My Bicycling Adventure

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Myanmar: Bagan to Yangon

Bagan - 3 days

 According to travel agents, the top three tourist attractions in Myanmar are:
1. Shwedagon Paya in Yangon  (going there)
2. Inle Lake (been there)
3. Bagan.......
The Bagan Plain
Most logical way to carry a tray we couldn't miss it!  Lying on the east bank of the great Ayeyarwady River is the 28 square mile arid plain of Bagan, liberally sprinkled with the remains of over 3,000 temples, dating back to the 11th century.

Time, climate and neglect have taken their toll over the years, but  earthquakes, the last in 1975, reduced many of them to piles of rubble. Since then lots of renovation and rebuilding, some of it of questionable quality, has been carried out and is still in progress.

Temple in Myinkaba
Formerly there was a large prosperous city here, but all of the old wooden houses and shops have long since rotted away, leaving just the brick built  temple structures. Most were originally covered with ornate plaster stucco decoration on the outside, with interiors adorned with colourful murals.

A sprinkling of grass adds definition

Now most of the plaster is gone and the intricate and varied warm red brick shapes of the buildings contrast with the greens of the grass and trees of the plain, especially in the warm glow of sunset.

Traditional Burmese harps

We struggled to find reasonably priced accommodation in Bagan and a lot hotels were fully booked two weeks in advance.

An acquaintance of Kjell's suggested the Crown Prince hotel in New Bagan and offered us a good discount, but it was still more than our normal budget and a fair walk away from the few restaurants.

Ananda Pahto
With such a vast area to explore we found the bikes invaluable although it would have been very easy to rent some. One of the most popular forms of transport is the new electric 'e bikes', light, quiet and less sweat.  Some of the temples are tourist hot-spots, with coachloads of tour groups swarming all over them. Others are deserted and little visited.

One of the few surviving exterior  temple reliefs

The main temple area is enclosed within an oblong of tarmac roads but the central area has miles of dirt tracks linking the various temple sites. One  problem is that the arid conditions produce aggressive thorny and spiky plants that are very good at puncturing inner tubes.

View from Shwesandaw Paya
The first day we explored Old Bagan and climbed to the top of Shwesandaw Paya, a pyramid shaped pagoda with steep steps leading up its sides, similar in design to the temples in Bangkok.
Temple sculpture

On the second day we rode over the South Plain, starting at Dhammayazika Paya which has  good views over the plain from its high terrace. Except it was in the middle of a restoration project and the upper terrace was closed.

The bamboo scaffolding

The bamboo scaffolding surrounding the upper part of the stupa was an art work in itself. As we couldn't get a photo from here we cycled across to the Bagan Viewing Tower, part of the exclusive Aureum Palace Hotel which does have good views but the modern, round, brick and glass tower looks totally out of place in the middle of the archaeological zone.

Smoking never did me any harm

Heading back from there we rode through a small farming village and were approached by a lady who offered a guided tour of her village.
The mother was the star of the show, demonstrating her spinning skills and smoking habits.

Spinning cotton

Typical intricate wall mural

Some of the temples had very well preserved murals on their inner walls. A lot of the temples have no electricity supply so our torches were useful.

Sunset view over the Ayeyarwady
 Every evening we ate at a restaurant on the banks of the river, watching the sun sink behind the hills, the fishermen casting their nets in the river and the glowing laser light piercing the sky from the top of the Lawkananda Paya.

Bagan to Bago - plane + taxi

Bagan airport is little more than a small airfield just a ten minute drive from New Bagan by taxi. For this flight we were not charged for any excess baggage. The plane left on time and in just over an hour we were at the domestic terminal in Yangon. There is no baggage carousel here, just a team of porters unloading it from the plane onto large trolleys and bringing it to the outside of the terminal building. The four of us watched helplessly as the bike bags were thrown unceremoniously out of the hold onto the tarmac below.

Once we had claimed the baggage we had to pay a porter to take it outside as there are no luggage trolleys for passengers. Booking a taxi was straightforward at the taxi desk where the official spoke good English. Then we got the taxi to drive us to the International terminal to exchange more US Dollars into Kyat.

