Tuesday, March 3, 2015

From Rags to Riches in Myanmar

Rural life in Myanmar, their river is their bath and the place to wash clothes, and also provides them with food and water for crops.

From rags to riches, that is exactly what I witnessed as I made my way down to Yangon and the beaches of central Myanmar. I would say that during my travels in Myanmar, 70% of my time was spent on the backroads surrounded by rural villages and countryside. Here, life is very primitive and simple (hence I used the title “rags”) but that does not mean that they lack happiness in their daily life. Actually I'd argue the opposite. Village life witnessed from the side of the road and through my interaction might be titled as extreme poverty with few resources on which to live, but it was in these areas that I felt the most comfortable as a traveler because of the genuine heart filled personality of the locals.

Village houses in rural Myanmar

A grouping of houses by the main road

The bridge to a few houses on the other side of a canal.

Despite their very meager conditions, villagers in Myanmar always seemed happy and content with the bare minimum. And when I say refer to the bare minimum, that is even a bit of a stretch. Houses are nothing more than a roof, some without walls, others with only three walls and are as small as 3 or 4 square meters.  Privacy is a luxury, beds the floor unless they have a foldable mattress or some sort of bamboo pad.  Roofs made out of dried banana and palm leaves, raised on stilts if they are lucky to survive the wet season. It was common to encounter people here bathing in the streams or at a public water hole, which might be as simple as a big barrel of water and a bucket to be shared by all the people in the vicinity. Most families found a way to convert their living quarters into some sort of a business selling snacks or beverages, anything they could to make a little money. Close by was some sort of crop growing that they would all cultivate, probably one of the only sources of income for the people.

In a nut shell, the character of many Burmese is similar to this little girl

In the mountains from Inle Lake to the new capital city of Nay Pyi Taw, I had trouble finding a restaurant. Small shops were scattered along the way, but a proper tea house with green tea and meals were hard to come by. One morning I had to pedal 20 miles before I found a shop with tea I could drink to warm up in the crisp mountain air. This is unusual for SE Asia where food and drink is normally in abundance. Resources in the mountains in Myanmar were limited, making it feel as though I was really off the beaten track experiencing rural village life, which accounts for a good majority of the lives of people in Myanmar. As a tourist in rural Myanmar, they were always so curious regarding my presence, but never once treated me poorly. Never once did it dawn on them that I was a tourist and therefore they should treat me differently, charge me more, or take advantage of me in any other way. They were always willing to help me, even if it involved a lot of giggling.

No food stalls lining these mountain roads

Many of the remote landscapes in Myanmar's mountains

In rural Myanmar I was fascinated to observe their daily lives and have a profound respect for them. Survival is their objective as they are completely reliant on their own efforts in order to meet their daily needs. They build their houses by hand, they grow all their vegetables that they eat. Meat, I'm sure is a commodity but comes from the few chickens and pigs you seem roaming around freely. They might have a water buffalo to help with the efforts, but if not, they carry everything with their own bare hands, many times balancing things on their heads, or strapping heavy bags over their heads. If the road needs to be repaired, it is done all by hand. That means they gather the rocks, spread them out on the ground, level them with hand tools, and burn the barrels of tar that is then spread over the rocks. There are no bulldozers, no trucks, everything is done by hand. Witnessing their daily efforts were humbling. Their day is consumed doing everything in order to maintain a sustainable life up in the mountains. With few resources they depend completely on themselves, their family, and other village members.

A barrier to avoid mud slides, all done by hand

Road works, all done by hand

My company on the rural roads

Needless to say, I was in shock when I arrived in more developed areas, especially the new capital city of Nay Pyi Taw. About five years ago, the government decided to move Myanmar's capital from Yangon to Nay Pyi Taw, because of the more central location. Perhaps it is central geographically but the hub of activity remains in Yangon. My jaw dropped as I witnessed immaculate newly constructed 10 lane highways, skyscrapers, and infrastructure such as expo centers that looked as if they could accommodate events of many thousands of people. Oddly enough, the city is deserted with few inhabitants. I was repulsed by what I witnessed imagining the money and time that was spent to move the capital to Nay Pyi Taw, after observing the poverty conditions in rural villages. Just stop and thing about the money and effort that would be involved if all of a sudden the United States decided to move our capital from Washington DC to let's say somewhere central like Wichita, Kansas? With the money spent on the new capital the Myanmar government could have invested in the country's basic education system or improved the network of rural roads using the proper technology and machinery. It was appalling to witness and the reason why I chose hop on a night bus rather than spend the night and contribute to this economy.

Nay Pyi Taw, an empty capital

A empty massive highway, think it was an over kill?

