Thursday, February 26, 2015

Meltdown at the Tourist Hot Spots

I should have known it was coming...After spending several days on my own, lost in the middle of nowhere with few tourists around, I took the turn off for Inle Lake and found and was inundated with tourists. Yes, I'm a tourist myself, but sometimes I forget that as I have my own independent means for transportation, complete freedom to choose where I go and how I get there (except for a few police interventions from time to time here in Myanmar), and I'm on an adventure that is much more about enjoying getting from point A to B, than actually being at those points. For me there is a fine balance between traveling to the tourist hot spots and staying off the beaten track when I'm in a foreign country. If I've traveled all this way and might not ever come to the country in which I'm currently exploring, I don't want to bypass the culturally significant places, but at the same time, I end up seeing and taking in the country in a unique way cycling saturating myself with sights that aren't in any guide book and I feel completely fulfilled!

The night before I stayed in Inle Lake, I found myself camped perched atop a pagoda with this sunset

I had climbed through these mountains, looking very similar to mountains in California or Southern Spain

There were lots of hairpin turns to climb gently, although it was never -ending!

Myanmar is unique when it comes to tourism. The government has things so tightly controlled tourists feel as though they are cattle being herded from one place to the next. It's happened twice where I've stumbled upon tourists that I saw at another attraction a few days back. With so many places that are “off limit” and everyone on the same route, it is bound to happen.  I don't think it can last long if the country wants to prosper from tourism, but for now, this is how things are being done here.

So far, I've hit my fair share of tourist "hot spots". I had pedaled to Kyaityo, the famous Golden Rock and experienced a Buddhist pilgrimage. The most rewarding part of that visit was the peaceful 4 hour hike up and down through tiny little villages. I visited a handful of more important pagodas in Bago, Pyay, and Magwe, but after awhile, they all start looking the same. I spent two nights in Mandalay, only one was really needed to see sights, but it was a logistical layover for me to route plan. I was impressed with my sunrise visit to the Ubein bridge with little to no tourists (probably due to the time of day and the distance from the city), and walking through the streets of sculpture workshops to see how those large Buddha statues are carved. I walked up to Mandalay Palace, but it was so covered in trees it was hard to take in it's vast size, and the view from the top was unimpressive with the amount of haze in the air. The most delightful part of my visit to Mandalay was my hotel. An art and music school that had just opened it's doors recently as Dreamland Guesthouse. Run by a family, mom and dad and their six grown daughter's whom they homeschooled and spoke perfect English.  The entire family was incredibly charming and delighted to talk with and very helpful with my itinerary. Mandalay was large enough that you blend in to city life, but locals here weren't shy in trying to make a quick buck on tourists, something you don't find normally in Myanmar. 

Mandalay's famous teak bridge at sunrise

Only the locals were out and about

And of course the monks!

In Hsipaw, in the northern Shan region, it is a bit too isolated for the tourist on packaged vacations.  Therefore, other tourists were present, but many were heading out on treks, and the tourists sights in the area, again were so spread out, I was alone for most of my day there, walking the dirt paths to visit various Shan villages, exploring their “mini-Bagan” and local artisan workshops.

More ancient pagoda's in Hsipaw's "Mini-Bagan"

What came first the pagoda or the tree?

 Of all the tourist "hot spots", the highlight for me was Bagan, a plain of temples.  Although it is the number one tourist attraction in Myanmar, it never fees inundated with westerners as the temples themselves are so spread out it is easy to sight-see all day without running into more than a handful of tourists. In my hotel, I met an adventurous young soul like myself and we decided to watch the sunrise from a temple to ourselves. The young Aussie had asked a few local boys who had helped her with a flat tire the day before, where she could see a nice sunrise. They had told her about this temple, which was really off limits with gates guarding the stairs, but they said that many of locals go here, squeezing through the gates. Thankfully it was dark so we couldn't truly see just how decrepit and abandoned this temple was. With my bike light, all we could make out were the layer of mice droppings that completely covered the entire grounds, a testament to just how few people transit this temple. Like honest and respectful tourists we took off our shoes inside and ignored the fact that we were walking and sitting on mice poo. We found the stairway with the bent gate and squeezed through, making our way to the top to witness sunrise and the two dozen hot air balloons that filled the sky just afterwards. It was a magical sight and well worth seeing, I also enjoyed cycling to the many pagoda's getting lost on the small dirt tracks.

Sunset over Bagan

Sunrise over the temples

Temples galore

I should have know upon arriving to Inle Lake, that I was a little saturated with tourists. The traffic to get to these places is much denser and the people are a bit more intense, which can get tiresome to deal with on a bike. There were more tourists than locals walking the streets, who seemed dazed and memorized. Restaurant signs were all in English advertising “Happy Hour” something I have not been reminded about for a long time! No sooner did I make it across the bridge into Inle Lake in the late after, that I was hassled for a boat tour for the next thing.

