Following our backpacking adventure of some 800km from Chiang Mai in Thailand to Yangon in Myanmar we meet up with some family and friends to explore the rest of what Myanmar has to offer. To make the experience more enjoyable for all involved we hired a driver so that we could cycle tour central Myanmar supported, as well as skip some of the long-distance highway riding.
Bike World in Yangon gave us a great recommendation for a driver, who is also a keen cyclist, Than. Than from Flying Swallow Transport is not only a born and bred local but has an extensive knowledge of almost all cyclable areas in Myanmar. He was able to provide us with a 7-seat van, plenty of space to transport 5-6 bikes and was very open to any plans we had for our next 7 days tour. Between Than and our group we had devised a route to travel north from Yangon, through Pyay to Bagan, then east to Kalaw and Inle Lake before making our way back to Yangon past the capital, Naypyitaw.
We were all very eager to leave the insane traffic of Yangon far behind us and were pleased that we didn’t have to cycle out of this chaos. Our first destination was Pyay. Once we had cleared the bustling traffic we unloaded the bikes and cycled through small farming communities on all the back roads into Pyay. It was a great afternoon ride over just over 50km, with absolutely no highway riding, weaving along dirt back roads and farmers lanes. It gave all the whole group a great first impression of this largely untouched local way of living, sharing the tracks with the farmers walking their huge water buffaloes and giving you a window into life on the land.
Pyay itself is an important transit point between the south and the north, and a big centre for trade between the two areas. It has a lively atmosphere with street markets, bars, and large restaurants, all local style with absolutely no western tourists in sight, just how we like it! Immerse yourself in some real-life Burmese culture and visit one of the many tea houses for a wonderful breakfast spread, you will be sure not to leave hungry with broths, rice/bean and egg dishes, fried roti bread with chickpeas, steam buns of every variety and sweet doughnut sticks.
We selected Myat Lodging House which is famous for all the wrong reasons. By far not the nicest place we had stayed in but they do offer the cheapest accommodation in Myanmar at $5 for a bed cell and shared bathroom. We recommend to pay the extra $10 and get a room with a window, not much nicer but at least you get fresh air.
Be sure to head up to the Shwesandaw Paya, the pagodas set on the hilltop in the centre of town. It offers some great views of Pyay and the Ayeyarwady river which hugs the township. Behind the Pagoda weave your way back to town using the many small dirt tracks. Between the temples and the golf course, you’re sure to find some great vantage points for a secluded vantage point of the surrounds.
Bagan was our next stop and one of the major tourist stops on the map here in Myanmar. These dry and barren temple-studded plains are spectacular at every sunrise and sunset. Especially when it’s from the famous hot air balloons which run from October to March. We chose to cycle into Bagan, but the dry and arid conditions make for a really hot and sweaty ride, with hardly any undulation it is not highly recommended.
Like any tourist hub, the biggest pagodas draw the biggest crowds, but with over 5000 pagodas your sure to find more than one off the beaten track. We certainly didn’t want to share a sunrise and sunset with hundreds of other foreigners in this special part of the country. And if you do choose to stick to the quieter pagodas you will most likely get away with not paying the $25 USD fee to enter the pagoda plains. Check out Maps.me for a few pagodas marked off of the main tourist drag.
We ended up staying in New Bagan at Bagan Empress Hotel for $25 USD for a double room, including breakfast. It was by far the best place we stayed in the whole of Myanmar. Great location within walking distance to cafes, restaurants, mini mart, massage and even yoga! The staff here were absolutely divine, they went out of their way to help us with our every need and were just so friendly any time of the day or night, even at 4:30 am when we departed for sunrise!
Given the touristy nature of the place, the quality of restaurants is high. New Bagan seems a little more reasonably priced in all areas but arguably better than old Bagan. A little less crass and old school touristy. One of our favourite eats was New Moon 2 in New Bagan, a vegetarian restaurant serving a wide range of fresh modern Burmese foods and salads, as well as fresh fruit smoothies. A three-course meal and drinks might set you back $10, but will have you rolling out of there with a tummy full of fruit and veggie goodness.
