Explore customer Alastair Walters travelled with us on Cycle Burma. Here he shares the highlights of the trip, including the welcoming – and intrigued – Burmese people and the reasons you should Explore this emerging country on two wheels.
Having tried a cycling trip in Vietnam and Cambodia a couple of years ago, I was very confident that two wheels would be the best way to see a country like Burma. Yet Cycle Burma still exceeded my expectations.
Just about everyone on our tour (which included an American, a Canadian and two Kiwis) wanted to see Burma ‘before it becomes too touristy’ and it was refreshing to find a country where the locals were as curious about you as you were about them. This up-close interaction is only really possible on a bike, rather than through a coach window. We almost began to feel like royalty with villagers coming out of their houses to wave and greet us as we pedalled past shouting ‘mingalaba (hello).
Hotel accommodation is already struggling to cope with the recent rapid rise in tourists, the good news for us was that virtually all the tourist hotels are new and everything worked well. Obviously being an Explore trip, some mornings started early and in one case the wake up knock on the door was before both dawn and the hotel generator being fired up!
There are lots and lots of temples/stupas/pagodas and literally hundreds of thousands of Buddhas. Luckily they were varied enough and spread out over the whole trip, that at no point did I feel ‘templed out’. Shwedagon Pagoda is a stunning sight, it is basically somewhere for the locals to go to pray and marvel at. Although not as individually spectacular, the sheer number of stupas in Bagan was staggering and a great sight stretching over the plain.
Our guide (Sai) also took us to a couple of temples which were not shown on our trip notes because he felt there were other ones also worth seeing. That’s the whole point of having an excellent local, knowledgeable guide who wanted us to have the best trip possible.
To arrive in a village and stumble across a ceremony celebrating boys about to become novice monks and being welcomed to share in the spectacle is just one of the advantages of being on a bike. It was quite a shock that the local music of choice to end the parade was Gangnam Style blaring out over the speakers! Internet access in Burma is apparently more prevalent than I’d expected.
As someone with a soft spot for sunsets, Ubein Bridge comes with a huge reputation. Having thought that the picture on top of the tour notes was either enhanced or very lucky, I now have one of my own that is at least as fine (if I say so myself!)
It was fascinating to see the traditional way of life of the inhabitants on Inle Lake, from the unique one legged rowing technique and fishing style to the farming on the islands. It would be a pity if the emergence of tourism in the country led to their traditions becoming more for demonstration purposes.
The cycling on the tour was pretty demanding, especially the first couple of days with some long climbs, but there was always the comforting knowledge that if needed there was a bus to help you over the top. Bikes were good quality and well maintained; I do wish I’d paid more attention to checking which side the rear brake is on - going over the handle bars was sore and embarrassing!
The road surfaces were pretty brutal (which is hardly surprising having seen the entirely manual way new stretches of road were being made), so padding was essential, either shorts or saddle or both. I’m confident that no Burmese has ever seen a 6ft5 white person putting a newly acquired cushion with a picture of a cat on it down his shorts before – apparently it worked very well though! The road surface may explain the number of punctures, but this was no great drama; we just waited at the side of the road, mechanics appeared, changed the wheel and off we went again – just like being in Team Sky but the mechanics smiled more.
For adrenaline junkies the ride down from Maymyo hill station certainly got the heart racing. It’s a long, often very steep descent, as evidenced by the pit stop at one point where drivers can hose down their brakes to stop them over-heating. Luckily Burmese lorry drivers seem to show a great awareness of people wearing cycling helmets, so although it’s a busy harem skarem road, at no point did it feel dangerous.
I wasn’t sure what to expect as far as the impact of the current political situation in Burma. An old politician that we met in the office of the National League of Democracy seemed far more bitter about the fact that under military rule education and farming had moved backwards than he was about being imprisoned for 17 years for doing nothing worse than being elected to parliament in 1990. There was no great sign of a military presence except at army bases, but although Sai felt comfortable answering political questions in the privacy of the bus, there were subjects he clearly felt uncomfortable about discussing in public. There did feel like there is a genuine optimism that the political situation will improve.
Everyday life in Burma has very little mechanisation about it, whether farming, construction or even making gold leaf. As a lot of the men are monks or in the army, a lot of the manual labour is shouldered by women, so whether it’s road building, sugar cane cutting, onion farming or tea-picking, every task seemed to rely on the sweated labour of teams of tiny (often very young) women and yes - they still smile carrying baskets full of stone on their heads.
In my life I’ve been fortunate to visit a number of South-East Asian countries; while they all have wonderful unique selling points, if I was only allowed back to one of them I wouldn’t hesitate to pick Burma. While we saw many wonderful and fascinating sights as we wheeled our way through the Burmese countryside, my over-riding memory will always be the smiling, waving Burmese people who made us feel so welcome.