The boats at the jetty coming back from a day's outing at Inle Lake

According to Lonely Planet, seeing the sunrise on Inle Lake is one of the top five sunrises. I'd love to know the parameters for this list of places...... I had camped out the night before, perched on the side of a hilltop pagoda in a mountain pass, unable to cycle any farther. I went to bed with the sound of the wind blowing the chime on the lonely pagoda and had the most peaceful night's rest. Finding a campsite in Inle Lake to rival my solidarity of the previous night, was out of question, but luckily I had met a German cyclist back in Bagan on my way out who invited me to share the double hotel room where he was staying. Eric had been at Inle Lake for two nights and showed me pictures of the boat tour he took and gave me the run down on what he did. Being a solo traveler, I needed to find other people who'd be willing to share the boat with me. I wasn't up for being on the boat all day, so I decided to go down to the jetty a bit later, hoping their would be a boat driver eager to fill his boat that had not yet departed and cut me a half day deal. Bad idea! Just like in Mandalay, these locals were entrepreneurs and hagglers and not pleasant to deal with. Perhaps it was my sensory overload with the tourism, or my disgust to see the locals sell themselves to the industry, but I wasn't impressed and decided to skip the boat tour. I just didn't have the mind set or energy to surrender to Inle Lake's tourism. I would rather set off to climb up into the mountains and begin my return to Yangon, where I depart Myanmar in a week. I would much rather be lost on the backroads in the mountains, immersed by nature and small villages, than swarmed with tourists and hagglers.

Merchant boats ready to pack up the market in Pan Om  

I set out rather late with the idea to pull over an camp wherever I pedaled before sunset. I knew I had a lot of climbing to do and there were very few villages in between. I would have a good two or three day ride ahead of me, with almost 4,000 meters to ascend. The road ran parrellel to the lake and I could see it almost the entire time. It is Myanmar's second largest lake and unique because it is at 800 meters of elevation. During the dry season, in which we are, the lake is only 7 feet deep at the deepest part, rising to 12 feet during the wet season. Besides the stilt houses in villages afloat the lake and the artisan workshops, there are also markets to visit both floating and on the shore in different villages. To my surprise, the road I was on turned off to one of these villages, and to my luck, the market was just finishing up. I was a privileged witness to see the come to an end and observe the cleaning and logistics that go into closing up shop after all the people clear out. Just with the merchant boats the jetty was overcrowded, I could only imagine the scenario with hundreds of tourist boats as well!
What does it take to set-up and take down one of these markets? That is what I witnessed

A few vendors still had their goods for sell to give me the idea of what the market must be like in full swing

I love the reaction of kids as they see me ride by  They never seem to be "in" school, always out on the playground!

Once I left the market, I should have known what I was in for just from observing the looks on the faces of the locals when I told them my destination. I could see the mountains to the west of the lake, that went straight up from the water, but surely the road would be more gradual. After all, two days prior I was in the mountains, back-to-back days of climbing with pleasant hairpin turns and gradients that were manageable despite the lack of shade. Traffic was minimal, so were villages, and I was completely isolated in an environment that looking surprisingly similar to central California's cascades or Spain's dry Sierra Nevada. It was impressive to say the least, torture for the legs!

Welcome to the mountains!

Up, up, and away! That is a false summit in the distance

I was in store for a completely different type of climb. From the moment I crossed to the west side of the lake, which was now just a narrow river, I started going up, straight up that is without any hairpin turns. It was brutal! In fact, I had to get off my bike several times on the steepest of gradients which topped off at 22%, making those that were between 13 and 18% seem flat. Thankfully the heat of the day was over as the sun was on it's way down. I climbed and climbed and climbed, but my legs just couldn't go any further. I was going to be lucky to make it to the town I had in mind for dinner at this rate. Somehow I did, right before the sun went down which made things tricky. I needed to eat dinner and hit the road to find a campsite, but everyone in town wanted to direct me to where I had just come from to the one and only hotel for foreigners, which I knew was out of my price range. I could have run into problems with the police or any of the locals really if they would have asked me why I was pedaling in the opposite direction as the hotel and the sun had set, but I continued on, with a story in mind about taking a picture of the sunset if they asked. I followed the road out of town until there was no traffic except for an occasional motorbike every 2 minutes, and started looking for a place to camp.

Notice it is a car, not a truck like in Thailand.  The trucks barely make it!

I chose a small dirt road that looked as if it were a farming trail that went up a small hill. There were crops on the left and right, and I found a field that looked relatively flat and hidden from the dirt road and set-up camp for the night. I could see the town nestled down below and felt proud and accomplished, I had managed to bypass sleeping there. The best part of wild camping, especially when you find a campsite when dark has already come, is the surprise element when you wake up in the morning. My internal clock didn't let me down and I awoke and packed up my tent as the sun was rising. Three men came walking along the path as I was taking down my tent and they stopped and stared in amazement. Perhaps it had never occurred to them these fields were such a picturesque campsite, or maybe it was just the fact that a white young woman on a loaded bicycle had found this place to sleep. We were both in shock, as I looked out on the valley below with a layer of fog and watched the sun rise with a pagoda perched on a mountain top in the backdrop. How scenery changes so quickly, this sunrise, although it wasn't advertised in the lonely planet, and my campsite on the side of the mountain were priceless. I couldn't have chosen a better place to stay after escaping Inle Lake.

