10 May 19 – Bagan to Mount Popa – 53km
So, we are just over the halfway stage of our stay at in Myanmar and we have been pleasantly surprised with the country as a whole. Our feelings are very similar to how we felt 2 weeks into our stay in Bangladesh. Prior to entering both countries we’d been a bit daunted, thinking it would be very tough and more of a chore than a pleasure to cycle through. We were quite blown away by Bangladesh and although it’s not been quite the same in Myanmar it’s definitely MUCH nicer than we had anticipated. We will no doubt say this again somewhere, but the overriding good impression comes from the people. The scenery is okay, the sights are interesting, the roads not bad and the food has been good…but the best thing, in our opinion, about Myanmar is the people. Hotel and shop staff have been great and the feeling of being ripped off, although not gone completely, has diminished considerably. People in villages and towns, in the back of trucks, on motorcycles and at the side of the road will almost always smile and say hello when they see us.
On with our story…we are on our way to the Thai border which is about 800km away to the south east. Our visas in Myanmar are for 28 days, although the authorities allow you to overstay your visa should you want to at a cost of $3 per extra day. They don’t mention by how much you can overstay and we have heard of people staying 12 days extra, but we will try to be at the border as near to our 28 days as possible.
From Bagan our route meant passing Mount Popa (pronounced pope-a rather than pop-a), which is a Buddhist pilgrimage site. As I have mentioned before, the central part of Myanmar is basically quite flat – except for Mount Popa, which sticks up in the middle. It’s an extinct volcano and to one side is a large volcanic plug (big nobbly bit of rock sticking up) on which Buddhist monks built Taung Kalat monastery…
We’d heard it was a good place to visit and it just so happens to be on our way south east. It’s a tourist site and the accommodation nearby is priced according – but, because we scrimped with our hotel a bit whilst in Bagan we decided to splash out on something a bit special near Mount Popa. The hotel in Bagan was fine and suited our purpose though it was a short trek from our room to the shower and toilet units, both of which were like being in a sauna! I’ve never come out of a shower into 39 degrees of heat thinking that it was cooler outside than inside!
On our journey to Mount Popa we cycled along a road in the middle of nowhere where there were folk just sitting along the side of the road and who almost all looked up, smiled and said hello as we passed. We also had lots of kids running alongside us high-fiving us, which was great fun. We learned later that pilgrims on their way to Mount Popa will often throw food and sometimes money to these people – they didn’t bother us ….perhaps because it didn’t look like we had anything worth giving!?
The pilgrim thing is obviously becoming big business as we saw loads of roadside cafes and snack shops. We see small cafes and snack shops all the time, but some of these were multi-tiered and very elaborate…
I was a bit worried we were on the wrong road for a while as we couldn’t see Mount Popa until we were only about 12km (it’s nearly 4000 feet high) as it was so hazy. The final 6km was up a tough hill then down a long way into a valley…which unfortunately we will have to go back up first thing on Sunday.
Our resort was pretty amazing! We had the place to ourselves as we are off-season and our room was fantastic with views over the resort gardens, pool and to the Taung Kalat monastery. We wouldn’t normally put pictures of our accommodation in to our posts as it’s normally quite functional, but the room…
and the view…
..were definitely worth splashing out for – plus the price was about half that of a decent B&B back in the U.K! We made full use of the swimming pool, which was rather like getting into a warm bath…
As the sun went down it was great to watch the swifts and dragonflies, and a little later at least two species of bats, darting over the water catching flies and drinking from the pool. From here we have a fairly long stint on the road until our next stop, so we definitely made the most of our 2 nights here!
Saturday 11 May 19 – 777 steps (x2)
Once again, and with no alarm clock set, we were up and at breakfast at 6:30! As the resort caters for western tourists we were able to have a western breakfast – eggs and bacon etc. It was actually a really nice change as we have had the Asian breakfast of rice and noodles a lot recently.
We then joined the other pilgrims on the trek up to Taung Kalat monastery, which from our resort was a steep road and then 777 steps to the top. The steps are covered to shield pilgrims from the sun, but even with this it was VERY hot and sweaty – we took a selfie at the top more to show how wet we were by the time we got there than anything else…(and Martina’s funky hairstyle!)
The roof cover is also supposed to protect pilgrims from the monkeys that hang around and apparently can get quite aggressive – we were definitely very wary of them.
To be honest we were both very disappointed with the whole experience – there was a lot of monkey poo on the steps so the place stank of it and there was a lot of rubbish just lying around.
As we climbed the steps there was a load of people trying to sell religious offerings and some guys ‘cleaning’ the steps, each of which asked us for a donation as we passed. The shrines at the top looked like they needed a good dose of TLC and maintenance…
…plus the higher we climbed more and more people asked for more donations.
