Published: February 19th 2010February 10th 2010
People often ask me,
“You're an idiot. You shouldn't travel to Burma”.
An interesting question (?) and not the easiest to answer, I'll admit. The headlines will tell you that Burma is a dangerous place and that by visiting you are legitimising the repressive regime. I'll attempt to answer both these points later in the essay. Er, blog, I meant blog, of course. I'm also going to continue calling it Burma, not Myanmar. Just doing my bit for international relations, World peace and all that.
Had I leapfrogged Burma and flown directly to Thailand, I would have left a gaping gap in my otherwise terrestrial route. Besides, I couldn't figure out how to create a non-contiguous line on my Google Map tracker, which was reason alone to cycle through Burma.
Getting permission to travel was easy enough. The guy at the Myanmar embassy, who looked a bit too much like Robert Mugabe for comfort, simply wanted a completed application form and 2 photos in return for a visa.
“Don't you need proof of entry, proof of exit, an itinerary of where I'm staying and how I'll travel around?” I asked.
“No, just don't go to the restricted zones”
I have completed dozens of visa application forms and immigration forms this trip. Invariably, one of the questions is “Profession?”. Why this is of any importance or consequence, I do not understand. Unless you're a spy, but then you'd not be a very good one if you confessed to it. My response to this has evolved (deteriorated?) country by country. At first I was a Management Professional. That soon became Professional-in-waiting. I later went under the guise of Student for a while. But now I am simply a Cyclist.
For months I did not consider myself a cyclist - just a traveller using a bicycle as a tool to travel. I even considered referring to myself as a Peddlar, but that has connotations not worth explaining to custom officials. Not being the most prolific bike rider when in the UK, I know very little about the mechanics of a bicycle. I can just about repair a puncture or change a tyre or replace a couple of other basics. But if anything more technical needs repairing (which it hasn't yet) then I'll gladly shout for help from the experts. Despite my technical shortcomings, I have come to learn the fundamentals
on how to travel with a bicycle - How best to load the pannier bags, what hours to ride, where to stop safely, what to carry, what not to carry, etc. More important to know for my daily convenience than how to fix a rear derailleur, surely.
I arrived in Mandalay, which is just about the closest point to the Bangladesh border that I could practicably reach in Burma. On the Irrawady river, the old capital of the Burmese kingdom sprawls outwards from the enormous Mandalay palace and fort. There was something unusual happening in Mandalay that day, which it took me a while to figure out. Lots of people trying to sell me shards of smoked glass, lengths of camera film or blacked-out cellophane. The famous Mandalay hill was peculiarly overcrowded, with tourists and locals alike scrambling for prime position at the top. Upon reaching the peak, it all became very obvious. Japanese tourists with specialised cameras and custom-made filter glasses - everyone else, including dozens of monks, squinting through these improvised filters at the sun. Aha, it was a solar eclipse, and central Burma was directly under its path.
Everybody was getting extremely excited - definitely the
Eclipse through camera film
Staring at the sun - What could possibly go wrong?
best solar eclipse. Since the last one.
A solar eclipse only occurs once a decade or so and lasts a couple of minutes. A bit like Spurs in Europe. Lots of hype, and when it comes to it you can't even really view it properly because of the dangerous light intensity. Yes, it was an amazing, almost spiritual event for those few seconds of total eclipse, but then it's gone and lots of people are left underwhelmed. Everyone except me that is. I found a foolproof technique for prolonged enjoyment - I discovered that if you stare directly at the partially covered sun without a filter, the image with burn itself onto your retina and you can recall the image for free whenever you close your eyes for the next week. Like I said, foolproof.
That evening we went to watch a performance by the Moustache Brothers. The 3 brothers are political activists-turned-comedians and perform anti-government based dances and sketches in a rather silly fashion. All very surreal and difficult to explain, but think of the Chuckle Brothers doing a slot on Newsnight, and you'd not be far off. Only 2 of them were available, as the third was
serving time in prison although no-one seemed sure of his his whereabouts or well-being. Barry and Paul (maybe their names, not sure) bravely continued with their satirical protests under the “safety” of their own living room. A courageous two-fingered salute to the ruling Generals, which I would have appreciated all the more if I didn't have a painful image of the eclipse imprinted on my retina every time I tried to focus.
Because of the timing of the eclipse, all of the tourists in Burma (all 50 or so) congregated on Mandalay at the same time, and most then left at the same time for Bagan. A veritable procession of whites streaming southwards. It took me a full day following the Irrawady to Bagan, the Angkor Wat of Burma, with 3000-odd temples sprouting out of a wide, arid plain. Less Wat, more How?
A 12 hour cycle ride proved to be the second best option of the 5 forms of transport that various tourists took from Mandalay to Bagan. OK, so the handful that flew arrived fresh and quick - and disappointingly cheaply (although the government run the internal airlines, so flying does line their pockets. Again, just doing
my bit). But my sources tell me that the 12 hour train was slow and dirty, the overnight bus uncomfortable and tiresome, and as for the boat down the Irrawady. It left Mandalay at 6 am Tuesday morning for the scheduled 12 hour cruise downriver, but ended up arriving 10 pm Wednesday night, after stranding itself on a sandbank. Lots of exhausted, sunburnt, bite-ridden foreigners trundled into Bagan just in time to wave me off.
The temples of Bagan could occupy you for weeks, though 2 days was enough time to hold my attention. Unlike Angkor, it's isolation is part of it's attraction, and I was left to my own devices to explore and climb temple after temple. I found a totally secluded spot on top of one such temple to watch the sunset behind the pyramid-dotted landscape. For those moments I was at total peace with the world. Until I realised it was getting dark and I had no idea where I how I was supposed to get back.