Once again I found a peaceful campsite for the night

To my surprise, sunrise was breath taking!
Yes, I also enjoyed all the scenery in the day to come. When I awoke, the temperature was a mere 4C (40F). I froze as I descended to a gathering of houses. I would call it a village, except for the fact that it had no tea shop. I picked up some biscuits and a juice and the man who ran the shop told me I had 20 miles downhill to the next village. He was right, I found a proper tea shop 20 miles further on down the road, but it wasn't all downhill. The road undulated for the next 35 miles and after a proper refueling it climbed gruesomely straight back up again for the next 10 to 15 miles. I was going nowhere fast, and able to take in the scenery all around me. I didn't stop for many pictures as it would have been impossible to start up again on the steep slopes. The climbing was relentless and the temperature was well into the mid-30's (95F) now. I was struggling and cursing, even though I would have taken this type of route over a crowded road on a main drag. I'd always seen the trucks, cars, and even motor scooters stop to hose off their car to cool the engine and now it was me who pulled over to use some family's random water tank to pour water over my head. I was overheated, but determined to make it down to the valley. Just when I thought I had to be the only crazy cyclist to ride this road, I encountered an older couple coming down towards me. They were chipper and friendly and told me I had 3 more kilometers to the summit, but in return, I had nothing positive to say about the road except of course the scenery. Despite all the climbing I had done, I had descended double the amount, which meant they had their work cut out for them between that afternoon and tomorrow. My heroes. I would have never attempted the road in opposite direction.
I had skirted out of the town of Pinlaung below. My garmin showed frigid temperatures

An empty road cycling to Naypyitaw

No comment......

The looks on the faces of the locals at the roadside stall was similar to that of their faces when I had started my ascent. “Did you really just come over that road?” Their faces implied! Yes, I did and it was well worth all the pain. But now, you better believe it! As a reward, I'm off to treat myself to a vacation from my vacation.....Rather than pedal back down Myanmar's central plains on densely trafficked roads, I'm hopping on a bus to the capital and headed out to explore the delta and sparse beaches. I'm making the most of my last week without any responsibilities and my nomadic life! Who knows when I will take 2 years from the “real world” again.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

A Red Flag Goes Up

You come to my house to sleep?” The young guy asked me who was on his motorbike riding next to me.

OK!” I answered without even hesitating. It only dawned on me 20 minutes later that I should probably ask him with whom he lives.

Brother, brother, me.” He answered. 

A red flag went up. It seldom does when I travel by bike. Most everyone I encounter is incredibly friendly, helpful, and means well. They usually dowse me in unimaginable kindness and hospitality. Should I really be worried that I'm going to stay the night at a house with three men in a small village? I began to assess the situation while riding.

It seemed my day was all going to work out nicely after all. My plan to back track on the road I pedaled up to the mountains in the Shan state was all going according to plan. Earlier that morning, I took the train through the gorge from Hsipaw to Nawnghkio. It was a rickety old train that looked as if it was build a few hundred years ago that moved more sideways and up and down off the track than advancing forward. Never had I experienced anything quite like this. I was happy to get off at the small town of Nawnghkio where I had seen a small road that cut through and left me south, close to the Inle Lake region. The road seemed relatively flat from what I could tell on Google maps and appeared to go through several small villages.  

It's hard to see just how old this train is from the picture.  I've never been on anything quite like this before.  You could feel the train bounce up and down off the tracks and the noise was horrendous!

Talk about true business women, you will never go hungry or thirsty anywhere in Myanmar!

Not a recommended journey for those with vertigo

I started pedaling and was delighted by the scenery:rolling hills, fertile farmlands and very little traffic. This young boy had found me 10 kilometers into my pedal and I had 2 hours of sunlight left. My plan was to pedal until just about dark and then find a Monastery or a Pagoda to sleep. But this young guy had offered me a place to sleep, it would makes things a lot easier. Surely I could trust him and his brothers, look at where they lived. Everyone in the village will know I'm staying the night. They won't be able to harm me. I continued to pedal with him. He escorted me 30 kilometers on his motorbike. Obviously he was eager and excited to have me at his house. I thought we had arrived to his house when we pulled over to a large purple house on the side of the road, there were several people outside. “Your house?” I asked. It was his teacher's house he told me. We went in to visit.

The countryside was beautiful and the small backroad was even more peaceful
I could see the pride on Shin Thant Oo's face as he introduced me to two ladies who appeared about my age with several children standing by their side. It wasn't everyday a foreigner came cycling down his road on a fully loaded bicycle. In fact later he and his village neighbors told me it was the first time they'd seen a foreigner on this road. I guess that explained all the stares I was getting. They had me sit down and began firing off questions. Yes, it was an interrogation, but a most friendly one accompanied by laughing and giggling. Two sisters lived in the big purple house and both were teachers. One had two kids, and the other was single. From what I gathered, some of their students slept in the house as well. Their English was good enough to understand my situation, my travels, and my intentions to bike south on their road. There was an instant connection with them. The question surfaced again. “Where you sleep tonight?” I told the women Shin Thant Oo wanted me to go to his house, but explained that I was a bit worried as I would be sleeping with him and his brothers. They laughed and Shan That Oo blushed with embarrassment; he realized it looked a bit suspicious asking a solo woman to come to a house with 3 men. The women told me I could sleep at their house and in the meantime go to Shin Thant Oo's village tonight to visit. Problem solved and what a perfect solution. I went with Muyar Myingan, one of the sister's on the back of her motorbike and Shin Thant Oo guided us . The sun was setting over the hills and the colors were beautiful as we rode off on a small red dusty road up and over one of the hills.

