If you travel by bike through any ol’ country it is always mostly about the cultural and social experience. It really doesn’t matter if you tour in your own back yard or travel to far off places with your 2 wheeled companion. You will learn new languages (even if it just a new version of your own), you will find new social experiences (even if it is Bob yelling to ‘get off the road’). You can visit isolated and natural areas with landscapes to take your breath away whether in your own country or abroad.
There are some special places that could brand in your memory and bring new light into your life. One of those places is Myanmar. With impending tourism doom there has arguably never been a better time to go.
Bike Packing and touring is pretty hot right now, stylish and functional new equipment is making it easier, sexier and even MORE fun to travel by bike.
You will be forgiven if you have little/no knowledge of Myanmar, it is a little black pocket in many peoples geography, and there is a good reason for it, because up until recently… it has been off limits.
A little history lesson
Myanmar is the country formally known as Burma (named by the British during their rule from 1824 to 1948). It is the largest country in SE Asia, sitting between Thailand, Laos, Bangladesh, India and China to the north.
From 1962 it was under corrupt and violent military rule with closed borders and a not-so-healthy dose of oppression. It’s borders were closed off from the world for nearly 50 years, while the world was changing in faster and crazier ways it remained the same – making it a living, breathing time capsule full of classic British cars and railways, and the long lasting effects of totalitarian government.
In the 2015 election the NLD (National League for Democracy) party won a majority and the first non-military president since the 1962 coup was elected. The military still hold 25% of government seats but it was a step toward proper representative democracy. Hoorah!
Tourism infrastructure in the country is largely undeveloped despite visitors doubling in number every year. It is ripe for a visit now before it possibly goes the way of it’s neighbouring countries as a thriving, thumping tourist destination with weakened cultural experiences.
It is one of the least developed countries in the world (149th of 186 UN Human Development Index 2013)
– bull and cart is still a form of transport and – as cliché as it sounds – in rural Myanmar
you can see society as it was thousands of years ago; family units, transport and business is it has been for ever. It’s economy is dominated by old world agriculture with 70% of the population still working the land. Even in major cities the electricity comes and goes.
Having the privilege of choosing to travel through poor countries for the experience can get uncomfortable. But by bike you’re sweaty, dirty, and entertaining – The people can be equally interested in you as entertainment. Bike touring through villages means you will be bringing new money directly to farmers and families and communities by buying their vegetables and groceries and eating at their restaurants, and at the least a few energetic handshakes.
Why It’s A Place To Go
The People + The Exotic
Myanmar is the exotic boundary of SE Asia and still holds a sense of mystery. There hasn’t been that swamping of Facebook holiday photos and films set in Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos…yet.
While tourism with help the new government turn the country around it will undoubtably be at a cost of much of their cultural purity.
It is a fabulously photogenic country with the world seemingly never tiring of the golden temples and ancient empire of Bagan. However we also love the huge filthy colonial buildings, flaking paint and old marble floors with culture taking the space back like the environment does when left to its own accord.
It is a safe and enjoyable place for woman to visit. While women are marginalised within their society (as they are in most societies) even if you flout the clothing suggestions (as I did) you will not be gawked at.
Note: This was my personal experience as I 27 year old woman and also a comparison to Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos. I was surprised at how little I was made uncomfortable, men were always respectful nor did they stare as they do in many countries.
The people of Myanmar are very trustworthy, of all the countries and amazing people we visited on a grand bike tour the Burmese shone the brightest and most sincere. A restaurant owner in Yangon told us that it’d be normal that if you dropped your wallet in the city for someone to chase you down to give it back, even if they were very poor.
It is great to get a bit of variety and there are a number of ways to rest your wary legs and shield your skin from the sun. One is to get on the train. The trains are incredibly old and had very little maintenance. The sun has buckled the tracks making for a hilariously jumpy ride where you will be thrown up from the seats and swear the train are jumping off the tracks.
They aren’t the choice of transport for many tourists because they are slower than the buses however the 40km an hour speed lets you really soak in the country side, and for a cyclist… 40km is fast enough.
You can swing out of the doors, hang out of the windows and touch the overgrown foliage that brushes the train. It is an incredibly romantic way to travel.
Here is a short film we made while we were there.
jambi-jambi in Myanmar from jambi-jambi on Vimeo.
7 Things to know before you go.
1. While it may be a worthwhile tour it certainly wont be easy. It’ll be smokin hot or pissing with rain
. And while the civilians are wonderful people (the friendliest and most welcoming we met on our tour) the government and police are suspicious.
2. There is nearly no crime towards tourists making it a very safe place to visit.
3. Camping is illegal but doable. We were often followed by moped-riding secret police in the villages and our whereabouts were given to police in surrounding areas monitoring where we were going, suspicious that we wanted to camp (fair enough).
We met an english teacher who went on bike tours and had mastered camping without getting noticed. He did the majority of his distance in the morning and then spent the afternoon and evening resting and plodding along looking for a good site.
4. The road conditions are terrible, the surface is 1 of 3 things, buckled from the heat, under construction with jagged rocks or unpaved and more like a fire trail. The best bike for the job would undoubtably be a mountain bike. Or alternatively get some fat MTB tires and soak up the cheese grater dirt roads and pot-holed tarmac.
5. The guesthouses that take foreigners get filled quickly and are expensive. For 25 USD will get you a bed and not much else. Think a couple days ahead with camping and accommodation. If you’re a long way off the nearest town/city with a tourist hotel leave early and try to get into a monastery or find a campsite before the cops get onto you. Infrastructure for tourism purposes is minimal and there is still a shortage of hotels – it’s not impossible to ride into town and locate a room but you may end up paying more than you want.
6. Much of the country is still off-limits to visitors, however there is conflicting and scrambled information depending on who you ask as to where that is. Interactions between foreigners and the people of Myanmar is strained and subject to police scrutiny, they are forbidden to discuss politics under penalty of imprisonment and in 2001, the Myanmar Tourism Promotion Board issued an order that limits “unnecessary contact” between foreigners and the people of Myanmar.
How To Camp
Embrace your camp ninja! If you are traveling by bike it is nearly impossible to reach foreigner approved guesthouses each night even if you wanted to.
We found success in the monasteries that are frequent on the side of the roads. We found that if you were close enough to reach a town or city they refused us, and some are friendlier than others. The government jurisdiction doesn’t reach the monasteries so you wont be bothered there if they let you stay. Each monastery provided different experiences, one we camped and weren’t spoken to and left to our own devices, and another we were given soap and a bucket to wash in, we slept in a shrine room and we shared conversation and breakfast with the monks made by the villagers.
There are endless reasons to go, but the main reason to go now is because it is about to change for ever. There is still plenty of time for bike touring because it will take many years for the villages and remote areas you travel in as a cyclist to change.
Here are 2 places we stayed and feel comfortable to recommend.
This was a really clean and interesting place, it doesn’t have much for bike storage other than locking it to the stairs which no one seemed to mind. We had been travelling for some time and the comfort of having a mattress and shower and wi-fi was as good as a 5 star hotel.
Good location, and one of the cheapest I found in Bagan, you can get a dorm room and it has plenty of bike storage and a high quality breakfast.
There is a lot of mystery involved in bike-touring in Myanmar, from the other people we met along the way every experience was different. The best way to find out is to just go and wing it like we did. However if you have any questions reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org