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View from above, Hpa-an.

Day One
Mae Sot to Kawkareik- 65km, 1144m elevation (Click for Strava ride details)
We left Mae Sot early to beat some of the midday heat, but of course had to stop at an Amazon Cafe (reputable coffee franchise in Thailand) for one last barista made coffee before crossing the border. Having completed all our visas for Myanmar online, made the entire crossing very straightforward. Using the online system at Myanmar Online Visa, was simple to do and the visas arrived within 24 hours.

The border crossing at Myawaddy only required a few stamps in our passports and visa papers and we were through in a matter of minutes. One thing we noticed straight away was the quick transition to now have to ride on the right side of the road, even though all the cars here are still right-hand drive cars. Making for many questionable overtaking situations, particularly with the large buses and trucks. We instantly notice the chaos on the roads and quickly realized that the bigger the vehicle the more power they own on the road. Making us the small fish on this poorly maintained and busy highway we found ourselves on.

After many recommendations and research, we had selected to take the old highway road to Kawkareik which would take us off the well-used main highway for the entire day. However, after only 10-15km down this road we were abruptly stopped by some unofficial military who became quite aggressive given the language barrier and our lack of compliance to give them money and alcohol. It was here we made the decision to turn back and take the main highway to Kawkareik instead.

Unfortunately, this road didn’t provide much relief from danger, but danger in a different form. Not only was it now the middle of the day with clear skies and temperatures exceeding 40 degrees+ but we had over 1100m elevation and speeding transport trucks and buses to contend with. This ride was certainly pushing me to new limits both physically in the heat and intensity of the ride, but also mentally with the near misses both on the busy highway and with our unfortunate run-in with the unofficial armed guards.

Our arrival into Kawkareik was a huge relief, and a continuing eye-opener into this new wild adventure we had found ourselves in touring Myanmar. The town itself was completely void of any other foreigners or even any western influence, not even a word of written English. We did, however, find a registered guest house which was able to accept foreigners called World Smile Guest House. It cost 12000 kyats for a room (approx. $12AUD) which included a shower, flush toilet, bed, and fan. But to our surprise only had access to power from a diesel generator between the hours of 6pm-10pm.

We opted for an early dinner given the room gave us no relief from the heat. We struggled to find anything that appeared to be an eatery but eventually found a teenage girl who had learned some English in school and was able to direct us to a restaurant opposite the marketplace. Using one of the only Burmese words we had learned ‘That-tha-lou’ meaning vegetables, we received two fried vegetable dishes and some steamed rice all costing a little over $2AUD.

Walking back to our guest house later that evening we certainly felt like the shiny new toy in town. Getting a lot of attention from everyone around us, particularly from a group of school kids who were thrilled to have their picture taken, laughing waving and following us down the street. It was a moment of exhilaration and justification that this was going to be an amazing journey to the capital of Myanmar, Yangon.

Kawkareik school kids

Day Two
Kawkareik to Hpa-an- 92km, 589m elevation (Click for Strava ride details)
We hit the road at around 6 am to get as much cycling in before the heat of the day. We decided again to stick to the highway given our intimidating experience the day before with the armed guard. The ‘highway’ was an extremely rough road, dusty and dry with huge potholes and washouts. The road, only wide enough for one car, was extremely nerve-racking when two large semi-trailer trucks are speeding toward you trying to overtake. There was no verge to the road either so it meant rolling along over rough and stony dirt edging, averaging around 13km per hour.

We passed a small truck stop village for some breakfast and found ourselves surrounded by locals in the traditional Myanmar tea house. Slurping up delicious Dahl and flatbread, cooked fresh on the burning hot pan at the shop front over a small fire. Breakfast cost us a whopping $1.20 including endless cups of tea and coffee and freshly fried donuts to finish.

Needless to say, the day’s cycle was a tough one, with close to 9 1/2 hours on the bike on extremely busy roads with very little scenery to enjoy along this flat scrubland. There wasn’t even much farmland here. Along our travels, today we did manage to find a few street sellers to purchase some cut fruit and a new personal favourite I just discovered, was small tofu squares, sandwiched with fried garlic and dressed with fresh lime! Protein filled and delicious!

