Wow, wow, wow!!! I’m not quite sure how to best express today’s experience, so I think I will just start describing what happened in a straight forward way. I woke up just as it was getting light and prepared my bike. After breakfasting at a friend’s house down the road, Nonglak and I cycled to Friendship Bridge, which connects Thailand and Myanmar. We said our goodbyes, then I turned my attention to the border. Getting out of Thailand was an ordeal, given the fact that my Thai visa was in my old passport while my Myanmar visa was in the new passport I got in Bangkok. Any active visa in my old passport remains valid, so Thai immigration only had to give me a stamp in my old passport and send me on my way. Myanmar immigration would then give me a stamp in my new one. Unfortunately, Thai immigration couldn’t understand why I had two passports. I was summoned to the boss’s office where I had to wait for an hour while he did god knows what. It looked like he was reading regulations and calling people for advice. In the end he transferred my Thai visa into my new passport and then gave me the exit stamp I needed.
Halfway across the bridge I became confused by the lanes before realisinf that Myanmar drives on the right hand side of the road. My progress through Myanmar immigration was easy and swift. I parked my bike and entered a little office where two guys were more interested in the movie on the little TV in the corner than dealing with me. I filled out an arrival form and handed it over. They flicked through my passport, stamped me in and turned their gaze back to the TV. I spent a few minutes chatting to the border police outside to learn key words and phrases, like ‘food’ snd ‘water’ and ‘where can I find a toilet?’. I rode straight through Myawaddy, only stopping to withdraw cash from an ATM. Some way down the road I was called into a customs control area. An officer checked my passport and waved me on. I wasn’t sure if I was meant to stop elsewhere, but no one seemed to take any notice of me so I just kept on riding and left the compound. I was stopped at several police checkpoints on my way into the hill climb that takes you out of Myawaddy. One group of police told me I had to take the ‘new road’ that is replacing an alternative, maybe more scenic route. After a couple of kilometres into the climb I stopped at a roadside kiosk for a drink. This was when I let myself breath more easily and really start to reflect on the fact that I had passed smoothly into a new country.
Riding over the hill was easier than I anticipated. I had a few rests of just a couple of minutes each to give myself energy for the next bit of steep climb. The views through the surrounding hills were beautiful. Suddenly I reached the top and was able to enjoy some nice downhill runs onto the flat. The flat was picturesque with expansive rice fields leading to distant hills. I rode on until I reached an intersection with roads to Krawkriek and Hpa-an. I stopped to eat something at a roadside stall and ended up being served a plate of spaghetti in a delicious sauce. This was my first real chance to mingle with locals. Up until here I had enjoyed saying mengalaba and receiving hellos and smiles from almost everyone I passed. Here, I sat with a group of men (after they had given my bike a thorough inspection) and answered the questions they could ask in English. I didn’t linger too long though.
The rain hit in the early afternoon and I took cover under a tree. The climate already feels dramatically different from where I have just been in Thailand. It must have something to do with the hills. Myanmar is still experiencing daily rain from lingering monsoons. I had been huddling under the tree for about 15 minutes when a guy approached with a sheet of plastic and gave it to me, indicating I could use it to protect myself from the rain. He also gestured down a road and I got the message that there was some shelter available. I rode there quickly and found the man sitting under the plastic roof of a roadside café. The man was a truck driver on his way to Yangon with a load of stuff from Myawaddy. He bought me a hot tea and we chatted as much as his limited English allowed. The rain eased after about 40 minutes and I hit the road again, wearing my waterproof jacket.
The road immediately became much rougher. It was still bituminised, but narrow and very bumpy. I passed rubber tree plantations and scrappy looking vegetation. I began to assess the land for camping possibilities to gauge how easy it might be to find a hidden spot to camp for the night. Eventually, I reached the town of Kyondae and it was here that I decided to leave the main road and venture into more uncharted territory. I had noticed on my phone’s mapping app (Maps.me) a road leading to the edge of the Haungthayaw River. I thought there must be a way to cross the river and head southwest through rural areas, rather than northwest along the main road. At the river’s edge, I boarded a giant raft (a wooden platform with a little motor attached), joining a bunch of schoolkids and old ladies. On the other side I got moving immediately in case someone asked me what I was doing in the area, worried that I’d be told I shouldn’t be there as there is no ‘official’ accommodation around (technically you are only allowed to stay in government-registered hotels while in Myanmar). Immediately, life changed.
