We have now reached the 20,000km mark in our journey in country 20 – and this week we cycled an empty 20-lane highway on our way into capital city number 13.
Tues 14 May. Meiktila to Tatkon. 101km.
Today was one of those days we weren’t looking forward to….we knew it was an early start/long day and we had no idea about the quality of the accommodation we were heading towards. There was a town 60km from Meiktila where we could have stayed, but a fellow cyclist who had done the same route a few months ago warned us off the accommodation there, so we decided to take our chances on the unknown and venture 40km further to Tatkon. Nigel has also been feeling pretty exhausted with the heat so that was another concern as we set off at 5am ….not exactly happy bunnies. But sometimes its days that you think will be tough actually end up being pretty good….and today was one of them!
Nothing particularly remarkable about the cycling….a long, flat and straight road for most of it and although we had a bit of a headwind it wasn’t too strong…it even had a cooling effect.
We passed quite a few road-workers along this stretch – young men and women pouring hot tar and hand-laying stones and gravel to build the road – another stark reminder of how lucky and privileged and different our lives are.
We also passed a lot of these stalls….
Maybe this is the samurai-swords capital of Myanmar, in the same way as we passed the bamboo-chair capital a few days ago?!? There were about 30-40 stalls spread along both sides of the road and as well as swords they also had bush-cutting hatchets, hand catapults, knives, spades and workers tools. Why??
About 20km from destination I had fallen a bit behind Nigel when a scooter pulled up alongside me, with a young guy driving and a girl on the back…probably both about 20 years old. She was trying to hand me something, which at first I thought was her mobile and assumed she wanted to take a photo. Wrong…she was handing me bag of snacks! They didn’t speak English but when I said thank you they pointed to Nigel, which I assumed meant I should share with him. Wrong again….they drove on, pulled up alongside him and gave him a bag of snacks too. Aren’t the Burmese people just so lovely?? They didn’t want anything from us, just took off smiling and waving….and waved again when passed them a while later sitting under a tree enjoying their own snacks. The snacks in question were parcels of sticky rice and fruit wrapped in a waxy leaf…a strange flavour but not unpleasant and we happily scoffed them when we got to base.
And the accommodation that we were worried about turned out to be great! It appears on Google as a hostel (hence our concerns) but it was actually a decent hotel….with lots of friendly and professional staff who carried our luggage upstairs like a little army of hard-working, smiling ants. It was a sight to behold!
The usual routine of doing nothing for the afternoon…and when we ventured out for dinner we came across lots of school age kids, mainly girls, lined along the side of the road like this….
We had no idea why so we decided to hang around for a look. Obviously we stuck out like sore thumbs in a small town like this so a guy passing on the back of a scooter struck up a conversation with us in very good English. He (Nawab) is a local businessman and he very kindly invited us to his home for food….but as we were ravenous we declined the invitation (we didn’t want to embarrass ourselves!), but said we might visit him later. Before he left he told us that the line of school kids were waiting for a Buddhist procession, so hunger got the better of us and we decided to give it a miss. Our restaurant of choice turned out to be another great find and we had what was probably the best food we have had in Myanmar yet!
Over the last few days we have been saying that although we like Myanmar, we have been missing proper people interactions like we had in India and Bangladesh, so given the first opportunity to visit a local we decided to visit Nawab. And we are so glad we did! Nawab and his large family of children and grandchildren welcomed us in and he was just thrilled to have foreigners visit his home as well as having an opportunity to practice his English. Considering Muslims are a minority in Myanmar when we first met him we noticed that he had the red beard that was quite common in Bangladesh. Then in our subsequent conversations he mentioned Ramadan and visiting Saudi and confirmed that although he was born and bred in Myanmar, he is in fact Muslim. We had a lovely conversation for about 30 minutes and a few photos…..
….before being introduced to his neighbour to do the same all over again. Despite our protests we were served food at the neighbours, but it was only a snack so we managed it! What lovely people they all were and it made us feel less like tourists and more like travellers again.
And interestingly Nawab told us that this year the weather has been unseasonably hot….so it’s not just us who are suffering!!
