southeast asia,

Motorbiking across Myanmar

Daddy Oct 04, 2019 · 20-min read
Motorbiking across Myanmar

I’ve only been at work for four months and already get a week of paid vacation for China’s national holiday.

There wasn’t much hesitation on picking a place, and soon I had a flight to Myanmar in hopes of experiencing all the things of southeast Asia that existed before my time. The Vietnam in Full Metal Jacket filmed shortly after the war and the Vietnam I saw following the effects of globalization were completely different. Were there still places in Southeast Asia that weren’t globalized?

 

 

Myanmar’s former capital of Yangon was just what I was looking for. It’s probably not the best to relish on the poverty of others, but getting to see such a different world was altogether satisfying. The buses in the city still bear Korean, Japanese, and Chinese decals from their original countries twenty years prior. There seems to be a culture that comes from having no outside resources to borrow from, and people are living in the wheel they’ve reinvented. A great honesty can be found in a place like this, closed off from the pursuit of an international standard.

 

I saw a crowd gather around a street side performance involving a few canisters, some rags, a mystery box, and a barbie doll. As far as I could tell, there wasn’t any real point to the man sprinkling water in a circle or having someone from the crowd hit the doll with a stick, but he had people howling. That’s one thing that struck me early on, how hard people here laugh. Sometimes it seems a bit imbecilic, but they are completely in love with life. The show drug on and on without development until I finally continued on my way to the Sule Pagoda.

You take off your shoes to go up the steps to the sacred site and if you’re wearing shorts, wrap a cloth around your waist called a longyi. Most men wear one regardless of who or where they are. The site is something overwhelming to see. The golden stupa is nearly a thousand years old and is still a marvel. People sing in little temples surrounding it, and there are little statues for every day of the week that you can pour water on for luck based on the day you were born on. Wednesday was a weird one because it had two, one for morning and one for the afternoon.

 

Since motorcycles are illegal in Yangon I took the train north to Mandalay happening on the last sleeper spot just twenty minutes before the final train of the day. The man behind the ticket window slid me a sheet of names and pointed to a blank spot next to the only other Westerner on-board.

“It’s been a while Simon”, I said entering the small sleeping compartment, and then turned to get something from my bag to let the tension do the work. He sat there nonplussed, wondering if he’d forgotten me at a party somewhere back in Yangon, until I revealed that I saw his name on the bookings sheet. He thought it was a great joke. He was a Brit not too much older than me living in a city next to mine and had traveled much of where I had. The exception being North Korea. I was envious hearing he’d been and then awestruck when he said he’d actually lived there for six weeks during a summer program. He was candid about the whole thing assuring me that whatever devious impressions we might have of the country are completely false. To make his point, he admitted to taking a dare to run in his underwear into a bar and back and also said North Koreans love dirty jokes. There wasn’t the slightest hint of suffering from his accounts, though he admitted the country was far from liberated.

 

We parted at Mandalay sixteen hours later, and I went to find a motorcycle rental place run by an American who’d married and settled down with a local after a life of country-hopping, one of them being Shenzhen where I live now. He was tall but not overbearing and loved getting to talk with foreigners. Outside among the scooters were two monstrous off-road bikes and an Indian-made cruiser (though not the coveted Royal Enfield). I wished they had something in between and went back and forth between fears of being foolhardy and fears of being disappointed. To my relief they had exactly what I was looking for in a warehouse - Yamaha XTZ 125- an off-road hybrid of a manageable size.

 

 

Bagan to Ann

I set out towards the real motivation behind this trip: Bagan. Its temples are almost always the background image of anything to do with Myanmar, and makes Myanmar look like a one-hit-wonder. I was surprised that seeing them in person was more astonishing than even the best pictures and more bizarre than you’d ever imagine.

Temples of all sizes and configurations rose from fields at random. There were small ones no more than a ten or fifteen feet and then others of three or four stories. It was as if this were an experimentation ground where people just build whatever they wanted, wherever they wanted as they saw fit. Still larger were the giant temple complexes. And they really were just in fields. I walked along a tractor tread through fresh tilled dirt just to get a closer look at one, no one else around. Having a crossover bike made all the difference in the world being able to cut through the dirt roads webbing between all of the temples. Enough can’t be said about how unrestrained it feels exploring this place.

Even if you happened to be the only person at Ankor Wat or Lhasa, the surrounding development would shatter the illusion that you were the first explorer. Granted, the stalls selling handicrafts and sundries around bigger structures did give off a tourist vibe, but elsewhere, it felt as if the world had yet to discover Bagan.

 

As impressive as it was, not seeing every last temple was ok because they all started to run together after awhile. My goal now was to make it to the western coast, which the guy who rented me the bike though was possible but not likely in such a short time. That was good enough for me, so I set off for Magway where I would cross the Ayeyarwady River and head west.

