Willie Weir : December 27th, 2012
Myanmar is in the news. It is ranked as one of the top five travel destinations by several major publications. President Obama became the first US president to visit while in office. Makes you want to take a bike trip there, doesn’t it?
We did. We toured Myanmar (Burma) from October 21 – November 21. We brought our own bikes … and lots of cash. We enjoyed. A lot. The people of Myanmar are the most genuinely friendly people on the planet. How do we know? We brought our friendly meter, and it maxed out beyond “uber-friendly”.
Below are some random tips from our personal experience in Myanmar. WARNING! Things are changing at such a fast pace, this information might already be out of date. If you are planning a trip to Myanmar, look on the Thorn Tree forum for comments from recent visitors. Or go to and read journals from cyclists who have recently pedaled in Burma.
Getting You (and your bicycle) there.
Bangkok is where you find some of the cheapest airfares to Myanmar. Air Asia has daily flights from Bangkok to Yangon, and in October began flights to and from Mandalay. This airport can be more convenient, depending on the route you choose to cycle.
Air Asia wants your bike in a box. Especially when flying from Bangkok. But we managed to convince them to take ours as is (no box, no plastic bag—just our bikes with handlebars turned and pedals removed). We also took off the derailleurs and secured them to the frames. Now I will say that the airline desk clerk almost fainted when he saw our bikes, sans boxes. We just kept smiling, and it all worked out.
We flew into Mandalay and out of Yangon. At the airport in Yangon, the airline counter folks welcomed our unboxed bikes. No questions or fainting involved.
To save money (with Air Asia), you’ll want to pay for your luggage (and bike) online ahead of time. They don’t charge by the item, but by weight. Your baggage is one fee. Your bikes, now under the “sports equipment labe,l” are another. Paying in advance can save you 30-40%. Make sure you overestimate on your luggage weight. Excess is charged at a pretty high rate.
Note: If trying to get away with not boxing your bike, please be kind … and smile. It goes a long way.
What kind of bike should I use?
Every bike touring company operating in Myanmar is using mountain bikes. And you probably should too. Or at least a rugged touring bike. Myanmar’s roads go from bad to worse. If you arrive in the country with skinny 700cc wheels, you are not going to be a happy camper (oh, by the way, you can’t camp) … so I guess I should say you’re not going to be a happy ‘traveler’ instead. I don’t ride with shocks (neither does Kat), but there are times we wished we had them.
As a foreign tourist, you are required to stay in a registered guest house or hotel. That means if there are five hotels in a town, and only one is registered to have foreign guests, that’s where you will be staying. As far as I know, Myanmar is not limiting the number of travel visas being issued. Because everyone and their friends, and cousins, and long-lost uncles have read that Myanmar is the new “hot” destination in travel, more people are arriving in the country than there are hotel beds to put them in. And there are all those business people who are looking to cash in on Myanmar opening up to the world. I’m not a fan of pre-booking a place to stay … but in Myanmar, it just might be the only way you will get a room.
The answer to that one is “officially” no. You, as a foreign tourist, are not allowed to pitch a tent. You might be able to get away with it, if you are really discreet. But we have heard reports of travelers having their tents confiscated by police. If you are going to risk camping, please wild camp. Don’t ask some villager to allow you to pitch your tent outside their home. If the police get involved, it is the villager who is going to pay the higher price. I hope Myanmar progresses to the point where travelers are allowed to camp, but don’t hold your breath.
This one is a bit tricky. You may have heard that you need US dollars. And not just any US dollars, but the kind of crisp, perfectly clean, unwrinkled dollars your grandparents gave to you in your birthday card when you were a kid. Well. It’s true. We met a man from the U.S. who arrived with plenty of cash to travel in Myanmar for a month. Every single bill was rejected at banks and hotels alike. Now, it’s not like his money was ripped and patched together with tape. It looked just fine to us. That’s how picky they are about your dollars. He was having to leave the country early, because, although he had a thousand dollars, he couldn’t spend any of it. I went to eight different banks in Seattle to get the clean cash I needed for our trip. One hundred dollar bills get the best rate, but it is best to carry some bills of all denominations for everyday transactions when you aren’t paying in kyat.
