Epic motorbike trips, it seems, are ten a penny these days. Everyone and his or her dog are filming themselves carving tracks through the dust of the African Savanna on the back of massive Yamahas, or blogging about their bravery biking the treacherous mountain passes of northern India on Royal Enfields.
But there aren’t that many bikers from abroad who’ve had the chance to explore Myanmar yet. And those few that have managed to escape the motorbike-empty streets of Yangon will have had the pleasure of seeing a whole different side to the country, and certainly one you do not get from behind the tinted windows of a luxury coach on the tried-and-tested tourist routes. Great rewards await those who are prepared to put away their guidebooks, and get themselves dirty on two wheels. Be warned, though: You will not be disappointed by your journey, but you may need to lower your expectations when it comes to your mode of transport.
Generally speaking, nothing else compares with travelling by motorbike. The freedom to go where you want – within reason – at a speed you are happy with brings you much closer to life at the side of the road. It is such a personable way to see the world.
Then again, I’ll admit to not being proud when it comes to bikes – I’ll ride anything with two wheels. I once rode around the Monaco grand prix circuit on a 50cc moped – merrily zooming in and out of a million-pound traffic jam and waving at everyone. It was fantastic.
My pals who had come to Myanmar to partake in an epic motorbike adventure, however, have slightly higher standards when it comes to their bikes. So when they discovered that the transport of choice in Myanmar is a 125cc Chinese moped called Doris, they were less than enthusiastic.
After over 1000 kilometres (more than 620 miles) of tough riding, though, my pals had come around to the point of view that these bikes were perfect for the job. Although the Doris is perhaps better suited for nipping to the shops, she also allowed us to see some of the country at a slower pace than we might have normally taken. And as much as they tended to break down, they were certainly easy to repair on the road, thanks to the odd bit of roadside assistance by kindly lorry drivers and a few fortuitously located mechanics in paddy fields.
Our plan, in the beginning, was to follow the Burma Road all the way to Muse on the border with China, with side excursions and sightseeing as we saw fit. From Mandalay we headed north; but the spectacular landscapes either side of us were barely visible through the torrential monsoon rain. We aquaplaned up the red river that the road had become, weaving in slow motion between convoys of heavily laden diesel-spewing lorries transporting agricultural products to China. But we were getting nowhere fast, and we stopped to dry off and check our progress at the National Kandawgyi Botanical Gardens at the old colonial hill station of Pyin Oo Lwin, where the old summer palace of the governor of British Burma still sits, looking distinctly out of place and slightly embarrassed like an overdressed uncle at Christmas dinner.
The scenery, though, couldn’t distract us from the fact that tensions in our party were slowly building. We were behind schedule, we needed to travel faster, some of us needed to drink less tea – and could someone please make the rain stop? We trudged on, wet and tired, past imagined distant hills terraced with tea plantations to reach Kyaukme, where we only just managed to secure rooms at the one place in town open to foreigners.
From Hsipaw we made the mistake of trying to visit Mogok without advance permission, and were dutifully turned away at the checkpoint. We headed into town to rub wet shoulders with dreadlocked travellers discussing their trekking adventures, and dried our sorrows over fabulous and wickedly strong mojitos at Mr Shakes.
It was at about the third or fourth mojito (I forget) that we realised how little we had actually travelled, how wet we had actually got and how far away Muse and China still were. Our destination was quickly becoming an unrealistic and obsessive dream.
So we changed our plans, re-routed and ventured off the beaten track as best we could. Without travel permits we were limited in where we could get to, but we took roads at will, and began to meet people whose first question wasn’t “where are you travelling?” but “why are you travelling?” We headed toward Sagaing. We’d heard a rumour the weather was better there.
Our maps began to be replaced by individually created routes, each meticulously carved into the damp pages of our notebooks by the patrons of the establishments we visited along the way. Hand-drawn and beer-soaked, our path gathered momentum as we collected journeys and stories each evening. Our guidebooks were rendered useless as our companions at frequent tea stops were keen to share more up-to-date and relevant information. Each conversation acted out in sign language gained in volume and gesticulation as more people joined in the planning. We improved our mispronunciations of village names, and even became more accepting of the U-turns we were forced to carry out at impassable checkpoints. And as our journey continued our destinations became more vague, and less important.