The distance by road from the airport to Bago is about 60km and very flat so we would have had enough time to cycle there before dark. Having read a few blogs written by other cyclists we decided to go by taxi. Highway 1 between Yangon and Bago is one of the busiest roads in Myanmar. All traffic heading out of Yangon to Mandalay in the north or Mawlamyine in the south uses this route and although there is a new toll expressway, most traffic goes on this old road.

We were glad we did. The road really was very busy and appeared to have been recently widened. There were three lanes of traffic in both directions with no hard shoulder, just rough ploughed earth at the side of the concrete. The taxi was  right hand drive and  Kjell was quite nervous travelling in the front seat as the driver attempted some fast, risky overtaking.

Bago is another 'ex-capital' of Burma and we stayed in the San Francisco Guesthouse. It is a very basic, but clean and well managed hostel. Although it is right next to the highway our rooms were at the rear so we were not disturbed by the heavy traffic. The staff spoke good English and were very helpful and knowledgeable.

Huge reclining Buddha
In the late afternoon we walked to Shwethalyaung  Buddha, an enormous and extremely attractive Buddha image. The sun was setting as we arrived and there was just enough light to take a photograph.

There were not many restaurants in the town centre but we had a passable Chinese just across the road from the guesthouse in a place that was not sure if it was a garage or a restaurant.

Bago to Kyaikto - 93km

Dawn at Shwemadaw Paya
Today we broke all records and were kitted up and ready to depart at 6am. The sun wasn't even up and we caught a pink sunrise over the Shwemadaw Paya.

Washing up

The first 15km was along Highway 1, the main road between Yangon and Mandalay and the busiest in Myanmar. Although a new toll motorway has now been built it is little used with most traffic choosing to avoid the tolls.

As the guesthouse didn't serve breakfast we planned to ride to Hpa Yar Gyi  and have breakfast there, before turning off onto NR8 which follows the western coast southwards

Ox plough
It was not as bad as we had anticipated and we made very good progress on the flat road before enjoying a typical tea-house breakfast of coffee and pakoras. From there it  was another 35km of flat riding, through extensive rice paddies. NR8 was much quieter than Highway 1 but still had its fair share of buses, all carrying tour groups to Golden Rock.

Fish stall

Roadsides stalls had interesting displays of  fresh and dried fish, none which we recognised.  We stopped several times for refreshment at little family run food stalls who were grateful for our custom.

Drying latex
After crossing the wide river Sittang the route undulated over low rubber planted hills. The afternoon heat and little shade made it tiring. Arriving  at Kyaikto, on the main road, we enquired about a room at two guesthouses but neither was licensed for foreign guests.

They advised us to go 5km along the road towards Kingpun to the Mountain View  Resort. We managed to get their last two available bungalows. A couple of large tour parties  had booked all the rest of their accommodation. The bungalows are spread over a large area of wooded gardens, and ours were the most remote, quite a walk from the restaurant and reception. There was no choice that night but to eat in the resort restaurant which was busy and lively.

Kyaiktiyo (Golden Rock)

Pretty in pink!

It rained heavily during the night, turning  the loose red earth resort roadways to sticky, heavy mud. The walk to and from the restaurant for breakfast covered our Birkenstock sandals in red mud so we left them outside on the patio to dry while we went off to see Golden Rock.  We  pushed the bikes down to the gates to stop the tyres getting coated as well.

Parasol vendor
We quickly cycled the ten kilometres to  Kingpun, the departure point for Mount Kyaiktiyo and  Golden Rock. From here there is the option of walking all the way to the top which takes about five hours, or riding up on one of the large trucks.

Even if we had felt inspired enough to cycle to the top, it would not be possible as the road is closed to all other traffic except the trucks, so we locked them up and made our way to the truck station.

How risky is this?

The open backed lorries are fitted with  wooden planks for seats. There are about six rows of seats, each seating six people, a bit of a tight squeeze for Burmese bottoms, nigh impossible for European ones.

To get in entails climbing up a rickety metal wheeled set of steps and leaping across the gap onto the truck then climbing over the seats to find a place. A task better suited to 20 somethings, not retirees. 

