On the road to Mandalay, Where the flyin’ fishes play…. (Burma)

Rudyard Kipling, despite being famed for his exceedingly good cakes, had only briefly been to Burma when he penned the verse above in his poem Mandalay, having only moored briefly at Rangoon on his way to Japan he could not possibly have visited the City that he refers to so lovingly.

However, while we’re referencing authors, and are pretending to have done proper research, it is perhaps worth noting that George Orwell had spent a good deal of time there, so much so that he was even fluent in the local dialect. Tempting though it is for a lazy blogger, it is not our place to bore you all with a thorough and depressing comparison between 1984 and the current regime… So how about we just get on with telling you what we got up to instead….

Day 303 – Friday, February 21st 2014

Still not quite believing that we’d made it into the country after so long trying, we woke up on the football field in Tamu excited at a new country to explore, and relieved that the alternative (container shipping) should hopefully be avoided for our entire journey back to Europe.

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We couldn’t rest on our laurels too long – we still only had 2 weeks to get ourselves across Burma down to the border with Thailand. It’s a pretty big place and we’d not heard good things about the road quality. Today we had to get straight on the road, and get ourselves down to the town of Kaley.

It was a beautiful sunny day as we cruised along, through the surprisingly Christian area – the missionaries had obviously spent quite some time here, and they’d managed to make a lasting impression in this region of the most devout Buddhist country on the planet. Everyone was in good spirits, with all the locals waving as the peculiar convoy full of yet stranger looking occupants made it’s way south. Sometimes even a whole schools worth of youngsters would appear at the fence, waving through it. It really was quite the welcome. The transformation from India had been dramatic, the people, the food, and the plain lack of overcrowding, it felt like the gateway to south east Asia far more than an extension of India.

Actually, the wavey people of Burma were so enthusiastic that they deserve a gallery all of their own, and bear in mind these were only the ones that we managed to catch on the camera….

We pulled over on route to buy some fresh sugar cane and sweet corn from roadside vendors, and we made it to the town in time for lunch. We had a couple of errands to run – exchanging some crisp, uncreased dollar bills for Burmese kyat, and looking for a bolt for Ivor’s exhaust. We’d made it to the bank too late to change the cash, but a worker lead us to another that was still open for business. As for the bolt, a guy in an auto shop gave it to us free of charge, as a gift to accompany the windscreen washing fluid we’d bought. Easy Peasy. That night we shared a kind of thali of local dishes with some of the other travellers, it ended up costing about a dollar a head.

Day 304 – Saturday, February 22nd 2014

With perhaps the longest day of the entire Burma tour ahead of us, we were up and on the road by 6:00am. It was still dark even. With restrictions on our route imposed by the government we were not permitted to use the main road to Monywa, so we were forced instead to used another that was, for much of its length, still under construction.

Sunrise from the passengers seat

Sunrise from the passengers seat

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Though not a finished road, it was at least smooth for the most part, and progress was reasonable as long as we could avoid the dust trail from any big trucks or buses. We did have one unscheduled pit-stop; while heaving the exhaust pipe around to clamp it in the correct place (with the new bolt from yesterday) had put some extra strain on it, a crack appeared on the down-pipe just inside the engine bay. We were getting more accustomed to such fine tuning on the fly, and with the aid of a can of pineapple rings, two jubilee clips, and a tube of exhaust gasket compound, we were back on the road in under half an hour without the extra whistle coming from under the hood.

The real set back to the day would come a little later on in the afternoon, when we were diverted from the main road ( / construction site) down a narrow track. A truck driver coming in the opposite direction had timed running out of fuel to perfection, in that they blocked just about the only part of the whole day’s route where no one would be able to pass. Not only that, but in disappearing from the scene in search of diesel, they’d taken the keys, so none of us could tow them out of the way, or donate fuel to get them moving. Eventually the guy returned and we were able to shuffle past one another so that we could pick our way along the track again.