Government buildings

Having cycled up the western central plains of Myanmar, I bused myself down to Yangon and cycled through the delta to the beach destination of Ngwe Saung, where I was also in for more surprises. In central and northern Myanmar there are a total of 3 beach destinations, one being for middle class locals and the other two for rich Yangonites and foreigners. I headed to the upper class beach because from the description of a 13 miles pristine stretch of beach with virtually no inhabitants, I thought I would find plenty of places to camp. Boy was I in for a surprise when I discovered that the entire stretch of beach basically belonged to a huge hotel compound and all the property was carefully gated and strictly patrolled. I cycled to the very end of the beach strip where the road turned to sand, and found myself among all the local village people who probably worked at the hotels. Their huts and houses were scattered everywhere and there wasn't one place I could put my tent and go under the radar. My plan back-fired as again I found myself surrounded by the “riches” of Myanmar.  Luckily I found a "resort" that would let me put my tent in the back corner of their property for a meager price, using their bucket shower to wash-up.

Definitely a tourist hub!

This is what the locals spend their time doing at the beach, taking photos of themselves

The average price of the beach resorts in Ngwe Saung go for about 80 dollars a night all the way up to 300 USD, and to tell you the truth, the amount of western foreigners is outnumbered by far by the locals. SUV after SUV with a Yangon license plate passed me on the road to the beach, which again blew my mind: the disparity between the rich and the poor in this country. It blows my mind as there is such an extreme spectrum. Here I had spent so much time up in rural Myanmar observing their simple and minimal lifestyle and now I was surrounded by extreme wealth among the very wealthy burmese. Here I had eaten three meals a day for under 2 dollars and at the beach, I couldn't even buy a fruit shake for 2 dollars. Amazing! Hence the title of this blog, from rags to riches.  Unlike western beach destinations, you won't find towels or people bathing in the sun on the sandy beaches.  No, the Burmese don't go to the beach to do that, they go there to take pictures, a status symbol, that let's others know they were there.  A few men were in the water in bathing suits, and the women that dares entered did so fully clothed or in a bathing suit that was completely covered up.  The sun was so intense on the beach during the middle of the day that everyone retreats to their resort for shade.  I found myself on a beach chair under an umbrella completely alone, which was absolutely delightful! 

The abandoned beach

Believe it or not, I can sit still, for an hour or so

My visit to Ngwe Saung prepared me for my visit to Yangon or Rangoon, as it was once called, the former capital of Myanmar. I'm glad I waited until the end of my trip to see Yangon, because, where as some people would see it as the norm for life in Myanmar, rural village life had become the norm and Yangon was something out of the ordinary. A bustling big city, that was actually quite calm and pleasant compared to other southeast Asian capitals such as Phnom Pehn, Bangkok, and Ho Chi Minh. For one, motorcycles are prohibited so traffic consists of a sea of taxis, buses, and bike taxis, making it easier to navigate than motor scooters. I also arrived on a Sunday and the following day was a bank holiday, so I think the city was calm in comparison to other days of the week. There was an ever-present essence of colonialism with the decrepit colonial style buildings that looked as if they hadn't been restored since they were built 200 years prior. Also remarkably noticeable is the confluence of cultures and religions all sharing the same city. There is an eclectic mix of Chinese, Indians, Myanmar, and a few westerners, and therefore on the same street you see a pagoda, there is also a Hindu temple, a cathedral around the corner, and a Chinese temple across the street. Yangon reminded me a bit of Penang or other cities in Malaysia with the cultural diversity and amicable relationship between all it's inhabitants.

Market goers, evidence of Yangon's cultural diversity 

A woman setting up her market stand, impeccably organized

A Hindu temple in the city center

A Mosque behind the ruins of another building in Yangon

An old colonial buildings in Yangon 

I'm not a fan of big cities and only scheduled a day and a half to visit. The noise, crowds, and traffic usually deter me, but Yangon was a pleasant surprise. I found a quiet guesthouse in Chinatown and found the downtown area easy to navigate. Even the main Schwedagon Pagoda is accessible by foot, making it a very friendly city to do on foot. Hands down the most enjoyable part of my visit was the food. I had no idea that Yangon is a foodie hub. With all the different ethnic groups it's no wonder. Basically my day and half here involved eating my way through the different neighborhoods trying anything and everything that I saw on the street. I would have needed an extra week if not month to do justice to the exquisite culinary offerings in the city, and I'm only talking about those that you find on the street food carts.......

Schwedagon pagoda, the main attraction in Yangon for tourists
The night market that lines the streets of downtown Yangon

With my visit to Yangon, my bike tour in Myanmar came to a close. I have thoroughly enjoyed biking this country even considering the more difficult circumstances involved with accommodation, the suspicious police, and the controlling government. I've developed a new appeal for traveling in a more undeveloped tourist destination making for more of a challenge and a memorable adventure. The daily life I witnessed in Myanmar is humbling. I have an incredible amount of respect for the Burmese, their work ethic, and their daily routine. After my month here, I'm again reminded about the perspective I gained after many months and kilometers traveling on a bike. I need very little in order to be happy and my standards and expectations are so low, that happiness comes from the most simple things in life and this, in my opinion, is priceless. Maybe you'd say I live like a poor person, especially traveling through Myanmar, but so be it! I prefer to experience a country as a local rather than as a king, pampering myself with frivolous amenities. I'm the happiest of people drinking a cup of milky tea and eating a fried pastry for a total of 30 cents. Dare I tell you the three souvenirs I bought? A burmese lunch box, the ingredients to make pickled tea leaf salad, my staple here in Myanmar, and their milky tea in sachets!

