pizza

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).

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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…

The Mekong Cheese Obsession

Three days, just under 300 km.  Out of the hills, then a nice flat run along the Mekong river, then Christmas dinner in the capital of Laos, Vientiane.

Couldn’t be easier, could it?

Well, it could have been.  Just a little bit.  If I hadn’t somehow forgotten everything I used to know about riding a bike in the heat.  It didn’t help that I was trying to push the average speed up.  It certainly didn’t help that I’d only marginally upped my water intake from Vietnam, where it was about  15C cooler.  This was especially dumb, as I know full well how much I need to drink when the weather gets warm.

But what really, really didn’t help was the brutal little climb as soon as I started on Wednesday morning:

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I say ‘little’, but it was actually around 300 vertical metres.  It was 30 degrees C.  And yes, it really was as steep as it looks in the picture (maybe a bit steeper, in places).  But it still shouldn’t have been a major problem; I’ve done plenty worse.

Trouble was, that I was already dehydrated.  And that the hill was just 5 km into the ride, and after a rest day.  So I hit it cold, hit it hard, and blew myself up spectacularly.  I’ve been recovering slowly ever since.  And giving myself a good mental kicking, as well as massive doses of water.

On the plus side, the view from the top was spectacular.  And that was the biggest lump in the road before Vientiane.  Highway 8 from Vietnam eventually dropped me onto the flat, flat flood plain of the Mekong river, so I could take it gently to recover.  Just one turn right onto Highway 13, and that was all the navigation done to get to the capital, too.

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I hit the Mekong itself at Pak Kading (above – the river Kading about to enter the Mekong).  It’s just been a case of following it ever since.  Me on the Laos side, Thailand waiting for me on the other side of the river.

Two more uneventful days (heat, straight, flat roads, cheap hotels and litres and litres of water) saw me rolling into Vientiane on the afternoon of Christmas Day.

I’d developed a slight obsession about cheese after leaving Vietnam; rural Laos really doesn’t have any, and I’ve always had a bit of a habit.  Towards the end of the ride to the capital, a large, cheesy pizza and a large, cold beer had cemented themselves as the centrepiece of my ideal Christmas dinner.  The reward at the end of Highway 13.  Not exactly turkey and roast potatoes, but it was what was required.

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Just an hour after hitting town, I was sat looking at exactly my fantasy dinner.  An hour-and-a-half after hitting town, I was absolutely stuffed.  Possibly, the side dishes were unnecessary.  I waddled back to the hotel, lay down, phoned my Mum in the UK, and crashed out.  That’s what I call a proper Christmas Day; 93 km on a bike, one large pizza, one beer, and passing out.  Don’t say I don’t still know how to live…

Today was spent poking gently around Vientiane on foot.  It’s a really small capital city, and very relaxed.  There’s a very European feel to it, too.  So I drank a few coffees, ate a few pastries, and generally loafed about elegantly.  Or as elegantly as one can in creased, plastic travel clothes.

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Tomorrow (Sunday), it’s back to the road, and another border crossing, just ten miles down the river from here.  I’ll be leaving the ‘Communist’ world behind, and re-entering my nemesis, Thailand.  Back onto the correct side of the road, but with a little trepidation after what happened last time I was there.

Fingers crossed, it goes a little better this time…