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
Look Who We Met!
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.