Far out of the more urban regions, time seemed to roll back into antiquity. Modern inventions that spoils one’s imagination of being in a primitive era disappear and reappear without expectation. Though the bike and the road always betrayed this imaginative state, you could sometimes block these out and feel the impression of seeing a pair of white Brahma bulls pulling wooden wagons. Fields of rice weren’t enclosed with fences or spanned with power lines, these were moments of timelessness between villages.

 

I soon arrived at the mountain range I was to overtake and felt challenged above my grade navigating the route which demanded more from drivers than from engineers. Corners would cut back in hairpins but also at angles that you would have a hard time walking, and for the most severe turns, the center of the road crumbled into fragments requiring taking the edges of the curve. Driving a two-wheeler over loose pavement is one of my biggest fears in the tangible world. And for good reason too! In Vietnam, I wrecked a few times on loose surfaces, one of which tore up my shoulder. I managed though by going slowly but intentionally. Drive in a straight line and accelerate ever so slightly. However, on a steep downhill turn through gravel, neither is possible so it all comes down to being able to find a path of road that’s still intact, which is complicated further by the fact that this road is primarily driven by trucks and buses who see this as a racetrack.

The drive was long, three or four hours. It was exhausting up there in the sun and knowing that, I’d have to take this same road back. I took breaks as I needed them, once to take pictures of some water buffalo in a stream. Two guys driving by saw this as an opportunity to ask me for a selfie. One said he liked my style because he’d never dream of taking a motorcycle on this road, and the other a hype man who just said “oh my god” to everything I said.

Continuing on I passed several villages way up in the mountains, and I couldn’t quite figure out how they made a living. Some it seemed serviced drivers, but others one could only wonder. A ways onward a bike came behind me and was beeping annoyingly. People seem to figure out that I’m an out-of-towner pretty far off and some will give me a honk and wave. The guy pulled up alongside me going as fast as his bike would allow. I first noticed his grim expression and then his uniform. I might have mistook him for a park ranger had the badge on his shoulder not said Immigration.

He asked for my passport and drivers license, which I admitted wasn’t a motorcycle license. He said that I failed to stop at the immigration post. There was an immigration post? In the mountains? How did I miss it? Oh, that pole I drove under. About the time I was piecing it all together, the two men from early stopped alongside the road and began talking with the officer. I watched as the once domineering officer began to shrink away now that he was no longer completely in power, and the two men drove away assuring me everything was fine. My passport and license were returned to me with the requirement that I go to immigration both in Ann and on returning back through.

 

Feeling the need to eat something in the overbearing heat of the afternoon, I stopped at the next village and chose a restaurant at random. To my surprise, the two men were there too; I somehow missed their car on my way in. Maybe the heat was getting to my head, maybe they were angels, maybe I just need to pay more attention. We talked about their lives, politics, and what had just happened. Apparently, the gate was open because it’s hand-operated and the officer was feeling tired so he left it up. At any rate, they felt had they not interceded, I would have been fined. Despite trying to pay for all of our meals, something like spaghetti with chilis instead of tomatoes, they paid for mine.

I knew I had made it through the worst of it once the roads no longer dipped and twisted in such an exaggerated way. It was easy to be grateful for flatter roads. Shortly after, I was coming to the gate of the Ann immigration stop, which was nothing more than a room with a queen-sized bed taking up half of it. The guy on the other side of the window logged my entry in a book with wide sheets of paper as was done before the dawn of computers. There was something weirdly moving about the way the took care in writing down things on ruled paper. They were doing the best they could with what they had.

Arriving at Ann, it was 48 hours into the trip, which meant this was my half-way point as far as time was concerned. Yet my return trip to Mandalay wouldn’t take nearly as long because there wouldn’t be any sightseeing. I was still a few hours from reaching the ocean and however long it took to get there would have to be doubled for the round trip. It was something I would just have to figure out on the way to Tat Taung, a village midway between Ann and the ocean.

The roads quickly deteriorated into muddy lanes with pools of water. At one point with a sizable drop through gravel and sand, I stopped to consider if I should continue on this road for several hours only to have to traverse it again. It felt indecent to let this be the turning-around point, where I went only as far as I dared. It wouldn’t sit well with me in remembering this trip. As I was thinking about all this, a man on a scooter approached the rough spot in the road with his wife sitting sideways behind him, neither were wearing helmets. He approached thin strip of good road and down into the dip he went. Here I was on a bike with off-road tires and great suspension, with nothing more than a backpack to carry; I had no more excuses. They say pride comes before the fall, but I managed to get by alright and soon the roads improved and became paved again.

While I mentioned there was a timelessness to some of the places I passed through, the road winding through rice patties and villages was something of a different era. A man with a cone shaped hat sowed seeds in the tall blades which were nearly fluorescent. Thatch house on stilts sat well up off the ground free of any modern aids in providing shelter for their equally removed occupants. I stopped at one village that was particularly charming to buy a water from a hut near the road. I dared to venture from the road into the village, and all but a hog eyed me with speculative stares. As I was chatting with someone who spoke English - a silent crowd began gathering in front of me. I’ll never forget all of those smiling faces as I waved goodbye.

