Day 196 - 201. First impression of Burma was chaos. The country feels closer to its Indian neighbours to the west than its Thai neighbours to the east. The main roads are narrow and busy. Motorbikes darting between massively overloaded trucks. Throw in a few hundred rickshaws, ox carts and bicycles and you have one unruly free for all. Good fun for about 5 minutes but soon gets annoying. Get off the main roads however and all is peaceful. I have been sticking to the back roads as much as possible. Heading north towards Mandalay on shaded dirt roads that meander through the jungle connecting the tiny villages that inhabit the flat lands.
Obviously Burma has been in the news a lot lately with the atrocities committed against the Rakhine muslims in the north west of the country. What the UN described as a textbook example of ethnic cleansing. I have wondered if ethically I should be visiting a country whose government takes such measures. At the end of the day though if we only visited countries whose government we approve of we would shut ourselves off to half the world. End up going to Scandinavia every summer. Would have to give America a miss. I've just spent 3 months in China and its human rights record is appalling. The essence of a country is not in its leaders but in its people and the land they inhabit. Staying away from Burma would hurt the local people more, who are beginning to embrace tourism, than the government. So here I am and glad to be here. My plan is to head north towards Mandalay, then cut across the country to the coast and finish up in Rangoon in a few weeks. There is currently no option to go overland from Burma to India. So unless I can figure something out I will fly from Rangoon.
Day 202 - 207. Wild camping is tricky in Burma. It is not allowed. The internet is awash with stories of hapless cyclists being moved on by the authorities. You must stay in a hotel registered to accept foreigners. I decided to ignore this. Exploring the rural areas it is impossible to land at a hotel every night so I've been taking my chances. I haven't had a problem yet. I camp well out of sight and do battle with the mosquitoes instead. I've been mostly camping for 7 months now and have barely come across a single mosquito but alas the good times are over. I now wear my mosquito head net every night and every night when I take my first mouthful of dinner I forget I'm wearing it. When I get into my tent I spend 20 minutes murdering all the mosquitoes that got in with me. They are arguably worse in the few hotels I've stayed in. I've purchased one of those tennis racket mosquito zappers and spend half the night practising my back hand. Quite good fun actually and I don't stop until I've zapped the lot. Game, set and sleep. I've also stayed in a couple of monasteries. Temples galore in Burma. Even the remote villages boast a sparkling golden temple home to a few saffron robed monks who are only too happy to have a dirty cyclist camp on their grounds. Not wanting to get anyone into trouble with the authorities I only do this in out of the way places. Arrive at dusk and leave at dawn.
I have been heading across the mountains in the middle of the country. Long climbs through teak forests home to wild elephants. Not that I have seen any. Once up top the road often stays high with amazing views in all directions. I did have one incident camping. I was camped on top of a ridge. One of those dream camp spots watching the sun set over the mountains. I awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of crackling and the smell of smoke outside the tent. I got up and saw there was a fire making its way up the mountain side. It wasn't exactly raging but it was slowly making its way towards me. It may well have petered out but I wasn't about to chance it. I had 200m down a narrow path to get back to the road and did not want to get cut off. I quickly packed up and cycled on in my boxer shorts at 2 in the morning. A few kilometres down the road I pitched my tent again and went back to sleep.
It is extremely hot. It's not even summer. Every time I express amazement at how hot it is the locals just smile as if this is nothing. I drink water by the gallon and not a lot comes out the other end. Approaching 40 degrees most afternoons and humid. It hasn't rained all year. Fortunately if the road is good you can get up enough speed to create your own little breeze which keeps you sane. It's when you stop you realise how hot it is and if you have a climb in the afternoon then god help you. Nothing saps my will to keep moving than intense heat. As a result I haven't been covering as much ground as usual. Mid afternoon I try and find some shade and fan myself with a bus timetable I picked up solely for the purpose. Dawn and dusk are ideal times to be pedalling. A couple of times the heat has got too much and I have cycled up to a river, undressed faster than Reginald Perrin, and dived straight in. That instant when you hit the water and go from unbearably hot to perfectly cool is sheer bliss. Definitely been having one of those water appreciation weeks. Life giving water. I savour every swig. Swill it around the mouth and then feel it slide down the throat. 1 second later and I am thirsty again. It was with some relief that I hit the Bay of Bengal. Now I can punctuate the cycling with dips in the sea as I follow the coastal road South.
Lovely day cycling alongside the ocean. The Bay of Bengal glimmering in the sunshine. Cycle, swim, cycle, swim before eventually camping amongst the palm trees next to a deserted beach.
Totally over cooked it today. 40 degrees and once the road left the ocean I had a long climb into the mountains. I died a slow death. Spent a lot of time muttering into my handlebars. Spectacular views from the top but I didn't really notice. There was no water up high so I had to keep going. There was nowhere to camp down below so I had to keep going. Eventually I made it to a guesthouse but 160km across mountains in brutal heat had taken its toll. I could barely stand up in the guesthouse. My thigh muscles were twitching. My shorts and top were coated in salt stains. I could taste the salt on my lips. The lady asked me if I wanted a deluxe room or a standard room. I asked which was closer. The deluxe room was closer. It consisted of four walls and a bed. I never found out what was in the standard room. There was a shower room down the hall. No shower as such but there was a huge bucket of water. As I was in the land of the Buddha I decided to go in for some water meditation. I sat cross legged on the floor and took a scoop of cold water and poured it over my head. Inhale, scoop. Exhale, pour over head. Repeat 100 times. Sorted me right out. I then went and sat by the water tank and refused to stop drinking until I needed a wee.
