I am currently bicycling through Southern Myanmar with my partner Rene. We started in Bangkok, Thailand, rode to northern Thailand, and then cut south. We are headed to Indonesia.
I chose to cycle through Southern Myanmar because I knew it would be a challenge. For 50 years, Myanmar was a military dictatorship completely cut off to foreigners. About 6 years ago, it was re-opened. However foreign travel is still highly regulated—isolated to “tourist” designations.
But our trip to is NOT about seeing the countries “highlights.” It is more about getting off the beaten path. I am seeking the unpredictable, unexpected, and sometimes uncomfortable as an opportunity for adventure.
It is about cycling and staying amongst the locals. It is about showing up to each village in such an unexpected way—two westerners on bicycles. This is completely foreign to the Burmese.
I knew that the southernmost part of Myanmar would provide this opportunity. But I also knew that it would be extremely difficult to find accommodation because the amount of foreigner hotels is highly regulated and there are very few in the south. It is highly illegal to house a foreigner without authorization. So guesthouses or homestays are out of the question. Camping is also highly illegal. There are hundreds of islands right off the coast that must be spectacular but they are not open to tourists.
This would mean that we would need to ride very far distances to find a place to stay. Or stay in monasteries.
When we left Bangkok we averaged 80 km/day. Now we are up to over 100 km a day. Sometimes as high as 160km.
When René first suggested that we would need to ride for 160 km to get to the next hotel, I immediately said “no way.” ”I would much rather hitchhike.” “I will not ride that far, I cannot ride that far.” And like most things he mentions that sounds totally off the wall, I thought about it and let it sink in and soon agreed. Why not challenge myself? That is what this whole journey is about anyway—right?
In the beginning 50k was really hard. But then I increased to 75 and then 100 and 120. And now 160 km. The the second time we climbed 9,000 meters. That is the same elevation gain as climbing Mount Everest. Now I think I want to shoot for 200 km.
It takes us about 12 hours to ride 160 km. The fully loaded touring bicycles the hills, the extreme heat, and the sometimes poor, gravel road quality slow us down. So does the mind. It is a constant coaxing game that I need to play with my mind to get through these difficult days. But it is so empowering to accomplish such a big goal.
These challenges are so important to show you how much you can really do.
A DAY ON THE ROAD:
Immediately upon entering Myanmar at the Myawaddy border crossing from Thailand we were met with extreme friendliness. Thumbs up, Mingalaba (which is the Burmese way to say “hello”). I would say hundreds of people shouted out to us with great enthusiasm. We do not share a language but there is a sweet respect I can feel.
It is like going back in time a hundred years here due to the kinds of transportation, the way of preparing food, buildings, road quality, out houses, limited access to the outside world. I see moms riding two, three, or four children on an ordinary bicycle. It is common for entire families to somehow fit on one motor scooter. There are wagons driven by cows. All different attachments are made for motor scooters to carry what one might carry in a large pick up truck in America. One guy pulled a large pig out of the basket on his scooter. We have taken several ferries to get to the other side of a particular river. These are often just large canoes with motors that can somehow carry our bicycles. One was a raft made of wood that somehow also transported a couple cars, people, scooters, as well as us and our bicycles. There is so much creativity that goes into transporting things. They use materials from the local community to build nearly everything—mostly wood, bamboo, and palm leaves.
Toilets are basically a glorified hole in the ground in a small little construction of bamboo. There are goats everywhere on the streets. Whose are they? There are lots of pigs and chickens. I recently walked by a pet eagle. There are really sweet stray dogs and puppies wherever you go.
And there are tons of small children that are free to roam together on bicycle and foot. We have had a lot of opportunity to interact with the kids. Even though we do not share the same language, somehow we are able to communicate with gestures and smiles.
It is extremely hot in Myanmar. Between 90-95 degrees often with a very hot sun. It seems that we leave earlier and earlier. Between 6 and 7 am. Sometimes we do not get in until the sun is setting which is around 5:30 pm.
It is jungle. With Rubber tree plantations, lots of beetle nut, coconut palms. Rice fields.
We pass through village after village. They are quite small usually—no more than 1/4 mile at the most. We were told each village is autonomous from the next —many with different beliefs and customs. It seems that there is a village every couple kilometers. Although we have passed through some more remote mountain areas.
There are no chain stores. There are no grocery stores. There is typically no electricity. However, some have small solar panels. Some towns have outdoor markets like a western farmers market. More often people are carrying around produce on their heads, shoulders, or in small vehicles to sell locally. It is extremely inexpensive. One dollar is equal to 1,500 kyat. Most meals are under that.
When we are cycling such long days, we burning a lot of calories and it seems that we can and need to eat a lot of food. You can really eat like a pig and still be hungry.
It seems that there are two types of restaurants. In the first variety, you point to what you want, it served, room temperature with rice and very hot soup, and cabbage and greens. Typically beef, pork, chicken, fermented greens, and sometimes cauliflower. René finds this highly suspect since it sits out all day. I eat it. It is delicious. I trust them.
The second kind is typically run by a woman with a wood burning oven with noodles, some broth, and maybe some meat. They might also have other cooked things like fried rice. Sometimes a fried egg. There is a third type of restaurant once we hit larger villages which prepare more diversity of both Thai and Burmese dishes. Some just have one or two tables. Others may have more.
When we arrive to a village we are greeted warmly. It is similar when we stop for food or rest. Often, they will literally stand over us while we eat just staring. Sometimes they want to take a selfie. Sometimes they just want to touch me.
Yesterday, we were at a restaurant right outside a school. A of school kids came out and stood all around us. Looking at us. Maybe 20 kids. We could not speak their language, but we joked around about skin color, made some sign language, and just laughed with them.
Each day is an unexpected adventure. We have another 450 kilometers left. A lot of climbing. Not a lot of opportunity for accommodation. Dangerous wild elephants. I will keep a positive attitude and expect that people are good and kind.