Stay tuned for a few more blog posts on Myanmar featuring their food, my accommodations in Myanmar, and a photo documentation of the country.   

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Meltdown at the Tourist Hot Spots

I should have known it was coming...After spending several days on my own, lost in the middle of nowhere with few tourists around, I took the turn off for Inle Lake and found and was inundated with tourists. Yes, I'm a tourist myself, but sometimes I forget that as I have my own independent means for transportation, complete freedom to choose where I go and how I get there (except for a few police interventions from time to time here in Myanmar), and I'm on an adventure that is much more about enjoying getting from point A to B, than actually being at those points. For me there is a fine balance between traveling to the tourist hot spots and staying off the beaten track when I'm in a foreign country. If I've traveled all this way and might not ever come to the country in which I'm currently exploring, I don't want to bypass the culturally significant places, but at the same time, I end up seeing and taking in the country in a unique way cycling saturating myself with sights that aren't in any guide book and I feel completely fulfilled!

The night before I stayed in Inle Lake, I found myself camped perched atop a pagoda with this sunset

I had climbed through these mountains, looking very similar to mountains in California or Southern Spain

There were lots of hairpin turns to climb gently, although it was never -ending!

Myanmar is unique when it comes to tourism. The government has things so tightly controlled tourists feel as though they are cattle being herded from one place to the next. It's happened twice where I've stumbled upon tourists that I saw at another attraction a few days back. With so many places that are “off limit” and everyone on the same route, it is bound to happen.  I don't think it can last long if the country wants to prosper from tourism, but for now, this is how things are being done here.

So far, I've hit my fair share of tourist "hot spots". I had pedaled to Kyaityo, the famous Golden Rock and experienced a Buddhist pilgrimage. The most rewarding part of that visit was the peaceful 4 hour hike up and down through tiny little villages. I visited a handful of more important pagodas in Bago, Pyay, and Magwe, but after awhile, they all start looking the same. I spent two nights in Mandalay, only one was really needed to see sights, but it was a logistical layover for me to route plan. I was impressed with my sunrise visit to the Ubein bridge with little to no tourists (probably due to the time of day and the distance from the city), and walking through the streets of sculpture workshops to see how those large Buddha statues are carved. I walked up to Mandalay Palace, but it was so covered in trees it was hard to take in it's vast size, and the view from the top was unimpressive with the amount of haze in the air. The most delightful part of my visit to Mandalay was my hotel. An art and music school that had just opened it's doors recently as Dreamland Guesthouse. Run by a family, mom and dad and their six grown daughter's whom they homeschooled and spoke perfect English.  The entire family was incredibly charming and delighted to talk with and very helpful with my itinerary. Mandalay was large enough that you blend in to city life, but locals here weren't shy in trying to make a quick buck on tourists, something you don't find normally in Myanmar. 

Mandalay's famous teak bridge at sunrise

Only the locals were out and about

And of course the monks!

In Hsipaw, in the northern Shan region, it is a bit too isolated for the tourist on packaged vacations.  Therefore, other tourists were present, but many were heading out on treks, and the tourists sights in the area, again were so spread out, I was alone for most of my day there, walking the dirt paths to visit various Shan villages, exploring their “mini-Bagan” and local artisan workshops.

More ancient pagoda's in Hsipaw's "Mini-Bagan"

What came first the pagoda or the tree?

 Of all the tourist "hot spots", the highlight for me was Bagan, a plain of temples.  Although it is the number one tourist attraction in Myanmar, it never fees inundated with westerners as the temples themselves are so spread out it is easy to sight-see all day without running into more than a handful of tourists. In my hotel, I met an adventurous young soul like myself and we decided to watch the sunrise from a temple to ourselves. The young Aussie had asked a few local boys who had helped her with a flat tire the day before, where she could see a nice sunrise. They had told her about this temple, which was really off limits with gates guarding the stairs, but they said that many of locals go here, squeezing through the gates. Thankfully it was dark so we couldn't truly see just how decrepit and abandoned this temple was. With my bike light, all we could make out were the layer of mice droppings that completely covered the entire grounds, a testament to just how few people transit this temple. Like honest and respectful tourists we took off our shoes inside and ignored the fact that we were walking and sitting on mice poo. We found the stairway with the bent gate and squeezed through, making our way to the top to witness sunrise and the two dozen hot air balloons that filled the sky just afterwards. It was a magical sight and well worth seeing, I also enjoyed cycling to the many pagoda's getting lost on the small dirt tracks.

Sunset over Bagan

Sunrise over the temples

Temples galore

I should have know upon arriving to Inle Lake, that I was a little saturated with tourists. The traffic to get to these places is much denser and the people are a bit more intense, which can get tiresome to deal with on a bike. There were more tourists than locals walking the streets, who seemed dazed and memorized. Restaurant signs were all in English advertising “Happy Hour” something I have not been reminded about for a long time! No sooner did I make it across the bridge into Inle Lake in the late after, that I was hassled for a boat tour for the next thing.