Wed 15 May. Tatkon to Naypyidaw. 67km.
Set out at 6am, assisted by 3 young helpers who carried most of our bags downstairs to help us on our way. Because there is always so many staff helping it’sdifficult to give a tip as there are just too many of them, but because there were only 3 this morning we gave them a small tip each. It was only pennies in our world but to see their wee faces light up, as much for the recognition as the money I think, it made me want to cry….and made me feel guilty for not giving them a bit more! Overall, for such a small unassuming town in the middle of nowhere we left Tatkon feeling really happy. We’d had such a lovely stay – far beyond what we expected.
There were a few hills around this morning so the scenery was a bit more interesting than yesterday. And thankfully it was a bit cooler as well as there had been a huge storm and rain overnight.
Destination for today was Naypyidaw, which has been the capital of Myanmar since 2005, when it was, according to Wikipedia, “quietly relocated from Yangon, with minimal explanation from the government”. It’s an entirely planned city outside of any state or region and as such is supposedly similar to Canberra in Australia, Washington DC in the US and Islamabad in Pakistan. In terms of population it is the third most populated city in Myanmar with alomst a million people. (Yangon and Mandalay being the top 2). We cannot pronounce it so refer to it as “the nappy place” or “the capital”!
Construction only started in 2002 so it’s very new and VERY unlike anything we have seen here so far…or anywhere else for that matter! Cycling into the city we had wide open roads with a minimum of 4 lanes and hardly any traffic…definitely the easiest capital city we have had to navigate. And there doesn’t seem to be a centre to it as along these wide empty roads we passed the Central Bank…..(wonky phone angle!)…
…as well as the National Museum, National Gallery etc, which just looked like they were in then middle of nowhere.
Breaking with routine, instead of going straight to our hotel, we decided to go to see the Parliament building as we had heard that there is an empty 20-lane highway around it…so we were curious, even if we weren’t sure if bicycles were allowed. If we thought that the roads into the city were quiet, well this was bizarre and eerie….it was almost empty. A cyclist’s dream – and apparently it’s the top thing to see when you visit the city – Incredible! And for the first time in ages we could pedal beside each other and chat.
Before we reached the Parliament building a policeman turned us back, so we didn’t get to really see it and whenever we tried to take a photo we were also told to move on by other security guards….but we didn’t feel too robbed as the road was enough of an experience. It was so surreal it felt like we should have been on a film set.
Even with our detour we got to our hotel at 10.30am….which was located in the Hotel Zone. Basically nothing else around except big concrete blocks of hotels like ours.
To give them credit, it’s by far the cleanest hotel we have stayed in for a long long time….but completely soulless. It could have been any business hotel anywhere in the world.
We ventured out for lunch to what we thought was a restaurant….it was, but part of another hotel, which I guess is why it’s called the Hotel Zone. Thankfully we are now used to doing nothing in the afternoons, which was good as there really was nothing to do…so a lazy rest of day and evening,
We have come to the conclusion that this is perhaps the weirdest place we have been to yet during our travels. Where are the million people that supposedly live here? We know there is a Residential Zone, but we didn’t see it, nor did we see many people. We saw a sign to a hypermarket but there were no shops or little roadside stalls to buy snacks or water, which are absolutely everywhere else in the country. Massive roads, no cars and no people. It’s like a ghost town. Very very bizarre.
Thursday 16 May. Naypyidaw to Taungoo. 105km.
Although the weather has cooled down considerably over the last few days (still high 30s in the afternoon) we have stuck to our early morning departures for our longer days, so we were on the road at 5.15 today. Deathly-quiet, wide empty roads for the first few hours when we then joined the old Yangon to Mandalay highway, which. was a dual carriage-way with a lot more traffic – mainly trucks – so it felt like we had re-entered civilisation. For such a main road it was quiet compared to what we have experienced in other countries and drivers were pretty considerate so it was pretty uneventful. The road was flat so it was easy cycling and we reached Taungoo around midday…hitting the 20,000km milstsone on the way!!