Full to capacity
Having secured a place on one truck, we were told to get off by an official and get on the 'tourist' truck on the other side of the garage. After repeating  the risky boarding procedure we found that this truck only went three quarters of the way up to the top and then there was an hour's climb to the rock itself.

By now the first truck had filled with passengers and departed so we had to get on another and wait again until all the seats were filled before departing. The truck set off along the concrete road and began the slow, 15km climb up the mountain. It was narrow road but there were regular passing places so the descending trucks could pass.

The truck in front of us

Halfway up there is a compulsory stop as the next section of road  is single track, and an opportunity for the driver to collect the fares. We waited while five trucks descended and then the queue of uphill ones set off. This part was much steeper, with tight hairpins and a 25% gradient.

Litter carriers

About 500m short of  the 1,100m summit, the trucks unload their passengers in a dusty parking area.  Litter bearers are on hand to carry the physically challenged or just plain lazy.

Climbing to the temple
Porters with baskets wait to carry people's  luggage. There are lots of hotels and rest shelters on the mountain top and everything they need has to come up by truck.

Climbing the steps

 It  felt like a bank holiday in England with crowds of  friends, monks and family groups all toiling up the steps with picnics, blankets, babes in arms, and temple offerings.  All along the route are vendors selling drinks and food, rosary beads, religious icons, and toys.

The final insult is the government entrance fee for foreigners of $10 each.

Golden rock

The rock itself is impressive, teetering on the edge of a towering precipice and glowing against the dark clouds billowing behind it.

Men adding gold leaf

The rock's surface is covered with a thick layer of pure gold, with men (only men are allowed to apply gold leaf) queueing up to add more......

Women's prayers

.... .while their wives and children burn incense and pray in front of the many golden Buddhas.

Mountaintop village
The views from the  plaza over the surrounding mountains are impressive but, generally, everything else is a bit tacky, dirty and too crowded.

Bamboo transport

We took many photographs and then got a truck back down to Kingpun for lunch. From there it was an easy ride back to resort.

In the evening we got ready to walk down to restaurant then realised our sandals had disappeared from the patio and also our plastic water bottles. Kjell suggested that one of the many dogs roaming around the resort may have tried to eat them but it seemed strange  that it would take all four of them. After we reported the problem to reception  they sent one of the waiters off with a small torch to search for them, an almost impossible task in the velvety darkness.

At about 10.30pm we were in bed when a  loud knock on the  door woke us. An older man and two local teenagers stood on doorstep holding the missing footwear. "Where did you find them?" we asked to shrugged shoulders. There were no teeth marks in the cork soles and the straps on both pairs had been adjusted to fit someone else's feet. Then we felt terribly guilty and wished we'd just gone and brought new sandals

Kyaiktiyo to Thaton - 74km

Buffalo grazing beneath the rubber trees
Today's ride continued to follow NH 8 south on flat roads, through rubber and palm plantations with herds of grazing buffalo.

Unloading nipa

There were many local industries evident along the route: nipa thatching......

Bamboo furniture

 ....bamboo furniture, woven grass matting, latex....

Pottery bowls
.....bricks and pottery.

Boys fishing near Thaton

With a flat road and light traffic we made fast progress and arrived in Thaton by lunchtime. We stopped at the first guesthouse on the outskirts of town but it was very basic.

The girls next door

A man at the house on the opposite side of the road  beckoned us over and gave us red bean ice lollies, a strange textured delicacy. There was a group of teenage girls living next door to him who peeped at us through the hedge, giggling and whispering.

Eventually they were persuaded to come round to meet us and as usual all wanted to take photos of us on their mobiles. After four hours of hot sweaty riding we were not looking our best!

Recycled plastic watering cans, Thaton
Refreshed by the ice creams we continued into the town and saw a hoarding advertising a hotel called 'Two Lakes'. The town was pretty basic with little of note except for the usual pagoda in the centre. We searched for the hotel and asked around with no success.

Then we paused outside a small wholesale shop  whose owner who spoke good English. He gave us directions and phoned the hotel to book rooms for us.

