Lying low.in Myanmar
The sun was high because it was noon and the air beat through the valley in hot, dry waves. Behind me rose a steep mountainside with a steeper, unpaved road twisting up into India. I stood with my bike beside the wooden passport control kiosk at one end of a metal car bridge. The bridge spanned a green river which, in that dry season, was low and speckled with protruding scattered rocks. The settlement at far end of the bridge, Myanmar's end, was bustling with activity. Carts, bicycles, beaten up old cars and pedestrians criss-crossed back and forth, intermittently vanishing and reappearing between the buildings which lined the street, some only partially finished. Occasionally someone would disengage from the hive and cross the bridge into India pushing carts of fruit or hauling sacks.
None of the locals paid any attention to me, or passport control. They were likewise ignored by the officials. The Mizo hill tribes spread across the region have been crossing this border for years, for trade and to visit the heart shaped ‘Rih Lake' on the Myanmar side. According to lore, Mizo dead must pass through the lake to reach Piairal, the Mizo version of heaven.
|The border bridge at Rihkhawdar, looking into Myanmar|
This border crossing is also important for the bicycle traveller. It has been open to foreigners only since August 2018 and is a vital link in a chain which, technically, allows unobstructed overland travel between Europe, central Asia and south east Asia. Prior to 2018 Myanmar was the cork in the bottleneck, pushing travellers who wanted to connect central and south east Asia into China, or further north to the steppes of Russia and Mongolia.
That an overland connection between India and Myanmar has been made only recently speaks of the social and economic isolation in which the latter has existed for decades. It was only in 2005 that the military Junta began to embrace tourism; the implementation of democratic rule in 2015 has continued the process. Myanmar's late entry to the game is perhaps what is making it one of the moment's ‘must-see’ destinations for more intrepid travellers who want a less commercial experience.
The flipside of a less developed tourism industry is that the social and economic infrastructures to manage tourism may not yet have fully developed. There are several commodities which are particularly valued to a cycle tourists.
One is a quality road network, which generally improves in countries with developed tourism. As I suspected, Myanmar's ability to facilitate tourism lagged behind it's ambition to embrace it. In the east, a new "friendship highway" has been built to connect Thailand and Myanmar at Mae Sot. However, much of the preceding mileage on Myanmar's side is poorly paved and narrow, leading to frequent standstills as immense cargo trucks navigate this arterial connection with the rest of southeast Asia.
In the west, another 150 kilometer road has been bulldozed over the Chin mountains to connect the new border at Rihkhawdaw with inland Myanmar. Because the crossing has been opened only recently, most is unpaved and comprises a rubbly surface of loose rocks under a blanket of fine powdery dust. Unhelpfully the road has been built in the interest of motor vehicles and so most is unrideabley steep. Much of my first two days in Myanmar were spent pushing in 38 degrees of heat.
When I wasn't pushing, the punishing roads produced a general dissemblement of my equipment with almost satisfying uniformity. My two German panniers which had travelled over 15000 kilometers without a malfunction both sheared their fixings within an hour of each other on the second day. The failing of one cannot influence the other which attributes their synchronisation to coincidence, amazing build consistency or some force of magic particular to Myanmar's roads. With similarly satisfying equanimity both sets of brakes were reduced to squealing, melted wrecks upon the completion of only two juddering, arm 2
numbing, teeth rattling, vertigo inducing descents.
Logistical trepidations about road quality though are part and parcel of cycle touring and my complaints were ungrateful given the beauty of Chin State's mountains and the friendliness of the locals.
|Please... just one paved road?|
More importantly, I arrived also with some moral trepidations about visiting Myanmar at this particular moment in time. While Aung San Suu Kyi is coy about the military's conduct toward Rohingya muslims, the near one million displaced into Bangladesh and satellite images of razed villages in Rakhine are fairly damning evidence of ethnic cleansing.