That said, everything is changing fast in Myanmar. Reports are that the Central Bank is now accepting bent and wrinkled US dollars. Great. As long as you are dealing directly with the Central Bank. But you won’t be. You’ll be dealing with hotel clerks and shopkeepers. Until the message gets out to everyone (and that’s going to be awhile), don’t enter Myanmar without really, really clean cash.
This is a situation where the law of supply and demand has rapidly increased the cost of traveling in Myanmar. Hotels and Guest Lodges that went for $10 a night or less three years ago, are now $25-$45. And we are talking basic rooms here. No frills. Considering that you can get a similar room in Thailand for $7-$10 … you might be in for a budget shocker.
When we left Inley Lake (in mid-November), there were several tourists who couldn’t find a single room available, and had spent the night sitting under a tree. We aren’t ones to plan ahead, but if you are planning on traveling to Bagan or Inley Lake, make sure you call ahead to make a reservation at a hotel. Cyclists often arrive late in the afternoon. By then, scores of backpackers and tourists will have scooped up every bed available.
Internet access has opened up in Myanmar. You’ll find free WiFi offered at many hotels and guest houses. You presently cannot buy a data package for your cell phone. You can buy a sim card, but only for making calls. This can be really helpful to make hotel reservations in advance.
Just wandering around Myanmar is difficult, due to the need to stay at a registered guest house. It is possible to get around this. But it is a bit of a crap shoot. We went to a monastery and were told we could stay. The monks were making up our room. Then the head master showed up and said it was not possible for us to stay. We had to leave. He helped us flag down a truck (the sun was setting) and we got a ride to the next town (city) that had a hotel open to foreigners. On another occasion, we pulled into a police station of a small town, and after calls and paperwork, we were hosted at the barracks. One of the policeman even bought us breakfast the next day.
Many cyclists (including us) chose a route that included Mandalay, Bagan and Inley Lake. There are some back roads from Inley Lake to Mandalay that are really rough, but worth the effort.
Personally, I’d avoid Myanmar during the holiday season (mid-December till after the New Year). It is going to be crazy. If you don’t already have a room at the major destinations … good luck. Traveling in February or March of 2012 will see fewer tourists, and a lot more heat. A hard choice for a cyclist.
Hopefully Myanmar will issue more guest house permits — open more areas of the country to travel –allow folks to pitch a tent now and then. Will Myanmar see tourism skyrocket even further? If the room rates continue to rise, I doubt it.
A resounding yes from both of us. No matter what the hassles, or the inflated prices and difficulty to get lodging, spending a month with the people of Myanmar was worth it … and then some.
Willie Weir : December 25th, 2012
Beyond the barbed wire fence is the courtyard of the school turned torture prison in Phnom Penh. Over 20,000 people were tortured at Tuol Sleng school when the Khmer Rouge turned it into S-21, one of the places they used to extract confessions of individuals who they would later exterminate in the ‘killing fields”. This is one of hundreds of similar prisons throughout Cambodia and a harrowing reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. -k.
After the morning visiting the genocide museum, “banana man” provided some much needed levity in our day. We tried to buy a couple of bananas … but he only deals in bunches. -w
Willie Weir : December 24th, 2012
I am not a morning person. The heat of the day has forced us to get on the road earlier and earlier. But the advantage is seeing the world in glorious morning light. Here, dyed silk hangs out to dry on the road south of Kampong Cham.
It’s wedding season in Cambodia and roads are springing up tents with bright sashes. Since we get on the road at dawn and try to finish pedaling for the day before sunset, we’ve yet to see a party in full swing. We can tell we are approaching a wedding party site since the sound system is as bold as the color schemes and they are required to blast music during setup and take down. -k.
Willie Weir : December 24th, 2012
Those good, old machines don’t ever really die, they gets recycled in SE Asian markets. We passed at least 3 shops in Kampong Cham market that were floor to ceiling sewing machines for sale. Perhaps there is a garment factory close by keeping the second-hand traders in full supply. -k.
