Myanmar – Mountains and Motorcycling!

Jan 04, 2019 View Comments by

Myanmar - Mountains and Motorcycling!

For years Burma occupied an elusive place on my bucket list. Mysterious and exotic, but shut off almost completely to Western tourists, the former province of India was all the more alluring because of the difficulty involved in getting there. Unfortunately, as time went on it started to seem less and less likely that I would ever get the chance to cross it off my list.

I had long been interested in the region’s role in WWII as a supply route for war materiel bound for China. The Flying Tigers American Volunteer Group flew supplies “over the hump” of the eastern Himalayas, and the Burma Road was hacked out of the jungle so that overloaded trucks could labor perilously through the mountains carrying essential supplies to aid the war effort. Since then, the country has been in a state of almost constant unrest. In recent history, Burma—renamed Myanmar in 1989—has been governed by repressive military rule, which made visiting the country not just difficult, but dangerous as well.

Not until very recently, with the 2015 election of the country’s first non-military president, has the situation started to improve. When I found out that a motorcycle tour was available through Big Adventure Company to explore the country, I wanted to be one of the first to take advantage of this opportunity.

We started our journey in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where we rested, got our motorcycles and headed for Burma early in the morning. Our group included some fun-loving Brits who were friends already, and whose antics added to our excitement. The route took us to the main border crossing at Myawaddy, where we arrived at midday amid much fanfare from the locals, as it’s rare for foreigners to bring in large bikes. After filling out a slew of paperwork we entered Myanmar, escorted by police and two officials who were assigned to travel with us as “guides” for the duration of our trip. Right in the middle of the international bridge we were required to switch sides of the road, as Thailand drives on the left and Burma on the right! A truck accident blocking the main highway forced us onto a delightful detour of narrow mountain roads! It made for a long day though, taking 14 hours to cover the 530 km to our hotel at Hpa-An.

The second day took us on a relatively short but interesting 87-mile ride to Mount Kyaiktiyo, the location of a Buddhist religious site called the Golden Rock. Pilgrims travel from all over to visit, pray and give offerings. The open bus ride up the narrow mountain trail and back is a white-knuckle ride to be remembered!

Day three took us on a 211-mile ride from Kyaiktiyo to Naypyidaw. This is the brand-new capital city, constructed by the recently elected leadership to replace Yangon. The huge eight-lane highway we traveled to get there was strangely empty! It seemed as though the government wanted an appearance of grandeur, with giant buildings, vast squares and huge roads. However, it has an overwhelming feeling of abandonment.

Our fourth morning, we rode 143 miles to Inle Lake. As we descended out of the mountains, our first glimpse revealed a vast expanse of water in the distance which filled a long valley between tall peaks. The lake is home to several unique species of fish, and is teeming with migratory birds. It’s also home to the Intha people, a number of whom live in villages with houses on stilts in the lake. Many rely on fishing for a living, while others now cater to tourists who are already starting to find their way to this unusual place. After a night’s rest, we spent the next day on a small-boat tour, visiting the fishing village at the far end of the lake. Our tour boat was long and narrow like those used by the local fishermen. Designed for shallow water, they have outboard motors with very long shafts which stick out far behind the boats with the props barely in the water. Afterward we enjoyed a traditional meal of fresh fish and rice in a restaurant on stilts out in the lake.

Day six, we set off on a 224-mile ride through the Shan mountains up to the Shan Plateau. This area is more remote and rural, with sections of wilderness interspersed with small villages. Late in the day we arrived at Bagan, which was my favorite destination on the whole trip. It was once the capital of the Pagan Empire, which along with the Khymer Empire was a major force in this part of the world during the Middle Ages.

Bagan is now a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its countless temples. These ancient relics once covered Burma’s central plains, but time and earthquakes have taken their toll. Today only about 20 percent remain.

On day seven, I rented an electric motorbike (gasoline-powered motorcycles are not allowed among the Bagan temples) and explored the area. Many of the temples are hidden by heavy overgrowth or in ruins, but there are still plenty that are restored and can be visited. Some were still undergoing repairs from a recent 2016 earthquake, with bamboo scaffolding still in place. It’s fascinating to explore the temples, and incredible how thousands of these ancient buildings were built by individual families. The wealthier they were, the larger the temples they could afford to construct. Sunset is a magical time to witness them. viewed from the upper floors of a large temple overlooking the vast plain with the tops of countless temples visible for miles in all directions.

Day eight brought us 196 miles, from the flat plains and ancient pagodas of Bagan, up into the mountains again. Twisting roads worked their way upward steadily, with switchbacks and steep grades challenging even the best riders. The air grew cooler as we climbed ever higher. Our destination was the tiny village of Ann, located near the West coast, made up of traditional farmers scratching a living from the mountain landscape.

We began day nine with a descent into Gwa. The scenery changed gradually as we dodged trucks and buses on the narrow track. Later we found wider coastal roads leading to Ngapali Beach. During the afternoon we skirted the Bay of Bengal, the world’s largest bay. With rugged mountains to the left and coastal views to the right, it was difficult to remain focused on the road. We ended the day in Gwa at a rustic motel on a private beach.

Our tenth day had us back on steep twisty mountain roads for the last time, as we made a 204-mile trek from Gwa to the ancient city of Bago. On day 11 we rode 150 miles from Bago to Myawaddy across the central plains and over the wide Sittang River into the Mon state where we stopped for lunch. Our last stretch in Burma was across the Kayin state to Hpa An. Our final day started with a border crossing into Thailand and a long 250-mile dash back to Chaing Mai.

Our intrepid guide, Alan Kelso, was a good rider and host who managed to keep his composure regardless of the situation, and was always diplomatic. Everyone made it without incident and seemed to enjoy the overall experience. Would I do it again? Certainly!

The Big Adventure Company, www.bigadventureco.com; Telephone +44 1225 634000

Text and Photography: Ken Freund

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