The Land of Smiles and Temples

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Asia » Burma
December 16th 2018
Published: December 24th 2018
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Yangon to Mandalay

Over nine cycling days, we cycled 1,000 kilometers from Yangon to Mandalay.


Almost everyone in Myanmar was thrilled to have their children's picture taken. Given the legacy of the British, Indians are a visual minority making up just over 1% of the population.
It had been five years since I had done an overseas cycling tour. I had actually planned one to Myanmar in 2012 and 2013, but they fell apart mainly for logistical reasons. The one I planned in 2013 was a go all the way up to booking flights. Therefore, I already had a big head-start in planning this year’s tour. The biggest difference this time was that the tourist infrastructure had caught up and surpassed demand. The other notable difference was that Chinese airlines had now become global players. I was able to get a return flight from Edmonton to Myanmar with China Eastern Airlines for $500 USD, which seems just insanely cheap. It wasn’t even a sale price! The only drawback was that I had an overnight in Kunming, China both ways, but I didn’t consider that a big headache. The transition between China and Myanmar was notable for a couple of reasons. Myanmar only required an eVisa, which could be quickly and cheaply submitted online vs China’s convoluted and expensive paper process.

I was excited to travel to another Buddhist country as my experiences in Thailand, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka had been so great. Right off the bat,

Here is a small pagoda on top of a much larger pagoda. The deep blue skies, post-rainy season, are fabulous for photography.
I found a people who were extremely friendly and honest. Their humble demeanour also showed a consistent trait with other Buddhist countries.

There used to be a time when I was concerned about openly carrying around a $650 USD iPhone for everyone to see. Not these days. It seems like everyone has a smartphone, while an Android vs an iOS phone. The one thing that has resulted from this is that I am now having people take pictures and videos of me rather than just me taking pictures of them!

I knew the Burmese food scene was going to be good. That came from the countless YouTube travel videos I caught online before the trip. Myanmar is at an interesting crossroads between India, Thailand, and China. Dishes like samosas, dosas, and chapatis can be found everywhere. It was also extremely cheap. I could easily have a huge lunch in the countryside with bottled water for no more than one or two US dollars. While I knew the cuisine was known for its oiliness, that was really the only thing I felt could be improved on.

While tourism has grown dramatically since the country opened up in 2010,
Children with AttitudeChildren with AttitudeChildren with Attitude

This photo was completely random. I had no idea this little girl was going to give me the V sign when I took her picture. It is common for Asians to pose this way, but not at this age!
I saw far fewer tourists than I had expected. People are staying away in droves for either perceived personal safety issues given the plight of the Rohingya people or to make a political statement on the treatment of them. Either way, it has had a big impact on tourism. I had no issue booking hotels along our trip. It was easy to see that everyone in the tourism industry was hurting badly from this downturn. The government needs to resolve the Rohingya issue so everyone can get things back to normal.

Surprisingly, I only saw one other touring cyclist and he was doing a ride from London to Sydney. Pedr Charlesworth had just gotten out of University and he was inspired that I was still doing cycling tours nearly 30 years after my World Tour. Interestingly, Pedr was in Tajikistan a few months ago when four touring cyclists were killed by ISIS…. It really hit me then how far away I was from home...

From a cycling perspective, the trip was what I was hoping for except for the roads. They were for the most part in terrible shape and some of the worst roads outside of India that
The Land of PagodasThe Land of PagodasThe Land of Pagodas

Pagodas can be seen from nearly anywhere in Myanmar.
I had experienced. It was good that I had a mountain bike with front suspension. I actually rented a bike this time given how expensive and how much work it is to bring a bike on a plane these days. The experience was good and I will be trying to do the same thing in the future. Fortunately, in Myanmar, I found a bike shop that had stores in both Yangon and Mandalay. The other drawback was my right hip. I now have arthritis in it from an old waterskiing injury. It only seems to bother me only when I cycle. I had done some physio on it over the summer and I thought it had improved enough that it wouldn’t be a problem this trip. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case… I will have to look for some new options for my next tour.