The boats at the jetty coming back from a day's outing at Inle Lake

According to Lonely Planet, seeing the sunrise on Inle Lake is one of the top five sunrises. I'd love to know the parameters for this list of places...... I had camped out the night before, perched on the side of a hilltop pagoda in a mountain pass, unable to cycle any farther. I went to bed with the sound of the wind blowing the chime on the lonely pagoda and had the most peaceful night's rest. Finding a campsite in Inle Lake to rival my solidarity of the previous night, was out of question, but luckily I had met a German cyclist back in Bagan on my way out who invited me to share the double hotel room where he was staying. Eric had been at Inle Lake for two nights and showed me pictures of the boat tour he took and gave me the run down on what he did. Being a solo traveler, I needed to find other people who'd be willing to share the boat with me. I wasn't up for being on the boat all day, so I decided to go down to the jetty a bit later, hoping their would be a boat driver eager to fill his boat that had not yet departed and cut me a half day deal. Bad idea! Just like in Mandalay, these locals were entrepreneurs and hagglers and not pleasant to deal with. Perhaps it was my sensory overload with the tourism, or my disgust to see the locals sell themselves to the industry, but I wasn't impressed and decided to skip the boat tour. I just didn't have the mind set or energy to surrender to Inle Lake's tourism. I would rather set off to climb up into the mountains and begin my return to Yangon, where I depart Myanmar in a week. I would much rather be lost on the backroads in the mountains, immersed by nature and small villages, than swarmed with tourists and hagglers.

Merchant boats ready to pack up the market in Pan Om  

I set out rather late with the idea to pull over an camp wherever I pedaled before sunset. I knew I had a lot of climbing to do and there were very few villages in between. I would have a good two or three day ride ahead of me, with almost 4,000 meters to ascend. The road ran parrellel to the lake and I could see it almost the entire time. It is Myanmar's second largest lake and unique because it is at 800 meters of elevation. During the dry season, in which we are, the lake is only 7 feet deep at the deepest part, rising to 12 feet during the wet season. Besides the stilt houses in villages afloat the lake and the artisan workshops, there are also markets to visit both floating and on the shore in different villages. To my surprise, the road I was on turned off to one of these villages, and to my luck, the market was just finishing up. I was a privileged witness to see the come to an end and observe the cleaning and logistics that go into closing up shop after all the people clear out. Just with the merchant boats the jetty was overcrowded, I could only imagine the scenario with hundreds of tourist boats as well!
What does it take to set-up and take down one of these markets? That is what I witnessed

A few vendors still had their goods for sell to give me the idea of what the market must be like in full swing

I love the reaction of kids as they see me ride by  They never seem to be "in" school, always out on the playground!

Once I left the market, I should have known what I was in for just from observing the looks on the faces of the locals when I told them my destination. I could see the mountains to the west of the lake, that went straight up from the water, but surely the road would be more gradual. After all, two days prior I was in the mountains, back-to-back days of climbing with pleasant hairpin turns and gradients that were manageable despite the lack of shade. Traffic was minimal, so were villages, and I was completely isolated in an environment that looking surprisingly similar to central California's cascades or Spain's dry Sierra Nevada. It was impressive to say the least, torture for the legs!

Welcome to the mountains!

Up, up, and away! That is a false summit in the distance

I was in store for a completely different type of climb. From the moment I crossed to the west side of the lake, which was now just a narrow river, I started going up, straight up that is without any hairpin turns. It was brutal! In fact, I had to get off my bike several times on the steepest of gradients which topped off at 22%, making those that were between 13 and 18% seem flat. Thankfully the heat of the day was over as the sun was on it's way down. I climbed and climbed and climbed, but my legs just couldn't go any further. I was going to be lucky to make it to the town I had in mind for dinner at this rate. Somehow I did, right before the sun went down which made things tricky. I needed to eat dinner and hit the road to find a campsite, but everyone in town wanted to direct me to where I had just come from to the one and only hotel for foreigners, which I knew was out of my price range. I could have run into problems with the police or any of the locals really if they would have asked me why I was pedaling in the opposite direction as the hotel and the sun had set, but I continued on, with a story in mind about taking a picture of the sunset if they asked. I followed the road out of town until there was no traffic except for an occasional motorbike every 2 minutes, and started looking for a place to camp.

Notice it is a car, not a truck like in Thailand.  The trucks barely make it!

