Our dear friend On (that is her name) has a simply great vegetarian restaurant and cooking school in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Her menu is so varied that I have eaten all my meals there for a whole week and there were still many new items left for me to try. Jeff Mease and I convinced our Belgian physician friends to take the class, and they immensely enjoyed the lessons, and eating what they had made.
Jeff gave his bike away to On’s son. So now I would be bicycling solo. I left Kanchanaburi at sunrise. I pedaled 110 kms and got to the edge of Bangkok at about 5 pm. No way was I going to ride into the city under darkness. Bangkok is surrounded by rivers and canals, and wild traffic. Many roads just dead end against a waterway.
Next morning, I studied my GPS and I found one highway that went over the canals in a straight line. When I finally found an entrance ramp to the highway, I saw that the expressway was elevated over 200 feet above the city. I pedaled to the top to find that there was a bike lane about 4 feet wide. Good, I will take it. I began pedaling high above the city in a strong breeze. I was the only one in the bike lane. So I began pedaling, and pedaling, and pedaling. There was no exit for 15 miles! When I finally came to an exit, I took it. At the bottom, I just had one more long bridge to cross, and I was in Bangkok.
We went to Grandfather Beach, one of the most isolated stretches of beach in Southeast Asia. From the surface, it looked great. But put a mask on and dive in, and where are the fish? Here, the fishermen use fine gill nets. With these nets, they catch everything. I watched them pull in their nets, and I saw that they keep everything also. They had buckets of fingerling fish no more than 3 inches long. And it showed in the water. In an hour of snorkeling over the rocks and coral, I did not see any fish longer than 8 inches.
Perhaps more serious was how much algae was in the water. Visibility was low. The algae is growing because of agricultural and human waste runoff. These nutrients fertilize algae blooms, which block sunlight and kill coral. I have seen the same in Thailand and Vietnam. Coral reefs worldwide are going going gone.
The hotel staff at the Kyautse Hotel just simply would not let me go! Their kindness was shown in furnishing me two guides to the great archaeological site of Ta Mote Shin. I rode on the back of a scooter with them for about 25 kms to the site. Immediately, I saw that this was a most professional excavation, led by archaeologists. A large metal building covered the temples that were about 1000 years old. Myat and the driver escorted me throughout it. But then, Myat, the devoted Buddhist, stopped. She explained that women could not go any further. I thought this to be unfair, but she accepted it without question. The staff at the hotel asked me to stay another night, but I really did have to get going.
I had a decision to make: I could pedal along highway 1 for 4 days to get to the south, thru intense semi traffic on a narrowish, dirty, dusty road thru flat, dry fields, or I could toss my bike onto a train. I choose the train because I wanted to pedal thru smaller, more safe roads in the countryside where the scenery and country life would be in full view.
At 5:00 am, in complete darkness, I got out of the train in Bago. I assembled my bike in the darkness, having zero idea where I was in the city. I walked my bike out to a major street and waited for light. And Gaia bless GPS on my phone. GPS has consistently saved me from making terrible wrong turns. It has been by far the most useful ap on my phone. So well before sunrise, I am on the road pedaling eventually south toward Dawei, Myanmar, close the the end of the peninsula.
These roads are much more pleasant to ride, with much less traffic. I observe the people making their living growing and harvesting food, catching fish, and making many useful things by hand to sell along the roadsides. For the next 3 days, I average around 100 km @ day pedaling. That is good enough for me. I think I can sustain that rate indefinitely. If I go longer, I might be too tired to go as far the next day.
I finally pedal the large river city of Mawlamyine. George Orwell was stationed here 90 years ago, around the time he came to condemn British imperialism. I have made the mistake of not getting a kickstand mounted on my bike. Someone in the hotel accidentally knocks over my bike and smashes the dérailleur. Oh no, now I cannot ride my bike at all. I am worried that parts may not be available. A German tourist observes my problem and comments, “Do not worry. These people are very skilled at fixing everything.” So I get to a bike shop and they have the exactly same Shimano derailleur! And it is only $7 US. Wow. It would be $30+ in the US. The bicycle repairman, with deft hands, quickly installs it AND a kickstand. I can ride again! He asked for $1.50 for labor. I am embarrassed at how little he wants. So I give him a good tip.
