Flat / 40% unsurfaced
Last night. The night before? Tool and food bags emptied into pockets for ill-gotten gains. Amongst the missing, a bag of raw sugar cane, a mini pump, swiss army knife, a star key, presta valve key, chain links, assorted bolts, etc, etc. Such things are barely available or known in Myanmar. To shine but a small light, when asked where I could procure a replacement mini pump, it took 5 minutes of exchange to whittle down roughly what was meant, before being presented with what can only be described as Philleas Fog’s very own balloon inflating device.
Making obvious enquiries, with the help of the lovely motel owner, I contacted hostels from Yangon onward, before piecing together the puzzle, narrowing suspects to three. Was it the motorbike rental guy, hawking clapped-out vehicles to chapped-lipped westerners. Could it the sinister boy racer who pulled up outside the Pann Su Wei hostel, preying for the right moment to sneak in and swipe. Or was it the owner of Pann Su Wei hostel, who had free access and a self-proclaimed curiosity for western cycling accoutrements? After all, there were seemingly no other cyclists at either the motel or hostel. Indeed, only few would truly understand what on earth to do with a presta valve key. Presta is not a standard used in Myanmar and the 10 speed chain links are unlikely to fit local two wheeled contraptions. Then again, who truly would take the remnants of a bag of raw sugar cane, an intensely sweet snack few westerners have laid a lip upon. Whichever of the 3 it might have been, I was up shit creek without a mini-pump.
Three coffees and some fruit later, I hit the road to Hpa An, hoping the road would be free of smashed glass and other such perils.
After a few flat kilometers, I approached a truckload of young Burmese chaps, cheering me on as I neared behind them. The cheers grew more and more ecstatic as I looked to overtake, growing to a level akin to a team of underdogs smashing the favoured competition. Maintaining my lead, I soon arrived at what a ferry crossing, where I sat and exchanged pleasantries with locals in anticipation. As the tiny boat neared, a solitary old lady hopped off and the ferry man gestured for me to carry my bike onboard. Behind me, 10 or so locals, each with parasols to fend off the glaring midday sun.
Once the other side, a long stretch of road, sided by the first large limestone outcrops and endless watermelon stands. I stopped, pointed to a melon of relatively small variety and did my best to signal that half would do nicely. Well, if small, half and chopped were the criteria, I scored a rather shocking 1 out of 3! Chopped it was, but large and whole too. Somehow, I had to carry this thing. God forbid, eat it! Dutifully accepting the challenge, I paid and lollopped clumsily back onto the road. Moments passed before a truck laden with the wildest speaker setup I’d witnessed since a 1990’s rave whizzed by, then another, then another. Some things here defy explanation, but add gloriously to the curious nature of this wonderful country.
Pressing on, I crossed a large steel bridge, turning a sharp right onto country lanes then dirt roads, leading to the village of Kor Na. Here is sited the spectacular U Nai Auk Monastry. I know what you’re thinking . ‘Yeah yeah, another temple – haven’t seen one of those before (most sarcastic tone employed)’. But, to merely call these buildings temples is a great injustice. They are, inside and out, true works of art, their intricate etchings telling the story of Buddah.
Whilst there, I had the blessing of having the place completely to myself, leaving, turning a corner down a street lined with brightly coloured chilli peppers drying in the sun. Then, a minibus laden with western tourists from nearby Hpa An. There are very limited food options both in Kor Na and during the 25 further kms to Saddan Cave, my next stop down rough un-surfaced roads. Nonetheless, the terrain was flat, reasonably quick and fun to ride, navigating through small dusty villages and consuming the remainder of my oversized watermelon en-route.
Arriving at Saddan Cave amongst an army of red robed monks, I parked up and dived into a restaurant outside the entrance. The food was superb and I soon felt refreshed, chatting to a family visiting from Yangon, the father a keen cyclist.
Paying the small cave entrance fee, I had no idea what to expect. The smell of fresh ‘guava’ or ‘bat poo’ as it may be more commonly known was overwhelming, as was the size and scale of the cave, albeit poorly lit and unspectacular in terms of its formations. Walking for just under 1km I reached the front of the cave. Here visitors are well-rewarded for their efforts. A stall offering food to feed the fishes. Boats drifting under water-logged caves aside a lake of impossible beauty. And a restaurant, outside which a lady is carving coconuts. First, the top is hacked off (large machette in hand). Then, those consuming said coconuts suck out the juice and hand back the cocunut, which is then carved into the tastiest of snacks.
I couldn’t resist and began digging around for enough kyat. Damn. Short-changed and with no access to funds, my ambitions to be the owner of one of said coconuts were doomed. Until. One of two young monks sat behind me gestured to the lady selling the cocunuts. She nodded in complete and swift understanding, cut a large cocunut and duefully handed it to me. Well, it’s not every day a monk gifts you a coconut, but this blissful karma went a giant leap toward righting the loss of my tools earlier in the day.
Returning back through the cave, I hopped back on my bike the remaining 20kms to Hpa An, where I stayed in the bleak and over-priced Soe Brothers 2 hostel; one of few choices available as at Feb 2018. Downing bags and heading back out at 7pm toward a famous local eatery, I passed a fantastic night market by the lake, braking sharply and changing course. Who am I to resist such tasty and affordable treats?! Amongst those selected, a mango smoothie, a fresh spicy vegan salad, a pancake made from chickpeas and some tasty BBQ. I headed back for a peaceful end to the day.