We could only have made it a few hundred meters before another, more significant, hurdle stood in our path. During all of the messing around with the diesel-less truck earlier, a low loader had managed to manoeuvre themselves so that the front truck section hung  half off one side of the track, and it’s trailer hung half off the other, rendering it totally immobile. It was something that would require either earth moving equipment, or a much bigger machine to drag it clear – something that might take days to arrive.

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There was nothing else for it but to find another way around. So that we did, picking our way through the rocky construction site which we had previously been diverted around. The workers were good enough to clear a path that we could just about drive through, and we were back on our way once more – though we had lost nearly 3 hours to the set back.

In amongst all of this mess, one of the Toyotas in the group had been having problems of their own – their clutch plates had now worn so low that they could barely move the car at all, and they would soon need to be towed to get it fixed. In this situation – with a broken car, a schedule and exit date fixed by the government, with no idea if parts could be sourced in this developing country many would find themselves cursing – But Gisela, co-owner of the stricken Land Cruiser simply said “We’ll laugh about this one day, so we might was well just start laughing now” – A nice little line, demonstrating a truly positive outlook on a situation.

We crawled into town and hour or so past sunset, and polished off a substantial meal from the restaurant in the hotel where we were all parked up, along with a few Myanmar beers while having a group debrief of the day.

Day 305 – Sunday, February 23rd 2014

The saga of Ivor’s passenger side rear brake had developed yet further from the issues we’d spotted back in NE India. After heavy use, in the hills for instance, the brake would get far hotter than it should, and therefore much more prone to locking than any of the other wheels. When we took the drum off to investigate, we found a trace of fluid from around the cylinder – now whether the leak had caused it to pump up and over heat, or the overheating had damaged the seal was not yet clear – but the need for new parts at least was obvious. For now we would just have to roll on, and investigate getting some new parts shipped to us as soon as possible. The road to Mandalay was an easy one, short, flat, and in good condition. It was another stipulation of the government that we would only enter the major towns as a closely packed convoy, so that we could have a police escort with us to make sure we would not get up to any mischief.

So we all met up at the big bridge prior to the city, the police bikes arrived and off we went. It couldn’t have been too important that we all stuck together since the policemen wasted no time in losing the group – weaving through traffic at a rate that was impossible for the big trucks in the group to compete with.

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We camped on a dusty football field, not far from the old town.

On investigating the local shops, we somehow found ourselves in a bar, as sometimes happens. The way the locals would summon a server we first took to be wildly sexist – until we noticed they were doing it to the waiters as well as the waitresses – the technique involves making a loud smooching noise with pursed lips. Most amusing to the western onlooker.

Some visitors came to the campsite that evening, to check out the strange collection of vehicles, and to practice their English – one of their friends had posted something about us on Facebook. One lad spoke quite well, and gave us his number just in case we needed anything in town and he could lend a hand. Everyone had been so extremely helpful and generous, to this point we had not made a single transaction without getting something thrown in for free – whether water bottles at the fuel stations, or extra fruit from the roadside vendors, everyone seemed keen on giving us the best welcome that they could.

Day 306 – Monday, February 24th 2014

We pottered around the campsite and the local area for most of the day, but by mid-afternoon it had cooled down a little so we rounded up a group of other folk and commandeered a taxi to make a tour of some of the cities sights.

First on the list was a golden Buddha, where believers have added so many tiny squares of gold leaf to the idol, that over the years the form has visibly morphed. The image is tended by monks constantly, and is set within a beautiful group of temples.

Next stop for us was a market, supposedly famous for antiquities from the area. On arrival, we found that section of the market we’d come to see was only open during the morning. An error on the face of it, but not wanting to get a little thing like schedule get in the way of a good time we headed out into the food stalls surrounding it – and possibly had a much better time because of it. Mixing with the locals has got to be more fun than looking at a bunch of unlabelled old things that none of us could afford to buy surely? We tried a few local treats, ladies put flowers in the girls’ hair, and we all went back to the campsite with some good looking fresh fruit and veg.