In Dawei I finally meet up with Jeff Mease again. There is a major power outage in the city, so it is running on candles and generators for the next full day. Then we hop on our bikes and pedal over a steep little mountain range to the Andaman Sea. We are now staying on the beach in paradise and not suffering at all. 🙂
Arriving at the best hotel I have ever been in, a brand new luxury hotel, to be told that I am their VERY FIRST foreign guest, and they throw a party for me! Bouncing down a steep mountain road for 2+ hours, pedaling across a hot, dusty plain all day, and relieved to make it.
I packed up my bike and left Pyin U Lwin at sunrise. For the next 3 hours, I pedaled maybe 30 minutes. The rest of it was COASTING DOWN an increasingly steep, 3000+ foot descent into the Myanmar plains below. So I first stopped and adjusted my brakes, yet again. They were wearing thin because of all these descents.
I started out on this bicycle trip overweight and out of shape, and I paid for it in my first week of riding. But after a few weeks of riding, I had dropped 10 pounds and was finally feeling stronger.
So I packed up my bike before sunrise and left the comfort of my hotel in Hsipaw, a mountain city in the NE of Myanmar. At least I would be going downhill, or so I thought. But it was a sawtooth road all the way: climb 300 feet, drop 500 feet, and then, repeat repeat repeat.
But worse than that was the unending stream of large, smoking trucks, apparently carrying large amounts of raw material to China, and returning with manufactured goods. The drivers were polite, but the roads were narrow. I quickly bought a face mask to reduce the dust and particulates I was breathing in. I later noticed that it made a difference.
At 3 am in Mandalay, I ride my loaded bicycle to the train station. The streets are finally empty. At the train station, I board the cutest little ‘baby train’, on one-meter track. For the next 12 hours we will average 13 mph as we climb switchbacks up the mountain, go thru long tunnels, and finally over a spectacular bridge.
I arrive in the afternoon in Hsipaw (correct spelling). I am now in SHAN territory, so the few words in Burmese that I have struggled to remember no longer apply. Foreigners are not allowed to go much further up the road here because of ‘conflicts’. So this is the end of the northern line for me.
MANDALAY and beyond: Mintha dance, urban cycling, the longest teak bridge, accosted by photo groupies, and NO BIG FEET!
I left the Buddhist monastery at sunrise and pedaled thru the ancient ruins of Iwna.
Impressive. Then I followed the road until it dead-ended at the Irriwaddy river. Crap. I would have to backtrack by pedal 10 miles. But then, along comes a ferry to the rescue. Yes, I WILL pay. And off to Mandalay I go.
I book a very good room at Hotel Nylon (seriously) and text Jeff. In a few hours, he rendezvouses and we hit the town, bicycle-speaking.
Next morning we pedal 8 miles south to the world’s longest wooden bridge, the Ubein Bridge, made all of teak. We walk it. It has no hand rails. I guess the Buddhists feel that if you cannot stay on the middle of the track, well, next reincarnation. On the bridge, we are constantly accosted by sweet Facebook groupies. They want to take selfies with us, and be our Facebook friends. When I finally do open FB, I find I have 20+ new posts.
Pedaling north, first the ancient archaeological city of Bagan, and then to Mandalay.
Each day we are up early, riding with loaded bikes. We have been bucking the wind, and depending upon the hills, we make from 40 to 70 miles. The people along the way have been consistently helpful. At the end of the day, I wash myself, my clothes, and then sleep a solid 10 hours. Before I know it, it is time to be up and on the road again. It gets to be a habit.
The Myanmar government provides free, fresh water along all the roadsides, and Jeff and I take advantage of it. I try new food and drink along the way. Sometimes it does not agree with me, but it is thus far worth the risk. Every day has a new surprise, and it is a joy to have continuous serendipity.
Bicyclists told us that the first 150 miles going north would cut thru rice and sugar cane fields, and not much more. If we were to just get 28 days to visit Mynamar, I wanted it to be in the most interesting parts of the country. So we threw our bikes onto the Yangon-Mandalay express and took the train to Pyay. Well, this ‘express’ sped along at 25 mph, on swaying, bouncing track. Any faster would have been dangerous. So we sat on hard plastic seats, and here we go. At times, looking out the window, I thought that I could pedal this fast. We arrived in Pyay at night, to find that the first three guest houses were booked full. Finally, we found a guest house with an empty room. We took it.
Next morning, we were off early.