As we approached Hpa-an the scenery began to change, with large limestone towers (similar to that in Thailand) that rose out of the jungle. The natural jungle setting was pleasant to observe as we peddled into this bustling town. We ended up selecting the Golden Sky Guest House after viewing a number of different options. It was the best of a bad bunch. The standard of accommodation here in Myanmar is much lower than that in Thailand and often double the price. Tonight’s accommodation was a basic double room, with running water and toilet, and fan, costing around $16AUD, and there was no extra charge for the mould growing from the ceiling.

We spotted our first western tourist since arriving in Myanmar, he stood out like a sore thumb amongst the chaos of the dingy streets of Hpa-an. He was eager to find out about our travels on the bikes and came straight over of a chat. He recommended the local night markets for dinner and it was a good recommendation, with a small selection of good quality stalls next to the lake and monetary in the heart of Hpa-an. We each picked different vegetarian dishes. Kyle chose an Indian inspired curry and freshly fried roti, and I picked a large bowl of egg noodles mixed by hand in this rich flavoursome sauce. I would highly recommend a visit to the night markets here is Hpa-an, as it offered a window into life as a local, where the cool kids hang out after dark, with its hipster youthful vibe and funky modern Burmese stalls.

Making giant fairy floss clouds

Day Three
Hpa-an to Thaton – 61km, 396m elevation (Click for Strava ride details)
From Hpa-an the roads changed, we saw the highways widen to a much better constructed two-lane road, even with some sections of ride-able verge, making it a much safer road to ride. This combined with a tailwind saw us speeding along at 25km per hour all morning.

After lunch, the rain set in, and we were now riding in full monsoon conditions. Even still, the good condition of the road meant we were able to make it to Thaton by early afternoon.

We initially struggled to find a guest house that accepted foreigners, so given our ‘hangry’ mood, we decided to enjoy some lunch, in the hope our full bellies might help us make some more logical decisions afterwards. We stumbled across an amazing eatery, a tea house style restaurant with a full vegetarian buffet spread on offer which was located on the southern end of Hospital Road. We were served steamed rice and a dozen or so vegetable dishes, accompanied by a chilli pickled mango which was to die for! The service here was certainly something to mention too. Like so many of the tea houses in Myanmar, they employ young teenage boys as their waiters. All of whome are extremely attentive to the customers. This particular group of staff, approximately 6 young boys all waiting on our table, couldn’t seem to do enough. Running from one end of the restaurant to the other with over a dozen small dishes for us to try. They were right there the second we took the last sip of our tea to refill our cup, there to pull a serviette from the dispenser when we looked at it, and just about carried us to the toilet! It was very sweet but very humorous.

It ended up being a good idea to eat here as they were able to tell us where we could stay for the night and even had one of the waiters personally take us to the hotel by foot. It was certainly the fanciest place we had stayed in for a while, and it did set us back $47AUD per night, which included breakfast. But it was nice to be staying in a spotlessly clean room, lovely bathroom and giant king size bed with crisp white sheets. They also had a very well staffed spa, that offered reasonably priced treatments. So we treated ourselves to an hour foot and leg massage at $5AUD per person. We received two masseuses – one on each leg!

This was one of our favourite little towns, even though it was apparent there were no other western tourists around, the setting was just beautiful. It huge mountain ranges all around, and a large golden Buddha atop the highest peak overlooking the township. At night time the Buddha was lit up, so amongst the drifting clouds, it was a spectacular sight to see and would have made for a great hike to visit it in the early hours of the morning had we had time, unfortunate for us we had a deadline to meet.

Day Four
Thaton to Kayikto – 77km, 600m elevation (Click for Strava ride details)
It was highway riding for the first 40km to Bilan, flat and even a verge to cycle on. Having only had fruit for breakfast, Bilan was decided to be our breakfast/lunch stop as it appeared to be the biggest village we would be passing through this morning. As we coasted into town and it was lucky as we came across the Mandalay soccer team who were touring with their English speaking Belgium coach. He was able to point out the best roadside eatery and then also proceeded to help us order their speciality; a large banana leaf piled with steamed rice and curried onions, then to accompany this was a dozen smaller bowls of various veggie curries, soups, and sauces. This was our second experience into the banquet style eating here in Myanmar and Kyle was in food coma heaven. The entire spread cost us $1.20 AUS including bottomless pots of Chinese traditional tea and filtered water to fill our camelbacks.