The government responsible is turning increasingly to tourism as a source of revenue after observing the success of their south east Asian neighbours in the same field, particularly Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore. The Myanmar e-visa is now widely available and makes visiting both cheap and straightforward. Popular attractions have been monetized, tourists must pay hefty entrance fees to visit sight such as the temples of Bagan, a Buddhist complex which may soon be UNESCO listed. Law further states that tourists must sleep exclusively in Government approved accommodation; the authorities of course take a cut of the proceeds.
Compliance is to indirectly fund a system currently accused of genocide. Deviation from the rules is possible in some circumstances. There are numerous accounts online of bicycle tourers camping covert instead of using paid accommodations which, alongside staying with locals, is strictly forbidden. Locals risk punishment for harbouring foreigners, and possibly even for simply being aware of a foreigner sleeping in their village and not informing the police. On my penultimate day in Myanmar I met a Vietnamese cyclist travelling west from Thailand. The previous night he had been picked up by the Police in the night after camping near a village and being spotted by it's inhabitants.
It is possible that forcing tourists to to use official accommodation serves a dual purpose. Firstly, a financial purpose in increasing revenue but also perhaps a political purpose. Many times previously I have been invited into villages for food or accomodation and, through conversation, received an understanding of the issues relevant to that region and people. Preventing foreigners being hosted by locals also restricts the outflow of local opinions on politically sensitive issues of state, potentially an important function given the numerous conflicts in Myanmar between armed ethnic groups and the military.
To concede defeat and avoid Myanmar completely though reduces the business of people who are relying increasingly on tourism for their livelihoods and are unconnected with Rakhine. There is also, as previously mentioned, no viable overland alternative from India to SE Asia.
I resolved to cross Myanmar and ensure, to my best ability, the money I spent would reach the people and not the government. Happily this ethos closely aligned to my current, and preferred practices, i.e, eating delicious local food and avoiding hotels.
Avoiding official accommodations meant ‘stealth camping’ which is less exciting and more enjoyable than it sounds. Camp cooking increases the likelihood of detection, so evenings were generally spent in restaurants drinking large quantities of (free!) green tea and eating larger quantities of Myanmar's unique cuisine, a varied and delicious hybrid of Indian and south east Asian. Bowls of rice are served with a myriad of fish, meat and vegetable dishes. On one evening I was presented with no fewer than 15 different dishes for $1.50. When darkness fell, I would slink into the undergrowth and lie out under the stars; pitching a tent likewise increases the risk of detection.
|Stealth camping means no tent|
Sleeping out meant that I rose before sunrise and could get 6 hours of riding in before the hot midday, intersected by several customary coffee halts. During one such stop midway between the ancient upstaged capital of Bagan and the recently upstaged capital of Yangon, I realised I was a mere 170 kilometers from Myanmar's current capital, Naypyitaw. I virtually leafed through the Lonely Planet guide on my e-reader to decide whether a detour was merited and was left with more questions than answers. Naypyitaw was purpose built by the military in 2005 for a staggering $4 billion and is described by Lonely Planet as “absurdly grandiose in scale”, “sprawling, shoddily constructed” where “Canberra meets Brasilia with a peculiar Orwellian twist.” My curiosity, with a healthy dose of uncertainty, was piqued.
|Tourists are taken for a ride in Bagan|
|Temples of Bagan|
Naypyitaw was every bit as bizarre as I had been hoping. Two days later I rolled into the new capital on a 16 lane super-highway. Such roads are generally to be avoided on a bicycle but in this instance I wasn't overly concerned given that I was the only person using it. 'Absurdly grandiose' seemed an accurate analysis, particularly given the neglected and unfinished roads at Myanmar's east and west borders.
|Empty lanes in Naypyitaw|
This highway was just one thread in a tendrilic sprawl of roads draped over a staggering 7000 square kilometers of scrap land and rice paddies. It's size is misleading through. It is a shell of a city. Despite having a landmass more than twelve times the size of Yangon, the few square kilometers of Naypyitaw that are actually inhabited house less than a fifth of Yangon's population.
