straightened. We ate lunch in a small cafe in a village, listening to the local children practising for their full moon parade that evening.

Inle Jetty
After lunch we hired a boat for a trip out on the lake to take photographs of the fisherman, with their unique method of paddling the boat with their feet, standing on the back of the boat.

Inle Lake Fisherman

Nyaungshwe to Pindaya - 94km

Village Parade
On this, our first full cycling day, it was unfortunate that both of the ladies were unwell. Karen just had a cold, but Andrea had a bad stomach upset and had hardly slept. There was about 10km of flat road to warm up on and get used to riding in convoy before the first hill.


In one of the small villages was a parade. At the back were two ponies each carrying a young boy about four years old. In front of them was a long column of villagers led by a group of dancers, musicians, drummers and gift bearers, all dressed in traditional costume.

Gift bearers

At Schwenyuang we joined highway 4 and turned west. The road was very busy, with throngs of balloon festival visitors travelling home. Later we
learned that today was a public holiday.

Distant rain

Between here and He Ho was a slow climb of 450m up to the plateau where the airport is. Clouds were gathering above and there was a brief shower, hardly enough to wet us.

The slow train to Thazi

Traffic in front ground to a halt as the level crossing gates were closed and everyone waited for the train to Thazi to trundle slowly over the road.

360 degree turn


The railway climbs close to the road, circling through  360 degrees to gain height.

The lads on their way home from Taunggy

Further up the hill there was a good view of the heavy rainstorm making its way over the lake. Stopping to take a photo we were joined by a group of young men, riding home from the balloon festival, who all wanted to have their pictures taken with us.
Steve could hardly lift the drum, let alone play it

At a cafe at the summit we caught up with them again and they brought us all coffee. Steve was persuaded to try playing a traditional drum.


Now on the plateau at about 1300m, the road was fairly flat all the way to Aungpan. At a small parasol workshop we gatecrashed a tour party's demonstration of traditional umbrella making before stopping for lunch at a  roadside eating place

The restaurant owner
By 2.30pm we were in Aungpan where we planned to overnight. The following day we would take a day trip to Pindaya to visit the  cave temple, a round trip of 80km. As it was still early we decided we could ride the 40km to Pindaya before sunset.

Heading Home

A tour guide had recommended the ride along the NR 41 as very scenic. It was, but because of the public holiday everyone had decided to take a trip to Pindaya.

Evening view near Pindaya

The narrow, poorly surfaced road was nose to tail with buses and vans full of locals on their way to, or home from, the Pagoda. Constant horn blasting and the necessity to regularly swing onto the unsurfaced hard shoulder to avoid the impatient buses was wearing.


The road was a tiring roller-coaster with repeated climbs and ascents. The compensation was the breathtaking views across the countryside with its multicoloured fields of crops. As the sun descended the warm light gave everything a magic glow.

 In the fields groups of farmers were threshing, loading the straw onto ox-carts which plodded across the road, forcing the other traffic to slow down.

Pindaya Lake

There were so many photo opportunities we didn't arrive in Pindaya until after dark, riding into the town on an unsurfaced, unlit, rough downhill track. We stayed at the Golden Cave hotel which had bungalow style rooms with small covered terraces, ideal for the bikes.

Pindaya to Kalaw - 47km

It rained very heavily just before dawn. The noise of the rain on the corrugated iron roof of our room meant we were awake in good time for breakfast. Afterwards we rode up to the Schwe Oo Min cave pagoda. Even at  8.30am there were  already a few buses full of local pilgrims there. A steep, long climb flight of steps led up to the cave and shoes had to be removed half way up.

There are several large, interconnecting caves, all stuffed full of gold  Buddhas of all shapes and sizes. There are so many that only very narrow walkways remained to get through the caves. It took about thirty minutes to reach the limit of the caves and we turned back to return to the entrance.

By now masses of other people had arrived and the narrow passages between the Buddhas were packed with people. It was a battle to make any progress. The local women used their elbows and knees to push their way through the throng. At last, with great relief, we emerged back into the fresh air.

Riding back from Pindaya
We had to go back to the hotel to pick up luggage and then wait for another very heavy rainstorm to pass before setting off about 11am. The return journey to Aungpan was more enjoyable because of the quieter road and the fact that the long painful uphills of the day before were easy coasting downs.

Today, instead of threshing,  the farmers were harvesting cabbages,  arriving at laybys with ox-carts full of cabbages to be loaded onto lorries. Kjell and Andrea got left behind to taking  photos and caught up with us at lunchtime.

Monks at Kalaw
After lunch it was just another 7km to Kalaw where we had booked rooms at the  'Eastern Paradise Hotel' It didn't live up to its name being a bit shabby and old but it was quiet.