His village had to be small if this was the only road to enter. Ten minutes later we arrived at a house, his aunt's house. It was a big house with woven panels for sides. They brought me upstairs and inside where his grandmother was, a 83 year old sharp and clever woman. I don't think she had ever met a foreigner before let alone been this close to one. As the norm goes when I am in the presence with locals, the group starts out small and then the people start trickling in, curious to meet me. I sat on the straw mats on the floors doing a lot more meditating and observing than talking. People started arriving every few minutes, cousin's uncles, brothers,......I couldn't keep track of them all. Muyar Myingan told me they all thought I was wonderful and so brave for traveling alone on my bicycle. I was overwhelmed and delighted to meet them and in awe observing their life. I started to feel guilty I had questioned Shin Thant Oo's trust. How silly of me to think this boy could have been threatening. His mother wanted me to stay for days, and was disappointed I wasn't going to sleep at their house, but I think I made the right choice as my bike was back on the main road and I would be in good company as well.

Muyam Myingan and one of her daughters, very friendly people

Some of the many people who slept inside the big purple house,......they just added one more to the list and it was no problem!

Shin Thant Oo and his family (Aunt, Grandma, and mother)  They never smile in photographs but as always happy in conversation which is ironic!

Incredibly friendly women delighted to have a foreign woman in their home.

This is the group of people that gathered in their home, although when I left there were another half a dozen visitors

After an hour or so of visiting and eating (no one else ever seems to eat, they just bring out more and more food for me) we headed back to the big purple house. This time I rode on the back of Shin Thant Oo's bike. He was glowing and was humming and singing the entire way back. My eyes were glued to the stars in the sky, what an impressive sight. The entire Milky Way band was glowing, not a bit of light pollution from down below. An incredibly magical sky. We arrived back to the purple house and I stored my bike properly and they guided me inside. At this point I was beat, so they showed me to the washing area, I took a plan and splashed water on my face, brushed my teeth and called it a night. It turns out Shin Thant Oo was going to spend the night as well, as he frequently does when visiting from University. He and the younger boy students slept downstairs on a long continuous bed surface, basically a big wooden board, and the girls were upstairs in two larger rooms. My bed was upstairs in the common area. A thin pad with a pillow and lots of blankets. This would do just perfectly. It was 8pm and I was exhausted. No one else was making their way to bed yet and the TV downstairs was blasting and some of the other girls were huddled together singing and reciting a poem or song it seemed. I went to bed within a few minutes, noise and all sleeping entirely through the night without having to get up once and go outside to use the toilet.

The next morning, I awoke to chilly air. After all, we were on high altitude plateau and this is what you get. The sisters were already preparing breakfast for the students and I washed up and waited with Shin Thant Oo and Muyar Myingan. They were preparing something special for me. We ate together and again, people started trickling in to see me. I do realize their visit is totally valid. A solo female white foreigner on a bike is quite a novelty, they have all the right to be curious and see this girl for themselves. Rather than ask questions about me, they were more concerned with where I was going. It seemed the road I was headed on was not safe. Usually I ignore the locals when they tell me this as they always seem to worry more than is necessary. The road on Google Maps seemed perfectly fine but they told me about a 40 mile stretch through a narrow gorge that descents dramatically with nothing around. They gestured guns and used the words "rebel fighters".  Now a real red flag went up.  From what I gathered, there are a lot of rebel fighters in the forested areas and the road isn't patrolled by police or the military, making it unsafe. They told me that no one goes past their village on this road and to truth, there was no truck transit on the road, meaning that it was not a major thoroughfare.  Yes, there were towns on the other side, but they were only accessible from the road's southern entrance. I was in disbelief. Surely I wasn't going to backtrack the portion I had pedaled last night?  How bad could this road be? If it were truly a dangerous road, where was the police? It was certainly interesting that I had managed to stay in this village without a single police or immigration officer stopping me. How could this be? Why had it been so easy? They told me the area doesn't have police as there are 4 military bases close by that patrol, but that the last base is just a couple of miles up the road and after that it is “no mans land” and no one from their village ever goes beyond. 

With a mattress no thinker than an inch I was out and slept all through the night for a total of 9 hours!

Muyar Myingan with both her daughters.

Breakfast, do you see how bundled up they are?  I put on my Goretex jacket to fit in really because I didn't really need it!

orn my Goretex in Myanmar

Three generations in this photo, Aunt, nieces, and great nieces, Shin Thant Oo is in the background on his motorbike.  The bricks on the ground are drying in order to start building another house
My plan had back fired! What to do? Do I ignore their cautions and proceed or back track. The latter seemed like such an effort and ordeal involving a lot of repeated pedaled kilometers and a ton of climbing. However, the more people I met the more faces of worry I witnessed as they heard I was going to try to pass on that road. It was true that there wasn't much traffic on the road and as I sat and watched the road that morning, no cars went beyond the last village shop. Eery! Some how in my planning, I had forgotten to ask people if the road I wanted to take for a short cut was safe.  I was too worried in the road conditions and the climbing involved!  After visiting their local monastery and a few more family members, I decided to hop on my bike and backtrack. I would ride to the main road where I had detoured, try to hitch hike the ascension, and then pedal down south of Mandalay and head up through the mountains on a different road which I knew other cyclists had used successfully. I said good-bye after an extensive photo opportunity and pedaled.

