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Burma by Bicycle February 9, 2015

“A bicycle ride around the world begins with a single pedal stroke.” ~ Scott Stoll

Burma poster.001

On my first Christmas as a 30 year old adult, my saddle friends and I embarked on another Indochina bike adventure–Myanmar!

Our team:

1) Yours truly: Penny

2) Levi

3) Lei

4) LA

Why Myanmar?

To us Myanmar (or Burma) was a mysterious land  with a culture that was unfamiliar. It recently joined ASEAN, thus making it relatively more open to tourist, so  here was our chance. We started talking about this trip in 2013 while we were riding in Cambodia. It was the inevitable question: “What’s next?”.

Of course, we would love to take our bike adventure to Europe or latin America, but it’s financially unfriendly at the moment. And of course, we had to limit our itinerary to three weeks at the most. There are so many places where we would like to ride but for some reason, Myanmar naturally felt like the next destination. We’re still in love with the vast culture of South East Asia, so why  not take our bikes to the land of the golden pagodas?

Arriving in Myanmar

Our flight arrived at 1030 in the evening. We had a bit of a problem at the immigration as we just learned that ASEAN countries are only allowed 14 days in Myanmar. We had planned to stay for 17 days. I almost thought we would be required to rebook our flights, but instead we were advised to pay the penalty for overstaying. ($3/day).

I booked a guesthouse downtown called TOKYO GUESTHOUSE which was 15 kilometers away from the airport.

We hired a cab for $15.

Note: Never ride a cab before negotiating the price.

* Going home for our flight back to Manila, we were able to hire a cab for $7. But I think $15 was pretty standard for the cabs parked at the airport.

Day 1 Yangon- Okekan (100km)

We woke up at 6 to prep our bikes hoping we could start riding at 7am. We had a hard time navigating our way out of the main city. The roads were heavily congested, most of the signs were in Burmese, thus it took us almost 2 hours just to get out of the city proper.

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Levi unpacking and prepping his Surly.

Larga-ready!

Larga-ready!

There weren’t any distance markers that could have been useful  at that time, because they were all in Burmese (note: they use miles). Good thing, GPS-tech-savvy LA, was able to download the map, so after the setbacks, we found our track.

No subtitles. Where are we??

No subtitles. Where are we??

The road started really flat, a bit like biking in Morong, so it was a relatively easy ride.

We had a lunch stop at an eatery by the road. A local paid for our lunch. He spoke a little English and when we told him about our itinerary he told us that Tharrawaddy, our target destination,  was still very far.

We were supposed to target Tharrawaddy but it was already 5pm and we learned that it would still be 30 more kilometers to get there.Riding a t night was not an option. The drivers here can be crazy. Lei was starting to feel a bit uncomfortable with her knee injury.

We got to a town called Okekan around 5 pm. We decided to look for a guesthouse here. One of the challenges was that almost everything are in Burmese characters. It also had to be a “for-foreigner guesthouse”. After one failed attempt, a guy in a scooter with a mouthful of moma  escorted us to a hotel around 2km away from his guesthouse (which was for locals only). He was very nice! He brought us to this luxurious looking hotel

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This is Lei’s standard pose in every hotel/guesthouse room. Warning!

The man at the front desk spoke good English, and they were all too eager to assist us, it was overwhelming but we loved it. To our surprise, there was a Pinoy staying in the hotel as well. Apparently, there’s a bunch of Filipinos setting up the cell sites in Burma.

Hotel review: super nice staff

  • They refused to let us wash our own laundry. They were very enthusiastic to do our laundry FOR FREE.
  • They even unloaded our Larga packs from the bike. I wondered if they can also figure out how to load them back?
  • They also washed our very smelly helmets. Maybe it was that smelly they couldn’t help not to do something about it.
  • They sent  fruits in our room. (FOR FREE)
  • They had internet but it didn’t really do much.
  • Free breakfast.
  • Price: $50 for the whole family room. ($12.5 each)
The eager beaver hotel staff

The eager beaver hotel staff behind me. (okay, sige na, kayo na mag-ayos ng bike)

This was pretty much standard rate for the for-foreigners guesthouses. We found this somewhat pricey when we compared it to our Vietnam and Cambodia bike rides where we could get a nice room for $8 (for 4 people)

Wow, a proper send-off.

Wow, a proper send-off.

The next day, the staff gave us bottles of cold water FOR FREE. We had a very giddy send-off that morning. Sweet!

Day 2 Okekan- Gyobingauk (89.1 km)

Lei’s bad knee acted up that she had to wear her sneakers over her bike shoes.

Lei packing her bike shoes.