Also in New Bagan is a family run restaurant that makes homemade ice cream! As a premium quality ice cream shop owner I can highly recommend this place, just around the corner from the Bagan Empress hotel, Shwe Our Food Garden. Some of the best ice cream I have had in Asia. And with over a dozen or more flavours to choose from your in for a real treat. My picks were the mango ice cream with huge chunks of fresh mango, coconut ripple ice cream with freshly shredded coconut and even an avocado flavoured ice cream which was surprisingly delicious.
Its quite a drive from Bagan to Kalaw and it involves some serious mountain climbing, and when you reach the township it will have you reaching for your jumper. In the evenings in the dry season, it can get at low as 0, but the milder 20+ degree days make for the perfect place to hike and cycle, with many people visiting this region to hike. There is plenty of accommodation options and a wide variety of restaurants too, even a fancy Italian Restaurant serving up freshly made pasta and wood oven pizzas.
From Kalaw, we cycled the 76km back road route to Inlay Lake and this was a highlight of my riding experiences in Myanmar, and I think everyone else on our journey too. It had a little bit of everything awesome Myanmar has to offer the bikepacker. Riding through busy local marketplaces, quiet country lanes, undulating farmland, muddy jungle single tracks and sweeping downhill gravel roads with views of Inlay lake in the distance.
Inle Lake is another pin on every tourist’s map when visiting Myanmar. It is a unique place where over 20 small villages live on and around this large shallow lake. Living and farming, literally, floating on the lake. Be sure to hire a local boat driver to check it out for yourself. A few hours hire cost around $15-20AUS for the whole boat. There really is so much to see and do around the lake, you could easily spend a few days here.
Accommodation options here are endless so we ended up selecting one that our guide, Than, suggested. The staff were so kind and our host had all the right connections with all the best boat drivers and tour operators. Rooms were $15 AUD for a large comfortable double bed and were clean, air-conditioned, ensuite bathroom and western toilet.
The drive back to Yangon from here is very long! It seems a lot of people chose to head to Mandalay and fly back to Yangon. And this could be a good option if you’re pushed for time. Keep in mind when travelling by car on any roads in Myanmar it’s important to double the time Google maps and Maps.me suggests to more accurately determine travel times. These roads are filled with all sorts of surprises and are often in pretty poor condition.
Just out of Inle the cycling from Pin Laung through the rainforest mountainous roads down to the Lower Paung Laung Reservoir is superb, ascents and descents offer incredible views of whole townships and man-made dams sandwiched between this thick and vigorous jungle-scape. The roads are surprising quiet and are in good condition. There is also a lunch stop at Paung Long, a tea house serving standard Chinese style Burmese food and also a great place to grab a cold beer on the route.
Climbing back in the car to drive into Naypyitaw was the last pit stop before Yangon. Naypyitaw was built in 2007 as the new capital of Myanmar but today is described as the ‘dead city’ as its failure to become accepted at the real capital city. So now this strange and unusual place is home to mansions, acres of government buildings and hotels and a twenty lane highway! Yes, that’s right, twenty lanes!! If you have been cycling the back roads of Myanmar this is quite a spectacle to see such a road. And better yet, you can often even be the only one driving along these runway style roads, with so few people living or working here.
Another top recommendation from Than was the Khaing Khaing Kate Food Centre, which quickly became our favourite restaurant in Myanmar. Located in the outer suburbs of Yangon its the perfect place to grab a bite to eat on your way in/out of Yangon. This one is a locals secret, not even the tourists have discovered. An extremely slick operation, with a buffet style salad and fruit bar, you help yourself too, as well as fresh juice carts, a stir-fry station and local cakes table. Coming in at around $1.50 AUD per person the food was insanely delicious and so fresh. Get Than to take you to this hidden little gem!
Given the limited time, you are given on your travel Visa in Myanmar, hiring a driver to support your cycle touring through some parts of Myanmar is highly recommended. Not only does it allow you to stretch your wings a bit further in this fabulous country but by travelling with a local guide gives you some deeper insight into what life is really like here. Than was extremely easy going and very accommodating to our every request. He seemed to know everything there was to know about Myanmar’s history and current topics of Burmese culture, as well as having some great recommendations for accommodation and dining for any budget. We also had a lot of fun riding with Than too, his passion for cycling is so pure and infectious. Thank you Than!