Luckily it was mostly downhill and I was amazed that the afternoon before I had pedaled so far and so fast. I was back on the main road in about an hour and looking for a big car to take me and my bike. Pick-ups are rare here, as a vehicle for personal transportation. All the pick-ups I see are local shared taxis, stuffed to the brim full of goods to be transported. No cars ever go empty on the roads here so I thought my chances of hitchhiking were slim. But to my surprise, the first car that approached was an empty pick-up. I didn't wait to hail him down and explained I was going back to Pyin-Oo-Liwn and asked for a ride. He seemed to be fine with the idea, so I loaded my bike in the empty bed and hopped in. Well, we weren't going to be fully loaded driving, but we did stop twice to pick up two other friends and headed on our way. I couldn't figure out what the three men were doing but they were observing the countryside quite keenly and looking at all the little developments along the side of the road. They were very thoughtful and gave me water and snacks. I kept my fingers crossed they'd drive all the way up the huge climb out of the valley and up to the next big town and they did. They left me at the top of the hill just before the toll booth and I got my bike down and began to pedal again. They had taken me 50 kilometers back, making my route for the rest of the day relatively easy going down a huge descent into the valley below where Mandalay awaited.

This time I would bypass Mandalay and carry on south. I knew there was a town about 70 kilometers south where there was an overpriced hotel for tourist called the Royal Orchid, thanks to Ian Mitchell's blog I had studied religiously. If there was a town with a hotel, surely there would be villages before and after with a pagoda or monastery, so I pedaled confidently thinking I could manage to find a place to sleep that night and avoid the pricey hotel. Although my route wasn't strenuous, I was tired and the sun was about to set. I couldn't tell exactly where I was on google maps and decided to pull off at the first pagoda I saw. Unfortunately the road was a lot busier and it wasn't so secluded. I wheeled into the pagoda, pulled out my translated note that asked if I could stay and the monk and a village women laughed and seemed to keep repeating this one word, pointing outside the sacred gates. So a man accompanied me down a small dirt road and through several narrow alleys to a big house. At first I thought it was a hotel, but then I realized it wasn't, maybe the house of the village head or a police officer. I couldn't be sure. But looking back now, I wish I would have gotten back on my bike and pedaled because I was at this house and under interrogation for the next 2 hours, well beyond sunset, making it impossible to go anywhere discretely.

The village pagoda, several of them actually

You can't visit a monastery or pagoda and not ring the bell for good luck!

I said good-Bye and pedaled back to where I had come from the day before.....

Man after man arrived and they were all curious where I was from, what I was doing and why on earth I was traveling alone. At first there was tension, but then that disappeared as a women brought snacks and the men wanted to know if I had facebook and I entertained them with some pictures. It didn't seem I was going to be able to sleep in the local pagoda, they laughed when they saw the pictures of me with the previous monks. An official police officer showed up. At first I thought I should be scared, but he was having a great time watching my videos on my website and trying to make phone call after phone call. Basically I told them I needed a place to stay because there was only a $50 hotel in the next town and I couldn't afford that. Phones were ringing right and left with the half dozen people gathered around. It wasn't until an immigration officer arrived that I actually had to get out my passport and they started copying down every word on my document.  Although they were taking pictures of mew, of course it never dawned on them to take a picture of my passport.  Inefficiency at it's best!

Not that I had anywhere better to be, but from what I could gather, they couldn't decide what to do with me.  An hour and a half had passed and the only progress made were the additional people standing around, only now the mood was rather amusing and there were plenty of peanuts and bananas to snack on.  They were baffled as to where I could stay for the night. I inquired if I could stay at the police station, and they just laughed. It was obviously that the police and immigration officers were starting to understand the predicament of a tour cyclists in Myanmar: long distances and few accommodations options makes for a challenging itinerary and unpredictable situations like the one in which I currently found myself. In the end, they told me they would drive me 15 miles to the town south, where there was a hotel . Yes, indeed, I knew of this hotel, I had read about it in Ian Mitchell's blog when he passed through. He said it was extremely overpriced and run down. I had repeatedly told them I couldn't pay more than $10 and they insured me that I wouldn't. So after about 2 hours of sitting around, eating loads of peanuts and bananas and trying to solve the problem, 6 of the men loaded me in the shared pick-up taxi that arrived and off they all carted me 15 miles south.  I was in the back with my bike, 2 police officers, two immigration officers, the village head, and another man whose ranking I didn't understand.  Normally I'd refuse to go in a car and pedal instead, but considering I had done a fair amount of back tracking today and the fact that they were taking me on a crowded main highway, I didn't protest. I was mostly in disbelief with how disorganized and inefficient the police and immigration officers went about doing business in Myanmar. If this were the United States, with all the encounters I had had with the police, they'd know all my life details from the last item I ingested to my average speed and the name of my first pet! These guys were absolutely clueless and seemed more excited to have their picture taken with a foreigner than the legality of the entire issue. I'm certain I will be a legend in their town and my story will be passed on from generation to generation!