Still reeling from yesterday I didn't get very far today. I think my body is low on salt. It's low on something. I have learnt the Burmese word for salt. I now know 4 Burmese words. Took it easy along shaded back roads and stopped at a guesthouse before the afternoon heat took hold. Mrs Htoo, the guesthouse owner, spoke a little English and I enjoyed a feast of local cuisine with her family over dinner. Cycling around has, as always, been a great way to meet the people of Burma. They are an interesting bunch. The men chew on betel leaves which fills their gums with red juice. Some look like they have just been punched in the mouth. They often turn their heads mid conversation to shoot a torpedo of betel juice out of their mouths, often on to an unsuspecting dog. All the women smear golden swirls of thankakha paste onto their cheeks. This I assumed was for religious reasons but it turns out its just good for the complexion. Everyone is extremely friendly and welcoming. I like the way everyone calls me brother. Whenever I have pulled over in a little village I am immediately invited into the shade and plied with water. It is always appreciated. I have never been quite sure whether to refer to the country as Burma or Myanmar. The ruling military junta changed the country's name to Myanmar in 1989, a year after thousands were killed in the suppression of a popular uprising. Rangoon also became Yangon. Burma's democracy movement prefers Burma as they do not recognise the right of an unelected military regime to change the name of the country. Internationally both names are recognised. Mrs Htoo made it clear to me over dinner. 'This is Burma. I am Burmese. I am from Rangoon'. Got it.
Followed the majestic Irrawaddy river. A river as wide as a lake. Then joined the mayhem for the road into Rangoon. Summers in Rangoon. Luge lessons. The outskirts I passed through were extremely poor. Shanty towns lined the roads. Endless rows of wooden shacks roofed with corrugated iron. The centre of Rangoon I liked. Crumbling colonial buildings stand in a charming state of decay. Buddhist and Hindu temples brush up next to churches and mosques. Fast food outlets and trendy cafes sit alongside bustling traditional markets. I had my first Air BnB experience. I had my own little apartment for a few days in the heart of Rangoon close to the famous Schwedagon Pagoda. Same price as a hotel. This is the end of the road for me in Burma. I wanted to travel overland to India but there is no border crossing open to foreigners. This is a pisser. My only option is to fly so I must now box up the bike and attempt to fly to Calcutta and start again. Burma has been great. Really glad I came. It is a mysterious place. A land of ghosts. The cycling has exceeded expectations. I thought it would be a bit one dimensional but I have cycled through the jungle, alongside rivers, up and over mountains, through paddy fields and swam in the ocean. It's also taught me something I already know. I am rubbish when it comes to real heat. From Calcutta I will head to the Himalayas.
Flying with a bike is always a massive palaver. First you have to find a bike box in an enormous city you know nothing about. Then you must dismantle your most prized possession and cram it into a cardboard box along with half your belongings. I do not enjoy taking my bike apart. It's like dismembering a loved one. It just feels wrong. You will have to find a wrench from somewhere to get the pedals off. Remove both wheels. Turn the handlebars. Deflate the tyres. Try not to lose all the screws and bolts. Once done you then have to get the now incredibly heavy box to the airport where you will discover exactly how heavy it is and how much you have to pay in excess baggage. Then say a few prayers as your bike is handed over to the mercy of airport baggage handlers. I once worked as a baggage handler at Manchester airport. This is not reassuring. I know exactly what they are like. After landing you then wait to see just how long after everyone else's bags your box shows up. I've had everything from 10 minutes to 4 days. Finally the most anxious moment of all. Do I still have a functioning bicycle? Will I be able to pedal from the airport? All in all today went as well as it could have. I found a hostel that doubles as an importer of trek bicycles. They had loads of bike boxes lying around and were only too happy for me to take one off their hands. They lent me a wrench, made me coffee while I hacked my bike to pieces and called me a cab when I was done. $50 in excess baggage which you would take every time. Only 45 minutes waiting for the bike to show up at the other end and sweet joy there did not seem to be any damage. I had carefully cushioned all the sensitive parts with sleeping bag, pillow, flip flops, down jacket etc. I put it all back together in no time. Quick test ride around Calcutta arrivals and I was good to go. I pedalled off into the Calcutta night in the middle of a flash thunderstorm with a big grin on my face.
It's been 14 years since I was last in India. It hasn't changed. Still a mess. Cycling across Calcutta to my Air BnB was an assault on the senses. The disregard for all known traffic laws is absolute. Everyone just cuts each other up left, right and centre. Traffic lights are treated like roadside decorations. Cows sit in the middle of the road. The only rule I could fathom was that you must honk your horn at all times. Pure chaos. That said no one gets upset. No one gets angry. It's just the norm. Just getting around town. I think Calcutta goes straight into my top 3 most insane cities I have cycled across. Just ahead of La Paz but still a little way behind Istanbul. There I had guys on motorbikes come up alongside and run their finger across their throat. International language for 'I'm going to kill you.' None of that in India. (Don't get me wrong the Turkish are the friendliest people in the world. Just not in downtown Istanbul). Anyway, I made it across town and through a maze of side streets to the flat in the Calcutta suburbs. My home from home for the next few days while I sort out a permit to visit Arunachal Pradesh. A stroke of luck the flat was in a building that was by far the tallest in the neighbourhood and had something resembling a rooftop terrace. I spent most of my days chilling on the roof gazing out over the mayhem below.