Cheap As Chips?

A tiny blog posting – a Micropost!

I thought it would be interesting to see how the countries we pass through compare economically. Thanks to Wikipedia, it’s pretty easy.

Here’s a chart showing the Per Capita Income in each country we’ve passed through, or hope to pass through.


And here’s the same chart, adjusted for the cost of living in each country (called Purchasing Power Parity, or  PPP).


PPP seems to have the effect of making the people in middle-income states better off. And Singapore.

We can even divide one by the other, to give us a rough Cost of Living Cycling. However, this is a bit rubbish, as in most of Europe, costs were kept down by camping. From about Bulgaria/Romania onwards, it felt a bit insecure rough camping, and hot – we really appreciated the comfort of a shower, so mostly stayed in guesthouses and cheap hotels. In tourist cities, that was often pretty cheap, but out on the road, I would guess that it very often was close to $20/night for a room for the two of us, irrespective of country. So far the most expensive nights have been Uzbekistan ($70 for a yurt), India (~$70 for a tent, ~$40 for a palace (really it was, gorgeous)), and Myanmar ($50 at two of the hotels, trading on scarcity). Not normally regarded as high-cost locations. The Caspian Sea ferry was also an expensive night, but did cover a fair bit of ground as we slept. The Tajikistan Toyota Tour was by far our most expensive week, but wasn’t exactly integral to the trip. And it didn’t include the (cheap) guesthouses!


Turkey, Uzbekistan and India have been most costly for souvenirs, not because of prices, but because of the wonderful handicrafts, and their availability, and perhaps more stop days, and maybe the timing of Christmas.

End of micropost!

(Note to self – master spreadsheet stored on cloud, in case plans change!)

Out of Myanmar

After the strenuous riding to get to Inle Lake, before moving on south we studied the map, and profiles, carefully! Thus we decided to turn initially west, to get out of the hills. We had to start by climbing them, but they got even bigger further south. It added about 70km to the route to Kyaikto, our next planned stop, but avoided a lot of climbing. It did, alas, expose us to the apparently regional, afternoon south to north wind, reducing our daily range.

Some of this route was on highway #1, which was a bit busy, but bearable. Main road traffic in Myanmar is mostly largish trucks, with all sorts of cargo. Very few buses, but lots of smallish trucks and pickups crammed with folk and allsorts. A fair bit of agricultural machinery, mostly looking rather improvised. Loads of motorbikes, and a very few cars and bicycles. But even on highway #1, there were enough gaps that drivers usually waited before overtaking, and birdsong could be heard. Other parts were on very quiet country roads, wide or narrow, sometimes dirt but in good condition.


Country Life By The Road

Urban Life


Look Who We Met!

Golden Rock

Kyaikto was our rest stop, the nearest town on the highway to the famous Golden Rock. From there it’s 28km to the famous rock and the pagoda atop it. After seeing it we’d then have to backtrack to the main road. An ideal scenario for a rest day and a bus trip. Even more so when the profile showed that the last bit of that 28km ascends nearly a kilometre into the sky. In fact, it seems private vehicles aren’t even allowed on that bit; There are dedicated buses for the pilgrims (and tourists). Actually they’re modified trucks with benches six wide, a roof, and open sides. And pretty powerful engines and brakes, as that road is mighty steep and full of hairpin bends and narrow bits. The truck drivers clearly enjoy the challenge, there was a fair bit of oohing and aaaahhing as the driver hurled the truck round the hairpins, rubber squealing a protest at times.

The rock site was home to many stalls, sub-temples, and hotels. Sitting up on its narrow ridge, it reminded me (Gid) of England’s Lands End complex; but unlike that dour monstrosity, the bright decoration here gleamed in the sun, the colours glowed, the folks were brightly dressed and cheerful. Alas for us, although we deliberately got there approaching photography’s evening “golden hour”, this cast the sun from an unforgiving direction, and we were disappointed by our pictures. It looked like many folk just dossed down there, maybe that’s a better plan for keen photographers.