For two hours they contemplated what to do with me.  I would have taken 2 minutes to help them decide!

I tried to tell them that taking a picture with their smartphone was less of a hassle, but it was useless.....Immigration on the left, police on the right.

It took us about a half hour and a lot of turns through a dark village before we arrived in front of a hotel that was completely dark except for the illuminated sign that read “The Royal Orchid Garden Hotel”. Here we were! I was curious to see how they were going to negotiate a room for me so that I didn't pay more than $10.  But to my surprise, or rather utterly appalled by their childish behavior, as if like a gang of teenagers who were trying to get away with some prank, the men quickly unloaded my bike from the back of the truck, piled back in, and sped away without saying good-bye or even taking another picture. Just like that they were off! A boy had come running out from the hotel and without even say hello, stated firmly $50! 

I laughed. You have to be kidding me,.....After all this I thought, I'm exactly where I knew I didn't want to be!  Exhausted and in utter appall with Myanmar's politics, I would have curled up on a park bench to sleep if there was one. I had no other option than to load up my things and go look for a place to hide my tent. I wandered down the dirt road in front of the hotel that was completely dark except for a few bulbs in front of a house. At the first house I came to there was a group of people outside so I showed them my note and pointed further down the road in hopes there might be a pagoda. They told me there wasn't. They pointed to the hotel and I told them the price in Kyat and shook my head. They stood there and talked amongst themselves and finally pointed to their house and said, “You, my house”.

The sign is about the nicest thing at the Royal Orchid Hotel
This was the house I approached in the dark. I took this photo the next morning after I had breakfast with them
I realize I should have hesitated or carried on, but I just didn't have the energy. I thought I could make them understand I just wanted to put my tent in someones yard, so I wheeled my bike up to their house. Here we go again I thought. It was completely dark and about 9:30 pm, I had no other choice but to accept their offer. Before I could get my bags off my bike they had me sitting at a table and started bringing out food and of course as with all my visits, the people started pouring in to see the foreigner. I couldn't figure out who lived in the house and who was just curious, but one thing was for sure, NO English was spoken. I was so tired and had no energy left I just went along with it all.

Then, with a lot of commotion, an older man arrived with impeccable English. He was here to get to the bottom of my appearance. I cold tell he was suspicious and wanted to protect his neighbors and was very uneasy having my stay with them. He asked me a lot of questions, very serious in his mannerisms. I didn't have the energy to be serious nor explain myself all over again. Although the tone became more relaxed, he told me that he was going to bring me to the Royal Orchid and I tried to explain I was just there and that it was too expensive. He reassured me that the owners were his friends and he would work something out, but I was ready to surrender regardless. I had no other option but to trust him. So after eating dinner with a million eyes on me, we wheeled my bike back to the hotel and he and his friend talked to a man, who seemed rather important, perhaps the owner or his son, and before I knew it I was brought to a room in a small bungalow. I don't know what the arrangement was, but I was delighted to finally have some intimacy and peace and quiet. It was 10:30 at night.

After a nice long hot shower, I curled up on the bed and went to sleep, laughing at the fact I was at the one place I wanted to avoid, The Royal Orchid Hotel! What an adventure! Did I learn my lesson? You bet! Choose your pagoda's carefully and avoid the police at all cost, they really have no idea how to help you!

PS. I stayed at the hotel for free!

On the left is the man who at first was so serious.  He turned out to be very nice and pleasant to talk with.  They made me a delicious breakfast

The crowd that gathered in the morning.  It turns out 15 people live in the house that I was going to stay in.  Like I said before, what is one more person when there are already so many people sleeping there!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Just Another Day Cycling Myanmar

They meant well with the name, but definitely not a classy hotel like the watch brand
I wake up at 5am, oh no.....somethings not right. I spend the next two hours going back and forth between the bathroom and my room at Hotel Rolex, which definitely didn't live up to it's name.  The food finally caught up with me! What was it? The water I got from the local ceramic pot, dinner last night even though I had actually splurged and gone to a proper restaurant with an menu in English? Maybe it was the ice that went in my sugar cane juice that I saw fall to the dusty ground and then get rinsed off with the stagnant water from the wash basin? It isn't until I'm an hour into my ride that I realize it was the fish salad from dinner, or at least that is what I keep repeating as I burp non-stop on my bike.

Diarrhea definitely wasn't in the plans today as I have a fairly big day ahead of me. I'm not at the most glamorous hotel so staying an extra day to rest is out of the question. In between my visits to the bathroom, I manage to sleep in until 7am. How on earth am I going to pedal if I go to the bathroom every 10 minutes? Breakfast is awaiting me in the lobby, but I can't even look at the food. I set off, determined I'm in good enough shape to make it.

The Ayeyarwady River is massive now in the dry season.  I can only imagine it's flooded banks during the rainy season

I had been traveling up the East side of the Ayeyarwady river, but today I wanted to explore the road on the west side. I've been told it is a good road. I cross an immense bridge, that spans two kilometers, a massive river indeed, as I'm sure it swells during the rainy season. I pass a police station on the other side of the river and I ask them for the road to Chauk. Little did I know I would be escorted by an “under cover” police throughout most of my day who magically appeared at every tricky road junction to guide the way. 