Lei packing her bike shoes.

The ride started really slow. Upon reaching Tharrawaddy, Lei, with a terrible knee injury, decided to take the bus to Pyay. Levi and I pushed with the ride while LA stayed behind to take the bus with Lei.

Young novice monks on their morning alms

Young novice monks on their daily morning alms

Note: Toilets in gas stations are comparably more bearable

This was the beginning of our watermelon feast.

We loooove watermelons! P40 for the whole watermelon!

We loooove watermelons! P40 for the whole watermelon!

We reached Gyobingauk, a  rather big town (lots of ATM machines), around 4 pm. We had a hard time finding a guesthouse, because of the strict  foreigner-accredited-guesthouse policy. Similar to our first day, a local in a scooter assisted us around the town looking for a guesthouse. It was nearing dark and we still couldn’t find any. We almost thought he was bringing us to the police station.

The “for-foreigners guesthouse” was adjacent to the Police station, but it wasn’t visible from the main road and  the signage was in Burmese character. (Sigh)

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Love hotel?

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Blankets were a bit smelly.

Guesthouse review:

  • It looked like a love motel. There was something seedy about the place, but we had no choice. We couldn’t bargain as well. The room was $25, and since it was just me and Levi, we paid for the full  rate.
  • The staff was very nice.
  • Internet: couldn’t upload anything. Again, it didn’t really do anything.

The next day, the staff gave us “baon” again, WATER! Burmese people can be so charming.

Day 3 Gyobingauk- Pyay (115km)

The morning ride started very chilly.

It was another long and flat-ish ride until lunch time.

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Watermelon stop

We had lunch at Paungde, a town 34km from Gyobingauk. We realized that tea houses did not really serve real meals at all. Finding an actual restaurant was a bit complex. Ordering food can be very tricky  as well, specially since everything is in Burmese characters. Learning from our past S.E. Asian trips, I have prepared wordless icons and images of food (rice, chicken, egg etc.) to communicate with locals.

Note to self: Must buy “Wordless Traveller” .COVER

While having lunch at a tea place (the staff probably took pity and improvised; they served us rice with sunny side-up egg), we noticed a man taking our photo. He wasn’t even discreet about it.  I think it was because of me. My attire was probably appalling (or I’m simply appalling?).  I don’t think they’re used to seeing women in shorts. Or another possible reason was that he was maybe reporting us to the police.

After lunch, the road felt different. It became hilly and there were less stores. Schwedaung town was our last stretch before getting to Pyay.  Schwedaung is a 25 kilometer stretch with hardly any stores or eateries, so we made a quick stop at a Pagoda overlooking the town, and ate our old bread with nutella and cheese.

snack break at Schwedaung

snack break at Schwedaung

I had an epic zone-out moment on this stretch. It just felt like forever. Ugh

Yey! Pyay!

Yey! Pyay!

We got to the Pyay  around 4 in the afternoon. It was a good thing Lei was able to send me a message about the fork and intersection, otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to figure out which road to take.

We met these locals who also biked from Yangon. One of them kept saying "Kabayan" .

We met these locals who also biked from Yangon. The guy beside Levi has been to the Philippines and he kept on saying “kabayan”.

Pyay is a very big town. There are a lot of guesthouse options but only a few could accommodate foreigners. We met Lei and LA somewhere downtown.

Guesthouse review: (Myat Guesthouse)

  • The owner speaks good English and you can bargain with them.
  • The guesthouse was really old. It was almost as if it could crumble anytime . The wallpapers in the room have fallen off. The carpet has seen better days. The fridge has probably never been defrosted. It had expired bottles of beer (we can tell from the kinakalawang na mga bote). An old can of coke exploded in the fridge which made everything more gross.
  • But to be fair, the common bathroom was really clean and the hot shower was consistent.
  • Pyay was  a rest stop for us. We stayed here for 2 nights and we were able to bargain for $35 for 2 nights. (That’s just for me and Levi)

New year’s eve was uneventful, we were lucky to even get out of our guesthouse as we later learned  that our guesthouse had a curfew. Boo.

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Thanaka is an ancient beauty regimen widely practiced in Myanmar. It’s a yellowish cream from a bark applied mostly on the cheeks. It’s a natural SPF and toner for the skin.

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Muka lang kaming clowns. Fail!

Day 5 Pyay- Aunglan (71km)

Today’s destination was relatively short. We were now on a long rolling course, with a bit of coastal scenery. We took it easy today and had long food breaks.

Levi discussing the diversion road or shortcut from Koebin to Magway. This  guy is from Switzerland and he's totally hardcore!

