Over the last couple of decades, Burma, the country that Western countries love to hate, has not encouraged tourism of any kind, and that of course includes motorcycle tours. I sort of slipped through the cracks in their system when I located an old, beat-up Honda in Yangon and headed solo into the hinterlands to see what I could see. What I found was a country filled with genuinely warm and friendly people and fantastic sightseeing wherever I turned my head. A much-condensed version of this article appeared in May 1997, in the ASIAN WALL STREET JOURNAL, and this longer version will soon be appearing in France’s MOTO JOURNAL.
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me…
An’ I seed her first a-smokin’ of a whickin’ white cheroot,
An’ a wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s foot…
As soon as I read this excerpt from a Rudyard Kipling poem, I knew I had to visit Burma one day. But I patiently bided my time until I could visit the country properly, which for me only means one way; from the seat of a motorcycle. It was to be several years later, but my fantasy motorcycle tour finally did turn into a reality.
The two key stumbling blocks that were halting my Burmese bike jaunt?when to do it, and what would I ride??had only fallen into place the previous week. The ‘when’ part, I decided for several reasons, should be as soon as possible. because America, my home country, had just slapped trade restrictions on Burma and travel restrictions in the future were a distinct possibility. It was either now or never.
This was also Visit Myanmar Year, and tourist visas were lengthened to 30 days, a big improvement for motorcycle tours over Burma’s usual seven-day pass. Who knew if this was a permanent or temporary change?
But the decisive factor was finding out from a friend of a friend of a friend who works in Yangon, Burma’s capital, that someone there knew a guy who would rent me a motorcycle for as long as I liked. Upon hearing this I immediately bought a plane ticket.
The motorbike turned out to be an old Honda XL 250 enduro that read 30,000 ks on the odometer, but that couldn’t be–130,000, 230,000 or some other multiple of that number was much more likely. I talked the owner down from his initial rental deposit demand of US$1000, which was double the value of the bike, to a more manageable $220 because I was short on cash and MasterCard in Burma is just an eight inch square piece of colored plastic.
I decided against asking any government agency for formal permission to do a motorcycle tour in Burma because any bureaucrat worth his rice would surely deny such an extraordinary request. Without permit or papers on me, the possibility was ever present that I could be stopped and hauled into the nearest security office, but this only happened one time during my travels. Though I stuck out in this country like a flamingo at a penguin party, I managed to drive around to my heart’s content in a shroud of anonymity.
My simple plan was this; to see how deep I could drive into a country that has no less then 22 rebel armies on the warpath. SLORC (the State Law & Order Committee), the ruling military junta, was running the bulk of Burma and in command of most of the central region. Different ethnic groups maintained their own power bases along some of the border areas, the deep south, and the far east. All of them were basically fighting a losing battle for an independent homeland. If I was stopped by a uniform during my travels, so be it. My contingency plan then would be to simply backtrack and try riding in a different direction. To my knowledge, no one had ever before completed a Burma motorcycle tour, so I would have to find out everything the hard way.
Navigation was tough and figuring out my exact location using a Burmese-printed map was often guesswork. Railroad crossings appeared where they shouldn’t. Mountains were drawn on the wrong side of the road. The distances between towns was way off. Rivers flowed in the wrong direction. Indecipherable road signs are printed in Burmese script only, and the characters look something like a combination of dancing worms and bubbles.
Speaking simple Burmese, even when rendered phonetically in guide books into the Roman alphabet, is nearly impossible. Pronunciations bear no similarity to their spelling. One common Burmese spoken sound sounds like the last dregs of ketchup squirting from a squeeze bottle.
I was able to manage the ‘Which way to’ phrase adequately, Bay lang lay?, but when I tried tagging on the name of a locality, I received blank stares and screwed-up faces. Determining my position got worse the more rural I went. When I unfurled my map to ask local citizens for guidance, they must have thought I was showing them a pretty drawing. Very few people even knew what a map was.
The first day of my tour started on National Military Day, and Yangoon was crawling with soldiers. As I drove north, the only other road users were convoys of troop transports heading south, bringing government forces down for the festivities. Paranoid I was, but all I received were cheery waves from the Burmese army.
Needing my first petrol, I naively pulled into an immaculately landscaped, official governmental MPPE petrol station. They wouldn’t sell me any because fuel is rationed by coupons. I waved over a trishaw driver and gestured to him my need by pointing at my tank. He took the lead and I followed the trishaw on my bike to a black marketeer who sold me all the gas I needed for the going rate of US$2 per gallon. The trishaw driver’s fare was 12??. I was soon able to spot petrol sellers on my own. The not-so-secret sign is a tin pitcher sitting on a stool placed alongside the roadway. And for the rest of my tour I never saw a single person buy a drop of petrol at any of the numerous MPPE filling stations.