Luckily I found a Burmese tricyclist only too happy to lead me all the way back to civilisation. Wherever I travelled in the country I found the Burmese
people to be amongst the friendliest I've met all trip. Always smiling, always wanting to stop and chat. They have a spectacular landscape, deep culture, and a remarkable collection of historic sites. From the thousands of temples crammed around Bagan and Mandalay to quaint monasteries in small, dusty towns. With a lack of tourists meaning a lack of hotels, the monasteries doubled-up as my accommodation on more than one occasion. Burma, “The Golden Land”, is truly an amazing country is almost every way. Almost. The only downside is the brutally repressive military junta that terrorises the population and crushes any resistance or opposition. You can't have it all.
They did hold free and fair general elections a few years ago and Aung San Suu Kyi's party won by a massive majority. But the ruling Generals decided they'd rather not hand over democratic power after all, and threw Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest instead - where she remained detained during my visit, somewhere on the other side of a lake. Other incidents against human rights followed, such as the uprising in 2007 led by the Buddhists monks, which was ruthlessly crushed, and the arbitrary increase of Su Kyi's
detention because some nutjob went for a swim near her confinement. All this naturally lead to international outrage, as you'd expect. The British and US governments response was as firm as it was swift. They told the Burmese rulers they were very, very cross.
With India trading on one side, and China supporting on the other, the Generals couldn't give a monkeys what the West throws at them. Insults, sanctions, bananas, whatever.
Setting out at daybreak each morning I would usually cover about 70 kilometres by 11am, and then take a few hours rest when the heat was at its prickliest. Neither mad dogs nor I go out in the midday sun here. Usually in a teahouse or a monastery I would watch the world saunter by. Then another couple of hours riding before sunset - always with a definite destination in mind. In case of an emergency I am always carrying food, drink and portable shelter (call it a tent, if you will), but I much prefer to spend the night somewhere with at least basic facilities. ie. A bed, shower, food.
The journey to Yangon (Rangoon, if we're being consistent) passed Mount Popa perched on a
craggy volcanic hilltop and the Golden Rock impossibly balanced on a cliff top. With troupes of monkeys running up and down the cliff, looking for dumb tourists on bicycles who might be opening up a bag of fruit after a long ride, which they can steal and disappear into the abyss. Hello! They were inches away from grabbing my wallet and passport too, so a bag of bananas was not so unfruitful in the circumstances.
Yangon itself is a very manageable capital city - officially, Myanmar have recently built a new capital city somewhere else, but no-one's paid a blind bit of notice to that. The centrepiece of Yangon is the golden Shwedagon Paya - a multi-domed group of Buddhist temples filled with golden images of Buddha, which looks more like a Madame Tussauds dedicated to C3PO.
All in all Burma turned out to be up there as the most rewarding country of the trip. Without doubt the safest place, crime is almost unheard of. And if you travel independently you can make sure almost all of your dollars go to the local economy that need it, and not to the government pockets, who don't deserve it.
arriving in Thailand, and Southeast Asia in general, I was converging with the backpacker trail - or the Lonely Planet trail as I like to call it. A whole pose of independent travellers with their copy of “South East Asia on a Shoestring” brick in hand. The bible of the budget backpacker. As I'm playing a constant battle of weight versus usefulness of items to carry on the bike, guidebooks usually lose out to other essentials. Such as bottles of water, spare batteries and odour-eating footspray.
Plus living by the Lonely Planet can be prescriptive and restrictive. The danger being you trace some writers' trip, along with tens of thousands of other zombies, to the same places, staying in the same accommodation and dining at the same eateries. I don't want to sound too scathing of the brick though, which is a very well written, comprehensive guide and having it to hand can be good, can be bad. It gives a heads up on bearings, what to expect, and there's no danger of missing the unmissable. On the flip side, this sterilises the risk and excitement of finding your own gems. Or mistakes.
I find the best travel guide is
word-of-mouth, and some scribbled notes and maps on the back of a receipt usually works as my research.
In a competitive tourist environment, like Thailand, if you're not in Lonely Planet, you're nowhere. Seemingly no matter what the actual write up might be. On this trip I've seen a few places that display enormous adverts, proudly claiming “As recommended in Lonely Planet”. Upon reading the write up it says something along the lines of “....if you turn up late and have no other option, then this hellhole with suffice until you can escape in the morning....”. As recommended in Lonely Planet though.
Bangkok serves a purpose and is a perfect place to re-gather yourself. Well-equipped and well-positioned. It is also the type of city that spits you out once you've had your feed, which for me meant crossing off some personal admin and crossing a line through any more temples. However impressive they might be. A sad reflection of my state of mind and priorities that I spent the day in an air-conditioned shopping mall instead of a tour of the Golden Palace. To be fair, the palace was not offering 2-for-1 on cheeseburgers though.
Whenever travelling for an
extended period, there is always the danger of suffering travel-fatigue - you stop appreciating the world's wonders. But I was done with temples. Like the yaks in Tibet, or the mosques on the Silk Road, the first few are all very exciting and I take dozens of photos like they're going out of fashion. A week and several thousand megapixels later I'm moaning about the amount of gold exuberance whilst sitting down for a yak curry.
Only after seeing a status of Buddha doing a Saturday Night Fever pose did I awake from my apathetic trance with a smirk.
Emails sent, Facebook status updated, photos uploaded, clothes laundered, hair trimmed, legs massaged, Bangkok had served its purpose and I was ready to be spat back out onto the unknown road ahead.
Keep movin' on,
And remember to sign up for auto-notifications when new blogs are posted here >>>>
There are more photos below