After being fed, rested and educated on Yangon and its colonial heritage it was time to hit the road. We had enjoyed a wide variety of Burmese and Indian food, street snacks, custard puddings, samosa’s and tea. Yangon had made a good impression on us with its eclectic mix of ethnicities, buildings, traffic and people. We were ready to start following the Ayeyarwady to the Kingdom of Bagan.
Before we set off we had a few nice evenings with fellow Danish bicycle tourer Nikolai who Martin had been in contact with for a while and we knew he was in Myanmar and probably be in Yangon same time as us. He is heading in the same direction for a while (just a bit earlier) and is planning to head over to Australia after India. We also enjoyed one of the Yangon Free Walks, which gave some nice extra information about the colonial history and buildings in downtown Yangon. And one of the days we hopped into the one and only KFC in Yangon for a burger. Some days we just need something different 🙂
Curiosity drew us to the west bank of the Ayeyarwady river, but the road we took was hectic and busy. We had expected traffic out of Yangon but this road did not provide a lot of space among the busses, trucks, vans and motorbikes. Slowly the distance between Yangon and us was increasing, the traffic lessened and we were ready to find our spot for the night. We thought to try the town of Nyaung Don. To find a place to sleep in Myanmar is sometimes a bit tricky or expensive. Camping is not allowed officially, you are not allowed to stay with locals, some guesthouses will accept you and others will not, due to registration, costs and paperwork involved.
Before we even got the chance to start looking for a guesthouse in Nyaung Don a guy on a motorbike drove up besides us: “My name is …, I am police officer. Where will you sleep tonight?”. We stopped and explained him we were going to this town. His answer was: “No guesthouse in Nyaung Don”. This made us a bit worried. The police officer tried to persuade us to cycle to Pantanaw, another 25 km. It was 17:30, the sun was going down and we prefer not to cycle in the dark (especially with the amount of drinking cafes we find daily next to the roadside). We asked him again if there wasn’t a guesthouse in Nyaung Don and if we could go and have a look. He really wanted to escort us to Pantanaw but told us that there is no clean guesthouse in Nyaung Don. We found an opening! After talking and being nice and polite the police officer received a phonecall and was somehow allowed to drop us off at the guesthouse 500m further on the side road which was perfect for our taste and okay for the budget.
The next morning the police officer showed up when we were packing our bags on the bicycle. Very spontaneous 🙂 He followed us out of town thinking we wouldn’t notice and all of a sudden after 10km he disappeared and we were by ourselves again. The landscape in this area was quite flat and the scenery not the most exciting, so we pushed on and were able to make some good days. It is funny how the feeling from town to town can vary. For instance in the town Zalun we were offered water twice by people along the road and a shop owner gave us a free bag of local nuts. A kind of hospitality that has been less prevalent in the areas. We also feel that the recent history of the country definitely still has its effect. In some town is feels to us people are scared of saying ‘hello’, or maybe they are just very surprised to see foreigners in their town.
Every day we have had the pleasure of cycling with boys and girls going to school. We notice that there are more girls then boys attending school. Where are the boys? We assume they are working, maybe in the fields, maybe in the teahouses? “Mingalarba” is the word we use most everyday. We wave and say hello. Some boys and girls have a long way of cycling to school and they follow us in our slipstream for 5 or 6 kilometres and sometimes more. On the roads, which are many times bumpy and narrow, we also come across roadworks. Roadworks done by hand. Metal barrels with tar are heated up, buckets with tar are spread on the road and a grey gravel are spread on the road. Some of the roads warm up so much during the day they melt when we ride on them and stick to our tires. We have seen that many of the people working on the roads are women. We have asked ourselves why but don’t really know…. Myanmar brings many questions to our mind. There are many small vans transporting people, and many busses and then all of a sudden empty vans. Not an equal dispersion because the vans with people are often fully loaded with even the roof rack filled with people. Definitely the country where we have seen the most people on top of vans and trucks until now. And they do not drive slow. We ask ourselves if the price of being a passenger on top of a van is cheaper than inside the van. We do not know…
We had a nice stay in Hinthada with Chinese food as a change to the Burmese dishes we have been eating. Also the Burmese tea is seducing us more and more. In Myanaung we found a great little town on the river front. We stayed at Aye guesthouse (although in hindsight maybe the Chinese guesthouse next door would have been the better option) and ate at a restaurant that everybody was recommending to us but we couldn’t find. At one point we asked in a restaurant cafe and the woman just took us outside and said wait. She took her motorbike and a friend took his and we were placed on the back of their motorbikes to find this restaurant. It was lovely Burmese food with many many typical curry style dishes and side dishes. We enjoyed it very much and our short drive there made it extra special.
