This section might be a bit briefer and patcher than previous as it was written erm 5 weeks after the event… Got a bit sick in Myanmar and dropped the blog ball already.
Note: There’s not that many roads in Myanmar so I’m not noting which roads we took as we took ‘the’ road.
Mae Sot – Kawkareik (70 hilly kms)
Olga and myself managed to drag ourselves away from our beautiful hotel and swimming pool to head out and meet Ramlan our third travelling companion by the Thai-Myanmar border for 8:30am. The morning started with a gentle 8km or so through the last fields of Thailand for a while to snake a back way to the border point, passing schools and work crews kicking into action for the day.
A promising start perhaps to meet at a cafe called Heaven. I would not be saying this in about three hours time. We zipped through the border crossing pretty swiftly, although the immigration guards took fine time chewing through Olga’s non EU passport. Much smoother experience than many internet searches would have you believe. Myanmar is experiencing significant tourist growth and this land border crossing has only been open for a few years, so a lot of the travel advice online is pretty out of date.
Instant impressions cycling across my first border into the town of Myawiddy were how although things were kind of the same there were already some differences just from having crossed that line that some dude drew some time ago. Your cycling on the other side of the road for starters, but Myanmar is instantly dusty and there seemed to be a lot of building going on. Times are changing fast in this country.
We had about say 15kms of smooth riding, stopping only once to give roadside police photocopies of our passport that we were advised to come prepared with. All smiles, no stress. Once you pass out of Myawiddy there aren’t really many drink/food stops along the way to Kawkareik so stock up. The ‘new’ road from the border into Myanmar is now open and thankfully it’s in very good nick. The previous ‘old’ road was apparently absolutely shocking and was so bad that vehicles were only permitted to travel one direction a day at a time. If you got the wrong day you just had to wait.
Then there was a hill-mountain. I knew it was coming and I am not surprised how it felt. It felt bad. Rlly rlly bad. I can’t actually remember much of it, but I know that cycling and then getting off and pushing a bike and luggage up a fuck-nut of a hill for about an hour in midday sun with no shade isn’t a pleasant experience. Fortunately there was a summit where we took shade in this hut next to an army/police stop. The dudes with guns were friendly despite their stern faces and have us a crate of water which we demolished while our blood cooled by like 30 degrees or whatever. This was a big hill for sure, but for better initiated legs I imagine it would be not so traumatic at all.
But what goes up comes down, and the way down was delightful. This was followed by about 20km of uneventful flat before arriving in the small town of Kawkareik where we stayed at the better of the two guesthouses open to foreigners (foreigners have to stay in a limited range of registered guesthouses in Myanmar).
Later that evening I met with the lovely SuSu who lives in the town and who I’d been in touch with the cycling site via http://www.warmshowers.com, but a combination of language barriers and tiredness meant we agreed to rearrange for a morning tour instead.
Kawkareik – Hpa-an (approx 55 kms of 90km journey)
Wrenched by body awake to meet Ramlan and SuSu at 7:15am for breakfast at the local market and a tour of a rice noodle factory. Kawkareik doesn’t get many/any tourists apart from the odd cycle tourer so we were the source of some intrigue that morning. Visiting the rice noodle factory was interesting. It looks laborious and my conclusion was it would be much easier to just eat the rice as it is.
SuSu is from the town and takes cycle tourists around to see the sights and answer questions about the area. If you pass through then you can contact her via Kawkareik on warmshowers.com.
We finally got going about 9:30 which was too late really as it was going to be another long day. It was an okay ride through villages and small towns along the only road towards Hpa-an, but it was a bumpy ride with A LOT of dust with road crews working on the surface. A bad road surface makes it much more energy consuming.
Myself and Ramlan had cycled ahead of Olga and by about 3pm were pretty tired with still 25km to go and so we decided to hitch a lift, only for Olga to rock up just in time. We flagged a car taxi and loaded the three bikes onto the roof and rested easy for the remaining ride. As we approached Hpa-an we saw the stunning karst limestone mountains that surround the town and I felt a pang of disappointment for not cycling this stretch, but I’m not in a cycling competition and decided to take it easy on myself.
We stayed a day and a half in snoozy Hpa-an as there are many sights to see and it’s turnbacktime vibe is very soothing. Definitely quite a few tourists as it’s a key spot on the trail, but the integrity of the place is certainly retained.
The next day may have been my favourite in Myanmar where myself and Ramlan hired a motorbike and headed out into the countryside to zip around paddy fields chilling at the feet of mountains and visit some very cool caves. It really was stunning and felt such a treat being so free to explore. I felt very alive that day.
We visited a few cave sites with the Saddan Caves being particularly memorable. You can walk deep into the caves and play with the echoes (no photos as it was dark obvs), but most people stick with checking out the amazing carvings into the rock face that adorn the temple inside.
Hpa-an – Moulmein (boat ferry)
The following day we eschewed the bikes again to take the much recommended river ferry to the nearby town of Moulmein and we weren’t disappointed. It was a glorious three hours nipping along inbetween mountains either side. Felt pretty boss this day too 🙂
Moulmein (rest day)
Moulmein – Thaton (70km)
Er we didn’t cycle again as wanted to see Moulmein… So we took another rest day here but in reality could have skipped this as while it’s a nice town to chill I’m not sure I’d spend a day there again instead of cycling. It’s one of the places in Myanmar where the British colonial architecture remains in clear sight and which was of great interest to my inner geek. I would have bloody loved a museum about this shit but museums aren’t a thing in this area so much.
We stayed in a very cool old colonial hotel that was more than a touch The Shining. I whiled away a very happy afternoon working my way through Orwell’s Burmese Days in the hotel sitting on an old teak armchair that some rich old colonial dude probably puffed imported cigars on back in the day.
Orwell lived in the town briefly (I think) and I visited a quintessentially quaint English church where his family practiced. Very odd to see such a familiar sight shrouded in palm trees. This was a few days before Christmas and I stood outside and listened to a youth choir sing joyously along to Hark The Herald Angels sing translated into Myanmar.
Moulmein – Thaton (70km)
Finally back on the bike again and I must have missed it as I zipped 70km and arrived at our planned hotel by 12 noon on the dot. This was 70km in pretty much bang on 3.5 hours which was good going. Well done legs. Olga and Ramlan were feeling ropey so got the bus and I met them there. I thoroughly enjoyed this solo cycle and felt very liberated whipping through this unfamiliar place with confidence. Well done me. The road was smooth and fast and there’s small towns pretty much all along the way if you did want to stop for lunch and plenty of hillside wats you can visit or rest in.
We stayed in the only foreigner guest house in town and got charged for the pleasure at a whopping $45 a night for the three of us in a shared room. Olga and Ramlan killed their illness with sleep and I spent pretty much the entire evening on the balcony just listening to the sounds of the town, feat motorbikes, never ending and most relaxing undulating chanting from the town’s central temple and of course dogs. Thaton has great historical significance in the development of Buddhist civilisation across the old empires now spanning Myanmar, Thailand and India, but the details of this are lost on me. This is where a tour guide would actually be really useful.