Burmese Days – sweeping bends & craters, dust & desperation
A classic adventure is the Mae Hong Son loop in the Golden Triangle of northern Thailand.
Go to Chiang Mai, an easily accessible spot and a holiday in itself, and see Duncan Green. Go for a ride with him, as my mates and I did. (TBB. “the adventure specialists” website: www.tbbtours.com and email firstname.lastname@example.org). Duncan is an outstanding rider, and a really good ride leader.
The Golden Triangle is no longer the province of drug lords. The King of Thailand convinced his people that coffee was a better crop, and now the most desperate fun is the Mae Hong Son loop on a motorcycle. I was told there were 1864 bends but I lost count early on. Our route, from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son and on to Mai Ramat is some 600km. It’s a blast!
For us, however, the Mae Hong Son loop is a pleasant diversion on the way to Myanmar. We have hired plucky little Honda CB500s, not the most powerful, brilliant handling motorcycles ever to put a wheel to the road, but what they have in spades is character, pluck and courage. We bash them unmercifully on roads that are about as bad as you can find, and they just soak it all up gracefully.
From Mae Ramat we pass through the torture of the Thai/Myanmar border. The bureaucracy of a road crossing behind us, it’s not even lunchtime before we strike the most appalling traffic jam. A truck has broken its axle in the middle of the narrow, bumpy, shattered road, causing a bus to divert to the muddied edge, where it will stay bogged up to its bottom. A perfect roadblock. We just have to make our own track around the chaos.
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Eventually free and mobile, and over a couple of pleasant days we ease into the ebb, flow and shock of Burmese roads to Rangoon (now Yangon) and amble up to the Shwedagon Pagoda. This remarkable Buddhist tribute to religious architecture makes the Vatican appear poor in spirit and certainly in style. It is golden, complex, brilliant and awe-inspiring. Legend has it going back 2600 years, but the real architecture is probably from the 6th century AD.
But one cannot hang about religious monuments all one’s life, and one could. There are 55,000 pagodas in Myanmar, and there are serious roads to cover. We cross the broad, tropical sweep of the Irrawaddy Delta as we tootle off to Rakhine province, on the western coast, to Gwa, in Rakhine State and up to Ngapali Beach.
On the way, we are introduced to a most decrepit version of Myanmar roads as we go over the stumpy little mountains to Gwa. The road is rutted, broken and narrow, it is bumpy, backbreaking and ball busting. Though lightly trafficked, what traffic there is presents threat to life and limb as buses or trucks laden to the hilt are encountered and, courteously, leave the narrowest of the path to ride upon.
We make it intact, and turn to Buddha, or some higher spirit, for thanks. But there is, for a masochistic motorcyclist, even more fun to be had. That is when we cover the 97km from Ann, over Sink Hon Daing, before we hit the long flat into Bagan.
Riding a motorcycle in this country is a special thing. You are part of the scenery and absorbed into the roads and villages and colour and chaos and sunshine.
We’re mostly well off the beaten track, and for the local people we are apparently a curiosity. What would bring these idiots here?
The Burmese are, for their shyness, graceful and amusing. They smile readily and attractively. They are poor, unspoilt, spontaneous and honest. They are aspirational, as they build their tiny little businesses and, when and where they can, send their kids off to school in spotless uniforms.
Riding a motorcycle in this country is a special thing. You are part of the scenery and absorbed into the roads and villages and colour and chaos and sunshine. It is a beautiful parallel universe into which you are welcomed. The country has a sometimes sad and violent history, riven by tribalism, but we did not see that in the people we met.
We arrive in Bagan, something of a tourist spot and come across the oddity of white people wandering the streets, and again the grand presence of the Irrawaddy River. Our objective is to hot-air balloon over the thousand or so pagodas of Bagan. We are thwarted by the weather, and slope off tunefully to On the Road to Mandalay.
A former capital and a sizeable city, Mandalay has a huge Royal Palace set in extensive grounds, surrounded by a large wall and a substantial moat. Sinfully, the British Raj dethroned the Burmese king in the late 1800s and sent he and his entourage packing to India. The Palace grounds are now comfortable barracks for a corps of the army of Myanmar.
We take the Road from Mandalay, and again encounter a hand-built road over the mountains that one day will be a classic bike road, with a zillion bends and switchbacks. For us though, it is a joyless mess of craters, dust, dirt and desperation. It is the enduro course from hell, with traffic, shaken and stirred, thrown in to add interest. Oh what fun, this messed up mountain as we head to Inle Lake, in the Shan State.
Inle Lake is 116,000 square metres. It is shallow; an average of about two metres and full of reeds and villages on the water. We take a long-tail boat from Taunggyi up the canal and far into the lake. The chaos on the road is replaced by the chaos of the river as villagers crowd into the boats with their noisy engines and spiraling wakes. Vegetables from the munificent garden plots are carted to port on these boats. Fishermen with an odd rowing technique that requires one leg wrapped around the oar whilst balanced on the other leg cast their nets. The lotus plants that populate the lake are turned into a silken fibre and exquisitely woven into (for Burma) unusually expensive shirts and shawls.
Our ride takes us to Naypyidaw, nowadays the administrative capital established by the military government a few years ago. It is grand, with huge twelve lane boulevards that could, and may, double as aircraft runways. The roads make the Champs-Elysees seem modest and underwhelming. Napoleon Bonaparte, eat your heart out. There are large, ostentatious and mostly vacant clusters of modern hotels, and modern shopping centres that would fit well in Las Vegas. The Tourist Police proudly escort us around this magnificent city, and past the brand new ornate, beautifully set and massive parliament building, where we are told not to take photographs. Naypyidaw is obscene. We think of the diversion of resources to this grand, awful monument to corrupt power, given the greater needs of the poor masses. We hopefully reflect that one day Naypyidaw will mean something, if it doesn’t crumble first.
Reflectively, we journey on to Kyaikhto, and the nearby Golden Rock. Private vehicles are not permitted on the tortuous road up to the Golden Rock and we load, happily with all the locals, into the back of a truck. The Golden Rock is the second most sacred Buddhist monument in all of Myanmar, and sits, covered in gold leaf, precariously on the edge of a cliff. Surely, we contemplate, it will roll off with the next big earthquake?
So far, Buddha has decreed that it will stay precisely where it is, and we urgently happy-snap the local people and the monks and the precarious rock, in case Buddha changes his mind sometime soon.
The next day we are due to leave Myanmar, and go back into Thailand. We are treated to “the old road”. There is no traffic. This road too is bent, bumpy, broken, winding and precipitous as it wends its way over, for us, the final range of mountains in Myanmar. It is like a special, final reward.
In the late afternoon, we make it back through the border to Mai Sot, Thailand. Almost eerily, we realise we have re-entered The Real World. The following day we find ourselves flat-out and zooming around big sweeping bends on a dual carriageway, as we head to Chiang Mai at highway speeds. It didn’t matter what we threw at those little Hondas, they just purred on.
We stopped on the way to look at the Lampang Elephant Hospital, run by an NGO called Friends of the Asian Elephant (FAE). Sadly, we look at the injured elephants, and particularly those with feet blown off by landmines. We give generously on the way out.
Burma is not a trip for the faint-hearted, although it is a great trip. We see green shoots in the effort and aspiration and cheerfulness of the people. Go, if for no other reason than to enjoy motor-cycling in its tough and primary form, and to understand better but not sentimentally how fortunate we are in our country.
You couldn’t go with a better bunch of blokes than I went with, nor a better ride leader than Duncan at TBB, ‘cause Duncan’s our mate! Call him soon, before he gets too busy.
Stephen Davies #4771.