Over and Out

After Golden Rock, we headed for the Thailand border, between Myawaddy and Mae Sot.  I had read about the famous border road that corkscrewed over and through the border mountains, so tight  it was only open in one direction each day. About two years ago it was bypassed with a newer, wider, lower, straighter highway – oddly, it’s in OpenStreetMap but not yet in Google Maps. But the day before we met, coming the other way, two English cyclists, Katie and Joseph, who said “you have to go the old road, it’s fabulous..”. The rotters. We decided not to, to spare our legs. Got up early, cycled 2km out of town to where the new road started, looked at the smooth, broad, almost empty, tarmac, sighed, and turned back into town for the old road. Which was, duly, fabulous. We climbed for maybe 2-3 hours. It was indeed narrow, it was indeed very up, although actually reasonably graded (it used to be the main truck route). It had lots of bends, and in a few places was failing to gravel or encroached on by the jungle. We saw about 3 motorbikes, 5 people, and a few houses in the entire way up. There were a few more folk in a village at the top, houses outnumbered by abandoned refreshment shacks from the trucking days.

The way down was only slightly less peaceful (we saw one agri-truck, parked). The road was in good enough shape for a speedy descent.

Although it’s kind of the border road, it’s all inside Myanmar. Reunited with the new road, broad and smooth, we continued to Myawaddy, swapped the last of our Myanmar money, and into the border post. All the terrible internet warnings about Myanmar’s complicated border rules came to naught, and we wiggled through waiting trucks as the 4 lane road squeezed over the 2 lane Friendship Bridge, complicated by changing from right side driving to left side driving over the middle of the river. From there it’s a short flat cruise to the Thai town of Mae Sot, which usually gives its name to this crossing.

This is one of the main crossings between the two countries. It’s really remarkably quiet. I guess this reflects partly the tough terrain, partly Myanmar’s underdevelopment and isolation (although I’m not sure the Thais participated in the sanctions during the long junta years), and maybe also that the history of this border mostly seems to involve sending armies across it, to cause mayhem on the other side. Mostly Burmese, but some Thai, and latterly British and Japanese. And yes, now we’re reading our Indochina history lessons.

Memories of Myanmar

Lovely warm smiles. Monks. Slim, smiling, people in longhis or pencil skirts. Myanmar buffet. Stir fried vegetables without chilli. Sane drivers. Elephants. Not much wildlife (guides with catapults!). Hills. Wanting more time.

Inle Lake

Inle is a very lovely and scenic shallow lake a few (hard) days cycle south of Tsipaw. It’s one of the tourist “must see” sites in Myanmar. And it’s all conveniently laid out for you. Most of the photos were taken during a day-long trip by long-tail boat, visiting the villages around the lake.



Afloat or Above

Leg rowing fishermen

More Lake Photos

Long neck ladies

This custom is rapidly dying out, so these middle-aged ladies (sorry!) are likely the last generation to have their collarbones squashed down by the heavy brass coils. It really doesn’t look comfortable, and would make swimming nigh-on impossible.


Yarn made from lotus stems. The cloth ends up coarse and pricier than linen, so not widely adopted elsewhere. Silver smiths, these lads only work when the tourists look their way! The cigar ladies, in contrast, seemed very busy.