 

I continued down the road following it into Tat Taung where the road ended at a pier into the river. “Qing zhuyi dao che, qing zhuyi dao che…” A three-wheeled cart warned in Chinese that the vehicle was reversing. It felt ok to end the trip here. It wasn’t the ocean like I had wanted to see, this was only an inlet of sorts. But it felt right. The ocean was still a couple more hours away and I had no idea what to expect of the roads. It was the end of the road in more ways than one, and I turned back toward Mandalay.

 

The Way Back

The way back felt much faster, and I was in the mountains once again, this time at night. It added an extra layer of difficulty having the curves in the road unfold as you’re making the turn, and on top of that, there was a fog high up in the mountains. Trucks and buses still came through, and the only thing you could do was to pull off into the dirt and wait for them to pass. But there were times when it was only me out there. Stopping and turning off your lights, you could see about all the stars that you would ever be able to see. I’m actually not one for looking at the stars in total darkness. It’s a bit messy really. Maybe it’s all just space debris. A little more light pollution with only the bigger stars shining is more inspiring.

 

That night I stayed at a creepy hotel where the doors to the rooms didn’t have knobs but rather latches on both sides so that someone could lock you in. I don’t know why I do this to myself.

After going back over the river to Magway, I took a different route through the countryside. I think I might have seen more carts pulled by cows than I saw cars. Despite the beauty of the palm trees dotting the edges of rice fields, my mind would begin to wander, taking the spectacular scenery for granted, and I would force myself to return to this place. At one point I found myself no longer driving but sliding sideways, a pause, then I heard my mirror shatter, a pause, then felt my helmet smack the road. I stood up my bike and realized that I had underestimated the low water crossing which left a layer of algae on the road. A woman walking by pointed to the water and yelled something and then kept walking. Looking back, it doesn’t make sense how these events all felt so separated and why it took so long for my head to hit the pavement after feeling the sensation of falling. The bike and I only suffered a few cosmetic damages, and I took a nap on the side of the road not long after. My sister says it’s probably because I had a concussion.

 

I arrived in Mandalay that night and got a bus ticket to Yangon where I would fly out the next day. I had a few hours to kill so I wandered around parts of the city like its Chinatown, and was in love with getting to see a preserved Chinese culture predating the Cultural Revolution,much like in Kuching, Malaysia.

There was a street with barbecue restaurants full of people and a lot of tourists, which I avoided even though finding a restaurant in this city is surprisingly hard. I found a decent alternative with only locals, and they had an English menu just without prices. I made the mistake of ordering before asking the prices, which is something I know better to do, but it was just forgetting to say no to that little voice in your head, “Everything will be fine, they seem nice enough, don’t be retentive”. Perhaps the prices were in fact the same as the locals, but I couldn’t imagine they were. Sure it’s not about the money, I paid $8. This was more about the principle of getting worked over. I left there fuming and fighting with myself not to make such a deal about it.

 

As I was looking for a taxi, a boy about my age started chatting with me. I told him that I was on my way back to the airport and he said he’d show me where to get a bus, which I thought was odd since I hadn’t seen a single bus in the past thirty minutes, but he assured me they were still running. I told him that I didn’t have any more money because I just spent the rest of kyat on barbecue.

He said he’d give me 200 to take a bus at which point I felt immediately taken aback to have someone much poorer than me offer such a gesture. I took the money and feeling a little guilty, decided to give him 20 yuan from my wallet. There was also Hong Kong money in there which he wanted to look at. Someone else came up and asked what the yellowish yuan note was and as I turned my head to look at him I found myself the victim of a $40 magic trick. I looked back at the money in the boy’s hand and the two twenties were gone, only the five and the Hong Kong note. What could I do? I searched the cuff of his shirt sleeve but it wasn’t there, I told him to give it back, but he swore he didn’t know what I was talking about. He didn’t run, he just kept denying that he took it going as far as to open his shirt and hands to show that he didn’t have it, even show the inside elastic band of his pants. There was nothing I could do. It was truly an impressive trick. I simply walked away defeated.

 

(not him)

 

The whole thing made absolutely no sense. How did I go from getting 15 cents to losing forty dollars? It still feels like a dream. It’s also still baffling and angering, and it was all because I wasn’t thinking straight from getting mad about something else. It could have been worse though. It wasn’t my wallet, phone, or passport. I couldn’t let these instances cast a dark shadow over the rest of my trip and began to consider the good that came from this. If forty dollar helps me better appreciate the city I live in now, where this sort of thing never happens, then so be it. I can honestly say, I’m a little happier living here knowing how else it could be. This experience will help me think twice about getting upset over the little things and remember how good I have it.

Despite the ending, motorbiking across Myanmar was a fantastic experience. I got to ride across places untouched by the effects of internationalization and saw a real sense of organic personality free from outside influence. This was all I was hoping for in my trip, and I got it.

 

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Daddy
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Technophobe gracing tech companies in the Global 500, Fortune 500, a Kickstarter unicorn, and several little dinky places. Bike touring is my sanity factory.