The road north to Pyay, my first destination, was in tolerable condition for my enduro, being a two lane, undivided asphalt road, flat as a croupier’s voice and straight as a sunbeam. Most of the surface was patched patches on top of patches making for a bumpy ride.
The traffic was extremely light because there just aren’t many motor vehicles plying Burma roads, yet. While under throttle I averaged around 65-70 kilometers per hour, making me, by far, the fastest thing on wheels. Pleasantly surprising was the outstanding courtesy displayed by all the other drivers. Since almost everybody was driving what we in the West call junkers, they graciously allowed me to pass them without taking it as an affront to their masculinity.
I arrived in Pyay in the late afternoon after an interesting journey of 285 kilometers. My entrance caused quite a stir at the Pangaba Guest House. Foreign visitors in Pyay are rare and a solo motorcyclist is unprecedented. The owner, U Shwe, thought it was wonderful.
He was the nicest and warmest man I ever met and would hold my hand while speaking to me so softly. I took his best room for US$5 per night because it had the only air conditioner. The air conditioner was noisier than a Model T Ford running uphill. I had to stuff toilet paper in my ears to fall asleep and overslept because I couldn’t hear my alarm.
In a rush to get to Shwesandaw Pagoda in the pretty morning light, I backed my bike into another car in his driveway and dented a body panel. Low on funds and this had to happen! U Shwe actually apologized for parking a car where I could carelessly hit it and said he would arrange for the repair.
When I returned to the guest house later on, the bodywork bill, including painting, was only US$18. Plus, the job was already finished! I let out a big sigh of relief.
A few days later I’m on the longest leg of this journey, 412 kilometers to the ancient city of Bagan, sometimes spelled Pagan. Pagodas looking like Faberg? jewels are constantly in sight, the towers shimmering silver and glittering gold in the sun. They march off into the distance, beckoning like religious lighthouses. The Bagan road was unshaded under the broiling sun in the hottest part of Burma during the hottest time of the year, hovering around 40?c every day. The surrounding countryside was desert-like. Dozens of dust devils scooted over the brown, lifeless fields. Paralleling both sides of the road were deeply rutted, centuries-old, ox cart paths. Teams of bullocks, trudging in clouds of dust, lugged enormously heavy farm loads. Motorized vehicles were not to be seen.
The houses in the scattered rural townships are mostly flimsy shacks made from split bamboo and thatch. Many of the villages are one-product towns. One town made nothing but big terracotta urns. Another only produced brooms. Others wove straw baskets or bamboo wall panels. And one tiny town had taken to begging. Men, women, and children all stood by the roadside, dressed in rags, standing with their palms out and clutching crumbled old notes. Just as the sun kissed the horizon, I arrived bushed in Bagan.
Bagan is one of Asia’s most amazing places and one of the wonders of the ancient world. 2217 temples remain standing, many of them grandiose in scale and more then a millennium old. Several thousand more sites are known and waiting restoration. I had a great time exploring the ruins on my motorbike and spent each sunrise and sunset high up on the loftiest temples. One day I hired a horse and buggy to trot me around?a cool and cheerful alternative to my Honda.
My next destination required a boat cruise and a ticket for my bike and myself cost 25?. The Irrawaddy River, 3rd longest in Southeast Asia, was a trickle of its normally powerful self. A deckhand in the bow speared the water with a long bamboo pole, probing for shifting shallows. The faraway, high water riverbanks wavered in the heat haze.
When we reached Pakokku three hours later, I was appalled when I saw the rickety and narrow bamboo pier that my bike would have to cross over to get ashore. It didn’t look possible. To my rescue came a gang of stevedores. We settled on a price of 91? to be shared among them. As many people were shouting instructions to the laborers as had their hands on my motorcycle. But they did manage to traverse the scaffolding and bring my bike to land.
Next to one petrol stop was a hair salon. The proprietress did a double take when I entered her shop pointing to my straggly locks. Recomposed, she gave me a shampoo and clipped away. Word soon got out that the foreigner riding the motorcycle was getting a haircut. Half the village crowded in front of her shop, noses pressed to the window, and I became the afternoon entertainment. The hairdresser started scraping my cheeks, dry, with a hand-held, double-edged, naked razor blade. Halfway through my shave I couldn’t take the pain anymore and cried uncle. The price for half-a-shave and haircut was the proverbial two-bits. The haircut was a good one and my aborted beard style was creative.
The single-lane road to Mandalay was horrible. The asphalt was long gone and I had to drive over the gnarly stones of the exposed roadbed. I averaged under 30 kph tightrope-riding on a snaking bicycle path that wound its way through the field of potholes. This road was so bad that the few vehicles on the move chose to drive across the bordering, fallow farm fields instead.
