Asian Overland 2020 Road Report – Week #3 – Myanmar – “Mingalabar” (Hello) Back to News List

By Jerry Cook

Arriving at the Thailand / Myanmar border, I was excited to bring the group into the fourth country of the Asian Overland expedition.  There is a tangible excitement to brining a motorcycle tour group into a new country and the unknown adventures that lay ahead.   The border procedures were surprisingly efficient, thanks to the help of our local guides.  Border officials were curious about our big bikes – something they don’t see every day, taking photos with the group and welcoming us to their country.  One thing that stood out immediately was the super friendly vibe of the people.  It was clear that Myanmar is not a country overrun by tourists and the locals are extremely curious and amazed at us riding motorcycles through their country.  I haven’t seen another big bike on the roads here.  

Our local guides who will be with us for the next 11 days are Tun Tun, Zun-Hi and driver Thanh, these guys were the ones that accompanied Mick and Sarah on the reccy trip last year so it was reassuring to be in their company and have their local knowledge and expertise. We have also had Crystal with us for the last few days.  Crystal works in the tour agency that has facilitated our permits and logistics for the tour and she is using the opportunity to escape the office and join us on the road for a while. One can’t blame her, everyone loves a road trip and planning the visit of a motorcycle tour group is not part of her normal day to day work.  With four fixers / local guides currently on tour with us, Bayne and I are blessed, and the group is definitely in good hands!  We also have local tourist police who escort us in and out of the big cities. They too want to make sure we are safe and arrive to our destination. At no time have we felt unsafe, it’s the complete opposite and upon arrival its handshakes and photos with them. I really feel an overwhelming sense of kindness from everyone we meet.

Entering Myanmar and judging by the change in the roads (a big deterioration to that of Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand) I realised very quickly that the riding was going to be challenging with road conditions that many of us are not accustomed to.   The temperatures and humidity have also increased, reaching slaughterhouse.  Personally, I am drinking 4-5 litres of water a day, having a camel back is essential in these conditions to avoid dehydration and fatigue.  

Drivers of motorcycles (mostly small bikes and scooters all around 100cc), cars, busses, trucks, trishaws, tricycles, horse and carts not to mention the roadside animals – dogs, cows, chickens and pigs all behave in a completely random manner. Sometimes the animals are easier to judge than the drivers!  There are also small trucks fitted out with exposed tractor engines used for transporting produce and people, most of who are smiling and waving at us as we pass, which all adds to the distractions.

Within 30 minutes of leaving the border we saw an overturned truck. The driver had miscalculated the weight of his load and the steepness of the decline (or lack of braking ability) and had slammed into the side of a ravine. The result being sacks all over the road and a crushed drivers cab. The driver was ok, but it was a reminder for us to take it easy.

Next it was 40 or so kms of interesting road works through a dusty red clay where there seemed to be total anarchy as we manoeuvred around detours and heavy vehicles whilst teams of locals including young ladies, worked on repaving this section. I am sure these are the same roadworks Mick and Sarah experienced a year before, and who knows how long they have been in progress. This means we move along at a slow pace in hot conditions and our once clean riding gear and now dusty faces look like we have just completed an Australian outback ride. Unfortunately, we had our first incident of the tour with Peter, a veteran overland motorcyclist, going down in a rutted-out section of roadworks. Luckily it was very close to a hospital where Peter was examined. Sadly, the results showed a broken collar bone which meant the end of his riding for the remainder of the expedition.  His V Strom was loaded onto the back of our support vehicle and we pushed on to our first overnight stop at Mawlamyine.  Following some beers and an early dinner our first day in Myanmar was complete. I must add that beer, fuel, food (and pretty much everything for that matter) in Myanmar is super cheap, which is always a bonus for the international adventurer.

Our next destination was Bago, where we had a free day to have a city tour of Yangon which is formally known as Rangoon and is Myanmar’s largest city; home to what is Myanmar’s most significant Buddhist monument – the Shwedagon Pagoda. A pagoda is a religious, gold domed temple common with the Buddhist religion and these pagodas are everywhere!  Shwedagon is a truly impressive site and nothing like any of our group has seen before in their extensive travels.  Full of devout followers of Buddhism who come to show their faith, we tourists were certainly in the minority and it was not a problem to take photos. Quite often It was the locals asking to take photos of us.

We had a longer ride day to Bago but with the scenery ever changing the riding is far from dull.  Within a 50km stretch we were riding through rice fields then arid landscapes, passing hundreds of pagodas and buddha statues.  Our riding is often on single lane secondary roads through towns where the drivers are performing erratic manoeuvres, quite often pulling out in front of you. For the locals using side and rear-view mirrors are optional.  (However horns are mandatory). Pedestrians and animals are also doing their best to keep us alert. Emergency braking is a part of the excitement.

Our first week In Myanmar has been wonderful. I can’t emphasise enough the beauty and kindness of the local people.  The children are quite adorable wearing Thanaka (a yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground bark which is applied to the face). It’s something totally unique from anywhere I have travelled.  We are very excited for what our second week in this amazing country will bring!!

Jerry Cook

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