Apparently Donald Trump has been here and donated….hardly likely to be THE Donald Trump as we reckon he wouldn’t manage to walk all the stairs, but if it is him it’s a bit of a stingy donation (about $15) we think! Look towards the bottom right…
The mornings here are very hazy so even the view wasn’t as good as we’d hoped…
So, you’d think that we might have had enough of the monastery? Nope! We decided that as it had been so hazy in the morning we’d go back up in the late afternoon to see if it was any clearer. The air was in fact a bit clearer and we had a nice view of Mount Popa close by…
But the monkeys were more active in the afternoon so we were even more cautious than before. There were fewer people around than in the morning, but our overall impression remained the same – not great! We actually think that this has been the worst experience at an attraction since we have been on the road and we were really glad that our accommodation was so good as it definitely made up for our disappointment.
Sunday 12 May 19 – Mount Popa to Taungtha – 62km
The next few blog entries will be very similar as our cycling will be mainly functional to get to the border with Thailand. We both agree that our current existence is rather strange….well even more strange than the lives we’ve been leading over the past year! And it’s mainly to do with the heat. To give an example we cycled passed this display showing 48 degrees at 11am on our way into town today, although to be honest it probably wasn’t actually that hot.
In the words of Roosevelt E. Roosevelt (aka Robin Williams in the film ‘Good Morning Vietnam’)…”It’s damn hot! It’s so damn hot! I saw one of those little guys in their orange robes just burst into flames. It’s that hot!” That quote springs to mind quite often, especially when we see the little monks on the road – and it always makes us laugh.
In an effort to beat the worst of the heat we continue to get up at the crack of dawn and are on the road no later than 7am – sometimes as early as 5am. We aim to get to our destination no later than midday as the real heat (38+ degrees) starts to kick in from 11am. By this point we have already drunk about 3 litres of water each, are soaked to the skin with sweat and haven’t been for a pee all morning! Once happily ensconced in our hotel room (with a/c on full blast) we cool down, have a shower, rinse and hang out our clothes and, because we’ve been up for quite a while (sometimes 8 hours, of which 7 were cycling), we have a snooze. We then venture out for lunch and then hole up in our room whist it continues to bake outside. Though we are still covering anywhere between 55 and 105km per day we do feel like cycling frauds as we are often in bed snoozing before midday! But realistically there’s no way around it if we want to be sensible about things, so this is our routine for now. As we head south it should get cooler by a few degrees but unfortunately not enough to change how we go about our daily business. It is one of the challenges with a world tour …we were always destined to encounter intense heat somewhere in the world regardless of how we planned our route.
13 May 19 – Taungtha to Meiktila – 69km
Not a huge amount to say about our ride today except that I found it particularly hard for some reason…not too sure why. We did have a head wind and some rolling hills to negotiate, but Martina found it fairly okay. We did, at one point, pass what must be the centre of the bamboo chair-making industry in Myanmar – this picture shows one of many workshops we passed…
Our hotel is next to a man-made lake where there is a very large concrete ‘boat’ built into one corner. It’s actually a temple built in the shape of a boat with a golden duck at the front – not too sure how this fits into the temple theme…
A few more notes on what we have learned about Myanmar recently:
– The monks that we saw lined up in Mandalay Palace were collecting food from the public, which is a daily practice. They take this food back to their monastery where they place it in front of Buddha as an offering. It is left there for a while and then the monk returns, takes his share and then whatever is left is taken to the kitchen, divided up and given to the poor. This is done on a daily basis and is nothing unusual. The people that we saw filming the donations were the families of the people giving the food so that they have a record that it’s been given.
– Boys are given a seven day ‘trial’ at being a monk and if they like it then they can choose to become a novice. All Buddhist boys are supposed to do this trial, but in reality it’s a choice that their parents make.
– Some people, especially in rural areas, worship Nats, which are ‘spirits’ associated with the earth, sea, rivers, etc. Though they are not exactly part of Buddhism the practice of worshiping them is wrapped up in it and it’s quite complicated and even experts can’t agree on where the two things overlap. There are 37 Nats each of which were real people which met a violent death and then became a Nat. There are four that live at the top of Mount Popa, so pilgrims go there to worship both Buddha and the Nats.
– According to the manager at one of our hotels, foreign tourism in Myanmar has been hit badly by the international reporting of the border problems in the south west of the country. It’s difficult for us to comment on this as we haven’t been here before and have no idea how many tourists there would normally be – and we are also off season.
– We have mentioned that Buddhism isn’t quite the serene religion that we had thought it is and one particular thing that we noticed is that some temples broadcast chanting over loud speakers. Originally we thought that it was recorded but have come to realise that it’s actually live. We only noticed it as every now and again the monk on “chanting duty” will cough, clear his throat or get some of the chant wrong! We have even been woken up in the middle to the sound of chanting so it’s obviously a big part of their worship.
– We have noticed that rubbish is an eyesore and blights the countryside – most recently at the monastery. There is however, a growing movement to pick the litter up and dispose of it properly. This is apparently done by local people and is not a government initiative though, of course, they encourage it. They have a long way to go as there is an awful lot of it around – but it is a good start, especially for a country that is trying to encourage tourism.