As we’d headed out to find some supplies, an old man seemed particularly excited to see us – particularly when Vaughan said that he was English. The man spoke just a few words of our language, but just enough to convey that he’d been a captain back in WW2, had served with the British, and had received an award for his services – with much shaking of hands we parted company and returned to the campground.

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While cooking some dinner, on a camping stove outside so as not to heat the living area of Ivor too much just before bed, we received yet more visitors. A man had brought all of his children to come and see the new spectacle in town since they’d read about us in the paper. They chatted with us for maybe 20 minutes, and then carried on around to meet some of the other travellers. The French couple next to us showed them around their caravan, so in return they were invited back to the family home. A little while later the family appeared once more, this time with gifts to wish us well; a small purse, a wallet, and a book of stories that the children had written and had been printed in English.

Day 307 – Tuesday, February 25th 2014

Keen to catch the sunrise from a temple that was perched up on a hill overlooking the City, we were pedalling our bikes out through the streets of Mandalay by 5:50 that morning, and before long we were starting the lung-busting climb. We spent quite some time enjoying the tranquillity of the area, and taking some photos as the morning sun cast a soft amber light over the temple.

Just as we were coming down, and putting shoes back on after our bare-foot temple visit, Vaughan spotted some more serious mountain bikers that had just made the climb up. With their protective gear, and full face helmets it was clear that they knew a more interesting way down than the road we had cycled up. Not being able to ignore this kind of opportunity, Vaughan asked if he could join them and Kim opted for the safer route back to the city below. Vaughan was quite lucky to come across guides to downhill mountain bike trails in a developing country such as Burma, and even luckier that one of them was the national champion of the sport. Of the other two riders, one was a local, and the other was an American guy who’d had the same good fortune just walking into a bike shop, and they’d even lent him the bike as well.

Once we got to the bottom, we were asked to join them for breakfast – which the team manager, and owner of the local bike shop, insisted on paying for.

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With all this fun our sunrise trip had been extended somewhat, but we still had to make it to Bagan today, and there some sightseeing to do on the way.

The Mandalay old city walls, just enough time for a snap as we headed out of town

The Mandalay old city walls, just enough time for a snap as we headed out of town

We were the last to leave the campground and, after stopping to tighten a squealing alternator belt, made our way to a spot just outside of the city that boasted the longest teak bridge in the world.

It’s a pedestrian bridge spanning a lake just outside Mandalay. It is still to this day all made of the natural hardwood. We accidentally evaded the fee, due to a lack of ticket collectors, and took a quick walk on the famous bridge. We bought some refreshing watermelon from an enterprising old lady who’d set up shop with an ice box up there – while fumbling through the transaction Vaughan managed to drop some kyat down through the bridge floor boards to the ground below. We’d already accepted the cash as lost, but before we could even have a sulk about it, the lady had lowered a bucket on a string and shouted a passerby, so we had our money back in no time. Even though we were running late, we still stopped for a drink (and some free coconut) before getting on the road again.

With a stretch on the highway, and then some flat straight country side cruising the drive to Bagan was an easy one. We met up with Ben, an English biker with his trusty(ish) Royal Enfield, on the road and drove the last of the journey together in town.

The hotel the Joern had found for us to park up at was stunning, and with beautiful gardens overlooking the Irrawaddy river, as luck would have it we’d arrived in time to watch the sunset from the bar area.

For dinner we ate some ‘special‘ fried rice left-overs from a batch we’d made in Mandalay. They were somehow a LOT less appetising than they had been the day before, and we felt pretty bad that we’d offered some to Ben as well.  We hung out outside Ivor and polished off a few bottles of Myamar with the others.