I chose a small dirt road that looked as if it were a farming trail that went up a small hill. There were crops on the left and right, and I found a field that looked relatively flat and hidden from the dirt road and set-up camp for the night. I could see the town nestled down below and felt proud and accomplished, I had managed to bypass sleeping there. The best part of wild camping, especially when you find a campsite when dark has already come, is the surprise element when you wake up in the morning. My internal clock didn't let me down and I awoke and packed up my tent as the sun was rising. Three men came walking along the path as I was taking down my tent and they stopped and stared in amazement. Perhaps it had never occurred to them these fields were such a picturesque campsite, or maybe it was just the fact that a white young woman on a loaded bicycle had found this place to sleep. We were both in shock, as I looked out on the valley below with a layer of fog and watched the sun rise with a pagoda perched on a mountain top in the backdrop. How scenery changes so quickly, this sunrise, although it wasn't advertised in the lonely planet, and my campsite on the side of the mountain were priceless. I couldn't have chosen a better place to stay after escaping Inle Lake.

Once again I found a peaceful campsite for the night

To my surprise, sunrise was breath taking!
Yes, I also enjoyed all the scenery in the day to come. When I awoke, the temperature was a mere 4C (40F). I froze as I descended to a gathering of houses. I would call it a village, except for the fact that it had no tea shop. I picked up some biscuits and a juice and the man who ran the shop told me I had 20 miles downhill to the next village. He was right, I found a proper tea shop 20 miles further on down the road, but it wasn't all downhill. The road undulated for the next 35 miles and after a proper refueling it climbed gruesomely straight back up again for the next 10 to 15 miles. I was going nowhere fast, and able to take in the scenery all around me. I didn't stop for many pictures as it would have been impossible to start up again on the steep slopes. The climbing was relentless and the temperature was well into the mid-30's (95F) now. I was struggling and cursing, even though I would have taken this type of route over a crowded road on a main drag. I'd always seen the trucks, cars, and even motor scooters stop to hose off their car to cool the engine and now it was me who pulled over to use some family's random water tank to pour water over my head. I was overheated, but determined to make it down to the valley. Just when I thought I had to be the only crazy cyclist to ride this road, I encountered an older couple coming down towards me. They were chipper and friendly and told me I had 3 more kilometers to the summit, but in return, I had nothing positive to say about the road except of course the scenery. Despite all the climbing I had done, I had descended double the amount, which meant they had their work cut out for them between that afternoon and tomorrow. My heroes. I would have never attempted the road in opposite direction.
I had skirted out of the town of Pinlaung below. My garmin showed frigid temperatures

An empty road cycling to Naypyitaw

No comment......

The looks on the faces of the locals at the roadside stall was similar to that of their faces when I had started my ascent. “Did you really just come over that road?” Their faces implied! Yes, I did and it was well worth all the pain. But now, you better believe it! As a reward, I'm off to treat myself to a vacation from my vacation.....Rather than pedal back down Myanmar's central plains on densely trafficked roads, I'm hopping on a bus to the capital and headed out to explore the delta and sparse beaches. I'm making the most of my last week without any responsibilities and my nomadic life! Who knows when I will take 2 years from the “real world” again.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

A Red Flag Goes Up

You come to my house to sleep?” The young guy asked me who was on his motorbike riding next to me.

OK!” I answered without even hesitating. It only dawned on me 20 minutes later that I should probably ask him with whom he lives.

Brother, brother, me.” He answered. 

A red flag went up. It seldom does when I travel by bike. Most everyone I encounter is incredibly friendly, helpful, and means well. They usually dowse me in unimaginable kindness and hospitality. Should I really be worried that I'm going to stay the night at a house with three men in a small village? I began to assess the situation while riding.

It seemed my day was all going to work out nicely after all. My plan to back track on the road I pedaled up to the mountains in the Shan state was all going according to plan. Earlier that morning, I took the train through the gorge from Hsipaw to Nawnghkio. It was a rickety old train that looked as if it was build a few hundred years ago that moved more sideways and up and down off the track than advancing forward. Never had I experienced anything quite like this. I was happy to get off at the small town of Nawnghkio where I had seen a small road that cut through and left me south, close to the Inle Lake region. The road seemed relatively flat from what I could tell on Google maps and appeared to go through several small villages.  

It's hard to see just how old this train is from the picture.  I've never been on anything quite like this before.  You could feel the train bounce up and down off the tracks and the noise was horrendous!

Talk about true business women, you will never go hungry or thirsty anywhere in Myanmar!

Not a recommended journey for those with vertigo

I started pedaling and was delighted by the scenery:rolling hills, fertile farmlands and very little traffic. This young boy had found me 10 kilometers into my pedal and I had 2 hours of sunlight left. My plan was to pedal until just about dark and then find a Monastery or a Pagoda to sleep. But this young guy had offered me a place to sleep, it would makes things a lot easier. Surely I could trust him and his brothers, look at where they lived. Everyone in the village will know I'm staying the night. They won't be able to harm me. I continued to pedal with him. He escorted me 30 kilometers on his motorbike. Obviously he was eager and excited to have me at his house. I thought we had arrived to his house when we pulled over to a large purple house on the side of the road, there were several people outside. “Your house?” I asked. It was his teacher's house he told me. We went in to visit.