Taungoo is a small historic town that was the capital city in the 1500s, which might explain why it’s surrounded by a moat, although most of that is now overgrown. The Shwe-sandal Pagoda in the centre is worth a visit- as is the lake nearby so we ventured to both when the heat of the afternoon had passed. The Pagoda is very gold both inside and outside and is surrounded by a busy market, so we had a pleasant hour wandering around as the only westerners taking it all in…
….followed by a visit to the the lake before it got dark.
Fri 17 May. Taungoo to Phyu (pronounced “Phew!”).55km.
For the first time in a few days we had a relaxed breakfast at the hotel, as we only had a short day to do. The road today was a continuation of the Mandalay to Yangon Highway that we cycled yesterday. It was busy but as it had 2-lanes most of the time it was manageable – and the buses and trucks didn’t think they owned the road as they did in India and Bangladesh. About 15km into the morning my front brakes went twang, so we (well Nigel really!) spent about 30 minutes sorting it out…thankfully under a tree where we had a bit of shade. We had an audience of a couple of young guys carrying home-made fishing rods as well as this guy …..
….off to market to sell his chickens, which incidentally were alive and squawking on the side of his scooter!
A short while later we met Eddie. A Liverpool supporter from Hong Kong who is on a long distance cycling journey from Hong Kong to Anfield and hoping to make it there next year. Always reassuring to know we aren’t the only nutters on the road!!
Our accommodation for the night was probably the worst we have had in Myanmar so far, but as it was the only place in town to accept foreigners we had no choice. It reminded us of much of our Indian accommodation, except in this case we didn’t have to ask for the sheets to be changed…it shows how quickly we have gotten used to decent accommodation again! There was a power outage in the whole town from 2pm until 10pm and as there was no generator in our hotel (or so we thought) we had long afternoon trying (unsuccessfully!) to stay cool, while listening to repetitive chanting from the nearby monastery. When we came back to the hotel after dinner we noticed that the lights were all back on at the hotel, although everywhere else was still in the dark…it turns out that the hotel HAD a generator but the owner only fired it up when it got dark so that anyone passing would see the hotel. How annoying…to think that we didn’t have to sweat to death like we did all afternoon!! But on the plus side it meant we could stay cool overnight which would always be the preferred option.
Saturday 18 May. Phyu to Dail-U. 93 km.
Another early start for a morning of sweaty cycling on a long straight road. A very non-descript day with “just” the usual waving and smiling at friendly locals on a flat boring road.
We did encounter what we can only describe as “Little India” en route. For about a 10-15km stretch there were women in colourful saris, loud Hindu-style music from passing vans with loud speakers and young men sitting on the roof, loud music from temples and even a wedding. It was like being transported back to India!
And what we thought would go down as a very uneventful day changed about 5km from our end destination, when a car stopped in front of us and 2 guys got out and waved us down to hand us bottles of water. Pyone Cho and Soee Gyi are both members of the Myanmar Cycling Federation and just wanted to help fellow cyclists! They both had reasonable English so in our brief conversation asked us where we were going and if we’d had lunch. When we said no, they said they would meet us at our accommodation and take us out to lunch. Never ones to refuse the offer of food we pedalled to our accommodation and met them there. As the guest house employees didn’t have much English it was great to have people with the local language to help us get a room sorted…but what we didn’t expect was that they would pick up the accommodation bill as well, which they insisted on. How very very generous! Lunch at a nearby restaurant was super-tasty…probably the best fried rice we have had (and we have had a lot)! Although it was only for a short time we had lovely conversations with them both and they did try to convince us to cycle further to Yangon behind their car. But it was way too far for today and it’s not on the cards for our trip anyway, as we just don’t have time – so we unfortunately had to refuse. We will have to come back!
A few days ago we had lamented the fact that we were lacking interactions with the people of Myanmar. It’s amazing therefore that the 2 interactions we have recently had have both happened in small non-descript towns in the middle of nowhere. A bit like how it was for us in Central India…when we thought it would just be functional cycling, it turned out out to be our best people interactions of our time there!