The Road to Mandalay

Tachiliek, Myanmar. Thursday 14th November 2019.
Borders are busy places and Mai Sai was no exception. But there were helpers around to direct us to the correct places. At immigration the officer said that he couldn’t let me leave because I couldn’t return, having already crossed a land border into Thailand twice that year. How surreal is the assumption that I was automatically coming back? Even more so that he couldn’t let me leave. I explained that I was crossing Myanmar into India and did not intend to  come back. He stamped my passport.
On to customs. This guy asked where my travel permit for Thailand was, a reference to the theoretical (mostly) requirement for a permit issued by the Department of Land Transport, allowing you to bring your vehicle in. I said that when I came from Lao I wasn’t given one. He accepted that. Steve was just behind me and he had some issues surrounding his Carnet, so we were both taken over to the customs compound, with our bikes, to sort it out. Steve had been issued with a Thai Temporary Import Permit, valid for thirty days. That was about four months previously, so he had some questions to answer. Customs took both our Carnets away. We waited around. They came back with mine, all stamped up. The answer to the question they asked of Steve was a 10,000 baht fine (about £400). He’d been expecting it.


The three amigos and Soe, our Burmese guide.

We were free to go so we joined the throng crossing the bridge to Myanmar. The problem here is that Thailand drives on the left, Myanmar on the right (although it used to drive on the left). It’s a narrow bridge so no room for chicanery. We were stopped half way across while the Thai bound traffic crossed our path onto the left side. Then they were stopped while we did the opposite. Chaos, but organised. Our guide, Soe, now took over and walked us through immigration and customs. We had to sign for pre-organised permits, sign for customs entry and so on. But it all went smoothly. Immigration were a little bit unsure about my wanting to swap from my UK to Irish passport, but after a few phone calls, they let it go. We rode into the border town of Tachiliek for some lunch. Soe had advised us to keep some baht because all transactions here were carried out in the Thai currency rather than the Burmese Kyat. How very strange. After lunch I was pleased to find an exchange office that gave me a good rate for the baht I had left.
Myanmar time is thirty minutes later than Thailand, which meant it got dark earlier. Having started the day on Thai time, we were now likely to be finishing the ride in the dark. That’s not so good on unfamiliar, third world country, roads. It was about 150kms to our first hotel. The roads were a bit rough in places, often narrow and broken up as they wound their way through the mountains. The people seemed very poor, and didn’t look to be in very good physical condition. The same could be said of their housing. It reminded me of the further reaches of Lao and Cambodia, but worse. But I did see kids coming home from school in most places, which is always a good sign of progress. But that was only in the bigger villages. Small settlements had none of that, and no sign of electricity either.


A typical, down at heel village. This one had electricity, many did not.

If you remember I mentioned having to get a new battery, and speculating whether the charging system was working? Well, it wasn’t. I had to jump start the bike a couple of times but by the time I’d reached the town where the hotel was, it had died. Having to use the headlight for the last 50kms didn’t help the situation. Fortunately, because I was late, Soe came out looking for me and found me, less than a kilometre from the hotel. My phone battery had also gone flat, effectively leaving me stranded. As is the way these days, the only place I had a record of the hotel name was on my phone. I used my jump leads to attach my battery to the car battery so it would charge up overnight. Later on I checked the charge rate on the bike and it just wasn’t happening. It was clear I was going to have to carry a fully charged spare as it was unlikely a battery would last for a day’s ride. At that point I didn’t know just how much trouble this situation was going to give me.
Next morning, after breakfast, we got chatting to a Dutch couple and an Aussie guy, all on bikes. I gave them my Thai SIM card and some maps, a thing I always do if I meet people heading towards a country I’ve just left. They were heading to the Tachiliek border crossing and they’d heard about the recent enforcement of the permit rules there. They were hoping to be able to get across without them. My experience with customs, when they asked me for a permit even though I was leaving, convinced me they had no chance, but I thought it best to say nothing. I heard later that they didn’t get through and ended up hiring a pick up truck to transport them over to Lao and avoid the permit problem. The cost? $400 EACH! It’s half a day’s journey. They knew they could easily get back into Thailand from Lao at most of the borders, without needing the permit. Which shows how crazy these regulations are. But the only way into Thailand from India is via Myanmar, unless you go via China. And that’s a whole level worse and expensive with regard to the permit/guide situation.


Mountain roads. Narrow, challenging but good fun too.