Back on our Bikes and a Rude Awakening

‘Down hill all the way’ we were told by more than one person. Gid had pointed out the minor point of the Gokteik gorge, which we’d passed over on the railway’s spectacular viaduct. But once again we were living up to our title, within outdoor pursuits circles, of ‘Southern Softies’ .
At 40km into our 80km trip my legs were knackered from grinding up hills in my lowest gears. Once up on the plateau and greeted by a significant head wind our average speed was still a meagre 10 km per hour.  I was still peddling in middle gears to get down hill! Gid proclaimed he was in his ‘granny gear’ on the flat. I didn’t take umbrage.
At 22km the horizon line looked ominous. In a canoe it would indicate a weir as the river dropped away before you but here, with a dark mountain line in the distance, we’d reached the gorge.
As we started our descent I fantasised that I could see a wide valley through the trees at the bottom as we took a long sweep back along the hillside. I was beginning to wonder if we’d got it wrong. We weren’t going down a gorge but into a valley where we could cycle out the other end over a much lower pass. Dream on!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA(Gid adds: Clare hadn’t seen this then, from the top of the descent)
Initially it was a wide road with sweeping bends big enough for articulated lorries passing in both directions but it quickly got narrower and steeper. Soon there were queues of truckers in both directions at the cutbacks. At one especially tight turn a policeman was in charge, otherwise polite hooting indicated a driver was going to move. The rest tucked in.
We carved a route between them and stopped to quiver at the sight of the road winding up the other side. Our descent taking 40 mins. Disappointingly, we’d not yet glimpsed the famous Gorteik viaduct we’d been across on the train.
The ascent started well. The sections were well graded with long steady climbs. There was only the occasional steep hairpin that required a real effort. We thought we’d reached the top in an hour but then it went on and on, still climbing. Every time we thought we were there, another cafe, and someone hosing down their truck’s brakes (think about what that means), at yet another truckers stopping point would appear.  So the climb went on. At least heading south we got some shade while going up.
It was after 15 km that we yet again had the wind in our faces. And at around that point we finally saw the viaduct. After a further 2km we did indeed reach the top. Gid seemed OK but I was fit to drop. Fortunately a bottle of pop was enough to take me the remaining 2km to the hotel.
Only 84km, but tough ones. Or rather, 52 miles, as bizarrely, Myanmar uses miles.
Gokteik Gorge road (Myanmar road #3)
40 min. Descent
1hr 40 min. Ascent
Total distance 17 km.
Day two started with even more steady climbing. Very soon we turned left off #3, onto #43. Another 15 km passed before we reached a stretch that could be called undulating.  We were still waiting for the start of the promised ‘down hill all the way’. Gid started swearing, ‘When are we ever going to get to the top of this lot?’. My legs were reduced to jelly.
We’ve just had 5 months of flat cycling across the ‘Stans’ and India. Even the ominously named Snake Mountain, on the way to Pushkar – India, turned out to be little more than a South Downs bump. This was day two of some serious ascents.
We’d been enjoying the more peaceful smaller road, until we found out why. Gorge 2!
Forget the well graded gradients. This was serious stuff. Gid reckoned the steeper bits were 1:3, and kept stopping to let his rims cool – eventually letting his tyres down a bit to avoid explosions (and one old tyre had partially split its sidewall, we noticed a little later). I reckon it was serious shit. Down narrow gravelly hairpin bends where I could barely stop the bike at all I soon lost my bottle and walked! And, gave up all hope of cycling up the other side.


Crossing the bridge at the bottom Gid tried to convince me that beyond the first section the gradients looked better. He flogged up the first part, l pushed my bike from the start.
Trimmed down and super fit Gid did manage a gallant effort but had to admit in the end, that the gradients did not improve. Pushing 45kg of loaded touring bike, even on two wheels, isn’t an easy option but Gid was finally beaten and joined me on two feet.
Just over two hours later we reached the top. Spirits were very low. The hotelier in Hsipaw thought we’d be at Inle lake in two days. We weren’t even half way. Here’s the profile of this leg, provided by doogal. We were just at the third peak.
X = Kilometres, Y = Metres. Spot the two gorges. Downhill all the way!
For anyone trying to (avoid) following in our footsteps, it’s road #3 from Tsipaw to the second peak, then road #43 and #41.
One of many pagodas, linked to monasteries, along the route

It was a second exhausting day but every cloud has a silver lining. Deadbeat, at 6pm after the sun had set, we finally reached a village.

Camping is strictly forbidden. Apart from tribal warfare that continues, blocking certain roads and areas in Myanmar, there are still land mines in the countryside. The first port of call in a village with no tourist accommodation is the monastery. The monks will, apparently, frequently allow you to sleep over night. The locals quickly directed us to the monastery. On arriving there we were greeted by hordes of young monks. Both Gid and I were waiting for an elder to appear but a monk in his late teens directed us to follow two young lads on a motorbike. Little did they know how slow we would be.  They lead us off up the road turning off along a lane to a family home.
We had a lovely supper with the family who were kind enough to put us up for the night. Two English speaking young ladies, teachers from the local school, came to join the crowd. Charades finished, translations started, as we struck up some conversation. The two young ladies also offered a breakfast invitation which we gratefully accepted and were treated, again to traditional Myanmar fare. Just before we left they offered Clare a gift, a beautiful blue green longee. Oh dear, how to respond? Gid dived into a pannier for our tiny gifts; a bell with compass! The lady was a little nonplussed, not having a bicycle, or even, we learned, a motorbike but liked the idea that in time her children would like the bell on a bike.