From Bilan it was all the back roads from here and they were great fun! With huge stretches of rice paddies, either side of the built-up dirt road gave us sweeping views across the plains. It was only us and the livestock pottering around on the road, bliss…

The afternoon brought with it another monsoonal downpour, this time heavier than the last and most probably the heaviest rain I have experienced whilst riding. It was the kind of rain that soaks you to the bone in seconds and then somehow even begins to go up your nose. Drowning whilst riding my bike! This is new. Haha! We were both saturated and cycling through sloshy sloppy mud, and laughing hysterically all the way into our stop of the night, Kayikto.

Mud will always wash off, but the memories will last a lifetime.

Day Five
Kayikto to Bago – 96km, 552m elevation (Click for Strava ride details)
After our experiences with the busy highways in the days past, we chose again to ride the road less travelled. And, like always it delivered! Weaving through quaint rural villages, passing by schools of waving kids and accompanied by only a few motorbikes, cows and goats on the road making for the perfect way to start this huge day of cycling. The remoteness was pretty apparent and for the most part of the day, sometimes it even felt like we were the first foreigners to cycle these routes. After a midday downpour, we found ourselves, again, sloshing through the muddy dirt tracks all afternoon. This mud was deep but watery, coating everything in a red mud bath.

Somehow the local school kids in their white shirts and dark green ‘longyie’ seem to stay immaculate clean on their bikes despite the deep sections of mud that had us looking like cavemen! These dirt roads, where merely rough tracks, however, for a lot of the local people including the school kids these tracks are their only route to and from school and work, which they would commute along every day. It was very different from the world we had come from; sitting in traffic on a bitumen highway, listening to the latest melodramatic news story whilst cursing the bumper to bumper traffic…

It was our cycle into Bago that really had our eyes wide open. From the rural backroads to what seems like a bustling mini Indian city, here in this ancient city of Bago. Crowded streets, filled with traffic going in every direction in so many lanes and amongst all of this was a lone cow standing in the centre of this chaos, which seemed ironic.

Our new cow friend, Betsey from Bago.

Despite our exceptionally muddy appearance, we were welcomed warmly into the San Francisco Guest House, one of the only guest houses we could find that excepted westerners and that didn’t involve us getting bowled over crossing the lanes of crazy traffic. The staff kindly helped us wash our bikes, shoes, and legs of all the mud from the day and made us comfortable in our room. The room, however, resembled that of a matchbox, windowless and just large enough to fit the double bed. The only benefit was that we were sandwiched so deep in the building that the honking and hooting from the traffic outside were barely audible.

The shared wet room was another experience again. We decided to shower together with the Mandy shower so that we could kill two birds with one stone and wash our clothes as well. Kyle put his clothes in the large concrete tub to soak but quickly discovered that his shirt had sunk to the bottom of the tub. When he wasn’t able to reach it with his arm, he jumped into the tub to retrieve his shirt. Much to his surprise, the depth of the tub was far greater than he had expected.  Even with the whole length of his body fully extended he couldn’t touch the bottom. He even took a deep breath and bobbed down under the surface of the water and still couldn’t touch the bottom. We can only assume this must have been a well of some sort. The deep dark boogie monster at the bottom of this tub had just found himself a new shirt!

We dined at a local teahouse filled with smoking men, not usually my idea of a dinner hangout but filled with the atmosphere of what the nightlife here in Bago had to offer. The food was simple but satisfying. The time we spent in this town seemed like it was a very challenging place to live. Everything seemed to live in a state of struggle, the people, the kids and definitely the animals; with so many badly emaciated or injured dogs, cats, cows and chickens. Even the poor gecko I discovered on the door frame of the toilet later that night has endured struggle, having its head sliced off between the door frame door edge from the last person who had used the toilet. Live here was tough.