It was about 5km out of town on the NR85, the road to the Thai border at Mai Sot. We were the only guests in this newish hotel and the rooms were very good,  but there were lots and lots of staff just sitting around doing very little. In the evening we dined on the patio at the side of the large pond with its fountains and fairy lights. The meal was good, especially the rather nice bottle of wine.

Thaton to Mawlamyine (Moulmein) - 70km

River scene
This morning we rode back into Thaton to continue south on NR8. Again the landscape was flat and most of the agriculture was around palms, bamboo and rubber. The road crosses three main rivers and each of the bridges had a military control with armed guards, and bunkers at the roadside.

Young monks
Early morning is the time for the monks to walk the streets collecting donations of food from the local businesses. The senior monk walks at the front with the younger boys behind.

Temple sculptures
It was cloudier today so more pleasant for riding. After 20km we stopped for a mid-morning drink and Karen realised she had forgotten to hand back the hotel room key.

As we sipped our cold drinks we spotted a couple of touring cyclists coming from the opposite direction. They were so focused on their ride they nearly cycled straight past us but we called them over to exchange information.  They were Jessie and Georgia, a young British couple who had entered Burma by boat from Ranong in Thailand.  According to all our sources this is not allowed but they had had no problems getting across the border with the bikes, having got their visas in Bangkok.

They told us that the ride north through Tanintharyi, Burma's southernmost state, had been a nightmare, with rough, unsurfaced roads over steep mountains, with very few places to stay. They carried a tent so camped in palm plantations. Some of the people they had met in the villages had never seen a Westerner before but they were made very welcome and cared for by the locals when they were in despair because of the arduous terrain. We were able to give them advice on guesthouses on the way to Yangon and assure them that the roads north were smooth and flat. In return they promised to take the room key back to the hotel in Thaton.

Bridge over the Thanlwin River
A  ridge of tree clad hills runs parallel to the road, dotted with countless stupas and temples. The last obstacle before Mawlamyine is the wide Thanlwin River. From the river bridge are distant views of jagged karst rock formations rising out of the huge flat river estuary.

Burmese traditional puppets

Our accommodation in Mawlamyine was the 'Cinderella Hotel' which lived up to it's glowing  LP review with spacious rooms and the best stocked mini-bar in Burma.


St Matthew's Church
This place is yet another ex-capital of Burma, in the hey-day of the British Empire. Consequently there are  lots of crumbling, moulding, colonial buildings and a liberal sprinkling of Christian churches.

Steve and Kjell were both feeling ill this morning so sightseeing was somewhat curtailed.  We took a gentle ride to the top of the ridge to the east of the town which has at least six temples built along its length.

View over Mawlamyine

From the ridge there are good views over the town and river.

Sunset from The Strand

Bilu Kyun Island - 50km circular ride

On the boat to Bilu Kyun
Bilu Kyun is a large island, just off the coast of Mawlamyine. It's name literally means 'Ogre Island' and some stories suggest that the inhabitants used to be cannibals. There is no tourist accommodation on the island, but its size makes it ideal for a day trip on a bike.

Which way?
A passenger ferry operates from a jetty at the north of Mawlamyine, but it was easier, with four bikes, to hire a private boat from the jetty further south.

The crossing only took about 10 minutes and  there were plenty of  porters at the other side to help lift the bikes. A rough red dirt track leads inland, through the usual flat rice paddies. There are few four wheeled motor vehicles here, although motorbikes are starting to replace the traditional pony and ox-carts.

Island farmstead
Most of the island is flat, with endless rice paddies. A narrow spine of low hills  runs down the centre, with a  circular metalled road running around it. Part of the road was in a very bad state and was gradually being widened and repaired.

Whip and top
It was a Saturday so the children were not at school and it was a delight to see them all playing the games which used to be so popular when we were young: marbles, whip and top, skipping and ball games.

Marbles, but with wooden balls
Not many independent travellers make it here, most people arriving in small organised tours, so we were a great novelty.