Finally, the next day, the run into Nyaung Shwe on Lake Inle was unmemorable. But when it came to planning our departure, we checked the profiles in advance, and headed west initially, towards the big, flat, river valley that’s the centre of Myanmar, rather than the shorter route south, which turned out to look rather hilly!

Hiking to Meet the Hill Tribes

Our public transport northwards in Myanmar ended in the town of Tsipaw (Hsipaw), Shan State. It’s a pleasant place, but the attraction there is as a base for hiking into the hills.
Myanmar isn’t exactly a unitary state. It used to be called Burma, reflecting the dominance of the Bamar people. Indeed, they were expanding quite an empire westwards in the early 1800s, until they met the East India Company expanding the other way, attacked, and came off worst. One reason the country’s name changed in 1989, was to be more inclusive of the other people’s the Bamar had (partially) subdued: the Shan, the Palaung, the Mon, and many others. So, hiking in this part of Shan State, we’d meet Shan people, and also Palaung people. Our guide, Aikethein, is a Palaung.
We’d been told our route would be across the fields in the morning heading up into the hills during the afternoon. No such luck. Barely across one field we started on our incline. The broad track occasionally opening out into panoramic views, eventually shrank into a ‘sheep’ trail across the steep edged hills winding it’s way up and down. We didn’t see any sheep, just a few motorbikes.
Forest paths wound over tree roots and rocks as we crunched through the leaf fall, passing cleared areas used for crops, often, at this time of year, burnt to clear them for the next growing season. Towards the end of the day, small plantations of tea bushes ranged up steeper slopes.
A small boy dancing from rock to rock  across the burbling brook, swiftly crouching to take aim, catapult in hand. The bird flew off as junior sprang into action again, for another shot. Aikethein fumbled in his bag seizing his catapult for a more experienced attempt. Peeyaang .. another shot flew out but still the bird fluttered away. We now know why we hear, but don’t see, birds in the forest.
We stopped in a Shan village for lunch, although at the house of a Palaung family. Shan and Palaung have their own languages, and the Palaung generally live higher up in the hills, where they grow tea. I nabbed the only chair, a small plastic garden chair the same as a few others on the veranda that stood next to the bamboo ‘deck chair’, the fomer probably for tourists when they arrived. Our food was on a circular low table in a large sparsely furnished room. Our hostess bustled away at a bit of sweeping keeping the room spotlessly clean once we had eaten. The small pile she had swept with her traditional handmade broom quickly disappeared down a lifted floor board to the ground 8 feet below – how neat was that!
The roomy houses are lovely. There’s stuff lying around showing just how much can be made out of bamboo and twine: hats, walls, plumbing, fences, gates, chairs, bridges, it’s endless. There are now some concrete houses, but most are a traditional chunky wood frame with bamboo mat walls. Sometime in the last 100 years, corrugated iron roofs replaced thatch in most cases. The light woven walls keep out the sun but provide ventilation.
The cuisine is one of the many things that defines each culture. We were first introduced to fermented tea leaf salad on the Myanmar International Airways plane where Gid tried it but declined a second helping. Here in the village, having done a days hike and with no other option, we both tucked in.
Aikethein was telling us that whilst the main ingredients may stay the same across regions of Myanmar the method of cooking them has slight changes from village to village. He pointed out that the food we were eating was less greasy than in Hsipaw which we agreed with. Sourbanyan tree leaves, cabbage soup, a solid  wad of steamed rice were three of the things on our supper table.
Manns Tan, a Palaung village, perched on the edge of the hillside, is a cluster of 15 houses. There are numerous children all keen to smack your hand in a high 5 greeting calling bye- bye, hello, tata. Relatively recently, the trails to it have been dug out to be passable by motorbike as well as horse. A motorbike can carry two 50Kg bags of rice, plus a bit else.
18km (11miles) walked. Mostly up, as we climbed to around 1000m, amongst small tea plantations and wandering water buffalo whose bells clonked musically as they browsed. Fortuitously, the buffalo don’t eat tea bushes. We noticed the Myanmar (SE Asian) water buffalo are indeed different from Indian.
Aikethein Taw was our guide. His village is 50 km away but is not accessible to foreigners because, like many places in Myanmar, there are civil, and not so civil, disputes between tribes fighting over the natural resources in the land. He left his village to move to the ‘city’ as he didn’t want to be a farmer, and has been guiding now for quite a few years. He has big ideas for more work in the growing tourist trade.
Aikethein is one of twelve siblings. Two of his brothers died from cocaine addiction, one from measles which in the last ten years is now immunized against.  In families where there are three male children one has to join the “army” (that is, the tribal militia, not the national army, whom they may fight). In villages where there are less than thirty children there is no formal education but children will often be sent to a nunnery or monastery at the age of six or seven and are free to leave when they like.

