hpa an

Rough Roads to Yangon

I’ve read a bunch of times about the joys of riding Myanmar’s smooth and empty highways.

This worries me.  Because I’ve not found any such roads in this country so far (with the honourable exception first few kilometres of Thai-built road from the border).  And because I have a sneaking feeling that most people are comparing Myanmar’s roads to India’s, having ridden India first.  Trouble is, that’s where I’m going next.

The average Burmese road surface between Hpa An and Yangon looks a bit like this:

IMG_0770 Edit

So if India’s too much worse, I’ll be looking to get some serious suspension for the Beastlet.  Or my teeth will rattle loose before I get to central Asia.

IMG_0773 Edit

The traffic’s varied from ‘interesting’ to ‘lunatic’, but that seems par for the course in Asia.  The trouble here, as in Indonesia, is that the roads are generally much to narrow for the number of vehicles.  A lot of the highways are being widened, to be fair, but a lot of that work appears to be done (literally) by hand, so it may take a while before they improve hugely.

All I can do is hope that the roads will get better en route to Mandalay.  However, I can’t ask that the people improve, as they’ve kept me endlessly entertained so far.  Despite clearly having some slightly uncouth English teachers (the standard shout here is ‘Hey, You!’ rather than ‘Hello!’).

My smiling muscles are having a hard time, again.  The entertainment value is considerably enhanced by the Burmese people’s 1970s attitude to health and safety.  I’ve been cut up by scooters, trying to stop me so they can offer me a tow to the next town.  I’ve watched two young sisters putting plastic carrier bags over each others’ heads as their parents looked on nonchalantly.  And I’ve had to get used to right-hand-drive buses dumping passengers into the middle of the road when they stop.

And the 1970s attitudes even extend to things we used to do at home, back before everyone got afraid to let kids leave the house.  As dusk fell, last night, hundreds of lads were out in the park, kicking footballs around, barefoot in the gloom.  Jumpers for goalposts, anybody?

20160110RTW_3 Edit

I suppose I should point out that I never had to play football barefoot when I was a kid.  And that my football days were probably mostly in the 1980s.

Anyway, for the last 30 hours or so, I’ve been resting up in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city.  A bit like Vientiane in Laos, Yangon is completely different from the rural areas I’ve been through so far.  Totally unlike Vientiane, it’s a bustling, high energy, 24-hour sort of place.

There are a few havens of peace in the city noise, though.  There are some nice parks to wander through, and then there’s the Shwedagon Pagoda complex.

20160111RTW_10 Edit

Perched up on a slight hill (there’s been nothing but slight hills for a couple of hundred miles now), the Shwedagon is an absolutely stunning temple complex, built up over hundreds of years.  It made a change to be wandering around somewhere on my legs, rather than on wheels, too.

20160111RTW_39 Edit

And a swift return to the centre, and a nice cold beer on a rooftop terrace, gave me the chance to appreciate the Shwedagon from afar, as well.  A view only slightly spoiled by the mobile phone mast in the foreground, which I guess is a decent indicator of the speed of change in Myanmar.

It’s still a slightly confusing place.  As well as the various unanswered questions I already had about Myanmar, I’ve added one more.  If you rename a country, surely you rename the adjectives and the people as well?  But no.  People in Myanmar are Burmese (that’s the nationality, rather than the various ethnic groups), and the language is Burmese too.  Everything is Burmese except for the country’s name.

Frankly, I’m becoming less and less sure that I’ll get sensible answers to any of these questions before I finish riding Myanmar.  But I’m not sure it matters.  It’s been a great few days so far, and a few more to come yet.  Just hope those roads improve a little bit…

Red Dust and Curry – Welcome to Myanmar!

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).

IMG_0743 Edit

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.

IMG_0747 Edit

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:

IMG_0752 Edit

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.

IMG_0756 Edit

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…