Day 308 – Wednesday, February 26th 2014

With a slow start we headed off on our bicycles to check out a choice selection of the some 3000 temples that populate the flatlands surrounding Bagan. First stop was the only Hindu one, built to keep travellers from India content. Then followed a string of other temples, all impressive on their own – but the thing that makes the area so unique is the sheer quantity of them – and that is something best appreciated from up high, if possible. There are a few that you can climb to gain a better vantage point, but at the first of these that we came across we accidentally climbed up the wrong side. Not for any reasons of religious etiquette, but because the most southerly face is subjected to the full force of the sun, and because it is customary to scale these monuments in bare feet. It was only once we’d ‘summited’ that we realised the magnitude of our error – since it is far faster to climb the precarious steps than it is to descend them. We took a deep breath, and plucked up the courage to make it back to down to our bikes wincing at every step but having learned a valuable lesson.

Before long we arrived at Ananda Pagoda, one of the biggies. There was a fair amount of commotion, people rushing about trying to make everything ‘just right’, a brand new red carpet rolled out along the entrance way, and a lot of super sharp looking personnel from the military and the police hanging about. Resisting the temptation to bow courteously and claim the whole set up was laid on in our benefit, we sidled into the temple after first checking that it was still okay.

After taking a few photos, and absorbing the ambiance, a little a hush descended over the area we were in and a bustle could clearly be noted coming from the entrance way. “The President is coming”, one of the stewards informed us, and we were allowed to stay.

The man himself, backed by his entourage, passed us by and stopped to say “Hello”, and to ask Kim where she was from before heading in to pay his respects to the large Buddha image. We lacked the time in passing to bring up the illegitimacy of the recent elections, the widespread oppression of the Burmese people, or indeed the ever popular National League for Democracy’s legitimate claim to power – but despite these obvious pitfalls in the man’s history, he was polite to us at least.

After treating ourselves to a nice meal we retreated back to the sanctuary of Ivor to avoid the worst of the midday sun. Vaughan was also feeling a few of the after effects of last night’s beers so needed to sleep them off a little. Fully rested we set out again on the bikes to bag a few more temples before heading to another climable biggy in time for sunset. We met a couple of the others on route, the Espaliano’s (and Italian / Spanish couple), who came with us to catch the last of the day’s rays. Phya-Tha-Da pagoda was heaving with tourists, but beautiful nonetheless.

We cycled back through the dusk, snacked back at the truck, and fought a courageous battle against the terribly slow internet to get a parts order placed for our troublesome brakes.

Day 309 – Thursday, February 27th 2014

A painfully early start was rewarded with a relatively quiet sun rise from another tall temple before we got on the road for the day.

Stopping at a little roadside eatery we took a local breakfast of noodles, savoury doughnut type things (which are torn up and dunked, as we learned at our breakfast with the bikers in Mandalay), samosas, and two coffees – our nod to a western start to the day.

 

The journey to Inle Lake passed without too much excitement, but as we neared our destination we stopped for lunch and Joern, the guy who organised the trip, joined us and paid for it all – very kind of him, but perhaps we should have ordered more?

Just as we were coming up to the town where we would stop for the night, some panic braking when yet another scooter veered out in front of us caused that back wheel to lock up again. At the campsite we gave it all another good looking over – some of the other guys came over to help hypothesise over the cause, but still nothing was obvious. One possibility was that the shoes had not worn in parallel and were jamming, another was that in the overheating it had suffered in Laos the springs had become permanently deformed and softened, or could there just be some air in the system?

The cause could have been any, or indeed all of the above, but to be on the safe side Vaughan disconnected the brake bias valve and fixed it in place so that as much of the braking force as possible would be transferred to the front. We dined on left-overs and spent the evening looking at the various truck manuals and parts catalogues trying to figure out what was the matter.

Day 310 – Friday, February 28th 2014

We dragged our heels a little in the morning, not keen on looking at the brakes yet again, but it had to be done just to eliminate a few other potential causes. A few young boys had come over, mainly just to play, but one lad in particular was paying very close attention to what Vaughan was doing – and he became quite useful passing the odd tools in as V lay underneath the truck – or spinning the wheels to check the brake shoes were clearing the drum.