Our benefactor

A man on a bicycle stopped and welcomed us to his home town and took a 50,000 Kyat, ($5) note out of his wallet. He wanted to give us this money to spend on the island to encourage local business.  Our initial attempts to refuse his generous gift were obviously upsetting him so we accepted it and spent it, as he requested, in an eating place in Chaungzon, the main town.

Local hardware

The inhabitants of the island are from the Mon ethnic group, with their own unique styles of building, dress and hats.

The singers

Passing a local house we heard children singing and stopped to investigate. The youngsters were very shy but loved seeing their images on the camera.

Water melon seller
Riding up the west side of the hills we couldn't resist buying watermelon at a roadside stall. We asked them about local craft workshops which we had read about but not yet seen.

Carved wooden pipes

The stall owner got on his motorbike and led us along narrow village streets to a pipe maker and walking stick carver.

Buffalo on the lane

As we returned to the jetty to get the boat back the sun was low in the sky casting long shadows.

Wedding guests

Several motorbikes passed us carrying Indian women in their finest clothes, going to a wedding.

Mawlamyine to Hpa-an - 63km

The problem
Today's was one of the most beautiful rides we did in Myanmar. Heading north out of Mawlamyine the road crosses two broad tributaries of the Thanlwin River. Both had suspension bridges of similar construction, the second one being much longer than the first. They had a metal road surface constructed out of longitudinal strips about 10cm wide, with 3cm gaps between them, just big enough for a bike tyre to drop into.


The only way to ride across was to zig-zag across the width of the road, impossible because of the other traffic, or keep the tyres on a single slat all the way across. Instead we got off and pushed. 

Statues along the track to the cave
Turning off the main road we followed a track  to the Kha-Yon caves. A seemingly endless line of Buddha statues runs along the roadside, leading to a monastery at the base of a limestone outcrop and the cave entrance.

Beautiful but mysterious statues

There are a couple of small unlit caves here filled with religious icons.

Gaudy Ogres
At the sheltered base of the cliff, a group of men were creating  new statues and reliefs, painting them in bright gaudy colours.

Traditional leaf thatched building
The road continued north through the wide Thanlwin river valley. The rice had been recently harvested and the farmers were busy ploughing their fields. Instead of oxen or hand ploughs, these men all had new looking rotavotors, a sure sign of increasing affluence

Traditional Karen farmstead
The main ethnic group in this area is the Karen. Their tradition house is built of teak on stilts and has small square bay windows, glazed with brightly coloured glass. Some of them are being replaced with brick and concrete houses.

View to Zwegabin Mountain

The flat alluvial valley is dissected by high, sheer sided limestone mountain ridges that from a distance looked like craggy islands rising out of a green sea.

Children playing foot volleyball
Hpa-an was a much bigger town than we had expected.  The Angel Land hotel that had been recommended by staff at the Cinderella was disappointing. Newish but poorly maintained with indifferent staff, overpriced rooms and  a ridiculously expensive restaurant with no customers.

Hpa-an Lake
The centre of the town and the few alternative restaurants were a 10 minute cycle ride away.

 Hpa-an - 2 days

Roadside Geese
There was plenty to see around the town to fill our two days. Kjell called into the Sou Brother's Guesthouse and picked up a very useful sketch map showing all the places of interest and the distances to them. On the first day we did a short circular ride.

Lake at Kyauk Kalap


First stop was Kyauk Kalap, a tall, narrow, time sculptured sliver of rock with the usual small pagoda atop. At the base of the rock is a small monastery and surrounding both a circular lake, crossed by a footbridge.

Kyauk Kalup

There are numerous stalls selling food and drink and the usual temple offerings, including popcorn for the lake fish. It looked very strange seeing shoals of catfish feeding at the surface with their 'whiskers'  sticking up above the water.

Mt Zwegabin and 1,000 Buddhas

Next stop was Mount Zwegabin, the highest of the mountains surrounding Hpa-an. It is an impressive sight, 700m of bare rock, thrusting up out of the flat surrounding plain. On the approach to the path to the summit are over 1,000 identical seated Buddha images.

