This section covers my 3 stays in Yangon as well as a summary of my Myanmar experience.
25 – 28 February 2016
I checked out from my hotel in Mae Sot at noon and biked the 10k to the border. Slow processing on both sides but I was not in a hurry since the bus for Yangon didn’t leave until 18.00. I changed some USD and spent over an hour trying to find the bus station. People kept sending me in different directions so I was lucky to find a local taking the same bus and following him - as it turned out the ”bus station” was an agents house. We left on time for a very bumpy ride even on this big bus with presumably good suspension - my first confirmation that Myanmar roads were indeed as bad as I had heard. As always no legroom and no sleep.
We were supposed to arrive in Yangon at 4 but we were an hour early so I had to wait more than 3 hours for sunrise before I could bike downtown – lots of activity all night… and lots of mosquitoes so I had to use my headnet. I could not check in at my own hotel until 13 so I biked the 25k to my American friend Sandy’s hotel downtown (I stayed with her in Seattle when biking to and from Alaska in 2014). Bad roads and dense traffic, but worst was the drivers being amongst the worst I have experienced around the world – incompetent, selfish and reckless. So many times passing me and immediately cutting me off to stop and pick up passengers - or after picking up passengers re-entering traffic without any orientation as I overtook them. It's not necessary having a death wish to bike in Yangon but it certainly helps not being afraid of dying. No wonder they have countless accidents every day – and there are not even motorbikes to complicate things, as they are illegal within city limits. Navigating in and out of traffic a more harmless - but disgusting - thing to look out for, was people spitting betel nuts out of vehcile windows - I was fortunately never hit but it was very close many times.
Sandy had told me everybody knew her hotel but of course nobody did, so again I was sent around for ½ hour before I finally found it. After a quick shower Sandy took me for delicious and plentiful breakfast and shortly after I met Jom – her amazing “adopted” Myanmese son that she met in Thailand years ago. Late morning we all went to famous Shwedagon Paya – a good time to visit with relatively few people (shoulder-to-shoulder mornings and evenings) and interesting to go with Jom and get a first hand experience of the local rituals and traditions. The afternoon I spent re-packing my stuff – some would stay with Sandy until we returned from the delta, some would be stored at couchsurfers’ Esther and Dominique and only a few necessities would come to my hotel. On the way back to my hotel late afternoon, I left a bag at Esther and Dominique’s – they couldn’t host me but kindly offered to store a bag for a couple of weeks while I travelled north.
I slept in and went to Sandy’s hotel late morning. In the afternoon we went to a book launch – her organisation Educational Empowerment (EE) had translated the book “I am Malala” (written by the Afghani girl who insisted on going to school and got shot in the head by Taliban) into Burmese and together with other organisations invited a lot of young girls for the launch. Everything was in Burmese but it was still a nice experience as the girls participated in different events – learning to express themselves through acting, poetry and painting.
The last day before going to the delta to visit the school that EE opened a year ago, we spent hanging out and catching up including a short ride on the circle train, nice food, massage as well as practicalities like getting me a local Sim card.
2 March 2016
After returning from the delta, this day was all practicalities. After checking out of my own hotel, I came to Sandy’s hotel late morning getting ready for the night bus to Inle Lake. Sandy had a lunch appointment but I got to say goodbye to both her and Jom – happy to learn about this part of her life that I had heard so much about, and great to have shared the experiences with her and Jom.
17 – 22 March 2016
The night bus arrived on time at 5am, so after getting the bike ready, I only had to wait 20 minutes for sunrise to bike downtown to my hotel. I was lucky to get my room at arrival around 7.30 and after a shower, I biked to the Chinese embassy to apply for a visa. Like Singapore they declined but for a different reason – I needed a plane ticket in (and possibly out) of China – “we have a rule”. Well, it’s a stupid rule – why would I apply and pay for a visa without going there. And once you have the visa you can enter anywhere you like and move around freely, so who cares how, when and where you enter? Anyway, I now have to go to Vientiane in Laos and apply based on fake tickets like everybody else. A wasted morning and had I known, I would not have set aside 5 days in Yangon but instead travelled a bit more around Myanmar.
In the afternoon, I went to Bike World to have a new wheel built (from the parts my mother brought) and pick up my new pump (unfortunately too short as I had mistakenly measured the pump instead of the frame – though still very happy to have it!). Very friendly and helpful people including owner Jeff that I’ve had much correspondence with during the previous month – it’s the only bike shop in Yangon but I would still recommend it had there been others. They seemed competent though only time can tell if they did a good job building the new wheel – as mentioned several times before building a touring wheel is a special skill but then again it's unfair to have high expectations paying USD 2.50. In order to "use it up" I changed back to the tire I had used biking from Inle Lake to Mandalay, however two flats on the way back to my hotel made me throw it out. It was perfect for saving my good tires on the crooked rim but the quality was quite poor.
The following days I spent getting my blog up to date and sightseeing a bit in Yangon - amongst other the lakes, some pagodas and a walking tour through colonial downtown. I also went to get my stuff from Esther and Dominique who invited me to join me for a photo exhibition about student protests in 2014 and afterwards hang out in a park with their friends. The extra time I spent relaxing and reading – possibly the last chance for quite a while. Total biking in Myanmar was 700k bringing the Asian total up to 3.350k.
To sum up Myanmar never got to be that incredible experience that I had hoped for. I always try avoid expectations, but it was difficult with all the positive things I had heard about the country. Nature was fairly ordinary as was the bike trip, Yangon, Mandalay and the temples in Bagan. On the positive side was visiting the school in the delta and Inle Lake, where it impressed me how the people had managed to create a big society on stilts. However, best of all – and what I will take away from Myanmar – was the smiling, friendly and always helpful people; as I remember Thailand 20 years ago. So while the future prospects for the Burmese people look bright, tourists might want to visit now before Myanmar gets overrun by mass tourism which inevitably will change the culture for the worse…