 There was an Internet cafe round the corner where we profiled the  next day's ride. Andrea still not able to eat and feeling very weak so even with a good portion of downhill, tomorrow's ride of 115km was daunting.
For dinner we tried a restaurant recommended by LP for its Myanmar food. They only had Chinese dishes.

Kalaw to Meiktila - 115km  (45km in van)

The official hotel breakfast start was 7am so we asked to have ours at 6.30am. It seemed every other guest had also asked for an early breakfast. By 7am we were on highway 4, with a short gentle ascent before the road started to drop into a deep valley.

At the top of the hill they were building a new toll gate but it wasn't clear whether the toll road would be this one or a new build. The temperature at 1,300m was cool and pleasant and the views from the top across the small forest reserve were beautiful.

The road tumbles down the steep sided valley through many hairpins, with smooth tarmac and the traffic was light.  We were afraid that there would be many lorries carrying agricultural produce but there was mostly small buses and motorbikes.

Road works

Within 30 minutes Karen needed some bike maintenance to fix a squealing brake and not long after Steve had a puncture. These delays meant that Kjell and Adrea went on ahead and it was a while before we all met up again. As the road descended the temperature rose steadily and the sun was intense. 

The road now began a slow ascent up a small tributary valley. Teams of workers, mostly women were filling potholes with small stones by hand and making tar to surface them by boiling oil over wood fires. The men were climbing a rocky cliff with just ropes and no protective clothing while their children playing happily below them.

Making tar
A  military pickup truck passed us with three young soldiers sitting in back. Pulling up ahead of us, and an older officer jumped out of the drivers seat and approached us. We thought we were in trouble. Instead he handed us a large bag of oranges to eat.

We decided to wait for Kjell and Andrea so we could share with them. So we headed to the shade of a roadside tree. Four women already sat there in the shade. They found us a blanket to sit on and we shared our oranges with them.

Kjell and Andrea  still hadn't arrived after twenty minutes so we assumed they were trying to find a lift. We continued to next town and stopped for lunch but they still they didn't catch up. Ten kilometres further we stopped again for a drink and a minivan with two bikes on the roof went past, stopped and reversed. It was another 45km to Meiktila and gone 3pm so we added our two bikes to the van and jumped into the air-con cab.

The Honey Hotel was on the side of the lake but a disappointingly scruffy place, which didn't exploit it's wonderful views. We sat on the little patio, which would have had good views over the water without the high wall, and asked for a beer. They had none, so one of the staff went off on his motorbike to buy a single bottle. When we wanted a refill he had to go again!  Just around the corner was a surprisingly modern Thai restaurant with very good food.

Meiktila to Bagan - 160km (van)

Dawn, Meiktila
As the crow flies, Bagan is just 70km north west of Meiktila. But as there is no direct road, the two options are to go north to Myingyan and stay overnight at a very basic guesthouse or go due east towards Chauk, on the Ayeyarwady river, and overnight at Mount Popa at an over priced government owned hotel. It had also been suggested to us  that this road may be closed to tourists due to Muslim unrest.

Floating Pagoda
The best option appeared to be to get a bus to Bagan, and there was one at 11am. So after breakfast at 6.30am we had a couple of hours to spare. We explored around the lake where there was a large duck shaped floating pagoda, and had a drink at a tea house near the market.

Monstery buildings
Meiktila was the sight of one of the most decisive Burma battles of WW2 and a large number of Japanese soldiers lost their lives here. On the far side of the lake is a monastery with a monument in memory of these soldiers.

Memorial plaque of WW2 monument

It wasn't difficult to find the monastery but early in the morning there were very few monks around and we wandered through the many buildings in vain. Eventually a young boy led us to the small, unkempt and uninformative memorial. Myanmar does not seem keen to remember or commemorate the sacrifices of WW2.

Back at the hotel  Kjell had investigated the cost of getting the four of us and our bikes on the bus to Bagan and decided it would be just as cheap to hire a van. The only problem was that the van didn't have any seats.

Sitting comfortably?
We loaded and secured the bikes in the back and then borrowed a few cushions and mats from the hotel to sit on. Kjell, as senior party member, got to sit in the cab with the driver.

The ride was enjoyable through poor and remote villages along a smoothly tarmacked road with hardly any traffic. Three Europeans in the back of a van couldn't pass unnoticed and we attracted a lot of attention, particularly from the children as they walked home from school for lunch.

Just one of the Bagan temples
On the outskirts of Bagan we passed the first of the 1,000's of temples for which this area is so famous and we had travelled so far to experience.

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