I love the police slogan in Myanmar,.....need you really ask?
My first escort starts just after the bridge with two young guys on a motorcycle. “Who is your country?” This is the question that everyone asks me. The people here are fascinate by tourists, a novelty and they always want to know their nationality.  I tell them Spain. I pedal for 10 km and they follow. The road is bumpy, just like all the other roads in this country but there seems to be less traffic on this side of the river. Just when I think I have lost them, I realize they were replaced by a solo under cover police. Again he asks, “What country?” Again I answer, Spain. I ask him a one word question, “Police?” The answer is obvious. He's a bit better at escorting than the first two and stays a good 300 meters behind me. 

My first police escort, very non-threatening gentlemen who laughed when I took their picture

I take in the scenery. Pagodas everywhere. I feel like I've already arrived at Bagan, but this is just what you see when you aren't on the tourist route in Myanmar.  Pagodas surround me old and new.  Where the old ones are crumbling and coming down, new ones are going up.  Along with the statues and decorative doorways and wall, I forget about my unsettled stomach which rumbles and turns at every divot in the road.  I stop and take photos, my escort stops as well, so I get a photo of him, and he takes one of me. How many people in Myanmar have a photo of me? A handful of policemen and many locals too!

The pagodas and ruins I stumbled upon

I continue on. This was not the best day to have a police escort. I need to stop every 20 minutes to go to the bathroom.  I should be embarrassed as I wave the toilet paper in the air, a universal symbol for toilet, except in SE Asia, where they don't really use it!   I usually try to stop every 40 kilometer for a snack, but today I need the extra sugar and fluid and stop after thirty.  I now have my third escort following me, a true tag team effort on the part of the Myanmar police. I skip the little town lined with shops and carry on to a smaller family establishment.  I prefer to support a rural family and their shop than one of the cafes that line a small town. I catch my escort off guard and take refuge in the shade. The family that runs the shop is also taken off guard by the foreigner who plops herself down and quickly drinks a glass of fresh sugar cane juice. When I leave, my escort isn't around.....but it only takes him a few minutes to find me on the road again. I put on my ipod to block out the constant hum of the motorcycle behind me and take my mind off of my currently state. Today is going to be a long day, I actually doubt I will make it, but I don't know my alternative..... My stomach is very unsettled and I have zero energy and even less motivation.

When I pulled over for pictures so did he and pretended to me engaged in conversation, although he broke into a smile when I took a picture of him

Thankfully I get wrapped up in my audiobook and before I know it I'm in another town.  I cross a police check point assuming there is no need to stop as they have me tightly controlled.  My assumption is incorrect and they come chasing after me on motorbikes. They are immigration officers. I apologize and give them my passport, which has also had a fair amount of photographs.  They copy down my details and of course ask me the ever so popular question that always gets an answer of disbelief.  Alone?  I nod.

I pedal on and to my surprise, I'm no longer escorted by a police officer. I've got some privacy, perfect for an emergency pit stop.  You aren't ever truly alone on these roads though.  Houses, farm stands, and villagers carrying on their daily tasks dot the road, as well as broken down vehicles who just couldn't hack the roads.  As I continue to pedal the road conditions worsen: No wider than a bike path with frequent patches of gravel.  Maybe this is why the police has given up on me?  The roads are so bad, that even the bridges are made out of wood rather than concrete. But to my surprise, there are still makeshift "toll booths" collecting a toll from time to time for cars and trucks to pay.

These bridges are tricky for me to maneuver, imagine for a truck.....

By this time I'm halfway through my day distance-wise, from what I can tell and I decide to stop again at the next town I see. I'm extremely dehydrated and need more sugar. I choose a store which looks promising.  There is a small fridge which I equate to cold drinks.  No one is in the store, but it doesn't stop me from opening fridge, only to find that it isn't plugged in.  The juice is in the freezer section which is as warm as the air outside.  At this point, I just appreciate the fact that it is wet and will quench my thirst.  A young girl comes as I point to the Lychee juice. I sit in the shade on the bench in front of the store and gulp down my juice. When I look up, there is a crowd in front of me. There are more to the side,....more by my bike. They are all just staring and talking, their eyes fixed with an incredibly curious face. I'm entertained by their presence and can't help taking a picture.  I go for a second juice, gesturing that it is really hot, but actually today isn't that warm, temperatures are in the low 30Cs (90F) and there isn't any humidity.
They were amazed with the automatic timer.....Notice the Barça jersey, ever present in SE Asia, anywhere!

I love this photo....notice my clean underwear hanging off my bag, they sure don't seem to notice.....

I say good-bye and continue to pedal.  At this point, my bum is rather numb, no matter how comfortable my Brooks saddle is, nothing can take on the pot holes and bumpy asphalt of Myanmar. I  consider myself lucky, it would be a much more painful ride for a man.  I would definitely refrain from cycling here if I were a young man and want to have kids some day.......