Girl on the way up the mountain
The climb to the top is a popular pilgrimage for locals. The stepped path is well maintained and there are over 2,500 to climb before reaching the top. We set off at a cracking pace, despite the heat and passed several small family groups on the way up. They all wanted the usual photos and to practise their English.

Monkey waiting for food
The mountain sides are populated by monkeys who survive on food from the monks and tourists. They are very adept at emptying crisps and biscuits from plastic wrappers and nibbling holes in the bottom of plastic bottles to drain them.The photo on the right has had the enormous mounds of plastic rubbish littering the mountain summit edited out.

View from the top

It took us 90 minutes to reach the top and the views were stunning, a 360 degree panorama, only marred by the heat haze.

Young monks at the mountain top
Descending was much more painful than the ascent and our knees were very uncomfortable by the time we got back to the bikes.

Road at the foot of the mountain
It was a hot ride back to Hpa-an in the mid-day heat but there were good views of the mountain top. We rode back into town on a quiet road on the side of the lake.

On the second day the four of us decided to go to Saddar Cave, which according to the Sou Brother's map was about 20 miles from Hpa-An. Andrea and Kjell were keen to go by bicycle but Karen and Steve suggested getting a car and driver for the day as the only information we had to find it was the very crude sketch map.

Fishing shelters on the was to Saddar Cave
The hotel arranged for a car and driver for $40 for the day. We later learnt that the driver only got $30, $10 being the hotel's commission. It would certainly have been difficult to find it on the bikes as it was about 5km down a dirt track with no signposting.

Cave entrance gate
The cave looks much like all the rest of the cave pagodas from the outside, with its ornate gateway and sprinkling of religious icons.

Steve was shown the way to the monks office where, with the help of the guide, he had to ask permission for the cave lights to be switched on and give a donation towards the cost.

The first cavern
Once the generator was fired up the immense size and scale of the first cavern could be appreciated, with pagodas, statues and Buddha reliefs all over the walls.

Petrified waterfall
From the far end we scrambled up a slippery rock slope through more caves. There were massive petrified waterfalls....

Round holes formed by dripping water
.....huge rock pillars and these incredible circular drip holes. High above our heads were 1,000's of bats that muttered bad temperedly as we shone our torches onto them. We muttered at them for the slippery mounds of droppings that they had produced.

The secret lake

At the far end the cave ended high above a placid, tree fringed 'secret' lake hidden from the world by the surrounding rocky cliffs.

There were several canoes on the lake shore and a small group of fishermen. On the far side of the lake was another, half submerged cave.

Going into the submerged cave

We hired two of the canoes to take us through the submerged cave and back to the temple entrance through the lake on the other side.

The lake

 Emerging at the other side of the cave we paddled quietly through a vast shallow lake and back to the car park at the cave entrance.

View from Lakkana village
On the way back, we stopped to see Lakkana, a peaceful  Kayin village which retains its traditional feel as its only access is via a footbridge.

River fishing

In the evening we sat at a small cafe on the banks of the river drinking beer. The sunset was spectacular but marred by the ugly, smoking cement works on the far side. Below us on the river bank families were coming down to the water to bathe and a man was fishing with a circular net.

Hpa-an - Thaton - 46km

For the last few days we had been discussing how to get back to Yangon. Cycling back would mean retracing our route along NR 8. The alternatives were: public bus, train, taxi or private mini-bus. Karen and Andrea were keen to take  the train but Kjell was worried that the ride would be very long and uncomfortable and preferred to book private road transport.  Steve was not taking sides.

Train travel in Burma is notorious for its slowness, lateness and high cost, but there is something about train travel which seems to get you close to the real world of the local population. After a few days we wore Kjell down and he agreed to catch the train. We had read that tickets can only be purchased on the day before travel, not on arrival at the station. The hotel manager at Thaton, who we had met on the way south, spoke good English so we decided to ask her to organise tickets for us.

Team Myanmar

So today would be the last day of cycling with our gear. A team photo was compulsory.

River houses

It was a relatively short ride on NR85 to get back to Thaton. We had read a blog by a cyclist who said that this was one of the most unpleasant and hardest rides of his trip and another report that it was very scenic, so we left with an open mind.