With the worst of the truck work behind us, we enjoyed an apero with one of the French couples from Brittany who made it all this way in just a standard caravan. We think they’d caught a boat around Pakistan, but still, they must have dealt with some awful roads in India! Again taking out our bikes, we went to see the famous lake. We cycled part way down the east side, and after a brief pause for a pineapple milkshake, caught a longtail boat across the lake, and pedalled back up the west side.

On getting back we met up with some of the bikers and took a trip to a restaurant for curried fish, some sweet and sour pork, and pancakes for desert. Then it was back to the campsite for a good ole campfire and a few Myanmar.

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Day 311 – Saturday, March 1st 2014

With only 220km of good roads to cover before getting to the newly built capital of Nay Pyi Taw, we could afford a bit of a lie in. The journey was pleasant enough, and regular checks of the rear brakes showed that they were not getting overly hot.

 

These dudes, clearly too kool for skool

These dudes, clearly too kool for skool

We stopped a few times to fill up our water tanks, fill up our bellies (with veggie pakoras), and to fill up our fridge (with a strangely pale water melon). On arrival to the ghost town capital we found the hotel parking lot that would be home for the night, and were greeted with a ‘welcome drink’ of hideous fruit based sugar concoction. There was a supermarket nearby that may well have been the highlight of the whole day – with a fair share of ex-pats in town filling jobs in the various embassies and official buildings it was well stocked with western delights – enough to make some of the travellers’ eyes water, let alone their mouths. We could not resist stuffing our basket with nearly 40 USD worth of goodies, and we dined on steak that night. It was quite the treat.

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Nay Pyi Taw; Strange City, but pretty roundabouts

 

Day 312 – Sunday, March 2nd 2014

Proper Corn Flakes for Breakfast, imagine that!

Proper Corn Flakes for Breakfast, imagine that!

Kevin and Kitty, a Belgian couple riding round on a Honda motorcycle had quite a difficult start to the day as their steed was refusing to run. V spent a while trying to get them going, but to no avail…. until the painful moment that they realised they had been using a different key to normal – and that their normal one contained an all important immobiliser chip. Very quickly after this realisation, the bike was back together and we could get back to the journey through Burma.

Now seems as good a time as any to clear up this ambiguity about the name of the country…. Sometime after the British renounced control of the country, it was still in a state of disarray – about 40 years ago the military took advantage of this, and seized control, and they’ve been running (/ruining) it pretty much ever since. 10 years ago, they decided to change the name of the country to Myanmar. “So why do you still keep calling it Burma?” you might well ask.

Well, several other countries have refused to acknowledge the change in name, since to do that would be also to acknowledge the control of the Military – which they believe is unjust. Also, after discussing with some locals, who spoke surprisingly openly about their feelings towards those governing them, they do not like the new country name or the new flag. This is good enough for us, so Burma it is (except for the beer, which has Myanmar emblazoned down the side of the bottle, so for the sake of common sense we’ll refer to the beer by the new name).

While we’re in the business of adding disjointed information, how about a gallery of all the weird and wonderful contraption patrolling the Burmese road network?

 

We’d decided as a group to by-pass Yangon (Rangoon, as it was), since we were running out of time for the tour, and the day we’d spent waiting around for the Indian border to open had left us with a day to make up in the schedule. To make matters more complicated, the last stretch of road towards the Thai border was meant to be in very bad condition and alternated which direction the flow of traffic could drive in every other day – this restricted us yet further meaning that we had to arrive at the border the day before our tour was due to end. Never simple is it?! All this business meant we were headed straight to Kinpun. We arrived early in the afternoon and pottered around for the rest of the day before the sequence of restaurant, campsite, Myanmar was repeated.

Day 313 – Monday, March 3rd 2014

The thing to see in Kinpun (or Kyaikhto, as the region is commonly known), and the reason we were there, is a big rock. Not very exciting on the face of it, but you have to consider that this rock in particular is billed as both ‘gravity defying’ and ‘covered in gold leaf’. A bit more intriguing now, surely?

