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)
|The Bagan Plain|
|Most logical way to carry a tray|
....so 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|
|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.
|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|
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.
|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|
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|
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.
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
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.
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.
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|
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.
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|
|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.
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......
.... .while their wives and children burn incense and pray in front of the many golden Buddhas.
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|
There were many local industries evident along the route: nipa thatching......
....bamboo furniture, woven grass matting, latex....
|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|
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
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|
|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|
|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|
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.
|Whip and top|
|Marbles, but with wooden balls|
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.
The inhabitants of the island are from the Mon ethnic group, with their own unique styles of building, dress and hats.
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|
|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.
Several motorbikes passed us carrying Indian women in their finest clothes, going to a wedding.
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|
|Beautiful but mysterious statues|
There are a couple of small unlit caves here filled with religious icons.
|Traditional leaf thatched building|
|Traditional Karen farmstead|
|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 - 2 days
|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.
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|
|Monkey waiting for food|
|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|
|Road at the foot of the mountain|
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|
|Cave entrance gate|
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|
|Round holes formed by dripping water|
|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.
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|
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.
So today would be the last day of cycling with our gear. A team photo was compulsory.
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.
|The blue sign is NOT part of the bike|
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
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|
|The train arrives|
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|
With the upholstered seats it was quite bearable, although we had sympathy for the folks in the ordinary, wooden seat carriages.
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.
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
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.
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|
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.
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|
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.
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|
|Yangon bug seller|
|Yangon fruit sellers|