Today’s roads were tough. We were way up in the mountains, on rough, steep and twisty roads. Good fun but hard work. As before, most of the villages were very run down and the people looked very poor. I was ahead of the others and when I came to a town where we had to be guided through a checkpoint, it seemed a good place for lunch. Rice, chicken, pork and soup. They know how to feed you here. Soe and his brother, Niang, who was driving, arrived and I got my battery connected to theirs. They left the engine running so as to give it a good charge up. Soon after, Steve and Amelia rode in too. They’d stopped at a place for coffee and had been invited into the house for some food. But that didn’t stop Steve from getting more.
One thing I’d noticed was that, like most women in Myanmar, the women here were wearing some kind of beige coloured face cream or paint. We asked Soe what it was. It’s made from the bark of the Thanaka tree, which is rubbed in a dish to extract the compound, mixed with water then applied to the cheeks and forehead. They often draw swirly patterns in it, before it dries, using a soft brush. The woman asked Amelia if she’d like it done. Of course she said yes, so we watched while she went through the process of making the paste and applying it. Amelia was delighted, the rest of us were amused, but also educated.


Amelia gets the treatment.


The art and the artist.

I stopped at a bike shop for a new battery, just to avoid being stranded, but didn’t fit it yet. The road, and therefore the pace, improved and I made it to the hotel before the battery died, although I had to push it across the road to the entrance. Steve and Amelia had gone out for a walk and had met some people at a temple. They’d been invited to join them for a meal in a restaurant and they rang me to explain where it was. I joined them and the extended family they were eating with. The son was studying to be a doctor and spoke really good English, as did some of the others. They gave us a pink alcoholic drink, made from sticky rice with fruit flavour in it. It was very nice, as was the rice spirit we also sampled. The meal was delicious, especially the freshly cooked whole fish, accompanied by various other dishes, all served up on a large platter. They wouldn’t let us pay for anything but the father works for free at refurbishing the temple so I managed to give him some money towards the renovation fund.


Plenty to share round. Pick the bits you like.

Back at the hotel I bought Soe a beer and we sat in reception and chatted. I asked him about the lack of schooling and he said there’s still a lot of civil unrest between different regions, which interrupts these things. The military still have influence in the government, although there are moves to end that with changes to the constitution. And, of course, corruption is still rife. I spotted an old musical instrument hanging on the wall and I asked to look at it. I had a go at playing it, which amused the reception staff and caused all the local cats to go on holiday. I’m not a very musical person.


The plaintive tones … No, sorry, the painful tones of my musical efforts.

Time for a quick look at Myanmar itself. It’s been, for a long time, a bit of a mystery country. Closed off by the military authorities for many years. Its early history is similar to the countries that surround it, and it shares history with some of them, especially Thailand. Its geographic borders were pretty much set during the 13th century, during a time of relative peace and unity. It has over one hundred and thirty different ethnic groups, many of them among the hill tribes in the north. It was colonised, in stages, by the British as they pushed east from India and was regarded as part of the Indian empire. The country is rich in natural resources, including teak, precious metals, oil and gas. Its main export is rice. It follows Theravada Buddhism, mixed in with local beliefs. It used to have a well educated population before colonial times, with a highly developed cultural life, but repression of the native, Buddhist based, education system, and the removal of the monarchy and their integration with the monks, tore that down. There was continued resistance and rebellion against colonial rule, setting in place friction between them and the more pragmatic Burmese who decided to work with the system. During WW2 the Japanese invaded, although some welcomed that as a way of getting rid of the British. But they came back in 1945, created Burma as a separate country from India and eventually granted independence in 1948.
A fairly short ride next day, less than 150kms. A much better road too. Still hilly in places, but most of the time we seemed to be on a plateau, about 1,100 metres up. The farmland looked to be much better and much more productive. The houses were bigger and better and people were dressed better and looked well fed. We were at our hotel relatively early. Amelia was running a fever, so once Steve had got her sorted out and settled into bed, we all went for a boat trip on Inlé lake.


All life is lived on the lake. Some typical housing here.

This is a typical shallow, almost static Asian lake. No more than three metres deep but long and wide, and with huge amounts of weed across it. I expected the main industry here to be fishing, but it’s actually growing tomatoes. How do they do that in the middle of the lake? They use the weeds. They’re cultivated so they can be formed into long rows and are anchored to the lake bed with bamboo poles. It was very strange to see the farmers working on their crop from boats. But it’s so successful that the lake supplies the whole of Myanmar with tomatoes. There are small villages among the crops. Mostly wooden houses, supported on wooden or bamboo stilts. Soe told us that wooden stilts last about fifty years, those of bamboo only twenty. Many of the houses were quite substantial, and housed several branches of the same family. There were often children playing very close to the edge of the platforms, with seemingly very little to stop them falling in. There are areas of reclaimed land, which house block built buildings, looking as if they’re for community use. All life is lived on the lake, including schools etc.


