From Myawaddy to Hpa An.
The road from the Myanmar border town of Myawaddy is a winding narrow 50 km mountain pass of mud, rocks and the odd gesture of tarmac. The pass has become so dangerous that a one-way rule is enforced that alternates daily, having arrived on the wrong day I was forced to stay a night to wait for the traffic to flow West. A new road has been in construction for years but a completion date seems on endless extension.
The ride was long and bumpy but extremely enjoyable as all traffic has no option but take it slowly and the beautiful views grow in quality with every pedal.
This border is a busy crossing for Thai imports so I was joined by trucks climbing the muddy path at a snail’s pace. I find myself competing with convoys of fruit, bricks, steel, car parts and toilets chugging passed me as the working day begins. Mud houses offer flowing hose pipes from the river to cool engines as the driver takes a nap in the shade of the cab. It’s unclear whether the engine or the human are the original catalyst for each rest.
Not far out of Myawaddy I pass my first military checkpoint. My passport is requested and details taken before a warning that the road is dangerous and I should be careful. Easy.
Myanmar sill exists under military rule and checkpoints are to be frequent. Furthermore tourists can only stay in registered guest houses so each night I’m forced to reach a sizeable town before dark as sleeping elsewhere could get me and the surrounding villagers in trouble. I’m planning on testing this at a later date as it will be an expensive month if I can’t find the odd loophole…
Further along the track the second checkpoint approaches and before it I pass a few truck loads of young soldiers, recently out of their teenage years and armed to the teeth with artillery Rambo would be proud of. I silently cycle past wearing a gleeful smile that is mostly reciprocated. I’m waved over and the passport is checked, this time a photo is taken of me, my passport and visa on the officers new smartphone. I show him a picture of Scotty and Pete to ask if they have recently gone before me. He nods.
The next 15 minutes are taken up with a display of the various functions on the gentleman’s smartphone of which he is extremely proud. After follows a quick slideshow of his family photos before I am released to continue my climb.
Military check points would fast become less an intimidating enforcement and more a welcome break and nice chat. This country was meant to be far more intimidating.
It’s been one of those mornings. I can feel my mind taking the strain after a few bad nights sleep and long, exhausting days which has lead to a bout of sadness I’m struggling to fight off. I continue to smile and wave to those I pass, trying to use other people’s energy to motivate a better mood.
I then pass a young village girl playing with dolls alone by the roadside who sees me and smiles sweetly, I smile back and she responds by blowing me a kiss.
Just round the corner, i throw the bike down and sit, whilst tears rain down my face for no real reason.
A privileged rich western man crying on a mountain-side among positive locals living in abject poverty. Feeble beyond words.
Gathering myself and apologising to Eddie for discarding him so violently, we continue climbing.
The first experience of Myanmar’s people is a distinctly positive one. This route from the land border is not especially popular with tourists having been open only a short time, and very few of those tourists are on bicycles. Seeing me struggling up the hill on this exciting-looking contraption brings automatic smiles and waves as people rush out of the house for a gander. I already get the sense that warmth and a smile is the go-to reaction for most.
By the afternoon my arms are as tired of waving as my legs are of cycling so I stop and throw some sugar cane juice down my throat in desperate plead for energy.
Shortly after i reach the peak above 1,500 metres I began dropping back down for what was (for once) a far less enjoyable experience as dodging traffic, potholes and cliff edges is far more complicated as we all rattle down the mountain together.
Stopping for a snack in the afternoon I dive into a plate of rice with egg and chickpeas before quickly returning to my bike as I’m aware I must make a town with registered accommodation by nightfall. Suddenly, I’m being chased by a large woman waving a tea towel and shouting at me. In my haste I had over-paid by (the equivalent of) 5p, she’d sprinted the best part of 300 metres to return it to me.
After a long 150 km day i made the town of Hpa-An, poured acres of street food down my neck and found somewhere to rest.
Today was a privilege.
To cycle roads that very few have ever had the chance, in a place of such natural and human beauty feels special, feels adventurous, feels privileged.
For days like this is why i left London after all.
And it begins…
Engine coolant systems.
Lorry driver present.
Not the last Pagoda i will be posting a picture of.