The countryside was beautiful and the small backroad was even more peaceful
I could see the pride on Shin Thant Oo's face as he introduced me to two ladies who appeared about my age with several children standing by their side. It wasn't everyday a foreigner came cycling down his road on a fully loaded bicycle. In fact later he and his village neighbors told me it was the first time they'd seen a foreigner on this road. I guess that explained all the stares I was getting. They had me sit down and began firing off questions. Yes, it was an interrogation, but a most friendly one accompanied by laughing and giggling. Two sisters lived in the big purple house and both were teachers. One had two kids, and the other was single. From what I gathered, some of their students slept in the house as well. Their English was good enough to understand my situation, my travels, and my intentions to bike south on their road. There was an instant connection with them. The question surfaced again. “Where you sleep tonight?” I told the women Shin Thant Oo wanted me to go to his house, but explained that I was a bit worried as I would be sleeping with him and his brothers. They laughed and Shan That Oo blushed with embarrassment; he realized it looked a bit suspicious asking a solo woman to come to a house with 3 men. The women told me I could sleep at their house and in the meantime go to Shin Thant Oo's village tonight to visit. Problem solved and what a perfect solution. I went with Muyar Myingan, one of the sister's on the back of her motorbike and Shin Thant Oo guided us . The sun was setting over the hills and the colors were beautiful as we rode off on a small red dusty road up and over one of the hills.

His village had to be small if this was the only road to enter. Ten minutes later we arrived at a house, his aunt's house. It was a big house with woven panels for sides. They brought me upstairs and inside where his grandmother was, a 83 year old sharp and clever woman. I don't think she had ever met a foreigner before let alone been this close to one. As the norm goes when I am in the presence with locals, the group starts out small and then the people start trickling in, curious to meet me. I sat on the straw mats on the floors doing a lot more meditating and observing than talking. People started arriving every few minutes, cousin's uncles, brothers,......I couldn't keep track of them all. Muyar Myingan told me they all thought I was wonderful and so brave for traveling alone on my bicycle. I was overwhelmed and delighted to meet them and in awe observing their life. I started to feel guilty I had questioned Shin Thant Oo's trust. How silly of me to think this boy could have been threatening. His mother wanted me to stay for days, and was disappointed I wasn't going to sleep at their house, but I think I made the right choice as my bike was back on the main road and I would be in good company as well.

Muyam Myingan and one of her daughters, very friendly people

Some of the many people who slept inside the big purple house,......they just added one more to the list and it was no problem!

Shin Thant Oo and his family (Aunt, Grandma, and mother)  They never smile in photographs but as always happy in conversation which is ironic!

Incredibly friendly women delighted to have a foreign woman in their home.

This is the group of people that gathered in their home, although when I left there were another half a dozen visitors

After an hour or so of visiting and eating (no one else ever seems to eat, they just bring out more and more food for me) we headed back to the big purple house. This time I rode on the back of Shin Thant Oo's bike. He was glowing and was humming and singing the entire way back. My eyes were glued to the stars in the sky, what an impressive sight. The entire Milky Way band was glowing, not a bit of light pollution from down below. An incredibly magical sky. We arrived back to the purple house and I stored my bike properly and they guided me inside. At this point I was beat, so they showed me to the washing area, I took a plan and splashed water on my face, brushed my teeth and called it a night. It turns out Shin Thant Oo was going to spend the night as well, as he frequently does when visiting from University. He and the younger boy students slept downstairs on a long continuous bed surface, basically a big wooden board, and the girls were upstairs in two larger rooms. My bed was upstairs in the common area. A thin pad with a pillow and lots of blankets. This would do just perfectly. It was 8pm and I was exhausted. No one else was making their way to bed yet and the TV downstairs was blasting and some of the other girls were huddled together singing and reciting a poem or song it seemed. I went to bed within a few minutes, noise and all sleeping entirely through the night without having to get up once and go outside to use the toilet.

The next morning, I awoke to chilly air. After all, we were on high altitude plateau and this is what you get. The sisters were already preparing breakfast for the students and I washed up and waited with Shin Thant Oo and Muyar Myingan. They were preparing something special for me. We ate together and again, people started trickling in to see me. I do realize their visit is totally valid. A solo female white foreigner on a bike is quite a novelty, they have all the right to be curious and see this girl for themselves. Rather than ask questions about me, they were more concerned with where I was going. It seemed the road I was headed on was not safe. Usually I ignore the locals when they tell me this as they always seem to worry more than is necessary. The road on Google Maps seemed perfectly fine but they told me about a 40 mile stretch through a narrow gorge that descents dramatically with nothing around. They gestured guns and used the words "rebel fighters".  Now a real red flag went up.  From what I gathered, there are a lot of rebel fighters in the forested areas and the road isn't patrolled by police or the military, making it unsafe. They told me that no one goes past their village on this road and to truth, there was no truck transit on the road, meaning that it was not a major thoroughfare.  Yes, there were towns on the other side, but they were only accessible from the road's southern entrance. I was in disbelief. Surely I wasn't going to backtrack the portion I had pedaled last night?  How bad could this road be? If it were truly a dangerous road, where was the police? It was certainly interesting that I had managed to stay in this village without a single police or immigration officer stopping me. How could this be? Why had it been so easy? They told me the area doesn't have police as there are 4 military bases close by that patrol, but that the last base is just a couple of miles up the road and after that it is “no mans land” and no one from their village ever goes beyond. 