The farmers use boats to tend their rows of tomatoes. The weeds are anchored to the lake bed with bamboo poles.

We were dropped off at Nga Phe Kyaung monastery. Also on reclaimed land, this is a large, wooden building, some four hundred years old. It had a big hall, full of Buddha images, set on a raised, central dais. They had been gathered from all round the country and were there for safe keeping. There were many monks there, visiting from the Buddha University in Myanmar. There were a dozen or so females among them, wearing pink over their robes. They all spoke good English and they learn it so they can go out into the world to preach the word. Most monks I’d met barely communicated but these seemed a lot more pushy than those I’d met elsewhere and it was the first time I’d heard about Buddhism being proselytised.


A couple of the stored Buddha images.


Some of the female novice monks. Pretty in pink, although restricted in what they’re allowed to learn.

One of the reasons for visiting the lake is to see the sunset. To this end, we went to a community hall and hired a fisherman, with his boat. Not to fish, of course, but to pose while we took photos. They’ve had special training in this role and our guy certainly laid it on thick – pushed the boat out, you might say. A man of many poses, was him and his net, Very acrobatic too. They move these boats by pushing a paddle with their foot, involving some very clever balancing.


Caught in the net.


More clever balancing, for the delight of the tourists.

Back at the hotel Steve made sure Amelia was as comfortable as she could be. The hotel staff had taken her some food, although it didn’t want to stay there. Steve and I walked across to the night food market and chose some nice sweet and sour out of the variety on offer from the plethora of stalls.
Amelia was still unwell the next day so she chose to ride in the car. There seemed to be at least two other tour groups staying at the hotel, one of them on bikes. It was, therefore a bit of a slow start, but I still set off quite early. Although you must have a guide, in Myanmar you don’t have to follow them, unlike in some countries, so I was free to ride at my own pace and take any route I cared to. In practice there was usually only one, but when there was a choice, Soe would suggest the best one for us. As long as we all made it to the pre-booked hotel, he was happy. I stopped for coffee and the others caught me up there, so we had lunch too. The pretty, young waitress wanted selfies, so we obliged. She was very taken with Steve and his big bushy beard, with him seeming to be twice her height. Before we left I took my spare battery from the car and carried it with me. I had a feeling I might need it.

We were on the road to Mandalay and, as with yesterday, the land looked very prosperous. The fields up on the hillsides looked very colourful, tinted by the shades of the different crops. At one point, as I went through a town, I even got caught up in a school run traffic jam, made up of, surprise, surprise , school run mummies in their 4x4s. We were still up on a plateau at about 1,100 metres, but occasionally we climbed up over a high passes at around 1,800 metres. I had to stop to swap batteries at one point but I was confident I’d get to the hotel. As I came into the city the bike was making signs that told me the battery was getting low. As I came over a bridge, about 400 metres from the hotel, the bike died. I rolled down to the junction, where a policeman started berating me about something. I got out the starter pack and got the bike running, only for it to die again 100 metres later. This time, when I tried to start it, the jumper pack didn’t work. No sign of life at all. I had to ring up Steve, who came out to rescue me. Once at the hotel I gave both batteries to Soe, who said he’d get them charged up properly overnight. This was his home city, so he knew where that could be done.


An unexpected sight on a city street.

Once settled in I went for a walk. The hotel was on a main road which led to the old city. Plenty of shops along the road, often high end. As a counterpoint to this I caught up with a woman who was carrying a large, aluminium bowl on her head and not using her hands. The bowl was filled with smaller pots and dishes, and my guess was that she cooked and sold food in the street. On her head she had a cloth that was shaped to fit her, but which also provided a flat surface for the bowl to sit on. It was the way she walked that fascinated me. A kind of smooth, very graceful, sashaying movement, which enabled her legs to move while keeping her upper body vertical and unbent. It all happened at the hips, it seemed to me. How do they learn this? From their mothers I would think, unless there’s some sashay schools they can attend.
The old city is entirely surrounded by a moat, which is at least 100 metres across, with each side of the square being two kilometres long. There’s a wall around it all and it looked rather magnificent in its night time illuminations. Google maps suggested there wasn’t all that much within the walls, although we had no time to visit even if there had been. On the way back to the hotel, as I passed a side street, I saw a stage with some entertainers on it. I went to look and a guy came up to me and was explaining what it was all about. Then he asked me for a dollar. I said I didn’t have one, only some fruit I’d just bought. So he took an apple. I suspect he only took it for the sake of it, rather than any particular fruity desire. The events on the stage weren’t up to much either.


