(Thanks to Karen for helping with the translation)
When I started my journey I didn´t think it would be possible to travel through Myanmar by bike. Although in the past years, reforms for democratic change were on their way, land borders were still closed to foreigners in 2012. Entering and exiting the country was only possible by plane and that was out of question for me.
Tourism including cycle tourism, though very limited, had been around for a while and were mostly organized by government enterprises .
However, in recent years, Myanmar has seen some changes.
In 2010, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and head of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, Aung San Suu Kyi, was released from her 20-year house arrest. In the year1990, the NLD won the elections. However, their victory was not recognized by the regime.
In 2012, comprehensive reforms for democratization and the opening up of the economy to draw in foreign investments were promised. The promise resulted in the lifting of sanctions from the U.S. government and other European governments against the country.
But change takes time . Most members of the new civil government are former military personnel . Human rights violations as well as numerous unresolved and violent conflicts with minorities persist with large areas of the country still inaccessible to foreigners .
By the second half of 2013, the news came about new possibilites to enter Myanmar through 4 check points via neighbouring Thailand. I made an instant decision to sieze the chance to travel through the country by bicycle, of course,with the intention of getting as close as I could with the local people.
31. December 2013
Crossing the border
“But you cannot take this bike to Myanmar”, says the Thai border official without looking up as he flips through my passport . What? This is something I haven´t heard at any border. “Of course I can. I brought it into Thailand , so I can take it out again”, I reply , still puzzled. He is unable to rebuttle, so he just nods and says, “OK , but no cycling on the bridge”. Mae Sot , a border town in Thailand is connected by a bridge to Myawaddi in Myanmar. When Anselm is granted his exit stamp in the passport, we push our bikes across the bridge.
The left-hand traffic switches to the right, and the immigration officers are very friendly and courteous. ” Bikes, no problem”, they tell us. We get our passports stamped, and here we are- in Myanmar. Though just 100 meters from Thailand, it’s like being in another world. The traffic is dense; but unlike the Thais, the Burmese people know what a horn is and use it diligently. Many people are out on the streets , the houses are run down, and it’s imminent that it is not as developed as Thailand.
After we changed some money on the black market, we continue cycling. The road passes over a mountain range and we read that the road conditions are not the best. It is so narrow that it flows in one direction, and one direction only. And indeed, after 10 kilometers, it is uphill and the asphalt gives way to a dusty road . Cars full of people and overloaded trucks race past us , as if it were a car race .
Courageously overtaking and honking unsparingly, only to have to wait at the next curve because of the massive build-up caused by the larger vehicles that struggle to pass through the narrow winding hill carriageway.
It is hot and dusty, and when we finally reach the top , it is time for a break and something to eat.
Time for food
But how do you order a dish if you neither speak nor read the language? We find a stall. Several silver aluminum pots are laid out, awaiting hungry customers like ourselves, and shortly after, a bemused woman opens the lid for us. We point at the desired dish, meat in an oily curry sauce, and sit down at the table. Rice is served here. But within minutes, we not only get the chosen curry with rice, but more and more bowls of different vegetables begin to appear before us. Condiments and unknown side dishes added on until the entire table is covered . It doesn´t stop and we wonder who is going to eat all of this and what it will cost?
With full bellies, we ride on. Luckily, the next leg goes downhill and the road is in better condition . The cars continue to race past us , but every now and then. they pull over to cool down the brakes with water hoses readily available by the roadside only to continue their race down the mountains.
When we reach the bottom, it is time to look for a place to sleep. In Myanmar, foreigners are only allowed to sleep in licensed hotels which is often difficult for cyclists. Firstly, these hotels are only found in larger towns, and secondly, foreigners are forced to pay inflated prices due to a ‘special tax’ imposed by the government to support the Junta. We decide to avoid these hotels as much as we can to keep our expenses down and to boycot the government. We are also aware that it may cause conflict with the authorities, which I will tell you about later.
A night in a temple
On this particular evening, we ask for permission to pitch our tent within the temple grounds and luckily enough, we recieve a warm welcome. A monk shows us a spot in the temple where we are allowed sleep . It is the 31st December 2013 , New Year’s Eve , but we are too tired to celebrate. Apparently the temple has the only TV in the village (actually 2 televisions), and in the evening, the villagers gather in front of the magic boxes- one showing footbal, and the other one a Burmese soap opera- so it is something for everyone.
By 10 O’clock, the electricity supply shuts down. It also marks the end of the TV evening for everyone. Tired and overwhelmed by new experiences that day, we drifted into sleep.