Day Six
Bago to Yangon – 91km (Click for Strava ride details)
We were eager to get out of this crazy town of Bago, so we awoke early and escaped before breakfast but unfortunately, we didn’t beat the traffic. However, once we made it to the turnoff onto the backroad along the canal we quickly found ourselves leaving the honking horns and bustling cityscape behind. The road then quickly turned from cement to dirt tracks, and it wasn’t long before we were carrying our bikes across old and rickety derelict train bridge. Back on the road less travelled!

Crossing a train bridge Bikepacking Myanmar

After a few wrong turns the track began to fade even further. We were now trudging through the deep clay-like mud on a single track through the farmland and rice paddies. Given my shoes were still wet from the day before I had chosen to wear thongs (or flip flops as some would say). I figured all the locals did it so why not! And I was pleased I did, as it made it a hell of a lot easier to wade through this mud and not worry about burying my runners in the sludge. After a few blowouts with my thongs, I ended up going barefoot, which made it easier to carry the bike with slightly more stable footing. Ironically three amicable pigs joined us on this section of the trail and they were having a ball of a time, squelching around in the mud and squealing with joy. Who would have thought, this Monday I would be carrying my bike through the mud with three pigs!

Three pigs in mud bikepacking Myanmar

It was slow going, it took us 2 1/2 hours to travel 22km but what an adventure! I was almost in joyous tears when we reached a small community on the river’s edge. Especially when the entire school raced to the windows of the classrooms and hung out of the windows to wave and shout to us as we cycled past. It was one of those rare moments that time moves slowly and you are able to fully appreciate the sheer joy expressed by others and become absorbed by it. These are the moments I treasure when we travel.

We stopped at a roadside stall to eat a few bananas. We were seriously regretting not having eaten breakfast this morning. After some basic communication and reviewing of the map, we decided the backroad to Yangon would be in the same muddy condition making it impossible to get to their by nightfall, as we still had close to 80km to go on these backroads. To cycle the remaining 30-40km along the highway into Yangon was also not recommended by many of the people we had spoken to, to plan our initial route, as the roads become even more hectic and dangerous to cycle. I had felt like we had pushed our luck enough on the highway cycling we had already done here in Myanmar, and now our luck had run out. Our new plan was to cross the river and head for the main highway to catch a lift for the last 30-40km into town via the highway.

Our mapping system, Maps.me, indicted a crossing of the river at the edge of this community and all the locals motioned us the same way. But on arrival to what we thought was meant to be a bridge, turned out to be a muddy bank with no bridge in sight! We turned around and again found our mates at the local roadside stall who lead us back to the river and indicated that a boat will take us across. And just like magic, a small wooden raft appeared filled with smiling faces. We helped the young boat boys pile our bikes onto the raft and then climbed aboard with a few other locals and a screaming pig. We floated across the river with the current to the other side in a matter of minutes and it was now just an easy gravel road to the highway. The highway led us to a larger town, where we had a proper meal and found a local car wash to hose ourselves and our bikes down.

Crossing a river by boat Bikepacking Myanmar

Catching a lift was the easiest part. Flagging down a local bus in just a few minutes and piling our bikes into the front few seats, a ticket to Yangon was just 50cents AUD per seat. Given our bikes took up a few extra seats we had to pay around $5AUD but we knew we had the made the right choice. As we approached Yangon wrecked cars and trucks lined the road from recent accidents on the roads. The traffic built up steadily, as we entered into the outskirts of town. The bus dropped us on the north side of town which meant we only had to cycle 15km or so to our Warm Showers host, Uta. We had been in contact with Uta weeks before our trip. She had assisted us with travel routes and tips for cycling in this crazy place. She had been a wealth of information as she has been living and working here in Myanmar for over 15 years, and had certainly seen some changes in the country during this time.

It felt like a dream to be cycling into the driveway of this spectacular three-story house, to have a warm shower, to wash our clothes in the washing machine and lie on a huge soft bed. We had made it, we cycled the wild east of Myanmar!

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