Thanlwin River
The first good news was that the bridge over the Thanlwin river had a tarmac surface. On the other side we passed the ugly cement works that we had seen from the town. The traffic was not as heavy as we had feared on this Thai border crossing route.

The blue sign is NOT part of the bike

But is wasn't particularly beautiful either. There was little agriculture and lots of low scrub suggesting that many large trees had been harvested. The road passed several large military bases and there were some checkpoints on the road.

A policeman on a motor bike started trailing us. He kept riding past, then stopping and waiting for us to pass him again. When we stopped for a drink at a road stall he kept an eye on us till we left, then rode off back the other way. Was he protecting us from the locals or the other way round?

We reached  Thaton before lunch and talked to the manageress about the train tickets. The first thing she said was 'don't go on the train'. But our minds were made up and she rang the station to ask about tickets. Upper class tickets were available on the day of travel and they required copies of our  passports. The bikes would be transported in the freight carriage for a small extra cost and we had to pay in dollars.

Thaton to Yangon - Train

Thaton Station
It is about 5km to the station from the hotel, and the scheduled departure time was 09.50h.  As we ate breakfast we were anxious to see that the man who was going to buy our tickets was still in the restaurant. Once he returned with our tickets we set off. Another member of the hotel staff went with us on a motorbike, to guide us to the station.

Platform vendors

The platform was pretty quiet, just a few people asleep on the concrete and a couple of food vendors.

Steady stream of porters

At the far end of the platform a steady stream of porters were bringing cardboard cartons on their heads and stacking them, ready to load on the train. They contained sachets of '3 in 1' coffee mix and were being unloaded, one at a time, from a huge articulated lorry that appeared to have carried them from Thailand.

Bikes wait with the freight
Our bikes were taken by the porters ready for loading and we hung around and waited.

The train arrives
The train arrived at 10.30h and there was no shortage of people to direct us to our reserved seats in the 'upper class' coach. In most other countries this would have been in a museum.

There were no windows, the plywood roof was rotting and the once luxurious reclining seats were battered and stuck in a single position, about halfway between sit-up and lie-down. We were the only western passengers, but there were few empty seats

Upper class luxury
By the time all the freight was loaded it was 11.00h and we slowly exited the station. At first,except for the slow speed, we thought all those people who had warned about the rough ride were exaggerating.

With the upholstered seats it was quite bearable, although we had sympathy for the folks in the ordinary, wooden seat carriages.

Perfect poise
Then the train gathered speed and the bumping started. It was as if the distortion of the rails and the train's speed reached a resonant frequency and the jolting action it produced propelled everyone upwards, out of their seats for a second before depositing us harshly back down and repeating.  It seemed like a miracle that the train didn't derail. Reading, eating or drinking were out of the question on the worst sections but still the vendors walked up and down the corridors, balancing their trays of food on their heads. Kjell gave us one on those 'told you so' looks, but Karen and Andrea got a fit of the giggles.

There is something about travel by train that is different from being on the road. The railway often runs through the poorer areas, land near the line is cheap and available. From the carriage you can look into people's homes and see how they live from day to day. At the stations people wait for the arrival or departure of  family members. Hawkers sell goods through the windows or range up and down the aisles. School children wave and shout, farmers tend their fields and animals.

Schoolchildren waving
Progress was painfully slow until Bago. Here the train joins the Yangon to Mandalay line which is much better maintained and we picked up speed - a little.

It was now 18.30h, the sun had set and there were no lights in the carriage. So even looking out of the window was impossible. The train arrived in Yangon station about 20.00h

We had booked rooms at the Motherland Inn 2 again. From the station it was about 4km to the hotel, along unlit streets in heavy traffic that is not used to seeing many bicycles. Steve was in the lead with the sat nav and did an admirable job of navigation. The most memorable manoeuvre was a left turn, across six lanes of unpredictably moving heavy traffic with Andrea holding out her hand to stop the traffic and us following behind.

Yangon - 3 days

Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya in north Yangon is the most important religious monument in Myanmar. Its enormous stupa, over 100m high, is covered in solid gold, reputed to weight upwards of 60 tonnes and crowned with a jewel encrusted decorative top.

