Myanmar is the other country on this journey which like China requires a guide for foreign vehicles, but really that’s where the similarity ends. It’s a country on the cusp of radical change from military junta to democracy and the requirement of an organised tour is an effect of this transition. For the last 40 years the borders for bikes and other foreign vehicles have been closed, only last year did they open. Attempting the route I’ve taken in the past meant shipping from Kathmandu or Kolkata to Bangkok. With this in mind it was exciting to think we were some of the first in a generation to enter Myanmar by our own vehicles, even if it was with a guide and the limitations that brings.
I’m not much of a writer, never have been and after the frustrating days spent writing the last blog I’ve decided never will be. Words often escape me; the tip of the tongue feeling plagues me, a perpetual writer’s block. There’s enjoyment in the end product and occasionally along the way but ultimately it’s a difficult process and for that reason this time it aint going to be a word filled linear narrative. A glimpse of the place, its people and my thoughts. Let the photos show the beauty – the captions explain.
Beautiful is exactly what Myanmar is, the riding was through vast expanses of virgin green countryside untouched by the rudimentary agriculture that still dominates here to empty white beaches and the temples and pagodas of Bagan almost untouched by the ever encroaching fingers of mass tourism. Almost untouched, mounting one pagoda early one morning anyone would be forgiven for thinking we’d gate-crashed the final of ‘who’s got the biggest lens’. The people were some of the happiest and friendly I’ve ever met and it is without wanting to sound too clichéd the land of smiles, whether this is a natural disposition, something in the water or an effect of the changes taking place there I’m not sure but one thing is for certain there’s an overwhelming sense of hope and optimism for the future. A democratic future and all the freedoms and trappings that brings. Nothing displayed this change from old to new more vividly than the smooth roads paralleled by dirt tracks, these dust highways of old carrying more traffic of ox and cart than the new tarmac which carried us around the country. The one thing that truly dominates Myanmar and spans both old and new is Buddhism, this may be a country of 54 million smiles but for every one there appears to be a thousand Buddha’s, from the 129m standing giant overlooking the plains around Monywa to caves housing thousands of miniature yet unique images of the enlightened one, he’s everywhere and more often than not stratified in gold leaf.
For these reasons I want to tell you I loved Myanmar, unfortunately I can’t. Don’t get me wrong it was an amazing place, and I expect no sympathy when I say this, but against the backdrop of everything that’s gone before it didn’t have that breath taking effect, perhaps I’ve begun to reach a tipping point where my eyes have seen so much the mind has become accustomed, this happened on my previous travels, the exceptional becomes the norm, the marvelous becomes mundane and may be this is a sign to stop for a while. To steal a line from the blog of the cyclist Nick I spent drinking time with in Tiblisi and Baku “the fear of becoming too jaded to make the most of something I may have few opportunities repeat later in life” certainly resonates with me. Add to this being on an organised tour with a guide, a daily route and a nice pre-arranged hotel at the end of every day it is exactly that, nice, but the freedom and excitement of the unknown is totally removed. And finally Frank got Dengue, it isn’t my story to tell, but what I will say is he got very sick which ultimately led to transporting the bike by truck, hospital time and with Petra’s role as Florence Nightingale, for over half our tine in country the Myanmar 5 were down to a concerned 3.
Put this all together and I guess it skewed my experience of what is a wonderful country, would I go back? Yes, tomorrow. Would I go back on an organised tour? No, I’d want to be able to explore myself and fortunately at the rate the country is changing I suspect within a few years the borders will be freely open to foreign vehicles. Between visiting and writing this the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy has come to power, a real sign for the future.
One last thing to mention even though I’ve just done a hatchet job on organised tours is that the tour company we used, Osuga Myanmar, were exceptional, so to anyone who’s stumbled across this post with the intention of riding in Myanmar do not hesitate to use them, they were utterly professional, couldn’t have done more for us, adjusted the tour as and when we wished, showed us the best of their country, were super friendly people, Tun the guide, the driver and the government official with his mountain of paper work were all truly great guys and if anything the hotels were too good, I’d become quite accustomed to utter filth pits. Thanks guys.