Myanmar felt like properly unknown territory for me, having only begun to open up to the world in recent years. I’m not even sure whether I’m still in south-east Asia, as even that seems to be a matter of some dispute.
But what I wasn’t really expecting is that Myanmar is also a bit nuts (in a generally good way, so far).
It begins before you even get through passport control. Bang in the middle of the border bridge from Thailand, traffic is expected to switch from the left to the right-hand-side. There’s some paint on the road, but not much else to show you how it’s done.
I made sure I crossed when it was quiet…
The vast majority of cars and trucks in Myanmar, of course, are not designed to drive on the right. The government just changed the system a few years ago. Nobody seems to know why.
Then there are the roads. The road from the Thai border at Myawaddy used to be so poor that it only worked in one direction each day. Now there’s a new road (below). A beautiful, Thai-built, butter smooth highway, with a stunning, swooping descent off the top of the hills.
This delightful introduction to the country opened last summer (2015), and follows a different route to the old road. But it’s not on any online map yet. You can see where it is only by looking at Google Maps’ satellite imagery, which shows where the trees were cut to make space for the new road.
And so, you enter the country along a beautiful highway which the maps say doesn’t exist.
About 45km out of Myawaddy, you then rejoin the old road. It’s a designated Asian Highway, so it can’t be too bad, can it? Well, just after a police checkpoint (with very friendly plain-clothes police who buy cyclists drinks), the main international route from Thailand turns into this:
60-odd kilometres of fine, red dust, and a narrow, incredibly rough tarmac strip. Tarmac so narrow that, when two trucks or buses meet, at least one of them ends up on the dirt. Which puts the fine, red dust up in the air to decorate any unsuspecting bikers who happen to be in range.
It has improved since, thankfully.
Then, there’s the odd, half-hour time difference between here and Thailand. Why not go the whole hog, and make it an hour? Nobody knows. Again.
And what exactly was the ‘pizza’ I found this evening? It looked like a pizza. It was described by the lady selling it as a pizza. It was, as far as I could tell, a cold, sweet bread bun with some sort of topping involving crabsticks and peppers. And some sort of tofu-like substance. And possibly mayonnaise.
But definitely no cheese or tomato sauce. And very definitely unheated. I’m not sure what the dictionary definition of a pizza is, but I’m pretty confident that cheese, sauce and heat are fairly important to the recipe. Not in Myanmar, apparently.
And how does a country where many of the villages still don’t appear to have reliable electricity (cool-boxes with ice, rather than fridges) have the fastest 3G speeds I’ve found anywhere?
So, Myanmar is a bit confusing. Or, arguably, Myanmar is a seething mass of contradictions. I ran into two other touring cyclists yesterday (Wednesday), who blamed it mostly on the change that’s happening politically here. There are a lot of laws which still exist, but are no longer enforced. Or are sometimes enforced, and sometimes not, depending on the individual with responsibility. Or laws that no longer exist, but some people still think they do.
Like I said, it’s a bit confusing.
It’s also a very beautiful place (above is the town of Hpa An, where I spent last night). The people seem lovely (not just the policemen, though, given the amount of checkpoints, it’s much better for me if they stay nice, too). And, although the roads are a bit ropey, the road manners so far are generally very good, so you don’t feel too likely to end up in a bus sandwich.
And I had a Indian-style chicken curry last night. With Chinese-style fried rice, obviously. Which is also a little bit odd, but illustrates the mix of cultures here. I’m a big fan of proper curry, and this is the first time I’ve found the Indian type done properly in the region, which is great news. It was delicious, and also massive, which is important for a touring cyclist.
So where from here? Well, in addition to being slightly nuts and very beautiful and friendly, Myanmar’s a big country. I’m still a few days from the old capital, Yangon (used to be Rangoon), and it’s a long road to Mandalay from there. I passed 1000 miles for Part 2 of the round-the-world ride yesterday (i.e. 1000 miles from Hanoi), and there will be hundreds more on the clock before I get to India.
Which I’m not unhappy about at all. Myanmar’s been fascinating so far, and I’ve every reason to believe it will stay that way. And maybe I’ll work out some of those crazy contradictions before I’m done…