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Myanmar: On the way to Yangon


(Thanks to Andy for reviewing this translation)

(Pictures marked with  * are from Anselm)

January 2014

On the way to Yangon

At lunchtime Anselm and I stop at one of the many golden pagodas. These temples are built throughout the country. Some function as a repository of a tooth or strand of hair of Buddha and are considered sacred. An ice cream vendor shows us where we can park our bikes and is willing to take care of them while we visit the pagoda.

Children playing in front of the pagoda

In front of the pagoda women sell flowers, incense sticks and snacks. The Burmese are very friendly, people always smile at us, schoolgirls begin to giggle when they see us. A woman asks me with a laugh, if I could marry her and take her with me back to Germany. I answer, that she has to come with me on a bicycle first, which makes the other people around laugh.

This woman is dreaming of living in Germany, but not of cycling there.
Betel nut seller


Camping in a Village

In the evening we try to camp on a field next to a village. Soon we are surrounded by people who observe us and our bikes curiously and without distrust. Laughter flies through the air, the people are talking a lot and seem very excited, especially when I start to cook potatoes.

Half the village comes to see the strange guys with the bicycles. *

Each movement is closely monitored and commented about, of course in Burmese. We don´t understand a single word. I hand out some rosemary, the women turn up their nose at this unknown spice and suggest to me, I should put some more salt in the potatoes instead of this strange spice. Only one of the men dares to taste the ready food, rosemary potatoes with fried eggs. Probably he does it only out of politeness.

I feel a little bit like a chef cook in a television show. *

It is hard to eat while 30 pairs of eyes are staring at you. Anselm tries to make the people understand that we need some privacy, but the crowd moves only a few meters back.Some distance away, a group of men is having a discussion. From time to time they look at us and then they come over. A boy has been selected as a speaker and says that the village council has decided to allow us to stay here. At least we guess that because of the gestures he makes.

But in a country like Myanmar the police have the last word. They come in the darkness. The responsible officer of the Immigration Police is a young lad in a brand new uniform. Probably he has put it on only for this occasion. He´s accompanied by at least five other men with leather jackets and flashlights and of course some curious villagers. The officer doesn´t speak a word of English and is completely overwhelmed with the situation. His brown eyes flit back and forth anxiously. He looks as if he would start to cry at any moment. I can´t help but feel sorry for him immediately, but of course that is not a good starting point for a discussion in which I want to defend my position. After our passport details have been again written in one of those little black books and given via satellite phone to an unknown location, we don´t talk too long and start to pack our things. We had expected that it would come like this. In the future we have to be more careful not to be seen by so many people while looking for a place to camp.

scenes from the village camping adventure. *

Back on the road a pickup truck is waiting. It should bring us and our bikes to the next hotel. The people even want to pay the hotel for us. We reject this offer and ride away into the darkness.

Anyway, we spend the night in the tent, near the road in a dilapidated wooden hut.


Road construction

The next morning we continue towards Yangon. There is a lot of traffic at the main road, and the cars overtake relatively close. In Myanmar the traffic is on the right side but most cars have the steering wheel also on the right side,which leads to dangerous situations while overtaking. The road is paved but rather bumpy.

A new road is under construction. *

Many of the main roads of Myanmar were built in the nineties as the junta decided to renew the infrastructure. Thousands of forced laborers and prisoners were used for the road construction. Today this task is performed mainly by women and children. The roads are built in short sections of one hundred meters and machines are hardly used. After all, the gravel is usually made by a machine, I rarely see one of those stone-crushers on their huge pile of stones.

This is still the case in In India and Bangladesh, where these people split rocks all day long with a huge hammer, all the way down to pebble size.

The work is done mostly by hand. *

The gravel are therefore supplied in Myanmar, but most of the rest is done by hand. Stone by stone is positioned by the women and then the gaps filled with sand. The tar is heated up in barrels next to the road and then carried in buckets and tilted over the stones. The last step is done by a machine, a roller. This kind of road can´t last long: A few heavy trucks and the first pothole is born, the monsoon rain will do the rest. After a short time the road is in its original state, rocky and bumpy.

Tar is heated next to the road

Sometimes I feel the road construction in Myanmar is futile. It seems as soon as a new piece is completed, another piece is again in strong need of renovation. It seems like this country will never have a good and solid road network.

A group of women workers on a truck. *


On such roads we reach Yangon, the country´s center but not its capital. The capital now is Naypyidaw, a newly build city inland, full of mighty buildings, new hotels and deserted wide streets.

Bikes are banned in Yangon, but we just drive through the checkpoints. Some bicycles can be seen in the city, but not a single motorcycle. This makes the cycling pleasant. The space, which in other cities is occupied by the countless scooters and motorbikes, is here all ours.

Even without motorbikes the roads are crowded. In the background Sule Pagoda

Yangon is, like every big city, full of contrasts: There are modern supermarkets and cafes with wi-fi, at the street corner young people hang around in fancy clothes, listening to the latest pop hits on their smart phones.

Street scene.

At the harbor the freight of the ships is unloaded by an army of porters, in plastic sandals and sweating in the sun, who haul box by box up the gangplank to load them onto trucks. Payment is per transported piece, a porter gets a wooden stick for each box. When he has ten together he can exchange the chopsticks for another one in a different color so that his hand is not so full. At the end of the day his payment is measured by the number of sticks.

Waiting for passengers
At the harbour

In the office and administrative district you see people with shirts and leather briefcases, but instead of pants they wear the traditional lungi, a kind of wrap-around skirt, and leather sandals. Under an umbrella a man sits at a table, nothing but an old typewriter in front of him. He offers his services as a writer for formal writing or for people who can´t write.

Shwedagon Pagode

In Yangon I meet Aaron again, an Australian cyclist I met in Siam Reap, Cambodia. Together we want to visit Shwedagon Paya, the holiest shrine of the Burmese. This huge golden pagoda is visible from a large distance, it towers over the city. At the entrance we are stopped, $15 admission – only for foreigners. That’s a bit too much for us and we guess the money goes directly to the government and not to the monks. So we turn around and try one of the other entrances. At the last one we are lucky and can sneak in unnoticed. The pagoda rises impressively into the sky, covered with pounds of gold and a large number of diamonds at the top. We line up in the stream of local visitors and circle the pagoda by foot. Monks relax cross-legged, people bring gifts to smaller altars and ignite incense sticks. It is a calm, quiet atmosphere and we observe for a while the stream of people walking past us.

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About the history of the pagoda I want to say only this: According to legend, it is not built on just one strand of hair of Buddha, but eight strands of hair. This explains the popularity among the Burmese, and when we will tell people later in our trip that we visited the Shwedagon Pagoda, they get shiny eyes. It is the dream of many Burmese to visit to the Shwedagon Paya one time in their own life.

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