It pains me to look at this photo taken in Kampong Cham. For each and every one of those scooters represents a bicycle that will never be ridden by its owner again. Cambodia has the same problem that we witnessed in Thailand seven years ago. The entire populace adopts the scooter, and walking and cycling are history. Sidewalks become scooter parking areas. Bikes are ridden only by the very young or the very poor. And the dream of most scooter owners … is to one day own an SUV or pickup truck. The pollution, the dust, the strain on infrastructure is staggering. -w
Willie Weir : December 22nd, 2012
His name was Rity (pronounced with a trilled “r”), and about the most charming young monk you’ll ever meet. He was so exuberant, and wanted to be able to tell us all about the temple in a small village along the Mekong, completely adorned in mostly fresh murals. But the little English he knew was not enough to satisfy his desires to share with us. But we felt welcomed and privileged to be in his temple and his company. -w
Cane juice on crushed ice is now part of our daily life, and what a glorious thing it is. We now look roadside for the big wheel which turns the press and squeezes the peeled stalks of sugar cane. Those big wheels aren’t that easy to turn by hand, so Willie is known to jump up and help, much to the amusement of the locals. If you haven’t had fresh can juice, it’s slightly sweet with an earthy-grassy taste. Nothing cloyingly sweet about it. Simply refreshing, especially with just a squeeze of lime and a mountain of ice.-k.
Willie Weir : December 21st, 2012
Pajamas are all the rage in Cambodia. Often worn over a warm turtleneck sweater this time of year for extra warmth. For a while I even considered buying a cute set for my cycling kit. Usually they are in bright, cheery colors and flamboyant patterns that pop out, but here this vendor in the market blends in nicely with the cured meats. We’re a little obsessed with this fashion trend. -k.
After several days of dusty roads/paths along the Mekong, we took our bikes to a scooter wash. A team of four sprayed, soaped, scrubbed, rinsed, and dried our trusty steeds. They hadn’t been this clean since the day we got them. But another and another day of mud and dust awaits. -w
Kat Marriner : December 16th, 2012
In every trip there is a challenge and a part of myself is revealed or at least rediscovered, and this trip is no different. Over the years there are many things I struggle with, but one that pops up again and again, is that I am no athlete. I fail at the endurance test … well, the thought of the endurance test. Whether it’s climbing a mountain pass or pushing through long miles in the heat, or climbing impossibly steep roads up from river drainages, my mind tells me I can’t do it even when I have proven again and again that I can. It’s a flaw I wish I could change, but it’s part of my nature to doubt my own ability. When I meet other cyclists who think nothing of cranking out 100 kilometers day after day, I feel my own failing.
Foot bridge over a Mekong tributary.
Talking with cyclists who just came north along the road in Cambodia that we intended to pedal south left me with a pit in my stomach for that vary reason. Forced to ride 146km in one day between Kratie and Stung Treng, through road construction and mid-day heat pushing 100F, just to reach a place to sleep has no appeal to me. I don’t want to rise to that challenge. I don’t want to endure that kind of hardship just to get to the next place. Fortunately I have a partner who although capable of enduring just about anything, is also not interested in slogging through miles just to get to a bed. There is no joy in just getting through a place, but there is joy in discovering something along the way.
Farming along the Mekong tributary.
I stumbled upon the Mekong Discovery Trail web site that gave some hope that we could pick our way along the villages, take boats through the islands and find small tracks far from Highway 7. We could do in five days what others do in two by taking the slow road. It would mean greater uncertainty of finding food or where we would find to sleep each night, but this was a fear I could deal with.
Whole families paticipate in peeling, cutting, and drying cassava root so it can be sold to make a small livelihood.
Before even entering Cambodia the idea was put in motion to seek ways to slow it down and see more, experience more, learn more about local life. How does the ricer thrasher work? What are the people planting and tending in that field? Who is winning the game of boules? These are things seen along the small roads and tracks and not often right along the highway. Rather than coasting by with a wave, we stop, watch, smile and learn.