By now we had concluded that we enjoyed the towns of Myanmar more than the in-between so we decided on changing our planned route from west of the river to east of the river where we would find more towns (and more teahouses for a morning break, because they don’t really seem to understand tea with condensed milk in the roadside restaurant. They always point us towards instant tea which we are not looking for ;).
So we turned right at Okshitpin and were suddenly surprised by short steep hills over and over again. We were already getting used to rolling hills but after a 90 km day these steep hills really took out the last energy of our legs! When we finally reached Pyay we were very happy to find Pan Ga Bar guesthouse with a very welcoming family. We ate at the night market and went for an early night. Breakfast was nice with fresh papaya and banana and a friendly chat with Neil and Jess who are cycling their tandem while on holiday in Myanmar (and we would meet again in Bagan).
We left Pyay with an adventurous start. Our map showed a white road cutting short the route which the highway took. It was gravel all the way. In the beginning nice and smooth. After 6km we had an intersection and we carried on straight, another 5 km on a smaller road which soon turned out to be the main oxcart road where the oxcarts were filled with sugarcane. The path became even smaller and before we knew it is was deep sand in a riverbed. We were tired because we had done some big days to get there and were looking forward to the short easy day to Aunglan. After some deliberation we decided to head back to the intersection, take a very stony bumpy road to the highway and continue on the highway (which was quite smooth on this section…).
After a day with a few more hills and nothing really exceptional we rode into Aunglan (counting 90 km instead of 75), a town called Myaydo on several maps. This town really didn’t do it for us we are sad to say. It seemed it is a main transport hub for cotton. People were less friendly, had more emptiness in their eyes and we couldn’t find a place where we felt comfortable. We finally stayed at Win Lite guesthouse, the least uncomfortable option. We decided there that we were fed up with searching for a guesthouse everyday and that we would camp the next day, no matter what. The day went smoothly, we took a shortcut to avoid an extra 40 kilometres and weren’t sure about the road before but it was in excellent condition and found a rest area where the road connected to the highway. Here we had a tea, stocked up on water and soon made our way to find a camp spot. The area was fairly quiet about 40 kilometres before Magwe and our first turn off the road into the scrub on the side took us along an oxcart road which was barely used to a great quiet hidden spot. We were very aware and careful that nobody would see us and were fed and in our sleeping bags at 20:00.
We weren’t disturbed and happy with the rest we had we cycled easily past Magwe, stopped for lunch on the roadside, stopped for tea in Yenangyaung and cycled out to do the same trick again. This time, however, the fields were filled with Toddy trees. These trees are palmtrees that are used to make toddy juice, an alcoholic beverage. Along the road were many roadside toddy bars, quite some men and in the fields men were still working. It was very open. So only at sunset we dared to turn off the road to find a place to sleep. We plowed Mojo and Isaba through thick sand only to find small houses hidden away deep in the toddy fields. By the time it was dark we had to decide and we found a reasonable spot. Luckily again we were not disturbed but we were very cautious not to make anybody aware of our presence (otherwise we could be moved on by the police, which we really don’t prefer). There we many squirrel and many animal sounds which made for a light sleep also being aware if somebody might come. We got up in the dark and were ready to ride soon after the sun had risen.
Our final day before reaching Bagan was again going to be a big day in the saddle. We made it to Chauk for a great Burmese lunch. Then we cycled along the river towards Bagan, again going up and down through the hills in the countryside. We were getting excited when we would see our first temple. And then all of a sudden it was there. The first of many temples we would see in Bagan. Bagan is really a special place which speaks to our imagination. We have cycled to the Kingdom of Bagan where in the 10th until the 13th century people have been working on these small spiritual landmarks. We cycled through some areas and climbed up a small pagoda. Our breath was taken away by the sight of all the pagoda’s and temples in the plains with the golden sun lighting them and the mountains in the distance. We will devote a blogpost to Bagan, our visit and definitely quite a few photos of this remarkable area, so keep posted!.