I rode along a raised concrete road, on either side of which were swampy rice fields stretching to the horizon. Houses on stilts lined the road. It was stunning. My pace slowed as I enjoyed taking it all in. Everyone was all smiles, especially when I greeted them with mengalaba. I got lost a few times in the maze of tracks but was always pointed in the right direction (towards Mawlamyine) by friendly people. I crossed small bridges and photographed kids jumping off one. It was soon after 5pm and I was forced to face the challenge of finding a place to sleep. In one little village I passed a temple and decided to see what kind of reception would be offered if I asked to use the toilet. I opened the gate and walked in, finding an old monk raking leaves.
It turned out the word I thought was toilet wasn’t, so the monk had no idea what I was saying. I thought, ‘Screw it, I’ll just ask if I can stay the night’. I learned in Thailand that monks are unlikely to give an immediate answer, instead preferring to chat for a while so they understand a bit more about you first. After gesturing my wish to slerp at the temple, the monk spoke to me for a few minutes in a friendly tone, although I had absolutely no idea what he was saying. He slowly wandered around the corner of a building and I followed. He approached another monk and started talking to him. The new monk knew some English and asked me the first thing monks always ask: ‘Only one?’ which either means only one person or only one night. Either way I can say yes. By this time some locals had gathered and one young guy called Saw Dine spoke quite good English, having learned the language while working in Malaysia. He became my translator and then my new best friend. He spoke with the monks and told me I was welcome to stay. I brought my bike inside in the temple grounds.
Saw Dine asked if I wanted a wash. I definitely did. After telling me to wait a moment, Saw Dine disappeared, then returned with a bucket of washing stuff (shampoo, soap, pouf, toothbrush) and a longyi (the traditional ‘skirt’ all the guys wear). I followed him to a well, into which he lowered a bucket and collected some water. I undressed and donned the longyi, then proceeded to wash. Once clean, we returned to my bike and unloaded my bags into one of the temple buildings – a tiled indoor area used as a gathering place and for prayers. Saw Dine had already set up a bed inside – a thin mat on the floor under a mosquito net contraption that is like those covers you place over food.
Saw Dine and I then went for a walk through the village so that I could be introduced to the ‘Village Chairperson’, who had the ultimate say about whether or not I was allowed to stay. The village boss was a friendly guy and had no problems. Saw Dine then treated me to Myanmar cuisine at a village restaurant (a porch out the front of his Aunty’s house). As is the traditional style, we each took a bowl of rice, but shared various bowls of other stuff: pork, chicken, fish, bamboo with sour leaf, chicken soup. He asked if I wanted a spoon and fork but I declined as I had learned in Indonesia that food tastes better when you eat with your hands and this was the normal way here too. After dinner we walked to a nearby bridge under construction which will provide greater access to the village. I learned that just a few weeks ago the entire place as flooded and no one could get in or out.
Saw Dine then invited me to his home which is very near the temple. I joined him and his family (two brothers, two sisters, mother and various cousins) on the ground floor where everyone was lounging and watching a Thai movie. I was treated to a traditional tea and a mango fruit leather snack. Saw Dine’s two brothers also work in Malaysia as there are no jobs in the village. They are home for one month and will return to Malaysia for the next three to four years. One of Saw Dine’s sisters is at university in Hpa-an, while the other is a school teacher in the village (as was their mother). Their father who was in his 70s, passed away just a few weeks earlier. I sat with the family and chatted with the two brothers, who translated questions being asked by everyone else. And just generally relaxed with everyone watching the Thai comedy.
Eventually, I was invited upstairs for photos. The floor was covered in straw mats ready for when everyone goes to bed. These were pushed aside to make way for the stage. A couple of photos in and I found myself being dressed in traditional clothes of the Kayin State (one of seven states that make up Myanmar). There was a longyi that was much more colourful than the one I had washed in, as well as a very colourful, body-length vest. More photos followed. Then I was given a massive honour. The family gifted me with the traditional clothes in which they had dressed me. Amazing! This marked the end of the night – it was about 9pm and everyone was keen to rest. I thanked the family and said goodnight. We will see each other again in the morning. Saw Dine walked me back to the temple and I am now nearly ready for bed.
|Accommodation||Free-camp (Buddhist temple)|
|Distance ridden today||88.54km|
|Average cycling speed||17.3kph|
|Total distance ridden||13,716km|