We cycled from the border of Thailand to Bagan. Due to continuing border issues between India and Burma in April 2017, we were unable to cross this border by bicycle and instead flew to Imphal, north-east India. We do know cyclists who were able to cross from India to Burma around this time.
The purpose of Gearing Up is to raise awareness of the work of social initiatives in Asia. So throughout this piece we’ve mentioned social enterprises and initiatives you can support whilst you are there, whether or not you are cycling!
See our route for more detail and guesthouse prices
Total distance: 1300 km
Total cycling days: 15 days (average 87 km/day)
IN – From Thailand to Burma, 12th March 2017: Mae Sot (Thailand) – Burma
No issues, apart from having to stand still whilst the national anthem played. Watch out for traffic switching sides! There’s no warning. We applied for our visa in Phnom Penh hassle free, it is not quite the same story for Bangkok. On Burma visa applications, do not mention that you are cycling.
OUT – From Mandalay Airport to Imphal (via Bangkok and Calcutta), 18st April 2017
As mentioned above, at the time of cycling, crossing the border from Burma to India was not possible, so we were forced to book flights. You can overstay your visa if you pay $3/day at the border/airport; this is unofficially official. At the airport, there is a queue at passport control labelled ‘Overstay Counter’ and there you fill out a form, state the number of days and pay. They’re fussy with perfectly crisp and stain free dollar notes, and change (if you are lucky enough to get it) comes from the immigration officer’s wallet.
6am at the riverside market
Although some manage it, an overwhelming majority of cycle tourists have found it near-impossible to camp. There are numerous stories of being woken up during the night in a temple by a group of policemen and being escorted in the dark to the nearest town.
Officially camping is illegal, as is staying in people’s homes. So not only do you risk an interrupted night’s sleep, you might also put people at risk if they are found to be breaking the rules.
Therefore we recommend that you do your research about the location of guesthouses. There is plenty written online. Contrary to popular belief, guesthouses in Burma are not extortionate and are not dire either! We have helpfully marked on our map the cost of the guesthouses we stayed in and what you get for your money (NB: Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay are not included as we were either staying with friends or staying in unusually nice hotels with our visitors). The lowest price was 12,000 kyats and highest was 35,000 kyats (average ~20,000).
Work in progress, 40 km from Kawkereig
On our second night in Burma we made the mistake of miscalculating the amount of time it was going to take to cycle the side-road route from Kawkereik to Mawlamyine. Entering a village about 30km before Mawlamyine at 5.30pm we first tried to slip into a temple before anybody on the road saw us. But just before we entered a man on a motorbike stopped opposite and started to make a phone call. We pretended we needed to collect water from outside, but soon continued down the road: he was not going to leave until we did. Following us further down the road he eventually stopped to ask where we were going, to which we said Mawlamyine, and he pointed us in the direction he therefore wished us to proceed. With the monastery plan out of the question, we decided instead to cycle out of the town, by then in the dark, and slip off the road and stealth camp. We stopped to pick up some food, thinking the man, now following us, would lose interest and go – which he didn’t. It was probably his job to make sure we left his sphere of influence, so we carried on cycling towards Mawlamyine.
Once we were comfortably out of the village, he motioned in the direction we needed to go, without so much as a goodbye. A mere three minutes later another guy on a motorbike pulled up next to us, asked where we were going and then started to motion to us to follow him, back in the direction we’d just come from. With limited English it appeared he was inviting us into his home, as he thought it was too dangerous to cycle cycling at night.
Once in his home, having shown us where to pitch our tent, where we could shower and having given us longyis, his wife then arrived looking far from impressed. After some stern words with her husband, we were back on the road chasing him on his motorbike further into the village we had left and to another home. The owner, it appeared, was the head of the village and he invited us in, showed us the shower and gave us longyis (again).
A few phone calls later and with a small crowd gathering outside, it appeared that we were not staying there either. But rather than throwing us out, a van arrived into which we bundled with our bikes, headman in the front with the driver. After 15 minutes of driving in the direction of Mawlamyine we stopped at a police checkpoint. Eventually our passports were requested. A lot of chatting later, none of which we were privy to, the van continued, with police escort, on the road to Mawlamyine.
