Thanks to Karen for helping with the translation
02. January 2014
We met two Belgian cyclists yesterday, Johann and Ils, traveling on folding bikes with minimal luggage . It gives them the flexibility to load their bikes (and luggage) in busses, trains even small cars easily, allowing them to cover longer distances. We cycle together for a day.
The four of us spend a night at a Buddhist temple and go our separate ways after breakfast, provided by the monks . Johann and Ils want to go Mawlamyin, while Anselm and I head towards Yangon. We are alone but only for a while : after a few kilometers we meet a Dutch couple on bicycles and we exchange information. As we chatted by the side of the road, a group of Burmese cyclists passes by and ask if we need help. They are from Yangon and are on their way to a famous cave in the area. Spontaneously , we decide to join the group. An Australian guy travelled with them , and upon reaching the cave, we meet a New Zealander on a bike . I can´t quite remember the last time I met 6 bicycle travelers in a single day.
Myanmar is a Buddhist country: the people are very religious and it seems as though there are more temples here than in Thailand. Golden pagodas stand erected on every hilltop and religion is deeply rooted in daily life. Shrines are everywhere.
When we reach the Saddar Cave, we park our bikes and pull off our shoes , as it is appropriate in every temple and shrine. The stairs lead up to a huge cave . The walls are decorated with paintings and statues of Buddha. A huge reclining Buddha rests inside, and a dimly lit path leads deep into the cave. The soil is moist and sticky, and I soon realize why it felt that way- thick layers of bat shit cover the floor, making it soft and sticky. Above us, illuminated by the glow of flashlights, we see huge groups of bats flying around.
We soon find out that the cave is not really a cave, but a tunnel through the mountain that leads to a small lake. From there, you can take a boat back to the other side- no, not around the mountain but through another tunnel with very low ceilings. For petite Asians, no problem, but Anselm and I have to duck our heads. It goes through rice fields and back to the entrance, where our bikes and shoes await.
I´m impressed by the beauty of this place , but as it’s only noon, the Burmese cyclists want to show us even more. We cycle through little bumpy dirt roads that lead to a waterfall where we swim , then through a gorge,where thousands of Buddha statues stood on a mountain slope . Finally we reach a temple , Kyauk Kalap. It is in the middle of a lake on a rocky outcrop on which artfully a pagoda was built. The temple is known for the free distribution of food every afternoon. Rice and curry is served from huge pots in a prayer hall, and all the hungry cyclists eat as much as they can.
It’s time to say goodbye to our new friends . Unexpectedly, two of them take off their sweaty cycling trikots and give them to us as a sign of friendship. These trikots were from the Burmese cycling team that represented the country in the Southeast Asian Games in 2013 , which took place in Myanmar just a month before. Unfortunately, the team wasn´t very successful, but we are delighted by their kindness anyway.
We begin to look for a place to sleep and it got dark by the time we pitch our tent; hidden behind a small grandstand, on a football field next to the road . We are in the tent and asleep when a man shows up with a flashlight. He disappears again after a few minutes, but we are worried that the police will come to chase us away . Camping is not allowed in Myanmar. Earlier in the evening we were forbidden to stay in a temple and as a rule, foreign visitors must, instead, stay in certain licensed hotels. 20 minutes later, we see the flashlight again and someone calls out to us . This time it is not the police but the same man, and he brought us some hot noodles and a bottle of water .
I have already experienced so much hospitality on my trip but sometimes I still find it hard to comprehend it : Why would someone who sees a tent and two bicycles in the middle of the night, think to himself , “Oh , these people could use some food ” , run home , cook noodles , run back and bring them back to the sleeping cyclists. Without any expectation. Not even a conversation is possible, as the man does not speak a word of English and our Burmese is minimal.
Something similar has happened the day before: A man on a motorcycle showed up next to me , handed me a bag of rice and fish, said “Welcome to Myanmar “, smiled and drove away.
This warmth and friendliness is typical of the Burmese and we will experince it often in the next weeks.