We zigzagged our lightweight machines across the Ayeyarwady and Chindwin rivers, precariously riding down steep muddy embankments and onto small boats at each watery dead end, skidding and sliding up the slopes at the other side, much to the amusement of the people who had gathered to observe the spectacle.
We watched the sun set over the chocolate-brown waters with ice-cold Myanmar beers and a table groaning with food whilst we pondered the likelihood of Kipling’s flying fish and celebrated our sighting of real “elephants a-pilin’ teak”.
We pushed our little bikes to their limits as we ploughed through monsoon-flooded lanes in between engorged rice paddy fields, and over dangerously narrow log bridges. Every kilometre of our journey was punctuated by fellow bikers all happy to share their bit of the road with us, and often on the outskirts of the larger towns we joined cavalcades several hundred bikes strong.
We discovered Twindaung – a sludgy, soupy-green spirulina-filled volcanic lake – almost by accident, taking our time to ride down the inside of the crater to peer through a microscope at the tightly coiled algae; we bought products we were assured would make us more virile and younger.
We stumbled upon the the ancient ruins of Hanlin, and sweated in the sheds protecting the remains of 1st-century AD warriors; we wandered alone through the temple caves at Pho Win Taung, our only guides the insistent and noisy tamarind-chewing monkeys.
It is a cliché when talking about travel to say that the journey is more important than the destination, but having given up on our destination the journey was all we had. And the cliche began to ring true.
The guidebook-and-brochures approach to travel is very destination-orientated, with a clearly defined emphasis on ticking boxes. In Myanmar the guides promise a chance-of-a-lifetime visit to glittering pagodas and mist-shrouded temples, learning about the culture – but there is no mention of the barber in Shwebo who’ll give you a much-needed shave whilst refusing to accept any payment other than the opportunity to practice his English.
Whole paragraphs are dedicated to “The Lady” – yet not the lady who’ll stop in the rain to lend you her umbrella to retrieve a lost flip-flop from a storm drain, or the one who owns the tiny stall by the roundabout who’ll not only give you directions but force upon you ice-cold water and cool towels to wipe the dust from your eyes with no expectation of payment in return.
I wonder whether many who come to visit Myanmar, due to their tight schedules and I-spy checklists, actually miss out on the pleasure you get from stopping, taking a look around, and having a cup of tea and a chat. (Or the joy of interacting with the country from the back of a motorbike that’s top speed is 30mph and sounds like an angry wasp trying to find its way out of an empty can of Coke.) They may well learn a great deal about the colourful past of the country, but they may also miss the real thing, the vibrant present and the exciting future that is Myanmar today.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that everyone should hire a Doris bike as we did, because that is not the trip for everyone. And I’m not criticising tourism or package tours per se – nor being so impudent to say I am the better of two kinds of tourist. What I am saying – and I think this also applies to life outside of travel – is we should be aware of how much time we actually take to stop and look around us at our place in the world, and ask ourselves whether we’re really meeting it head-on. How often do we allow ourselves the luxury of getting lost, just to see what our destination might end up being?
We began our motorbike trip with a guidebook route and a plan of what we expected to see. It wasn’t until we found ourselves behind schedule, lost, broken down or missing a flip-flop that we discovered our journey wasn’t about the places we reached at the end of each bone-shuddering and nerve-wracking day’s ride. Instead, we learned, it was about those in-between moments: the casual conversations, the kindness and generosity of strangers and brief interactions, the tiny slivers of insight into the lives of those we met. These were actually the things we should have been looking for all along. These were what ultimately became the destinations of our journey.
Motorbikes for the trip were hired from Mandalay Motorbikes (they do have bikes other than the Doris available). mandalaymotorbike.com
Published Myanmar Times – September 2014