We’re well underway on our 13-day bike trip through Myanmar. We’ve learned a few things so far on the trip. One, the highlands where we’ve been biking so far get amazingly cold; at night I’ve been putting on every layer of clothing I can, since I haven’t really packed warm clothes. Second, it’s really hard to bicycle up long hills on dirt and gravel roads. Third, it’s really hard to bicycle down long hills on dirt and gravel roads. There are a lot of hills so far, and a lot of dirt and gravel. And lots of road construction, though almost shockingly little construction equipment; road construction is almost entirely a manual project here. We’ve been told that the construction workers earn $4 a day for the long, hot, and difficult work they do.
Another thing we’ve learned is that the people of Myanmar are just remarkable friendly, with the biggest smiles and happiest greetings. (Note that I didn’t refer to the Burmese; we’ve spent the first several days in Shan Province, populated with ethnic Shans, I’ve learned, not Burmese.) We’ve waved to untold numbers of kids smiling and waving and shouting to us. You just can’t help smiling at all the friendly faces we see.
Finally, I’ve learned that we spend a lot of time in vans, a lot more than I’d have expected. At first I thought it was strange that we wouldn’t just ride like we did in Italy and like I’ve done on other rides: you get on the bike and ride 30 or 50 or 60 miles to a town, stay there, then bike the next day to the next town. After a couple days, though, I figured it out, and it’s not complicated. The tourist industry in Myanmar is less developed than the tourist industry in Italy. Who’d have guessed? It turns out you can’t just ride from cute inn or guesthouse or lodge to cute inn or guesthouse or lodge; there aren’t that many of them here. So instead we typically get in the van, drive to the starting point where the other van has brought our bikes, ride for several hours, and then get driven into whatever town or city we’re staying in that night. It’s perhaps not my fantasy of a bike tour, but it’s still a fascinating way to see Myanmar.
A word about our tour company, Grasshopper Adventures. We love them. We did a couple day rides with them in Cambodia and thought they provided a great service. And then in Laos we used another company for a day ride that was pathetic – the tour guide couldn’t keep up with us, saying that he had an injured knee. So after maybe half of what we were supposed to ride he called the support vehicle to meet us and he rode in the tuk-tuk behind us – not a real fun way to ride.
Grasshopper Adventures, though, has been great. We start riding, the van goes up about 20 kilometers to set up a snack break with fresh fruit, nuts, sweet things, water. We ride another 20 kilometers (or sometimes less) and there’s another snack break set up. We get off our bikes, they refill our water bottles. We quit for the day and every day they clean our bikes and make sure the gears are working and all that. We pull into Mandalay for a two-day stop and they arrange to have our laundry done while we’re out exploring the city. Really a great experience so far.
A quick summary of what we’ve done so far. After our day on Inle Lake, we took on what was described as a “challenging” ride. They weren’t making that up. They’d warned us that we faced an 11-kilometer hill to climb but they somehow neglected to add that it was on a gravel/dirt road. That was brutal. And when we got done with that 11-kilometer climb? Well, the “rolling hills” we’d been expected turned out to be a lot more uphill on gravel roads. So we got our workout before pulling into the hill town of Kalaw, once a British hill station during the colonial era. They built it up there to escape the heat of the lowlands, and I can certify that they succeeded. I’m just amazed at how cold it can get in Myanmar. Next time I’ll bring a hat and gloves.
The next morning, before starting our ride, we spent the morning at the Green Hill Valley Elephant Sanctuary, a private preserve where they have “retired” and are caring for seven elephants who, until recently, were working in the logging industry. It’s not a tourist site where you ride the elephants or something, it’s just a place where they take care of old and wounded elephants. But a genuinely impressive attempt to care for these remarkable mammals in a beautiful setting.
Then it was another ride through the countryside before arriving in Pindaya which, at an elevation of about 4,000 feet, was even colder than Kalaw had been. By now it was Christmas Eve, and the little hotel we were staying in near the Golden Cave – named after the more than 8,000 Buddhas placed in the cave – had a little fire in the parking lot for us to sit around as they poured us some homemade plum wine. Quite the celebration!
Finally, the next day was a long one – just over 100 kilometers. More downhill than up, but still quite the challenge. Not much to say about it except it was long and fantastically beautiful. And what a way to spend a Christmas Day, biking 100 kilometers across Burma. How often do you get to do that??
After a very long downhill ride we climbed into the van for the final drive into Mandalay where we had a not-at-all-traditional Christmas dinner. Since by now we’ve come to really enjoy our riding mates – Robin and Alison from London, Lisa and Barbara from Melbourne, and Marlene, who teaches English in Seoul but is from Maryland – it was a very warm and merry Christmas indeed.