India was only 100 miles to the west when I changed compass direction and rattled eastwards towards Monwa. I crossed the Chindwin River on a proper vehicle ferry and snacked on boiled quail eggs from a vendor. On the Monwa side, the Mandalay road was much improved and I arrived by mid-afternoon.
This welcoming sign greeted me in my Mandalay guesthouse lobby:
WARNING! 8:00 P.M. CURFEW.
DO NOT GO OUTSIDE!
VIOLATORS WILL BE SHOT!
Buddhist and Muslims were rioting against each other. No one seemed to know the details but rumors say the trouble started in Moulmein, the city of Kipling’s poem. Moulmein was reported closed and quarantined by soldiers, and one of the main goals on my trip was just shot down in smoke.
Over the next few days, I toured sprawling Mandalay, Burma’s second-largest city. While walking around the Zegyo market where everything under the sun is sold, except for the flies–they are free, an Indian gentleman, a pharmacist by training and peddler by trade, beseeched me to sell him everything I brought along with me. He was a large man like myself, and told me, as he stole longing glances at my watch and boots, he can not buy anything in Burma that fits him or is of decent quality. I had absolutely nothing to spare. With still two weeks left on my journey, I needed every item I brought.
I hit the jackpot at dinner when my nose led me to a bustling Shan restaurant packed with locals, named Lashio Lay. I was the only foreigner. A long table in front bowed under huge cauldrons of soups and stews, platters of meats and vegetables, pots and pans filled with curries and sauces. Next to that was a glass cabinet filled with roasted and fried meats, fowl, and fishes, hanging from hooks and dripping with savory juices. I strolled into the kitchen, where a dozen ancient, wood-fired brick stoves were smoking away and emitting the most incredible smells.
The choice was overwhelming. I finally selected three types of mushrooms mixed with peas and white beans in a mild curry sauce, potato croquettes flecked with onions and garlic, a spicy pork stew, and slices of boneless, crispy fried duck. A big pot of rice, cabbage and cucumber salad, a pony dish of a stinky, fermented fish sauce, and a bowl of consomm? were placed on my table without asking as condiments. I ate like I was going to the electric chair.
Together with three icy soda waters, my bill came to US$2.33 and it was superb, one of the most memorable dining experiences of my life. Knowing a good thing when I see it, I ate four more consecutive meals there and never repeated a single, exquisite dish.
From Manadaly I motor up to the hill station town of Maymo, now called Pyin U Lwin, but don’t ask me to pronounce it. This charming village was built by the British as an escape from the suffocating heat of the lowlands. It sits at 3,587′ in the eastern mountain range. The road to Maymo snakes up a mountain pass that takes a devastating toll on vehicles, most of which are tremendously overloaded and dilapidated buses. Breakdowns of an astonishing variety litter the roadside, and some of the steepest sections are oil-covered from burst crankcases and cracked engine blocks. For those lucky enough to reach the top, a radiator top-off from a public water trough is first priority.
A sport bike would have turned this twisty road with hundreds of switchbacks and wonderful views into pure fun. On my Honda it was hard work, constantly shifting between first and second gears. As my ears begin to pop, delightful cool air streamed up my jacket sleeves and down the back of my neck. The mountain-top plateau I arrived in was another world, laden with the smells of pine needles and moist, mountain streams. Yellow Angasana and violet Jacaranda trees were in full bloom, adding their sweetness to the atmosphere. Roadside vendors sold pints of strawberries as big as golf balls and at the peak of freshness for 15?. Everything was green, rolling, and fertile.
Many Maymo houses are authentic English Tudors with expansive grass lawns and circular carriageways. An incongruous fleet of miniature, pony-drawn, Old West-style stagecoaches are the town’s taxis. That evening I dined at the colonial-era Candracraig Hotel where they have been serving a proper English roast beef dinner every day since 1906.
I exhale puffs of frost while packing my bike the following morning. It is so cold I have to buy one of Maymo’s most famous products–hand-knit sweaters. The Indian proprietress tells me, “Only one sweater have in store fit you because you giant!” She adds, “Made from over two pounds wool and price seven dollar only.”
I model it for the stagecoach drivers. They give me their Indian head waggle that means good! Reluctantly, I leave refreshing and delightful Maymo wearing my brand-new sweater under my jacket.
Maymo is on the fringe of Shan Province. My next intended destination, Hsipaw, is much deeper inside. Shan Province is by far the largest of Burma’s thirteen states and comprises nearly 25% of its total area. It is rich in gems, teak, and poppy, and SLORC’s control is spotty to non-existent over large areas of it. The Shan State’s 25,000 troops are the best equipped and best trained insurgent army operating in Burma. In addition to them, private drug armies roam at will.
After a bracing ninety-minute drive I arrived at a check-point, my first where all vehicles are inspected and interrogated instead of just waved through. Everybody was allowed by, except me.