A Plain of Ancient Pagodas, Tops Peeking Through the Mist – Bagan

Bagan is famous for its plain of ancient pagodas and a ‘must see’ on the tourist trail in Myanmar. If you’ve only seen one photo of Myanmar, it’s probably Bagan.
We arrived with a couple of days in hand to do the circuit. The electronic version of the Lonely Planet guide, now downloaded on to my Kindle for every country we’re visiting, does an excellent job of outlining the key sights, so off we pedalled along with hoards of other tourists on rented e-bikes, each clutching the same tome.
Around 1100AD, this area was the centre of a growing kingdom, that converted to Buddhism, so enthusiastically that they went and raided all the Buddhist treasures from nearby kingdoms, and over about 250 years, built thousands of temples, pagodas, and stupas. Some very grand, many small, and anything in between. Since then, many have fallen into disrepair or been demolished by earthquakes. A few are restored, many are maintained, somewhat, and still used. The people who built them are largely forgotten, historians theorise they spent so much building temples that they were economically and militarily overtaken by neighbours. A few photos are at the bottom of this posting, but first, how we got lost in the country….


DSC_0649-3Around we trudged with a trail of others to all the top sights stealing a bit of respite from the heat in Bagan’s magnificent new Archaeological museum where we saw room after yet another large room displaying dozens of Buddha images, and some interesting cultural displays.
Day two we took a different approach. I hunted out a few of the lesser pagodas with a more interesting commentary. One had passages underground, a second had a ghost and promised excellent views; with a couple of others along the way our day was sorted.
The route connecting them was cross country on adjoining tracks. That’s where the fun started.
We’d had some experience of off road the night before when following our sunset viewing spot, another tourist ‘must do’, we had taken a short cut across the tracks to the main road, in the dark. The trails often disintegrate into sand and as our front wheels carved deep and the back wheel slides sideways we frequently came to an abrupt stand still.
In daylight, ‘map’ to hand, off we set. And we had GPS too, even Google maps, thanks to spending about a fiver on a Myanmar SIM card. All were useless, the tracks unrelated to the maps. The only thing that worked was: mark 1 – eyeball, the compass on Gid’s bike, and the sun. The sand track was big enough for a bus initially, indeed, there were several on it. Then it got a bit smaller, then smaller again, but fine for motorbikes and us. Then smaller still, really just a footpath across a field until it finally petered out altogether. We walked the bikes along the field edge, heading north, towards the road. Beckoned by a farmer tending his field, we pushed through a sort of hedge to regain a track across a field. Finally, we got back to something navigable. Whose plan was that?

Temples of Bagan

And we found a yard of abandoned carriages – two wheelers are still widely used for tours, but these bigger jobs are discarded. A B&W treatment seems to work nicely for these.

