Burma: A land of ghosts

Posted by James Anderton on August 24, 2018


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Burma is a land of mystery and magic. Where people can recall their past lives. A country where magnificent and ancient Buddhist temples gaze out serenely over a nation restless for change. A country of hills and valleys, mountains and beaches, temples and jungles. A country swathed in history and culture, overflowing with old-world charm and a way of life rapidly disappearing in the rest of the world. Travel to Burma also raises a rather vexed moral question. 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. Ultimately it is down to the individual. The way I see it 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 had recently 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. Interaction with Burma's people and culture can help to encourage change. Staying away from Burma would hurt the local people, who are beginning to embrace tourism, more than the government.

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Sunrise in the flat lands

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 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 stuck 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.

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 went out of my way to camp discreetly. 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 doing battle with 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 practicing 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.

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Typical village scene cycling through Burma

I headed across the mountains in the middle of the country. Long climbs through teak forests home to wild elephants. Not that I actually saw any. Once up top the road often stays high with amazing views in all directions. Here I had my only 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 kilometers down the road I pitched my tent again and went back to sleep.

The heat in Burma can be brutal. It is extremely hot. It's not even summer. Every time I express amazement at how hot it is the locals 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 pedaling. 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. It was with some relief that I hit the Bay of Bengal. Then I can punctuate the cycling with dips in the sea as I followed the coastal road South.

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The Bay of Bengal

I totally over cooked one day. 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 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 160 km 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 special room or a standard room. I asked which was closer. The special 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.

As is often the case exploring the remote areas of the world it is the people who are the highlight. The Burmese 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 spiritual 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. a guesthouse owner, Mrs Htoo, made it clear to me over dinner one night. 'This is Burma. I am Burmese. I am from Rangoon'. Got it.

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Burmese women

At the end of my trip I found myself following the majestic Irrawaddy river. A river as wide as a lake before joining 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. The Shwedagon pagoda is magical place to visit as the sun goes down. This was the end of the road for me in Burma. I wanted to travel overland to India but there is no border crossing currently open to foreigners. My only option was to fly. Burma has been great. Really glad I came. It is a mysterious place. A land of ghosts. The cycling exceeded expectations. I thought it would a be a bit one dimensional but I cycled through the jungle, alongside rivers, up and over mountains, through paddy fields and swam in the ocean. I also saw more temples than I’ve had hot dinners.

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The famous Shwedagon Pagoda

Roads:

Mixture. There is plenty of asphalt but it is often bumpy. The roads that connect villages are all dirt roads but perfectly rideable and make for the most interesting cycling in Burma. The main roads are often busy but i had no problems with the drivers.

Wild camping:

As mentioned above it is tricky and caution and discretion must be exercised at all times. I didn't encounter any problems but i stayed in hotels half the time. Extremely difficult to find camping gas anywhere.

Visa's:

E-Visa’s are easy to obtain online and cost $50.

Bicycle Shops:

There are a few dotted around but don't expect high quality components and quality of mechanic is a question of luck.

Border Crossings and Restricted Areas:

Access to certain areas is restricted. The situation is fluid so check the latest online. Be careful crossing the Thai/Burma border in the East of Burma at Tachileik. You are allowed to cross but are not allowed to cycle the road north and west inland so you could find yourself stuck with no option to fly to proceed inland. The only border crossing between Tamu and Moreh is currently closed to foreigners. At the time of writing there were rumours this could change.

Side of the road:

Right.