Well  maybe not, but either way, this rock is the number one domestic tourist destination in the country, and the manner in which it’s perched overlooking the valley is cloaked in folklore and religious significance. So much so in fact, that the visitors have taken it upon themselves to paste squares of gold leaf all over the thing. One thing that is undeniably exciting is the cattle truck ride up to it – packed in a way that even sardines would think of as cramped, the road was a veritable roller coaster spiralling up the hillside – the comparison with which even extends to the cheering from passengers as it swoops through the bends. It became clear at this instant why earlier on that day, we had been turned back when we had attempted to cycle up the road. “It’s too dangerous” they’d said, and we’d gone away muttering to ourselves, grumbling that they just wanted to sell us a bus ticket. On reflection, they were absolutely right.

 

We walked around the rock complex, and found that the appeal for the tourist, at least for the western non-Buddhist ones, lies more in the people watching than the rock watching; witnessing the prayers, the offerings, and the Monks going about their religious duties.

It was another easy drive, this time of only 150km on good roads, to get to the town of HPa-An, where we would stay the night. We made sure that we got there with enough time to get some bits made up for the truck, the rubber mounts for holding the back body to the chassis had again suffered from the abuse of India’s highways, so we wanted to get some tougher rings made up from old tyres to put in their place.

Our miming and pictures were just good enough to show people at the tyre stores what we wanted, but unfortunately their’s was just good enough to tell us that they couldn’t achieve it.  We got lucky with one guy who spoke good English, and gave us directions to a shop that he said could help us – but when we couldn’t find it, he agreed to come with us to help. He arranged for the parts to be made, negotiated a good price, and showed around the local market while they were being hacked out of old tyre (by hand, with viciously sharp blade and sharpened pipe used to punch the hole out).

We got back to the campground at dusk and, with a warning about snakes in the grass after dark, decided that fitting the parts could wait until the morning.

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While the parts were being made we were treated to another sunset over the river

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Day 314 – Tuesday, March 4th 2014

This was the last time that we would all have stayed in the same place so, although it may be a little late for introductions, here are all the people that we traveled with:

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It was another early start today, this time to adorn Ivor with his new mounting hardware before the bad mountainous road towards the Thai border. It all went without a hitch, and the tyre offcuts seemed sturdier and tougher than the rubbers they replaced.

The road was chaotic to start with, but once we had reached the one-way section it was much easier. Although there were still aggressive truck drivers and incompetent car drivers to contend with, they were at least going in the same direction.

We arrived at the Myawaddy hotel parking at around 3pm to find a fair number of the travellers already there, and that a few had pushed on through the border in Thailand. We shared a meal with those that remained, and finished the evening with a couple of last Myanmar on the hotel roof.

Day 315 – Wednesday, March 5th 2014

This border crossing certainly lacked the excitement of the one entering the country – Thailand was a known quantity, we’d already dealt with an overland border into the country last year, and further more – travelling with the group had been fantastic, it was a little sad that we would now be heading off along different paths into south east Asia.

Having pumped the last of our kyat into our diesel tank, we made our way to the border posts and along the various windows to get paperwork for ourselves and Ivor in order, and after that we headed to a hotel on the Thai side where Joern had said you could use the swimming pool for a small fee. We relaxed there for the afternoon, and went out for a nice dinner that night with all the group members that were still in the area, and everyone seemed reluctant to part at the end of the evening.

But there we have it, cliché as it is to say – at the end of every chapter, the next lies in wait. For Burma it did really feel like that, it was another obstacle overcome, and another step further through the adventure. We’d made it back to SE asia from the adventures of India and Nepal, and although we were yet to spend time in Cambodia, or to properly explore Laos, the border crossing deadline into China would always be in our minds – and that route back north could only mean one thing: our journey back to Europe was fast approaching.

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