Levi discussing the diversion road or shortcut from Koebin to Magway. This guy is from Switzerland and he’s totally hardcore!

We were told that there were only two for-foreigners guesthouse  in this town. We found the first one, and had to bargain hard for the family room which the owner was giving us at a much higher price. We settled at $50 for the family room.

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We got ourselves a "penthouse"!

We got ourselves a “penthouse”!

Guesthouse review:

  • The owner was very nice and he actually gave us cold towels and lots of watermelons while waiting for our rooms to be prepared.
  • Again, internet didn’t  really do anything. It didn’t connect to anything.
  • The room was very spacious it even had a “sala”.
  • No hot shower, and the shower area gets flooded easily

We had dinner at the nearby eatery where the owner spoke good English. He kept on telling us how his wife loves our telenovelas. (Our telenovelas are just everywhere!)

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They love our soap operas!

Day 6 Aunglan- Koebin (50km)

We started another chilly ride in the morning.

Another hilly road of nothingness.

Peg: Mexican border or Australian outback

On a general tourist’s point of view, there’s nothing interesting here.

typical siesta after a heavy lunch

typical siesta after a heavy lunch

Our worry was that there was no known guesthouse in Koebin, not even for locals. On another bike tourist’s blog (http://bugoybikers.com/en/on%20tour/myanmar2013.html) they wrote about setting up their tents inside the kitchen of a restaurant. We found that restaurant and had an “ocular”, so the next challenge was getting permission to spend the night there.

The resturant from Bugoy's blog

The restaurant from Bugoy’s blog

Surprisingly, we met another Pinoy in that restaurant. At first, we we’re just listening to him talk on the phone in English, and all of us we’re debating if he was Pinoy. It was our lucky day! He’s pinoy and with him, was a local interpreter. We told them about our situation and they gladly assisted us in our lodging arrangement for the night.

Sa presinto ka magpaliwanag.

Sa presinto ka magpaliwanag.

photo 4

Apparently, they have very strict policies on foreigners sleeping in non-commercial lodging. The same rules apply to visitors wanting to stay at a local friend’s house.

Luckily we had an interpreter do all the talking for us when we went to the nearby police station.

This was quite an experience– Taking a bath in an open space near the pig pen, sleeping on the kitchen floor while big rats run around your face, and restaurant guests coming in until 2am. But nonetheless, we were able to sleep and we felt very blessed.

Day 7 Koebin- Magway (80km)

The beginning of our SHADOWS.

By this time the police have been made fully aware of our existence. They have sent “undercover policemen” to escort us in our ride. Ideally, we were supposed to ignore them and act as if they weren’t there, but it became too difficult. It was hard not to acknowledge them. We even said “hi” a couple of times. They were just always there. They would even show us the directions. They’re very nice actually. It was our safety that concerned them the most, I think. Our shadows never left us until Bagan.

We learned about a diversion road or a shortcut that would take us to Magway from the Swiss guy we met at Pyay. The diversion road was a 30km hilly road that felt like an Australian outback.

Mexican border?

Mexican border? orAustralian outback?

We reached Magway around 4 in the afternoon. Magway, was something like Los Baños.  It had a university-town feel and it’s quite a huge town.

Levi demonstrating a selfie on a gopro with novice monks.

Levi demonstrating a selfie on a gopro with novice monks.

We're not sure what this is, but it looked like something  like Flores de Mayo to me.

We’re not sure what this is, but it looked  something like Flores de Mayo to me.

Lots of riverside resto,  perfect for catching the sun set.

It also had lots of pricey hotels that weren’t really in our budget (or I’m the only kurips of the group)

There was only one budget guesthouse that accepted foreigners; it was called ROLEX.

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Sleeping on the kitchen floor was far better than this guesthouse.

Guesthouse review: (Rolex)

  • They charged 15000 kyat per person, with air con  but no WiFi.
  • Worst guesthouse. But you have no choice (if you’re on a budget). There was no effort in cleaning or presenting the place in a better light. The rooms were untidy and dusty.

Day 8 Magway-Salin (75km)

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We headed towards the long bridge connecting two islands in Magway region.

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More bananas!

For lunch, we stopped at a restaurant that had UFC live on their television. Yipee! It was Jon Johnson VS D.Comier! This was one of our best lunch experiences.

Parang nasa bahay lang.

Parang nasa bahay lang.

The owners even  gave us some free bananas  before we left. Too much love in this place!

with the restaurant staff and our "pabaon" bananas!

with the restaurant staff and our “pabaon” bananas!

The last 25 km was very bumpy. There was a lot of road construction  and by that time, my bum could feel the smallest bump in the road.