A bit of a comedown for a former palace.

Just for a change, next morning was about being tourists rather than travellers. Soe took us to various places around Mandalay. The first was the U Bein Bridge, which is an old, wooden structure that crosses part of the Tuang Tha Mon lake. It was built using the wood from an old palace. It sits about three metres above the water level although in the rainy season it becomes submerged. There’s a farm nearby, obviously only worked seasonally. The various businesses by the lake shore are also seasonal. We watched a fisherman, aided by his wife, throwing out his net and dragging it back in. There weren’t many fish in it. The lake has become very polluted by the industries on its shore. But, without any doubt, the oddest thing we saw was a guy in a small boat who was herding ducks! He drove them across the water and the weeds, under the bridge, to a different part of the shore. Having walked out along the bridge, when I came back I saw the same guy herding them back again, only this time he had a competitor with another herd of ducks. Were they to get mixed up, how on earth would they be able to separate them? Do duck herders get to know their feathery flock the way a shepherd gets to know his sheep? It remains a mystery.


Herding ducks. The only question here is “why?”.

Next was a visit to the Ku Tho Daw pagoda., also known as the biggest book. In the grounds are over 1,000 small pagodas, each one housing a stele, with Buddhist teachings written on it. They stand in long, bright white, perfectly spaced rows, seeming to guard the knowledge from centuries ago. We stopped at Shue Mandaw Monastry next, also known as the Golden Palace. It had been given to the monks to use as a monastery several hundred years ago and I assume the king removed the gold when he did so as all we could see was wood.


The incredible wood carvings are being restored by specially trained craftsmen.

Some parts of it had suffered from the ravages of time but we were able to watch as some craftsmen carved out replacements. The heritage organisations train them for this work, a good thing to see. The style of the building is quite unassuming, apart from its height and the thousands of carvings on it. The last visit of the morning was to the viewpoint on the top of Mandalay Hill, for a magnificent, if hazy, view over the city.


These Stele looked beautiful in their white rows of words.


The artwork in many temples is quite stunning.

A pretty easy ride once we’d left, until we came across a very rough, stony stretch of road, about 10kms long. My elbow didn’t like it much. Steve came past me standing on the footrests and it most definitely didn’t like it when I followed suit. So I sat down again and suffered.
That night’s hotel was easily the best we’d stayed in so far, and they’d all been pretty good. There was a row of Honda and Kawasaki 250cc trail bikes parked there. I chatted to the guy in charge of them and they’re used by people who fly in and then take guided tours around Myanmar. It may be that some long term travellers might be tempted to look down on such people, to an extent. I wouldn’t because I’ve done the same myself on two occasions and it’s a great way to visit a region for short periods. It’s a very popular thing in most SE Asian countries.
Soe told us about a nearby restaurant which put on traditional puppet shows. We walked down there, had some very nice food and enjoyed the very skilful show. The puppeteers were hidden behind a curtain, above and behind the stage. But sometimes the curtains were pulled back so you could see how they went about their work. It actually enhanced the contact between them and the audience, drawing us in closer to the performance. The skill level was high and the puppets were very decorative. Well worth seeing.


Puppeteers at play.

Next morning we were up before the lark, with plans to watch the sunrise over the temples. This is a big event in Bagan, especially the part were the hot air balloons rise up at the same time and drift across the pink sky. We rode out to the Sunrise Man Made Hill, the official site for this event. It’s located in among the pagodas, of which there are several hundred. But it’s strictly forbidden to climb them so this mound was created. When we got there it was already crowded. There were three Chinese coaches in the car park and while we were there another three arrived. But we were approached by a couple of women who invited us to follow them to a nearby pagoda, which we could climb onto. I mentioned that we weren’t allowed to do that but she said they had special permission for it. No charge, but they’d like us to buy some souvenirs from them. We looked at each other, then at the ever growing crowd on the mound, and decided to take a chance.
We followed them through the trees to the pagoda and climbed up it, along with a dozen or so others. But there was enough room, even if the climb itself was a bit precarious. Watching the sun come up over the distant hills was a great experience. As the sky got ever pinker the hot air balloons also rose. At least a couple of dozen of them, with the wind bringing them over our heads. I got some fabulous photos of the balloons and the sun coming up. I bought some nice lacquered boxes from the women, by way of payment. Steve and Amelia didn’t want anything so they just contributed some money. While being impressed by these women’s enterprise, I also wondered what ‘permission’ they actually had and how much they had to pay for it. There’s always wheels to be greased.


Hot air balloons at dawn, as the sun paints the stupa pink.


A pose for the album as we leave Bagan behind.