With a mattress no thinker than an inch I was out and slept all through the night for a total of 9 hours!

Muyar Myingan with both her daughters.

Breakfast, do you see how bundled up they are?  I put on my Goretex jacket to fit in really because I didn't really need it!

orn my Goretex in Myanmar

Three generations in this photo, Aunt, nieces, and great nieces, Shin Thant Oo is in the background on his motorbike.  The bricks on the ground are drying in order to start building another house
My plan had back fired! What to do? Do I ignore their cautions and proceed or back track. The latter seemed like such an effort and ordeal involving a lot of repeated pedaled kilometers and a ton of climbing. However, the more people I met the more faces of worry I witnessed as they heard I was going to try to pass on that road. It was true that there wasn't much traffic on the road and as I sat and watched the road that morning, no cars went beyond the last village shop. Eery! Some how in my planning, I had forgotten to ask people if the road I wanted to take for a short cut was safe.  I was too worried in the road conditions and the climbing involved!  After visiting their local monastery and a few more family members, I decided to hop on my bike and backtrack. I would ride to the main road where I had detoured, try to hitch hike the ascension, and then pedal down south of Mandalay and head up through the mountains on a different road which I knew other cyclists had used successfully. I said good-bye after an extensive photo opportunity and pedaled.

Luckily it was mostly downhill and I was amazed that the afternoon before I had pedaled so far and so fast. I was back on the main road in about an hour and looking for a big car to take me and my bike. Pick-ups are rare here, as a vehicle for personal transportation. All the pick-ups I see are local shared taxis, stuffed to the brim full of goods to be transported. No cars ever go empty on the roads here so I thought my chances of hitchhiking were slim. But to my surprise, the first car that approached was an empty pick-up. I didn't wait to hail him down and explained I was going back to Pyin-Oo-Liwn and asked for a ride. He seemed to be fine with the idea, so I loaded my bike in the empty bed and hopped in. Well, we weren't going to be fully loaded driving, but we did stop twice to pick up two other friends and headed on our way. I couldn't figure out what the three men were doing but they were observing the countryside quite keenly and looking at all the little developments along the side of the road. They were very thoughtful and gave me water and snacks. I kept my fingers crossed they'd drive all the way up the huge climb out of the valley and up to the next big town and they did. They left me at the top of the hill just before the toll booth and I got my bike down and began to pedal again. They had taken me 50 kilometers back, making my route for the rest of the day relatively easy going down a huge descent into the valley below where Mandalay awaited.

This time I would bypass Mandalay and carry on south. I knew there was a town about 70 kilometers south where there was an overpriced hotel for tourist called the Royal Orchid, thanks to Ian Mitchell's blog I had studied religiously. If there was a town with a hotel, surely there would be villages before and after with a pagoda or monastery, so I pedaled confidently thinking I could manage to find a place to sleep that night and avoid the pricey hotel. Although my route wasn't strenuous, I was tired and the sun was about to set. I couldn't tell exactly where I was on google maps and decided to pull off at the first pagoda I saw. Unfortunately the road was a lot busier and it wasn't so secluded. I wheeled into the pagoda, pulled out my translated note that asked if I could stay and the monk and a village women laughed and seemed to keep repeating this one word, pointing outside the sacred gates. So a man accompanied me down a small dirt road and through several narrow alleys to a big house. At first I thought it was a hotel, but then I realized it wasn't, maybe the house of the village head or a police officer. I couldn't be sure. But looking back now, I wish I would have gotten back on my bike and pedaled because I was at this house and under interrogation for the next 2 hours, well beyond sunset, making it impossible to go anywhere discretely.

The village pagoda, several of them actually

You can't visit a monastery or pagoda and not ring the bell for good luck!

I said good-Bye and pedaled back to where I had come from the day before.....

Man after man arrived and they were all curious where I was from, what I was doing and why on earth I was traveling alone. At first there was tension, but then that disappeared as a women brought snacks and the men wanted to know if I had facebook and I entertained them with some pictures. It didn't seem I was going to be able to sleep in the local pagoda, they laughed when they saw the pictures of me with the previous monks. An official police officer showed up. At first I thought I should be scared, but he was having a great time watching my videos on my website and trying to make phone call after phone call. Basically I told them I needed a place to stay because there was only a $50 hotel in the next town and I couldn't afford that. Phones were ringing right and left with the half dozen people gathered around. It wasn't until an immigration officer arrived that I actually had to get out my passport and they started copying down every word on my document.  Although they were taking pictures of mew, of course it never dawned on them to take a picture of my passport.  Inefficiency at it's best!