Alternative transport tried and tested

On leaving Yangon airport, after our flight from India, it was like stepping back into normality albeit with a sauna full on. The taxi had four – count them – wheels, and four – listen – cylinders, real springs, and the driver’s style had only a soothing effect on our blood pressure. Other cars travelled along marked lanes with the occasional brief hoot as we listened to the purr of motor car engines. Motorbikes are banned! Buses cruised along. All very orderly and blissfully peaceful. Melodic bird song returned to our ears.
The city itself was, by comparison, clean, although as we explored further we found many similarities with India: crowds, street vendors, wires draped along the buildings and criss-crossing the streets, surface drainage channels and food stalls filling the pavement. But no cows, no hasslers, and the wares now carried on shoulder poles. And did we mention, no hooting? We visited quietly busy pagodas and restocked on memory cards and a few bike bits.
Our plan for Myanmar was designed to show us some of the country, bearing in mind that we’d flown into almost the “end” of it, near the Thai border. So, we used alternative transports to backtrack about halfway up the country, back towards the border with India. Not that riverboats or Myanmar trains go much faster than a bicycle, but they do keep going for longer and don’t collapse from exhaustion.
Decidedly top heavy, perched on a one metre wide gauge, the sleeper train from Yangon to Bagan lurched and jolted along, frequently caterpillar style whilst wobbling from side to side. Sharing the carriage with Anton from Germany and the many bugs and mosquitoes, left us all with ample space but the mossies seemed rather greedy. Gid resorted to a bug net overnight, carefully tucking me in as well. Lurching along in the train we were submerged in village life: fields being watered or tended to, traffic waiting for us to pass, children, and those young at heart, keen to wave. Vendors tempted us with their wares peering into our gaping windowless chasms, other locals sat just biding their time or peeking from behind their doors but all were near to be seen.
The river boat from Bagan to Mandalay was not as interesting as the train trip from Yangon to Bagan. Bustling along the river that was  a good half mile wide, despite winding our way back and forth avoiding the shallows, we were rarely in touch with the people. Dancing dots on the horizon appeared to be children playing on the bank. Others were attending laundry or fishing nets, just distinguishable in the distance. Photos taken require dramatic cropping to give a feel of the people and scenery around us. River traffic trundled past but was frequently industrialized; clearly not from the villages that periodically line the banks.
On the boat itself there was an on going game of musical chairs as views versus the sun battled for the prized seats first facing one way then the other.  With about 20 tourists aboard (and one local passenger), there was a chance for some chat. Especially as Nicolas and Elise were also cycle touring. Navigating through the sand banks that were intermittently marked, was highly technical.  Two people stood on the bow of the boat elegantly welding depth gauge poles, arm actions directing the helmsman left or right.
Motorbikes are banned only in Yangon, elsewhere in Myanmar they are ubiquitous. Like India, they’re all small, if a little newer in design. Unlike India, there’s an assumption of observation, and a concept of right of way,  so hooters are used sparingly. Sometimes one can hear a motorbike approaching by the voices of the people on it! We’re still trying to take this on, after immersion in India for three months. In Mandalay, it was our voices, as we took motorbike taxis at one point. They also gave us helmets, but had they just got their motorbikes and wanted to practice? The two times we went on the back of Indian’s bikes, helmetless and three up, admittedly in the middle of nowhere, the riders were much smoother and assured, whereas our Mandalay taxis, two times two up, felt a bit wobbly and less secure. Were we paying for their learner petrol?
Our second train trip, Mandalay to Tsipaw, notable for two feats of engineering back in the early 1900s, was also marked by higher levels of sophistication seen in the farming. Although still mainly small scale stuff with every last patch of fertile land cultivated,  the watering cans on shoulders and the ox ploughs had been replaced by rotavators, hose pipes, sprinklers systems and strimmers.
Unbelievably the train jolted to a halt then went backwards. It was plenty slow enough surely it didn’t need to cover some bits twice. It gradually became obvious; as day was breaking we could see the track layers beneath us. We were gaining height up the side of a mountain onto a plateau, the train can’t do hairpin bends, so it had to switch direction for each zig or zag. A panoramic view opened up before us, lined with receding hills.
The second spectacular event was marked by people peering out of the windows and cries of, ‘There it is’. Fleeting glimpses developed into a full view until the train stopped just before we curved round to cross the Goteik Gorge viaduct. Crowds clambered down onto the track for a better view framing the ‘must take’ photographs.
Think that’s about covered it: Plane, taxi (4 wheels), train, riverboat, motorbike, train. Oh and then  in Tsipaw, tuk tuk, hiking, and in Lyaung Shwe, long tail boat.