5- 7 March 2016
The bike trip from the hotel at Inle Lake to Mandalay was 300k, though it was quickly reduced to 280k because I joined my mother and Lazhara on their boat trip in to Nyuangshwe – no reason to backtrack on the boring, bumpy stretch from the hotel to town. The timing was perfect, as they had arranged pick-up at 6.30 – just after sunrise but still time to have breakfast. My first leg to Pindaya was therefore reduced from 90k to 70k, which was fine as I knew there would be a good climb. The first 20k was flat through the countryside along a river and past a lake. The road was not terribly busy so it was a fairly pleasant ride except for the bumpy road. And then came the elevation climb of approx. 500 metres in 7k up to Heho – a few very steep sections but mostly a gradual 5-6% incline; happy to get this done in the morning before it got too hot. Afterwards it was a mix of flat and rolling hills through a couple of valleys – endless dry/barren fields and countryside here in the hot season. I had read the road would be gravel/rocks but to my delight it was all paved. However, despite newly paved it was still a very bumpy ride because the roads in Myanmar are paved manually. On these rough roads, I had to push hard for 10-12 k/h and on the downhills I never allowed the speed to exceed 15 k/h as it might break the bike (still riding on the damaged rear wheel with the fragile spokes). At the same time I was standing in the (primarly right) pedal to minimise the weight, and thereby strain, on the rear wheel - later I discovered that the pedal had been somewhat damaged but presumed it would be okay as long as i didn't stand again. The last 5k to Pindaya was downhill so I ended up at 900 metres - the same elevation as Inle Lake. I arrived at 1pm at stayed at the only “budget” hotel in town Myit Pyar Zaw Gyi – USD 15 (+USD 1 for internet) for a run-down hotel with an incompetent (and not too friendly) staff but that’s what you get with monopolies (foreigners have to stay in approved hotels).
I Ieft early the next morning after a quick 6am breakfast – it was only 75k to Ywangan and mostly small rolling hills but I knew there would be some more hilly sections so it was about riding before it got very hot late morning. More dry countryside but more importantly countless friendly people smiling and greetings me everywhere I came. Surely not a stretch that experiences many foreigners. One annoying element, however, was passing towns – often I could hear them before I could see them due to very load music from several different sources. I arrived in Ywangan around noon and had to stay at another monopoly hotel Shwe Gue Gu for USD 25 – overpriced being very ordinary with no internet.
Breakfast from 6am - or so they promised. At least five times he agreed, when I explained I needed to have breakfast at 6 precisely so I could leave at 6.15 for a 135k long strenuous ride to Mandalay - I especially needed to get the hilly sections done before it got too hot. My initial idea had been a night in Kyaukse after 80k but the only hotel was USD 65 (some years ago so probably more like 80) contrary to the USD 12 for my own air-con room in Mandalay; an easy choice. You guessed right – no breakfast at 6… “he’s coming”! At 6.10 I swallowed some of my oat meal with water and finished packing the bike. The guy showed up at 6.20 as I was leaving – he had to prepare some more which I couldn’t wait for, so I took the pre-made rise and some vegetable snacks and left. Though not before they had the nerve to charge me for a bottle of water in the room – the first and only time it happened in Myanmar and of course in one of the most expensive places I stayed. They were friendly enough but highly incompetent and shouldn’t run a hotel – the problem again being the monopoly that - I’m sure - can only be uphold by bribes to relevant police/military officials. A competing hotel would surely drive them out of business in no time.
As I had read, it was a very hilly first 25k up to 1,500 metres elevation and then a steep 20k downhill to sea level. On the bad roads, I had to break more or less permanently not to gain too much speed (a few times I chanced 30-35 k/h), so I had to take many rim-cooling breaks for the tubes not to explode. I could feel the heat increasing rapidly as I descended and when I reached the bottom it was around 40C (in the shade). At the same time, I had a flat tire – incredible it didn’t happen on the bad mountain road but riding through a small village probably a nail though nothing was left in the tire. My pump was broken so I was lucky just to have passed a small “garage” – or more correctly, two boys and some tools. The tire looked a bit worn in the sides, so I changed it not willing to risk more problems without a fully-functioning pump. Unfortunately, their compressor was weak and only did 50psi of the minimum 75 and at best 85psi. I struggled for a while and got my pump to do 65psi but it got very hot and I was afraid the valve would melt from the tube (as it happened in Yangon and many times before). I suddenly remembered having seen some farmers using foot pumps for their vehicles so I asked if they had one – and indeed, they managed to find an old and battered foot pump that surprisingly worked. Another 10k along a river where irrigation made the valley lush and beautiful. When I reached the highway it was about 50k to my Mandalay hotel. The first 10k were great on surely the best road in Myanmar but then it was back to mediocre and bumpy. Also it was very hot so now I needed several cooling breaks at gas stations – one time I was invited in to the manager’s office for cold drinks and food though I politely declined the latter. Riding the last 10k through very busy and chaotic Mandalay (more so than Yangon because of the countless motorbikes) late afternoon, I decided to take the boat to Bagan if possible. I had read biking to Bagan was pretty boring, the only allowed hotel was USD 40 (some years ago) and finally it would be frying hot. For comparison, the boat ride would be relaxing and USD 42 including a couple of meals and drinks – and I could bring my bike for free. Had my schedule fit, I would have taken the USD 15 slow boat, but it only departs twice weekly.
I did this bike ride to get away from the crowds and meet locals who never encounter tourists. In that sense the trip was a big success as I met so many friendly people smiling and greeting me – this is what I will take with me from Myanmar. The nature was more ordinary presumably, because it was so dry – I think it might be more beautiful when it’s lush after the rainy season. The first half of the last day was the nicest stretch – not taking into consideration the concern of exploding tires from the break-heated rims.