Where the outskirts were absurdly grandiose, the innards of the city were depressingly ramshackle. The high street looked like the set of a cheap western film. A wide beige road morphed into beige buildings and a dusty sky smothered and muffled everything. The atmosphere was tense and uneasy as if I, and the natives, were all too aware of that we were in the dressing room of the military junta's dolls house, the heart of darkness. The feeling of being watched was accentuated by the police huts which appeared at kilometer intervals on every road and because the police in Myanmar are not civilian police, they are a sub branch of the military.
The big brother atmosphere and the city's complete lack of character predictably dissuade visitors. Naypyitaw's unfulfilled potential was painfully apparent in it's tourist ‘hotspots’. The prized Uppatasanti Pagoda was uncomfortably quiet given it's enormous scale but at least had the benefit of being outdoors so that nature could lend character to the gilded spire and company to the visitors. The National Museum on the other hand had no such aids. My steps rang sharp, loud and lonely in the imperious, high ceilinged halls, a shame as the exhibitions as were beautifully presented.
|The immense Uppatasanti Pagoda|
It would be easy to label Naypyitaw a criminal waste of money. The Junta spent a fortune on it's construction while, according to the World Bank, 32% of Myanmar's population live below the poverty line. Supporters would argue that the new capital increases Myanmar's capacity for urbanisation, an important factor when two thirds of the population live in rural areas where poverty is double that in urban areas. However, given that only one of Myanmar's 54 million people have been tempted to move there, clearly not enough is being done to maximise the return on the $4 billion investment.
Increasing the country's urban capacity may be beneficial in the long term. However, it's a shame that the the Junta then awarded their soulless vanity project capital status at the expense of Myanmar's true social and economic capital, Yangon.
My waning visa meant my stay in Yangon was limited to just five days, had I my way, it would have been five weeks, minimum. Yangon is famous for it's internationally renowned treasures such as the immense Schwedagon Pagoda and the Secretariat building. For me, however, the drama of Yangon Plays out on the streets.
|The Schwedagon Pagoda|
The city is an oxymoronic convergence of Europe and Asia. Much downtown architecture comes from the cities stint as "British Rangoon". If you let your eyes wander skyward there are moments when you would be forgiven for believing you were in a European capital. Let your eyes fall back to street level though, and Asia emerges emphatically into the frame. Almost every inch of pavement, at various points of the day, hosts a tea or food stall. Yangon is the melting pot for Myanmar's diverse ethnic population, and the range of food reflects it. Progress was slow as I ate my way across the city, indulging in numerous noodle dishes, a variety of deep fried pastries and delicious coconut sweets.
The locals are friendly and curious but unfortunately English is not yet widely spoken, in Yangon and elsewhere in Myanmar. This was generally restrictive to getting a more informed view of local life in Yangon.
My 23rd birthday fell on my final day in Yangon, and after leaving I was just a few days riding from the Thai border. I was fortunate enough to spend my birthday morning on this last day exploring Yangon's backstreets with a local cycling group. The sun rose with us and hung low over a hazy, sleepy city.
|A group ride in the backstreets of Yangon|
|A group ride in the backstreets of Yangon|
I entered Myanmar with tenuous expectations and not a little trepidation. Myanmar is at a midway stage of its integration into the international community. The government want the benefits of tourism but are simultaneously paranoid about the how their image, both domestically and internationally, is regarded. Accordingly, foreigners are held at arms length and travelling here is not yet as easy as it could be, logistically if you prefer not to use government accommodations, and socially, regarding the lack of opportunities to share meaningful experiences with the locals. However, these minor qualms were more than outweighed by Myanmar's absorbing landscapes, culturally rich settlements, delicious food and eternally friendly and smiling locals. Ultimately though, it is this balance of hardship and reward that keeps travelling fresh and fulfilling and motivates me each day to get back on the bike and start pedaling.
|The sun sets on another chapter of my journey|