“No foreigners on motorcycles!” said the checkpoint guard. I can’t believe they have a regulation covering an event that never occurred happened. The officer informed me I was permitted to visit Hsipaw, but, “You may travel by truck, car, bus, taxi, or train. Not by motorcycle. You may leave your motorbike here and we will watch it for you.”
“Why not by motorcycle?” I ask.
“Because it is dangerous.”
“But you just told me I can go to Hsipaw. Are you worried about me or my motorcycle?”
“You of course. We are just following orders.”
I offered him a “contribution” but it was ignored.
Not understanding, or wanting to understand their logic, I asked to be taken to their leader–I always wanted to say that. They oblige.
The chief officer at their regional headquarters explains it the same way, no foreigners on motorcycles. Since this trip is exploratory in nature, I wanted to see if, and how far, I could get a Burmese official to bend regulations. Three hours later and after numerous calls to his superiors on a hand-cranked telephone, I received the final answer–no shot!
I finally give up, turn around, and scooter back down to Mandalay to work out a new battle plan, and to fit a couple of more meals in at Lashio Lay. The ride down the mountain pass in the afternoon was horrible. The baking midday sun was broiling the road and liquefying the tar, causing it to bubble and pool on the surface. My tires were making sucking sounds and traction and braking was treacherous. With no previous riding experience on this kind of road surface, I descended ultra-cautiously and avoided passing other vehicles. This meant creeping along behind some lorries that were belching out diesel exhaust as thick as a military smokescreen.
I departed Mandalay the following day and headed south before turning east at Meiktilla for Inle Lake. I stopped at the Thazi railroad station to make reservations on the Yangoon train for the upcoming Sunday. The four-day Buddhist New Year festival of Thingyan starts on that Sunday and it is celebrated by everyone throwing water at each other. Biking during this period is not a good idea and the train ride back to Yangoon will save me three days of waterlogged driving.
Outside Thazi I start climbing another mountain pass which dwarfed the one to Maymo. This was a raw and serious road cutting through mountains completely deforested except for tufts of spiky scrub. The road is a maze of switchbacks with deep drops into the valley.
Overloaded timber trucks hauling huge teak logs creep down the pass, driving made even more difficult by eight persons jammed into the cab. The smell of burning brakes permeated the air. Tanker trucks climb up the pass even slower. The altitude is over 5000′ before I hit the apex.
I drive over two more smaller passes and arrive in Taunggyi which sprawls high upon a mountain ridge. It is a prosperous town that profits on the China trade coming overland from nearby Yunnan province.
There is a good-sized gem market on the outskirts of Taunggyi. Tabletops covered with raw rubies are bought and sold. Everyone there offers to sell me gemstones at rock-bottom prices, or so they say. Fringing the market are cutting and polishing shops that use foot-powered grinding wheels. I spend the entire afternoon watching how rubies are selected, cut, and polished.
The final stop on my tour is the outrageously picturesque Inle Lake. Long and narrow, 22 kilometers by 11 at its widest, the water is spread thin and shallow. An entire lake-bound community lives on floating islands and gets around by boat rowed ingeniously with only one leg.
In a primitive form of hydroponics, the weeds covering the bottom of the lake are pulled up and float to the surface. They are collected and compressed into long, rectangular plots, and then skewered into the bottom by bamboo poles so they do not drift away. A layer of rich mud is laid on top of the weed bed, in which seeds are planted. Much labor is devoted to the building and maintaining of these floating gardens, but this system is incredibly fertile and all kinds of fruits and vegetables grow in abundance. Avocados are especially delicious and the locals eat them cut in half with sugar sprinkled on top. Every fifth day the lake dwellers paddle their boats to one particular narrow canal and spend the morning locked in frenzied trade. In a watery gridlock, goods, money, and change are passed between the canoes like hot dogs at a baseball game.
My last day of this Burma ride becomes a battle to make it to the Thazi Railroad Station without getting soaked.
Walking back to my bike from a roadside photo stop I get my first streamer-full of water full in the face and an earful of giggles from a passing car window.
Each town I drive through has several water brigades, manned mostly by young kids, hurling pots full of water at anyone daring to use the road.
I developed a few strategies for avoiding a drenching. The most successful one was when approaching their attack point, I would lean way over my handlebars, point at them severely with my finger, contort my face into a hideous and psychotic glare, while screaming, “I’LL KICK YOUR ASS!” Of course no one understood my threat, but it usually froze them in shock in mid-throw.
I made it to Thazi relatively dry, only receiving two cascades full-on and several partial splatterings. It could have been much, much worse, although I did lose my voice from shouting at the water-throwers all day. I bought an upper class ticket and paid $3 freight on my motorcycle. The train was running six hours late because it fell off the tracks on the way up to Mandalay. Ten o’clock the next morning the train pulls into Yangoon, thus ending a motorbike trip filled with exotic and unforgettable images.