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.
Immediately we were touched by the sheer friendliness and helpfulness of the people we met. We received constant thumbs ups and cheers as we pedaled past them. Clearly, they had not seen many, if any, bicycle tourers pass this way before. In one day, people gave me two bottles of water, slices of water melon, and loads of helpful advice on directions and places to stay. Never did we experience any hostility from anyone.
We bucked a wind all day, pedaling north to the next town with a state-approved guest house. We would find shortly that this would be a major limitation for our journey. We just could not stop and stay in any town. If that town had no approved guest houses, tourists simply had to exit by nighttime. Hotels that were not state-approved for foreigners simply would refuse you a room. If they did so, they could get into serious legal trouble with the government. Individuals were also prohibited from putting up foreigners. To make it more inconvenient, there was no centralized list of government-approved guest houses. You just simply did not know when you arrived to a town whether you would be able to stay there or not.
I was out of shape and I knew it. I was also sick already. It happens on the road. Our first day of 45 miles on a loaded bike bucking the wind wore me out. We got to a rest house. I was done washing myself and my clothes by 7 pm. I was so relieved to lay down. Next thing I knew, it was 6 am.
On our second riding day, we made about 55 miles. But we arrived in a town without housing. So we negotiated with a bus driver to take us and our bikes to the next town with a guest house. This was Magwe. For a total price of about $8, he carried both of us and our bikes, along with the other passengers, about 50 miles. We were discovering that in Myanmar, the rates were the same for locals and foreigners.
Every morning when we set out early, there is a feeling of serendipity. Any surprise is just around the corner, over the hill, across the river. The food is new, strange, and delicious, the temples and architecture fascinating.
But what stands out to me is the sheer kindness of the people. I have had the following events in the last two days: truck drivers throwing me bottles of water, roadside workers giving me watermelon, constant offers of food, helpful directions and advice, people volunteering to guide me, filling our tires with air and absolutely refusing to take money. All of this is always with a sincere smile, and not once have I experienced a negative feeling from anyone. I wonder what it is about Buddhist culture that fosters such cooperation and kindness. For me, it is quite joyful to be in the midst of this.
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