It was there that someone muttered something about militant activity in the area, which explained the police escort and concern for our safety. Having wasted so many people’s time, through our own error of judgement, we concluded it was time to get much more organised with our route planning.
As always with cycle touring, the best bits of Burma are getting off the main roads and just absorbing the world around you. Particularly between the border and Yangon, there are some great temples, caves and local religious sites to visit – so factor in the time to stop and see them.
One of many Buddhist religious sites near Hpa-An
Some of the best bits are the bits off the bike too! Yangon is an intriguing city, so don’t miss exploring it properly. Give yourselves a go at cycling around the city too if you fancy. Bikes in Yangon will appreciate the support! They are working to encourage cycling in Yangon and are organising a big campaign for later in 2017 – follow them on Facebook if you’re interested in hearing more.
Rickshaws in Yangon
There are several social enterprises in Yangon that you can support. For your much needed not ‘3-in-1 Nescafe’ caffeine fix, head to Yangon Bakehouse or Café Genius. Enjoy a meal at the training restaurant Linkage or the more upmarket version, Shwa Sa Bwe. Even if you are not able to purchase ‘things’, go to Hla Day and pick up their fantastic free walking tour maps and their Good Guide – a guide to further social enterprises in the city. Perfect to keep you busy for a couple of days.
From the Thai border to Yangon
From the border there are two roads, both helpfully signposted ‘Kawkereik’. Take the old small road that goes up and over the mountain rather than the busy one that goes around it. Since the new road was completed, the old road is empty of traffic with fantastic views, so a great first (or last!) day in Burma.
Empty road, stupas, military checkpoint (not in use), shady trees
Despite our mishap with our route to Mawlamyine, have a go and finding the small roads, often following canals or irrigation channels. We couldn’t mark them on our map, but avoid the main road and you’ll find a way. They were building parts of the road, but there was a great back road (there is a ferry crossing too). This also means avoiding the main road to Hpa-An and visit the caves and temples on the way.
In Hpa-An head to Veranda Youth Community Café, a social enterprise supporting Karen youth. It is a great spot for a coffee, drink or food.
Veranda Youth Community Cafe
The Golden Rock, a giant rock painted gold perched on the top of another rock, 1000m above sea level is, for all its strangeness, a must see. Do not cycle up. The drivers of the trucks that ferry people up and down the road treat their job as constant race, egged on by the thrill-seeking passengers. It is a steep, steep road with constant traffic.
From Yangon to Bagan
First night out of Yangon, an old port town on the Irrawaddy River, Nyaungdon
The highway is an obvious one to avoid, but rather than taking the road direct to Pyay, it is worth cycling further west, crossing the Irrawaddy and taking the road that goes through Hinthada instead. The road quality is not fantastic (mostly paved), but it is less busy and offers a good alternative to what we have heard is an unpleasant ride to Pyay.
Particularly during March and April, the landscape is dry and barren, so not necessarily the most interesting of rides, but fun all the same!
Sunrise from the road
Not being able to camp is a real issue for many, but it was a blessing in disguise for us. Cycling during the country’s hottest month meant that we needed no excuse not to camp in the sweltering heat.
Roadside watermelons! One way to add a couple of kgs to your load
Cycling during April is, perhaps, not advisable. The answer for us was getting up before the sun rose and finishing our 100km (+) day by lunchtime. This schedule did give us the chance to catch up on admin and spend the afternoon enjoying the towns we were staying in – even if that often meant sitting as close to a fan as possible in a tea shop and demolishing an entire watermelon we’d bought from the side of the road.
Breakfast no. 2: palata and boiled peas (with some samosas thrown in on the side)
Having cycled through south-east Asia before Burma, the food can be a disappointment. All of the freshness of Vietnamese or Thai food is lost to heavy, oily curry dishes or fried dough, especially in outside of bigger towns. But mohinga (fish noodle soup), or palata/chapatti and chickpea/pea mix is a great find for our second breakfast of the day.
Head to our Facebook page or see below for a video of our route through Burma: