Hpa An to Yangon.
It’s a bit like I’ve gone on a blind date with a country.
I had no idea what to expect from Burma, apart from the warnings of her strict rules and military presence I knew little more. So we have been sizing each other up these past days, getting to know one another, seeing if we enjoy spending time together.
And i do. I hope she does too.
Because the past days cycling deeper into Myanmar have been extraordinary.
There are few big prizes to find out east so very few foreigners pass through, especially not on a bicycle. So it feels unique and wonderful, and also just plain lucky.
Lush, healthy green mountains rise out of flat Delta country and are topped with strings of gleaming gold Pagodas. I easily slide back into the problem-area where it’s tough to get momentum whilst the temptation to stop and take it in is too great.
The ‘hello’s’ are frequent now, and it seems all kids know ‘bye bye’ no matter the circumstance. I’m probably gloss-eyed by the enjoyment of the past days but I do feel like the rural Burmese people are less ‘playing with the foreigner’ than much of south-east Asia. A wave, greeting or conversation just feels a bit more genuine, proud and excited to have visitors rather than just the fun of talking to a smelly tourist on a bike.
You also don’t feel so much like a rich westerner, vulnerable to being ripped off or endlessly bothered, Myanmar hasn’t yet felt the full toxication of the growing tourist industry (of which I am of course part of).
Myanmar is very poor, in line with Cambodia in many ways where a house made of concrete is a rare sight. Meat is a precious commodity and often served in such small quantities it’s difficult to see evidence of its existence in your meal. I had chicken curry for lunch today and what arrived was rice and sauce with one small piece of chicken. A fork full. It’s the most meat I’ve seen since I arrived.
In fact the rural Myanmar restaurant is a strange world.
For breakfast this morning I sat at a table whilst the small boy piled the table top full of tiny metal plates. Cold sticky sweet rice triangle, cold fried egg. cold fried batter, cold plain rice, with other cold bits and bobs I couldn’t quite make out. You eat what you want then they come and count up and find a price. Burmese tapas.
I nibbled away for a bit but much of it the flies had enjoyed before me. With some energetic morning charades I managed to organise a plate of warm rice with chickpeas and munched it down with impressive speed.
In the afternoons I regularly stop for watermelon by the roadside and often the ladies won’t accept payment, so I smile and say thank you. I normally ask how far it is to the next town, although I know the answer from my maps it’s an easier question to communicate and an opportunity to spark up some conversation. People always want to talk, including me after a while in my own company.
A moped pulls up beside me for a chat, ‘Premiership football, premiership football’, i nod and he speeds off.
Another, ‘Hello. Good man. Good man. How old are you?’. ‘Thirty’, i reply. ‘Good man’, and he speeds off.
A van pulls up, a stray arm come out of the window and a can of energy drink is passed to me. Moments later another van and this time a bottle of cold water.
Arriving in the large town of Bago I wandered about at dusk chasing down the numerous pagodas hidden around the place. Getting immediately lost down dirt tracks in the back of town through streets lined with puddles, waste and mud houses. These communities are extremely poor and I doubt they have many westerners pedalling by but they seem to welcome me gleefully.
Old men sifting through a huge rubbish dump surrounded by dogs stand tall to wave and smile. Kids and parents run out of the house to check out the filthy cycling westerner. Each person I pass seems to be on the cusp of smiling they just need a small push, even the rigid serious monks will lift the corners of their mouths if you give them the chance.
This poor country is a whirlwind of natural positivity.
The developed countries we have cycled through (and live in) could learn huge amounts from Burma. The negativity and abuse we faced in the sunshine and great wealth of Australia where abuse, aggression and anger were constantly fired at us even though we are covered in charity logos. Whilst in this poor Asian country, torn to shreds by over 65 years of civil war I get water, food and so many friendly smiles my cheeks are gaining more muscle than my legs. I am cycling passed people I should be raising money for, great people who truly recognise the important things in life.
Tomorrow I join the highway to reach the capital of Yangon for a weeks rest. Lucy has come out to visit me (and the pagodas), whilst less-excitingly there much visa admin to plough through.
As I sit high on the steps of the Shwemawdar pagoda looking over Bago this evening I ponder reaching Yangon and the ride north along the more tourist route.
It’s been such an incredible ride so far, I just don’t want anything to change when this ‘date’ is going so well.
I think it’s love.
Roadside kickboxing tournament.
These guys picked me off the road and gave me a roof.
Young monks off to breakfast.
Shwemawdar pagoda, Bago
War Memorial outside Yangon