Today was a truly epic day. Setting off after a breakfast sized for the world’s biggest man, stop 1 was an equally large Jade Pagoda, 5 clicks across the bridge from Sagaging. Whilst quite a sight, its 6 wide empty lane and mandatory drive past an army of souvenir stalls, was far more entertaining. More fascinating still, the ever-presence of donation boxes stacked full of cash, praying beside cash machines happy to issue more.
Onward to Inn Wa and an unexpected boat trip across the river. Inn Wa feels a far cry from Mandalay, Sagaging, or any other town on this lovely planet. In a matter of moments, the hubbub is reduced to zero, geared for tourists with its traditional horses and carts and the odd seller of handicrafts, but none present. It’s clear that as at Feb 2018, tourism here is very much challenged by the situation in Rakhine, with visitor numbers rumoured to be down 70% or more. It really is palpable here on the ground. But truly, there is little to fear here in central Myanmar. The sense of safety I feel here, when away from the main highways at least, does not feel misplaced.
Several roads in progress later, I delved deeper still into the countryside, past aged temples, bamboo huts, oxen, carts and a traditional rural life, unchanged by the modern world.
Winging it. With no guide and only a vague idea where I was going, I was accompanied by my entertaining but unreliable friend, maps.me.
The idea was to get to a village some 40km away and find a nice man to take me across the Irrawaddy by boat, thus avoiding the big smelly road the other side. The roads I’d chosen instead no decent person would call roads. Tracks? Not even. Dust buckets? Maybe. But great fun nonetheless.
Great scenery and real adventure lay alongside the banks of the Irrawaddy. The shouts of ‘hi’, ‘hello’ and ‘minglaba’ ever-present.
Arriving a 2 or 3 hours later in Nganzun, faces had tangibly changed from ‘nice to see you’ to ‘what the fuck are you doing here?!’ to ‘what the hell is that thing on a bicycle?!’.
Heading for what I thought might be a jetty, I paused for a quick refresher. ‘Coca Cola?’ I asked wishfully. ‘What are you doing here?’ came the reply.
‘Sit down, please’ (gestured), as a kind looking man brought over a mug of delicious if a little sweltering drinking rice.
Before I knew it, a group had gathered. Two things quickly became apparent:
- They had never seen a white man on a bicycle
- It was far too dangerous to cross the Irrawaddy in a tiny bike-laden boat
So, after much chat and a huge pile of veggie fried rice at a local restaurant, it was clear I was no longer going to Monywa. The next river crossing was another 50 or so miles away and by then, Monywa would be 100 miles north.
During a quick pit stop 30kms down the road, I struck gold, ice cream. First tub down in a flash, I quickly bought a second. The shop owner mildly disgusted. Outside, an old lady filled her water bottle with whiskey, took a swig and zipped off on her scooter. 50km to go, the road had improved, the scenery still great, switching from flatter lands to rolling hills and little traffic. Not to say there weren’t some pretty odd vehicles. Amongst them, motorbikes carrying other motorbikes on the back seat – how?! Many men with goats, goats seemingly making perfectly calm pillion passengers. And of course the odd open backed mini van laden with enough people to sink a large submarine.
Arriving into Myingyan later that evening, past an endless stream of veggie stalls, goat herders, then cow herders, another young man on a scooter pulled alongside me. ‘Where you go?’ ‘I take you!’ he said with a friendly voice, keen to talk English. I was torn between a night here, then a cycle to Bagan, or jumping on a bus to Bagan this evening. It turned out there were no foreigner hotel options, so bus it was. Building a quick bond with my newfound friend and escort, we zipped through the dirty city to a huge and rather confusing ‘bus station’. Tracking down a bus that left within the hour, my new friend had been a great help. Many thanks later, we were off. A short drive later, the driver attempted to pocket $4 in change and dropped me some 10 miles from our agreed destination.
Riding through darkness again under torchlight, locals advised me to avoid my chosen route. Their concerns not fully understood, I obliged and quickly arrived into new Bagan to find accommodation.
After a quick bag drop I jumped back on the bike to find local food. In a restaurant close by sat 2 guys who took an interest in the bike.
Before long, we were having a great laugh and quickly became friends. Yannick (from Belgium) and Tomas (Sweden) it turns out are private jet pilots, working for a wealthy businessman, taking a holiday. They were in Bagan for 2 days and had booked a luxury tour, which they invited me along to. What luck and what genuinely lovely people Yanik and Tomas turned out to be.
That night, I returned to the hotel rather drunk, albeit only 11pm.
What a fine day, full of surprise, fun and amazing people.