Myanmar Face: Myanmar stomach - Both Sides of Paradise - CycleBlaze

November 8, 2014

Myanmar Face: Myanmar stomach

Dear little friends,

Perhaps being sick in a very dismal guesthouse with a guy pounding on the concrete wall outside isn't going to help me convey an accurate view of our second day of riding yesterday. It was a fun and difficult day, both. Both of us, when we finally arrived to our room and tossed our panniers onto the floor and peeled off for a (cold) shower were thinking, "Maybe I'm not cut out for this."

But really, it actually was a great day of riding, it's just that Myanmar makes it really hard. You can't stealth camp, there seem to be people melting in and out of the fields constantly. We have yet to stop for a pee without somebody happening along, in the middle of seemingly nowhere. The towns that have hotels licensed for foreigners are pretty far apart, too far for us to ride in one day. The whole point to being on bikes for us is to be able to stop and look when we want, and that is exactly what we did. So if you are a diehard, ride-every-mile kind of rider, you may miss out on what there is in Myanmar to savor because you are determined to pound out every mile to the next guesthouse.

A quintessential Burmese road.
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Ho hum, another ancient temple in the middle of nowhere.
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What there is to savor is not the accommodations, or food, or pricing compared to neighboring Laos and Thailand. We're talking to travelers of all price points and everybody is a bit disgruntled and the more they paid the more disgruntled they are. We are choosing to be cheapskates with the bucket shower and treacherous stairs but people on high-end tours aren't happy to be sent to the bushes to pee at a rural archaeological site because the locals clogged up the museum toilet block. We shrug, we are on bikes, peeing in bushes is expected, this is Myanmar, whaddya gonna do, but I very much see their point because we have paid $18 for a room that in Laos would be around $2, if that. It wears on you.

You know what else wears on you? Getting awakened at 3 am by very loud Burmese music. It was jolly, "wake up and smell the coffee!" music and then it was followed by a couple of hours' lecturing by a monk, who sounded very genial and all, he would talk about this and that, probably throwing in a few canonical jokes because he'd chuckle, clear his throat, and carry on. It was a very long lecture, and the entire time I tried to think about how much better life would be if I could drag my ass over to the table where my earplugs were but I just couldn't move. Finally he shut up, there was more music, and then maybe another half hour of sweet peace and then the drums and gongs started and another monk started in. It's a monastic town, I guess I should have remembered this tendency to get people where they live, sleeping quietly and minding their own business, and talk at them about religion.

We started out from Pakokku around 7:30 or so in a fine mist. We were heading to Monywa, and got wildly varying mileage estimates from a lot of people who pay no attention to miles themselves, only hours, but they all were in the "Oh, very far!" range. So we knew we would have to either go very far, which seemed pretty unlikely given that it was our second day of bike touring EVER, or find a police station that would let us pitch a tent, or sneak out into the fields and stealth camp, or catch a ride for the rest of it.

The weather was perfect.

The mist cleared off, it was not too hot, the roads rolled along with rice fields, toddy palms, views of temples, huts, cattle, goats, and every three minutes somebody calling out "Hello!" "Mingalaba!" "How are you!" "I love you!" and "Bye-bye!". It took us about an hour into it to develop Myanmar Face, which is how your face hurts from smiling all day at amazingly friendly people. Some people were completely astounded by our appearing out of nowhere with our little folding bikes and panniers and helmets, jaws just dropped. Others looked straight into our eyes, but a smile from us would bring an even bigger one from them.

You may not have much in life here but you do have a voice, and Burmese people have both tremendous lung power and very good ears, so there is a lot of singing going on, or amplified music coming from a half mile away, that floats over the fields and adds a dreamy, exotic soundtrack to an already delicious scene. They are not one bit shy about singing, either, and in the midst of serving your tea or sweeping a floor suddenly break into beautiful, un-self-conscious song.

Endless fields of rice and toddy palms.
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These tree tunnels are so beguiling.
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We stopped for tea. We stopped to try to fix Bruce's rear derailleur which has developed some serious problems. We turned onto a sandy road and visited an ancient city site with a weathered wood temple and stayed to photograph for over an hour. The freedom AND responsibility of traveling by bike is very new to us, we relish one but the other is intimidating.

A nice teahouse along the road.
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One of the last remaining old wooden temples.
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Most of our day was great, and I feel good that we were able to do that many miles but as the sun started to drop and farm workers started appearing in groups at the side of the road the question of what to do next was starting to worry us. There was a huge bridge across the Chindwin River to cross and that was pretty hairy but we did it. We stopped and asked at a group of small shops if there was a bus coming along, we were seeing many buses an hour, but not every bus is the kind that will pick up people along the side of the road.

The Chindwin River.
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No bus. By the way, we have a small book called The Point It book that is nothing but photos of things, like different foods or cars or toilets or forks or what-have-you. The Point It book has been invaluable already on this trip. We pointed to a photo of a truck and somebody said to check 3 or 4 miles ahead, so in a few miles we stopped at a place where tuologgis were picking up farm workers. Tuologgis are handmade vehicles with extremely loud engines, somebody will weld a small pickup box in the back and use them for transporting people or goods. The workers, mostly young women, pile into them and get a ride back to their villages.

A guy there immediately assessed our situation. The sun was going down, we needed to sleep in Monywa, many miles away. He flagged down a large open truck, asked the driver for a ride, our bikes were hoisted aboard, we climbed into the cab and squeezed in and off we went. We were relieved and grateful and could see clearly how dangerous it would have been to remain on the road any longer. The traffic picked up, few cars or motorbikes have lights, and trucks and buses hurtle far too quickly through it all.

They dropped us off in front of a too-expensive hotel and refused any payment, although Bruce pressed a 5000 kyat note into the driver's hand. We got directions to our usual dive hotel and rode a few minutes and got the last room in the house. 49 miles on our second day of bike touring, that was quite an accomplishment.

We are still in Monywa, but we have moved to a less-dive-y place and are both sick with food poisoning which means our optimism and enthusiasm is pretty low. Bruce's derailleur problem is still serious and when our internet works I try to find fixes for it. I think both of us, although proud of what we did, are also wondering about this whole bike touring thing. It was great to have the freedom to stop, especially at the temple, there is no way public transport would have allowed this. And none of these issues were things we did not know going in. We are going to lay low and get better and see what is next.

Monywa is an old river town and this evening we walked along the riverfront and watched the sunset light playing on the faces of people as they went down the bank to the little ferries that take hundreds of people a day across to villages on the other side. We had a photo of a man who stopped me six years ago and asked me to take a photo of himself with his tiny boy. We showed the photo to a group of men and one of them knew exactly who it was and why we had it. "Present!" Yes, yes, present. He took it and promised to give it to him. Yes, yes, the little boy was taller now, that was confirmed.

Rush hour on the Monywa riverfront.
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Last call.
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We were shown a little bench where we could sit and watch the sunset in comfort and far-off clouds and golden-orange skies made it very dramatic. Just as it set a man walked up to us and pointed and there it was, very far away, elusive and impermanent but sharp and bright and glowing just the same, that ol' silver lining. I tried to capture it with the last bit of power on my camera battery because later when I don't feel like puking anymore it's going to mean something to me.

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Today's ride: 49 miles (79 km)
Total: 69 miles (111 km)

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Jen GrumbySo cool you were able to deliver the photo of the man and his son .. six years later!
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