Not that I had anywhere better to be, but from what I could gather, they couldn't decide what to do with me.  An hour and a half had passed and the only progress made were the additional people standing around, only now the mood was rather amusing and there were plenty of peanuts and bananas to snack on.  They were baffled as to where I could stay for the night. I inquired if I could stay at the police station, and they just laughed. It was obviously that the police and immigration officers were starting to understand the predicament of a tour cyclists in Myanmar: long distances and few accommodations options makes for a challenging itinerary and unpredictable situations like the one in which I currently found myself. In the end, they told me they would drive me 15 miles to the town south, where there was a hotel . Yes, indeed, I knew of this hotel, I had read about it in Ian Mitchell's blog when he passed through. He said it was extremely overpriced and run down. I had repeatedly told them I couldn't pay more than $10 and they insured me that I wouldn't. So after about 2 hours of sitting around, eating loads of peanuts and bananas and trying to solve the problem, 6 of the men loaded me in the shared pick-up taxi that arrived and off they all carted me 15 miles south.  I was in the back with my bike, 2 police officers, two immigration officers, the village head, and another man whose ranking I didn't understand.  Normally I'd refuse to go in a car and pedal instead, but considering I had done a fair amount of back tracking today and the fact that they were taking me on a crowded main highway, I didn't protest. I was mostly in disbelief with how disorganized and inefficient the police and immigration officers went about doing business in Myanmar. If this were the United States, with all the encounters I had had with the police, they'd know all my life details from the last item I ingested to my average speed and the name of my first pet! These guys were absolutely clueless and seemed more excited to have their picture taken with a foreigner than the legality of the entire issue. I'm certain I will be a legend in their town and my story will be passed on from generation to generation!

For two hours they contemplated what to do with me.  I would have taken 2 minutes to help them decide!

I tried to tell them that taking a picture with their smartphone was less of a hassle, but it was useless.....Immigration on the left, police on the right.

It took us about a half hour and a lot of turns through a dark village before we arrived in front of a hotel that was completely dark except for the illuminated sign that read “The Royal Orchid Garden Hotel”. Here we were! I was curious to see how they were going to negotiate a room for me so that I didn't pay more than $10.  But to my surprise, or rather utterly appalled by their childish behavior, as if like a gang of teenagers who were trying to get away with some prank, the men quickly unloaded my bike from the back of the truck, piled back in, and sped away without saying good-bye or even taking another picture. Just like that they were off! A boy had come running out from the hotel and without even say hello, stated firmly $50! 

I laughed. You have to be kidding me,.....After all this I thought, I'm exactly where I knew I didn't want to be!  Exhausted and in utter appall with Myanmar's politics, I would have curled up on a park bench to sleep if there was one. I had no other option than to load up my things and go look for a place to hide my tent. I wandered down the dirt road in front of the hotel that was completely dark except for a few bulbs in front of a house. At the first house I came to there was a group of people outside so I showed them my note and pointed further down the road in hopes there might be a pagoda. They told me there wasn't. They pointed to the hotel and I told them the price in Kyat and shook my head. They stood there and talked amongst themselves and finally pointed to their house and said, “You, my house”.

The sign is about the nicest thing at the Royal Orchid Hotel
This was the house I approached in the dark. I took this photo the next morning after I had breakfast with them
I realize I should have hesitated or carried on, but I just didn't have the energy. I thought I could make them understand I just wanted to put my tent in someones yard, so I wheeled my bike up to their house. Here we go again I thought. It was completely dark and about 9:30 pm, I had no other choice but to accept their offer. Before I could get my bags off my bike they had me sitting at a table and started bringing out food and of course as with all my visits, the people started pouring in to see the foreigner. I couldn't figure out who lived in the house and who was just curious, but one thing was for sure, NO English was spoken. I was so tired and had no energy left I just went along with it all.

Then, with a lot of commotion, an older man arrived with impeccable English. He was here to get to the bottom of my appearance. I cold tell he was suspicious and wanted to protect his neighbors and was very uneasy having my stay with them. He asked me a lot of questions, very serious in his mannerisms. I didn't have the energy to be serious nor explain myself all over again. Although the tone became more relaxed, he told me that he was going to bring me to the Royal Orchid and I tried to explain I was just there and that it was too expensive. He reassured me that the owners were his friends and he would work something out, but I was ready to surrender regardless. I had no other option but to trust him. So after eating dinner with a million eyes on me, we wheeled my bike back to the hotel and he and his friend talked to a man, who seemed rather important, perhaps the owner or his son, and before I knew it I was brought to a room in a small bungalow. I don't know what the arrangement was, but I was delighted to finally have some intimacy and peace and quiet. It was 10:30 at night.

After a nice long hot shower, I curled up on the bed and went to sleep, laughing at the fact I was at the one place I wanted to avoid, The Royal Orchid Hotel! What an adventure! Did I learn my lesson? You bet! Choose your pagoda's carefully and avoid the police at all cost, they really have no idea how to help you!

PS. I stayed at the hotel for free!

On the left is the man who at first was so serious.  He turned out to be very nice and pleasant to talk with.  They made me a delicious breakfast

The crowd that gathered in the morning.  It turns out 15 people live in the house that I was going to stay in.  Like I said before, what is one more person when there are already so many people sleeping there!