Note to self: Get Selle Anatomica saddle (because it’s so hipster and yeah, I think it’s comfy for long touring rides)

Guesthouse review:

There was only 1 guesthouse in Salin, and it will definitely leave you with no choice.  It was very basic, and for 3000 kyat, you get what you pay for.

The annoying pose

For 3000 kyat (P120), we allowed ourselves to have our own separate rooms.

I'm guessing the room is 3 meters long and 1.5 meters wide.

I’m guessing the room is 3 meters long and 1.5 meters wide.

But this was better than sleeping on the kitchen floor. (or was it?)

The bathroom situation was another good entry for our toilet diaries. Think Slumdog Millionaire or trainspotting 🙂

Day 9 Salin- Bagan (92km)

We started the day early to look for a breakfast place but we had no luck. We only  found a tea place and we didn’t eat enough bfast. Usually, we would have a second breakfast sometime around 10 in the morning, depending on the town, but as were riding the stretch of Chouck, we found nothing. It was an endless backroad with no tea place or restaurant. Hunger was creeping in. It was almost 12 and we still haven’t had any decent meal. After Chouk, which was a 50 km ride, we finally found a lunch place which was across the bridge. But even before having lunch, we were again stopped by policemen for our passports. They were one of our “shadows”; it was all protocol, so it was alright.

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Note: It will be ideal to have photo copies of your passport, that way you can just leave it with the checkpoint personnel and it will be easier for both parties.

If you're a paranoid freak like me, being stopped by policemen can be very scary. But this is a protocol for foreigners riding in non-tourist areas.

If you’re a paranoid freak like me, being stopped by policemen can be very scary. But this is a protocol for foreigners riding in non-tourist areas.

After 25 km from Chouk,  I found a resting spot, and waited for the others. We stayed there for almost an hour. Later, we would find out that Bagan was so much nearer.

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Bagan’s welcome was very abrupt. We all had set our minds to arriving a bit later, but Bagan surprised us. We arrived around 4pm. Sunset! The perfect lighting for our pictorial.

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We stayed at Winner guesthouse near New bagan. It was indeed a winner

Winner!

Winner!

Hotel review:

  • nice, spacious and clean rooms. Levi and I shared the twin room. $30/night/room, total of $60 for our Bagan stay (2 nights).
  • Comes with free breakfast.
  • Internet was flaky not just for the hotel but for the whole Bagan area. We were told that Bagan’s cellsite had some issues a few days earlier, thus the whole area’s connection was down.
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Tourist mode for the next 2 days

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Sunrise!

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Day 12 Kalaw-Inle (67km)

From Bagan, we took a bus going to Kalaw. We arrived in Kalaw at 2 in the  morning. It was very chilly (probably at 11 degrees)

When we got off the bus, a local helped us find a lodging. Luckily, we found a cheap room at Pines Lodging, at $5 each.

winter is coming!

winter is coming!

Kalaw is apparently the trekking mecca of Myanmar. It was very much like Sagada, Mountain province. Kalaw has made us all want to go back to Myanmar–More reasons to bike the northern area of the country!

We started our ride around 730 am,  and man it was arctic. We had all the layers of clothing we could get. We were not prepared to ride in this wintry weather.

Note to self: always bring lightweight down jacket or vest, you can never tell.

This place is beautiful!!

Stunning!

We started on a long descent which made the chilly feeling worse, but as the roads became hilly, we started peeling off some layers of our clothing.

This, I think would be our favorite ride for this trip. We felt very home. I think I’m (levi too) more comfortable riding in hilly, mountainous roads. Maybe we do really belong to the mountains.

After the bananas and watermelons, we were now into oranges.

After the bananas and watermelons, we were now into oranges.

Entrance fee at Inle :(

Entrance fee at Inle 😦

We stayed in Inle for 2.5 days, we checked in at Big Drum Hotel.

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Spacious room made for us–4 separate beds!

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$30 for the whole cottage. We stayed here for 2 nights.

Our trip ends here-- drinking cold beer by the lake.

Our trip ends here– drinking cold beer by the lake.

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Local foot rowers in Inle Lake.

We took a V.I.P. bus from Inle to Yangon. It was a huge bus spacious enough for the bikes that we didn’t need to disassemble the bikes. It was a 12-hour bus ride inclusive of snacks, drinks, blanket and even a set of toothbrush. We arrived in Yangon around 6 in the morning. We had to bike for 20 km to get to Tokyo Guesthouse. We had one night left in Yangon. The end of our trip.

Another bike adventure off our list. What’s next?

MYANMAR: Check!

MYANMAR: Check!