There were a couple of experiences that are particularly worth noting. On my second cycling day, I came across a very loud wedding early in the morning just off the highway. Shortly after I stopped I was invited in by the groom. Everyone was there to congratulate the bride and groom and share in a
Ox and CartOx and CartOx and Cart

In some parts of rural Myanmar, things haven't changed in hundreds of years.
meal. I now had an earlier than expected breakfast under my belt. The groom spent quite a bit of time with me and I was even part of the video for the event. This type of random event happens once in a while and I was excited for my new cycling partner to experience a type of random and spontaneous hospitality that I have experienced in other parts of the world. Little did I know that that Burmese weddings would come and haunt me later on in the trip. As I progressed north, I realized that the beginning of the dry season is wedding season, which isn’t bad in itself. It is bad, though, when they start at 4:30 in the morning and go late into the night for two days straight! This would play havoc on my sleep on a few nights.

The other experience of note was the capital city of Nay Pyi Taw. I knew this was going to be a unique experience, but it sure showed what can go wrong with from a central planning perspective. I am sure the city's population density is the lowest in the world. Huge infrastructure has been built for

Colour is everywhere on the streets of Myanmar.
a capital city that still hasn’t attracted more than a few embassies from Yangon. It is a bit of chicken and egg situation. Because the services (e.g. international schools) aren’t in Nay Pyi Taw, embassy families don’t want to move. Overbuilding can be seen everywhere with unfinished hotels to partially filled hotels on the "strip". Much of the city remains undeveloped, but large boulevards and roundabouts are already in place. There is the infamous 20-lane road in front of the parliament buildings that never has more than a handful of vehicles on it. To be fair, that road also looks like it is used for military parades.

I was reminded on this trip of how much I enjoy markets and massages. There just isn’t any way for me to get enough of them. I can wander around markets aimlessly for hours. The sights, smells, and people are intoxicating.

Massages are well known and loved in this part of the world. How can anyone go wrong with a 60-minute foot massage for less than $6 USD?! Interestingly, I compared a similar foot massage at the Kunming Airport on the way back and it was nearly eight times more.

Bagan is one of the great ancient cities of the world and can be compared to Ayutthaya (Thailand) and Angkor Wat (Cambodia).

Finally, I want to share some of the new technologies I have embraced recently that have made travel so much easier than 10, 20, or 30 years ago. First, 4G and cheap data plans are a game changer for accessing the internet on the road or in a hotel room. No more do I need to worry about roaming charges or spotty wi-fi. In Myanmar, I was able to get 10GB of data for 30 days for $7 USD! Who needs wi-fi at that price? Second, Google Translate now allows me to interact with locals like I could never before. I am also noticing locals using an equivalent Android app to communicate with me! No longer do I have to lean on my charades and sign language to communicate. Lastly, ride sharing whether it is Uber or Grab (in Myanmar). They have made it easy, cheap, and effortless to move around large cities. It also gives one a tool to negotiate even better deals with other vehicles like tuk-tuks.

Additional photos below
Photos: 13, Displayed: 13


Burmese Tea Leaf SaladBurmese Tea Leaf Salad
Burmese Tea Leaf Salad

One of the joys for Myanmar is their food. Here is one of the most complex and delicious dishes I tried.
Tea ShopsTea Shops
Tea Shops

One of the unique features of Myanmar is all of their tea houses. Like our coffee shops, they are also a place for people to meet and socialize.

The daily alms process, which is the voluntary giving of food or money to monks and nuns, was always neat to watch.
Backstreet MandalayBackstreet Mandalay
Backstreet Mandalay

Like many poor countries, the Burmese people tend to eat all parts of the animal. While certainly spiced, these animal intestines still don't look overly appetizing to me.

A random scene on the streets of Mandalay. Given the cheap labour in Myanmar, there is so much that is still done manually.
Colourful Faces at the MarketColourful Faces at the Market
Colourful Faces at the Market

Thanakha is a yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground bark. It is a distinctive feature of the culture of Myanmar, seen commonly applied to the face and sometimes the arms of women and girls, and is used to a lesser extent also by men and boys.

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