The road gets a bit better at the same time I notice my 4th police escort who magically appears at an intersection to gesture me to turn left.  I wonder what was down the road to the right?  Today is not the day to explore.  I try not to look at my speed, knowing it will take another 3 hours before I'm in the town I've been told has a hotel, Chauk.

With 30 kilometers left, I stop at a cafe, and make my last pit stop and rid myself of my last police escort.  They don't like the local people to see them, they never stop to rest with me. Another warm juice, but the sugar does me well.  The homestretch is horrendously long with a steep climb, but the thought of a cold shower and rest keeps me motivated. I cross over the bridge and go back on the east side of the river and arrive in Chauk. Hopefully Chauk is like every other town in Myanmar with a hotel or two along the main drag so you never have to detour (and also contributes to a noisy room).   This time, however I don't find a hotel so I have to stop and ask. I am pointed in the direction and pull up at Dream II, with pictures of palm trees on the hotel sign. I ask the women if she has a room for one person, and she gestures no. What? You are full? No rooms? Then she uses the gesture I've learned here that means Sorry, I can't help you and it dawns on me, this hotel can't take foreigners. 

I ask for a hotel for foreigners and she tells me the name of Jessica Hotel and points me down the road. I carry on pedaling. By now I'm so exhausted I'd sleep on a park bench if I could find one. For a good 15 minutes, I try to find Jessica Hotel without success. I'm frustrated.  Where are my police escorts when you need them? They escorted me for about 80 kilometers today, but then abandoned me when I got to a city. Don't they care where I sleep?  Didn't they realize there were no hotels for foreigners in Chauk.  I give up and decide to pedal out of town looking for a pagoda. Within a few kilometers I ride by what seems to be a large monastery as there are a lot of small monks playing in the yard.

The head monk on the left who had his eyes fixed on me from the moment I rolled up.  His assistant on the right was ever so friendly

This man spoke the best of English and his wife was the one who cared for me so when I first arrived.

After a few other phone calls, some more men arrive. There continues to be a lot of silence and pondering the situation and then they tell me that I can stay. Relief sets in. I see a few men go off with blankets and a mosquito net to prepare my room while the main monk and a few other men who act as translators sit with me. They want to offer me a meal, but I lie and tell them I already ate. I can't imagine their response if I were to use charades and sound effects to describe my ailment.  Basic conversation and silence continues until they can see I can't stop yawning. The sun hasn't set, but they walk me over to a new building in the monastery, a huge new building, I should stay with a lonely bed, Buddha, and bathroom. Now more people arrive, children and other people from the neighborhood. Some monks are outside trying to get water hooked up to the bathroom, by running a hose to the ceiling and into the PVC pipes. It takes about a half hour and I just sit and watch. It's a community event preparing the room for the foreigner and they are so excited to have a visitor.  Now it's me who gets to stare at them.

Word travels fast at the monastery that a foreigner is present

My shower.  I'm super efficient with a pan and cold water
When everything is finally ready, they show me how to work the water, toilet and fans on the ceiling. A truly luxurious accommodation compared to budget hotels in Myanmar, and best of yet, it is peaceful outside. A few giggles from the curious monks substitute the sound of chaotic traffic and relentless horns. I realize, and appreciate, how lucky I am to be sleeping here. They leave me be, show me how to lock the door, and ask for my passport to copy. I comply and wash up. Cold water is the norm and I bathe myself in yet another cold bath that revives my energy.  It's 7:30 and I'm ready for bed when I hear a knocking at the door. I knew the people from the neighborhood were too curious not to come over. Outside a young mother and her two daughters come in. She wants me to pose with her daughters in a photo and then invites me to her home. Despite my exhaustion, of course I accept. The Burmese I meet seem to be craving interaction with foreigners, it amazes me! I should probably feel guilty for not staying at a proper guest house registered for foreigners, but instead I feel delighted because I know my presence for these people is very special and will be memorable, even if we can hardly communicate.

They love taking pictures with me and I give them my camera as well!

I walk with the young woman and her daughters to their house. The women explains to me that she works at a small shop and lives with her sister and mom. She is so excited to have me in her house you can see the pride in the expression on her face. I meet her other family members and we converse using very basic English. The other women and children from the monastery appear with their same jolly faces.  I'm content observing the situation. I do realize that there is something unique about traveling as a solo young woman, especially on a bike. Not only does it make for a natural bond among women in any country, there is an immediate respect and admiration that is exchanged by both parties. Traveling by bike breaks down any cultural barrier that might exist otherwise at the sight of a foreigner, washing away any sort of fear or threat between me and them.

Very thoughtful women and children

With fans on the ceiling and a mosquito net, and multiple plugs.....what more could you ask for?
Very politely a half hour later, they take me back to the monastery where a monk is waiting to let me in to my palace, at least that is what I called the giant room I occupy. As he opens the door, he gestures to me to pray to Buddha.  It's 9pm and I'm shattered. I set my alarm for 6:30am although I know I will be awakened before that to the sound of the morning prayer. Today is just another day on my bike pedaling,  although thankfully I rarely have the stomach issues.  I'm not 100% recuperated by any means, but I'm in the most peaceful of places and well looked after.  The monks once again have come to my rescue and the local people have showered me with their kindness. I can't ask for much more than that at the end of a long day's ride!