Four weeks in a country like Myanmar, where most tourist attractions are centred on religious sites, can test anyone's zeal for Buddha's, pagodas and stupas, but this one is really something special.

We arrived in the late afternoon, getting a taxi there in preference to cycling. It is impossible as a tourist to avoid paying  the government $5 but at least this entitles you to a ride in the lift up to the temple plaza. This is one of the most beautiful as well as most well tended temples that we visited.

Ritual sweeping
The floors are spotless and everywhere people are scrubbing, mopping and sweeping. As the sun was setting there was a cleaning ritual, with rows of women sweeping the floor followed by rows men with floor buffers.


The magic about the place was the intense and varied activity all around. Groups of tourists with guides, families, people bringing offerings and praying, monks meditating or climbing the stupa to add more gold.

Monks applying gold to the stupa

Around every corner was yet another small shrine with a group of people praying and lighting candles. Although it was noisy and crowded there was a reverential air about it all and we were compelled to sit quietly on the side and try to take it all in.

Stupa by night
As the sun set the gold stupa glowed and then once darkness fell it was illuminated by spotlights, contrasting with the star filled sky above.

For a fitting finale to a memorable evening we went to  'Monsoon ' restaurant, for a wonderful meal. Traditional Eastern food served to Western standards in a beautiful, air conditioned, restored colonial building.

Pansodan Street Jetty

For our final full day we caught the ferry from the jetty on Strand Road to Dalah, on the opposite side of the Yangon River. This is a very busy ferry crossing and it was difficult getting the bikes down the crowded jetty and lifting them onto the boat in the great crush of people.

Bike examiners
Once on the boat we attracted a small crowd of interested locals who examined our bikes in detail. Although there are few bikes of this quality in Burma they quickly spotted the unusual features, the SIS couplings and the Rohloff  hub and bombarded Steve with questions about them.

Yangon ferries

Getting off the ferry on the other side was even more of a crush, with all the passengers funnelling into a narrow street lined on both side with motorcycle taxis and pedicabs.

The first horse riders we'd seen with saddles
Escaping the melee we set off down the road towards Twante. This delta area was very badly damaged by the cyclone in 2009 and has only recently been freely opened to tourists, without having to obtain a permit.

Parts of the road are in an extremely poor state of repair and made the ride tiring and there was little to delight the eye, few villages and even fewer people. The highlight of the 60km day was the river ferry crossing.

Sad goodbyes
To celebrate our final night we returned to the Monsoon restaurant for another amazing meal.  This had been our first experience of touring with another couple. What had started as a slow introduction between ended in a well cemented friendship and we looked forward to meeting them again in the future.

Back to Manila

This has to be the most relaxed travelling day we have ever had. We didn't need to leave hotel until 9.30 am so had a leisurely breakfast, then put our luggage in one of the estate car taxis  parked outside the hotel. Traffic was light all the way to the airport. The International terminal was quiet with only a few morning departures. On-line check in is still a distant dream here but the short queue moved quickly and there was no problem with our slightly overweight baggage. Cafe lattes in the departure lounge, no crowds, plenty of seats and an on time departure, had we died and gone to heaven?

At K L the one hour connection time was just long  enough  to wander to the departure gate and get on the on-time flight to Manila. Even the queue at immigration in Manila was much shorter than usual and the immigration officials cordial and welcoming. The luggage arrived undamaged and we easily found an estate car taxi to get to Makati.

Finally, just a few of the favourite photos that didn't make it into the min text;

Yangon shop houses

Yangon street band

Yangon fading glory

Inle fisherman and son

Pindaya, girls walking behind the cart

Shwedagon Plaza

Yangon bug seller

Yangon  fruit sellers


Janet Rees said...

Hi you two intrepid travellers just been catching up with your blog. What an amazing 4 weeks - so different from anything I have ever experienced, I am in awe of your organisational skills ! Xx

Anonymous said...

Quote: "and took a 50,000 Kyat, ($5) note out of his wallet."
That note doesn't exist in Burma. You mean a 5000kyat note = 5$

Nice blog !