Charcoal is essential for cooking in rural parts of SE Asia, and charcoal is made in mud packed ovens left smouldering for days.
Still in Laos and traveling down the Mekong, we put the slow road to a test as we left Champasak. We found a thin white dashed line on the map and confirmed with a tour guide that we could indeed bicycle that route and eventually cross the river down stream to get to our destination. It would take two days instead of one long one on the main road. They were easy directions to follow: stay on the dirt track along the river as we leave town and keep the river on your left. We even looked at the route on Google Earth to confirm it was continuous.
What Google Earth didn’t tell us, but years of cycling did, is that life happens along these small roads. Our track ran past homes, through school yards, past shops, pigs in mud, charcoal in ovens, games of chance, laundry washing, noodles drying, families working. Some times the track turned to a footpath that looked like it hadn’t been used in some time, other times it was a street bisecting a village and children ran along with us. Ravines and creek beds interrupted the flow, but there was always a bridge — sometimes strong, new steel, others rickety swinging bamboo missing some planks, few were wide enough for a 4-wheeled vehicle. The small road knitted together village life and wrapped us in it’s warm embrace.
Change perfectly manicured lawn for dirt and the game of Boules is much like lawn bowling that we play at home in Seattle.
We only went 45km our first day on the slow road, but we experienced more life then we would have seen in 200kms of highway. It was on that quiet, small track that I fully realized and embraced that I am an adventurer and not an athlete. Travel is much more fun for me when it’s engaging with people, than it is when travel is an endurance test. No more apologies for my short-comings.
Willie Weir : December 15th, 2012
Kat backs her bicycle on to a ferry to cross back over to the mainland. When you take a close look at some of these ferries, you have to be thankful that the Mekong is as calm as it is. Safely across, we pedaled along the east bank to the city of Kratie. -w
The 100-Pillar Pagoda in Sambour, Cambodia no longer has 100 pillars, but it has a lot of personality. What truly made this stop memorable is the group of Austrailians we met who were born Khmer and left Cambodia. They pooled their money and bought much needed food, clothing and medicine to distribute on their homeland tour. While those we spoke with felt that Australia truly was home, their hearts are deeply affected by the oppression witnessed every day here, and the pain and love they feel for Cambodia is palpable. -k.
Willie Weir : December 14th, 2012
We are following some of the routes in the “Mekong Discovery Trail” and by far the most challenging is the ride down the length of Roungeav Island, the largest island in the Mekong river. The route follows rough and sandy ox cart tracks, which sometimes fade away or come to intersections with no direction. We spent much of the morning pushing our loaded bicycles through sand, but after lunch and a rest in the shade, the center of the island had a firmer dirt track through the forest. -k.
The Mekong Discovery Trail is a project to bring tourism and income to the people who live along the river from Strong Treng to the near the Laos border. It includes bike routes and possible home stays in small villages that would never support a hotel. We read of an ox cart track you could cycle on an island in the middle of the Mekong. We hired a boat (same man whose home we stayed in the night before) and he delivered us to the beginning of the trail. It was a long day. Sand and loaded bikes don’t mix very well. But we managed. Here, Kat cycles under a gateway of towering snags in the heat of the day. -w
Willie Weir : December 13th, 2012
The Koh Khnhaer greeting committee gathered as we walked through the village of one of our homestays along the Mekong. They joyfully say “hello” again and again and follow us as we walk up and down the one street town. The signs of poverty make it clear why NGOs are trying to bring tourist dollars to the upper reaches of the Cambodian Mekong. It’s a hard life, but you wouldn’t know it by the laughter from these children. Not a one asked for money or treats, they only wanted waves hello — to be seen. -k.
I know this is the cooler season. There are actually folks with wool caps on, and women in their winter pajamas. But it’s hot! All the more reason to stick close to nature’s air conditioning. For many of those who live on the river, boats are the only transportation they know. Just after I took this photo, I heard squawking up in a tree on the opposite bank of the river. The view through my binoculars revealed the silhouette of a toucan. -w