Back to the hotel for a really good breakfast. We chatted to the German guy who was organising the bike tour, and talked about the French rider who’d been killed in a head on collision with a mad overtaker the day before. Soe said that the Burmese had only been allowed to drive cars for the last ten years so skill levels weren’t all that high. That’s a sobering thought.
Soe took us out to visit a couple more pagodas. One was very decorative, and covered in gold leaf. We could have bought some and fitted it onto the temple had we wanted to. It was surprisingly cheap. The other one was a rare sight, being built of large, sandstone blocks. Not at all a common building material in this part of the world. It actually made a pleasant change from all that gold.
As we were about to leave Soe noticed a bolt missing from Steve’s bike, which secured the rear sub frame. We carried on with our plan to get some photos next to a pagoda, then Steve and Soe went looking for a replacement bolt while I carried on. They found one eventually, I’m pleased to say. The road was now mostly good. Nice countryside, with plenty of different crops being grown. On these flatter lands it was very common to see water buffalo used to haul carts. They are still a very important animal in the remoter parts of most SE Asian countries. I stopped for some lunch and got chatting to a young Polish hitch hiker, at that time riding in a truck. He was heading across to Thailand. These days that’s a very old fashioned way to travel. Good luck to you, I thought.


Cafe cooking, Burmese style.

Further along the road, disaster struck. I felt something hit my leg so I stopped the bike. My backpack had fallen off the rack and the wheel had worn a hole in it. I checked the contents and all seemed OK, so I strapped it down again and carried on. It wasn’t until I got to the hotel, had been out to buy another backpack and was transferring everything over, that I realised my camera wasn’t there. That was probably what hit my leg. Clearly, I hadn’t checked thoroughly enough before I carried on. Losing the camera was bad enough, but it was the loss of all that days photos that annoyed me the most. I had some great shots of the sunrise and the balloons, now lost. You never curse anyone as much as you curse yourself when these stupid things happen. Fortunately I had also taken some photos on my phone. We were due to cross into India the next day, so that evening we all had a nice meal out, with a few beers to finish off our partnership.
A reasonably early start, but no rush. We wanted to enjoy our last day in Myanmar. This country has a feel to it that, I’m guessing, was how most of SE Asia was about thirty years ago, before money and modernity came to call. Most country people wear the Chinese style hats. The women all wear long dresses and most men, even the young ones, wear the lunghi. Bullock carts abound. But I wish they’d learn to look where they’re going when walking. I almost got a couple of them in the towns.
After a while I stopped for coffee. The others turned up so coffee became lunch. I swapped batteries as the first one was fading.


Roadside shrine. Purpose unknown.

The road towards the border had lots of bailey bridges on it, almost all of them single lane. This meant stopping to wait, and then easing across on the irregular wooden surface. At one of them I stalled the bike and it wouldn’t start. I had to wait for Soe to catch me up. We pulled off the road and waited around while he charged the battery off his car. The people outside whose house we’d stopped volunteered us the use of their solar panel, so the second battery went on that. After a while that battery went in the bike and the other stayed in the car, charging up. Once we got to the border I fitted that one, hoping it would see me through to India and our hotel. It did, I’m pleased to say.
Soe guided us through Myanmar immigration and customs. They closed at 5pm, we’d arrived with fifteen minutes to spare. Then he came over to the Indian side to show us where to go. Fortunately India is one hour behind Myanmar, so there was no worry about a deadline. We said our goodbyes and he left. It was sad to see him go. He’d been a very good guide and had helped me enormously with my battery problems, as had his brother. I don’t think I’d have made it without them.


Goodbye Myanmar. I’ll be back one day.

What about modern day Myanmar? The period between independence and the 2011 elections, when democracy appeared to have arrived, is a story of dictatorship of a communist kind, followed by harsh military rule. It became one of the poorest nations in the world, despite its richness in resources. There were constant battles against insurgents, as there still is today. The 2011 elections were not seen as free and fair by international observers but those in 2015 were. Things seemed to be looking up until the world became aware of the genocidal behaviour towards the Rohingya people. These are one of the ethnic groups to which Myanmar has never given citizenship and hundreds of thousands of them have been driven off their lands and have had to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh. It reinforces the point made by Soe about the number of ethnic conflicts which still hold the country back.
But for all that Myanmar is a fascinating country. I got a sense of it slowly emerging from a darker past and into the light of modern times. Sometimes that’s a mixed blessing, but is essential for Myanmar if it wants to enjoy the same success as its fellow ASEAN countries. We liked it very much and it’s yet another country I want to explore further.


A final shot of our acrobatac boatman.

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