Waking early for sunrise, I hunted for breakfast at 7am. First, one of few lonely planet recommendations, accessed via an ‘Amazon Unlimited’ trial. Updated shop front, shutters closed, I explored Pinlaung’s main strip without inspiration. Then, turning left from the face of the motel, then right down the first side street, there sat an Indian eatery; one of the cheapest, most satisfying breakfasts a hungry cyclist could wish for. Two coffees, fried dough, the freshest samosas, a steaming bowl of dhal. The price, 1200kyat (£0.65).
Bike packed, I hit the road at 8.30am; later than planned. Moments later, I passed the chap I talked with for sometime last night. ‘You’re late’ he said. A stark reminder crept beneath my optimism. Today was not going to be easy.
Turning off the highway after just 5km, the road to Naypyidaw was by far the most picturesque to date. Rolling roads passed implausible mountain top monasteries atop the sharpest of peaks.
Soaring down hill in true eagle fashion; the feeling of freedom was overwhelming, thwarted only by the knowledge of steeper uphills to come. The sun beamed over the mountains as I passed heavy-laden motorbikes, far flung from the trucks of Kalaw.
The only obstacle was the odd herd of cattle, guided by colourfully dressed sherpas, as amazed to see me as I was to see them.
After 30km of undulation, joyous descent and more undulation, came sight of the impressive Leinli suspense bridge, spanning the Ayeyawady. Huts selling drinks and fruit are frequent. From here, the road climbs c.800m, combining stepped 20% gradients with direct sunlight and 35 degree heat; there is little (if any) shade on offer. I’ve never been so thankful for owning a bandana, the one thing preventing my eyes from weeping salty sweaty tears. Pressing on, the views spectacular, buses past by surprised to discover a white man attempting to ride bicycle up hills they struggled to drive down. People are so incredibly generous here. Bottles of water appeared through windows, acting as a welcome source of encouragement.
Approaching the top of the day’s first big climb, a hut to the right and a moment’s dream of soft drinks and snacks. Instead, a large dog. A moment of intrepidation. Then, feet full force on the pedals as the hound, thirsty for English blood, races toward me. I don’t think I’ve ever cycled so fast up a hill.
After yet more tar barrels and ladies building roads, I reached the top, swooping down the mountain in search of food.
Often in Myanmar, there is no obvious place to stop for lunch. Restaurants and cafes look identical. Some look closed but are open, others look open but are closed. Soon, I stopped at a convenience store, receiving a typical Myanmar welcome. After a Lychee soft drink on the house, I rolled 25 metres more to find the most amazing local food for 2500kyat. Here in Myanmar, plates and bowls are constantly replenished. A challenge for a full bellied cyclist, attempting to put his feet firmly on the pedals. Then, just as I was about to leave, an American man hopped off a local bus, trashing my chances once agin of a day without tourists.
The road continued to offer spectacular riverside views, as once again the gradient began to rise. An hour passed and I needed refreshment. A combination of bloated belly and 35 degree sun was getting the better of me. Buying a cola here is not as simple of back home. And language is not the only thing that takes time. Curious children stop and stare, as do their parents if nearby. Dogs bark and shop owners go far beyond the call of duty. On this occasion, leaving requires politely accepting a bunch of 20 or so bananas; far more than I can carry. No amount of polite explanation will change this insistence. You’ve simply got to love the Burmese people.
As with the last time this happened, I stop 3kms down the track to offer a random passer by a bunch of bananas. Bananas – the gift that keeps on giving.
The second major peak is followed by 15km of steady downhill, then a further 50km of low rolling terrain. Here lies brand new tarmac; the best found in Burma with surprisingly few trucks.
The bus to Yangon leaves from Naypyidaw at 6.15pm. Now 145km down, 15 to go; it was 5.15. Typically, an hour would be sufficient to ride the distance, find the bus and hop on just in the nick of time. But, I was flagging. Spotting a small soda stall on a patch of non-descript wasteland, I took 5 mins out. Downing a bottle of lemonade, shortly followed by a further bottle of ice cold water. Seeing I was a little overheated, the friendly stall owner handed me a bottle of ice. Whilst I recommend avoiding any intention to drink iced anything here (the ice is often from an unreliable source of tap water), it acted as a great forehead coolant; later poured over legs as riding.
It’s amazing what 5 mins out can do for your motivation and fatigue. Soon, I was flying down the final legs of the now flat wide road, leading to Naypyidaw’s famous traffickless 8 lane highways.
Pulling into the bus station at 6.10pm, the first company was sold out; the second also. Third time lucky. Rude but efficient by Myanmar standards, I was soon in possession of a bus ticket, departing later than planned at 6.30pm. Quite a commotion. And amidst it, I purchased a premium ticket for twice the price by way of mild exhaustion.
The bus was, however, virtually empty and the upgrade offered no obvious difference to standard; other than the higher fare. English was non existent at the bus station but I’d tried to understand where the bus would drop us, showing maps.me to the hostess.
Sadly, maps aren’t widely understood in Myanmar and nodding often replaces any real clue as to a correct answer.
That may go some way to explain my surprise and rather shattered disappointment, as the bus pulled into a darkened depot over 20km from the centre of Yangon. The staff were tired also and had no interest in aiding an Englishman.
Now 1am, I wasn’t up for cycling into the city. And there it was. Myanmar hospitality was back; offered by a group of bus depot hangabouts. This time, 30 minutes of fumbling phone and maps they failed to understand. Tolerance dialled to 11, I’d never been more ready for bed.
Polite courtesy abandoned, I asked for my phone back, said I had decided to cycle and instead found a clapped out cab.
Starting at 22,000 Kyat, I quickly researched the standard fare – just 8,000. Quickly agreeing 12,000, a friend of the driver’s hopped in the back with my bike. We stopped briefly as the cabbie purchased and smoked a single cigarette.
With no traffic, the cab skipped lights and swerved sharply, screeching around corners. Arriving at 1.30am, the shutters to the hostel were closed. My heart sank, but moments later voices, then footsteps as someone came to my rescue.
The staff at ‘The SAT’ hostel were incredibly welcoming and put me instantly at ease. Despite the hot, windowless room, I was fast asleep in no time.
Another epic day in Myanmar.