Burmese Days

Myanmar part 1 | Inle Lake to Mandalay | Day 190

My face hurts from smiling all day. The "happy-go-lucky," Burmese attitude is infectious. The highlight of my day is rolling past unsuspecting locals and watching their face twist from confused to surprised to big toothy grins as we wave to one another. A calmness seemed to settle in my soul as we crossed the border from Thailand to Myanmar, veering from riding on the left to the old familiar right side of the road. Maybe because we've become more comfortable with this whole international travel thing, or because the general populous seems more at ease. There is still the mad dash and rush of whizzing scooters aiming to take you out, but the energy seems to vibrate low and steady.

It was a snap decision to come to Myanmar, made one week before arrival. Our Thailand visas were quickly running out and we had to make a decision. Drew, our cycling buddy from India, had fallen in love with the Burmese and WorldCycling has an entire presentation dedicated to why you should cycle there, clearly this land needed to be explored. Myanmar has a mysterious allure around it, rumors of this newly opened land had struck our curiosity. 

The "happy-go-lucky," Burmese attitude is infectious.

We gave ourselves a history lesson during our multi-day bus marathon to Inle Lake, where we would begin our ride. There seemed to be a few obstacles and regulations when traveling in Myanmar. All foreigners must stay in tourist sanctioned hotels and camping is illegal; all accounts we had read about other cyclists trying to camp had been thwarted. Rumors of limited ATMs had us carrying two types of currency: the local kyat, and a huge wad of US dollar we could exchange later. The mystery was starting to unveil itself and we weren’t sure what to expect. 

Burma, renamed Myanmar by the ruling military government, is home to 135 different ethnic groups and one of the longest running civil wars. The corrupt military dictatorship had ruled with an iron fist since the 60’s. Myanmar was closed off to the world by nationalizing all of its’ business, media, and production; the entire country was thrown into deep economic turmoil turning from one of the richest to poorest South-East Asian countries. Any political uprisings were violently suppressed. For decades the country has been plagued with corruption from illegal drug trade, child soldiers, and a multitude of human rights violations.  

2011 brought new government reforms, and in 2015 Myanmar had their first democratically elected non-military president. The country has reopened itself to the world, generating more tourism and gaining better foreign relations. Still, much of the country is still off-limits to tourist as huge swaths of the north and east are forbidden to enter due to continued fighting in the region. The growing infrastructure to support the blossoming tourist industry is taking longer to trickle down to the country as a whole. Most roads go unpaved, to the demise of locals trying to sell and transport goods and electricity is largely still unavailable. 

In reality, the amount of visitors has doubled each year bringing in a million more people than the year before. People are flocking to the country’s main attractions and Myanmar is ready for them. In just five short years hotels with all the modern amenities are found in the main cities, nice westernized restaurants have popped up on every corner, and tours with multilingual guides are just a phone call away. Most of our concerns before we arrived were washed away with a delicious Mandalay Red beer, ATMs were a plenty and our US dollars unnecessary. I think this developing industry has a noticeable effect on people’s attitudes towards foreigners as they seem very happy to see us! 

"Villages of bamboo huts perched on stilts with woven leaf roofs."

Inle Lake spans 45 square miles and contains entire villages which are only accessible by boat. We took a boat tour to see the plethora of craftspeople from silversmiths to lotus weavers. Everything used natural elements from the land and rudimentary tools to create beautiful handcrafted goods. Lotus stalks were pulled to produce their inner fibers and spun into a surprisingly durable thread, then woven into beautiful fabric.

The food was magnificent and cheap. There isn’t anything that is not “farm to table.” For just 2,000 Kyatt ($1.50) we were eating gourmet meals. Avocados were abundant and delicious, making it completely necessary to have an avocado salad with every meal. Fish in every form is a large part of the diet: fish oil, fish jerky, battered fish, although we just stuck to fried fish.

We quickly grew tired riding along the busy highway, but it seems impossible to find map of Myanmar. Google has documented maybe only 30% of the roads in the country. We resorted to satellite zooming all over ridewithgps.com only to discover a spiderweb of dirt roads sprawled over Myanmar. We plotted quick routes based purely on satellite imagery and crossed our fingers. To our delight, just a few miles off the main motorway, we were soaring through sandy pathways lined with palm trees through farms of sugar cane and bananas. What a change of scenery! And, for the most part, flat. A concept we had yet to enjoy in our previous four months cycling in the Himalaya. The trails were quiet, with only the occasional scooter or ox drawn carriage to pull over for. 

"We plotted quick routes based purely on satellite imagery and crossed our fingers."
"The highlight of my day is rolling past unsuspecting locals and watching their face twist from confused to surprised to big toothy grins as we wave to one another."

We felt like we were discovering what Myanmar was really about on these rural back roads. Villages of bamboo huts perched on stilts with woven leaf roofs were a vast contrast to the westernized tourist towns available to visit along the highways. Everything changes when you get off the beaten path. Even with our language barrier, the Burmese sense of humor and coolness showed through red betel nut stained lips and teeth. They were well equipped with a variety of good music, from hip hop to impressive xylophone which blasted over speakers into the fields for the farmers, and our, enjoyment. A variety of toddy palm trees and bamboo are the favored material for any construction need; fences, baskets, tools, you name it, it was probably made from bamboo. 

Riding down the gravel road, people would stop what they were doing to come to the street and greet us. Entire villages would come out to gawk at the foreigners passing through. It was abundantly clear we were one of the first, if not the first to visit their sandy patch of earth. A owner of one of the guesthouses we stayed with couldn’t wait to introduce Eric to his son, exited to practice their English. It was the time in-between the cities we had our most memorable interactions and it was the times we got off the beaten track that we felt the tremendous kindness of the Burmese. 

 "It was the times we got off the beaten track that we felt the tremendous kindness of the Burmese. "

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