Ride: Mae Sot, Thailand to Kawkareik, Burma
Terrain: Tons of traffic as you head out of Myawaddy and the surrounding area. Road conditions are good, but there are some thigh-burners as you climb up out of town. No big deal, though. Once you hit the "Old Road/New Road" fork, take the Old Road. Going up is decently paved, save for a few gravely bits as you head closer to the peak. Steady, consistent climbing all the way. The top and the entire descent is a mixed bag of gravel/mud, and you might have to get off and push in certain places. Watch out for soldiers fighting in the area. Once down the mountain, the road into Kawkareik is smooth and quiet the whole way.
Eat: There is nothing to eat between Myawaddy and Kawkareik. Be prepared.
Sleep: Smile Guest House off the main road.
For more information on Kawkareik, click here.
Today was the day.
We woke up with the lark and got ourselves dressed and ready. Packed the tandem. Said our goodbyes to Thailand and rode towards the Mae Sot/Myawaddy border.
Things going through our heads during the 7km ride there:
- Do we have everything we need?
- How much money should we bring into the country?
- What is the exchange rate and how do we not get ripped off?
- What happens if we die?
- Is the timing chain going to behave itself?
- Are we seriously doing this?
- Wow, I have the worst fever ever (Jess).
And so on.
None of that mattered the second we saw the golden archway proclaiming "The Republic of the Union of Myanmar".
Jesus Christ on a bike. Here we go.
With an incredible sense of awe and a restoration of our determination, we charged forth to the first checkpoint, which was exiting the Thai side. We waited in line with everyone else until we were directed to the foreigner kiosk (#9). Quick stamp and then a simple hop across the Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge over the Moei River to the Burmese side...
...Except that Burma has different driving rules than Thailand does. The bridge marks the real border between the two countries. So as we reached the halfway point, we stopped at a set of traffic lights, which filtered us from the left-hand side of the road to the right. There was very little traffic, so it all went without a hitch.
It was the most civilised non-junction we'd ever experienced.
Another thing to note as you look to the side of the bridge is the blatant smuggling from Burma into Thailand that occurs at this river. We saw people rushing onto boats that were poised to take them across in plain sight of both border controls. Nary a peep was made – no doubt the border patrols have been bought off.
Once we arrived on the other side, we filled out entrance applications in a small hut again separated for foreigners only. Whilst Neil was taking his turn getting processed, a group of Burmese men came over to Jess to chat. Inquiring first about the bike and how much it cost, they then asked questions about where we were from. Having freshly arrived in the country, Jess found this level of friendly-but-insistent attention slightly intimidating, and was unsure what to make of it. Were they after something? Were they trying to con us, or distract us whilst they stole from us? Were they simply just interested in who she was and what she was doing there?
It was the beginning of many more such interactions to come. Jess had better get used to it and fast.
Once Neil got back from the immigration formalities, the ringleader of the troop asked, "You want to exchange money? Come with me."
We followed him into the heart of Myawaddy. Neil went to check out the aforementioned money handler whilst Jess stayed put with the bike and observed the craziness. Border towns are always "interesting", "colourful" places, and Myawaddy was no exception. It's everything you'd expect to find in a town that has only recently opened up to tourists and is primarily used for visa runs. Cash points and cheap motels everywhere. People trying to get your attention by crying that their money changing kiosk is the best one. Open-backed trucks filled with confused-looking foreigners.
A friendly face popped up next to Jess. "Hi!" she said, smiling and straddling her bike. A Polish girl traveling with her German boyfriend, she had started cycling only two weeks ago, and they had started their journey in Bangkok. After exchanging some more details about potential routes in Burma and Jess's past touring experiences, the conversation unfortunately petered out and names were never exchanged, as Jess became increasingly overwhelmed by the masses who had been gathering around the tandem and touching everything attached to it. Neil had assured her they'd do no harm, but when everything in your eyes, ears, and nose is so new, so intense, it's easy to forget that.
Neil finally popped into view with some good news. After asking around, he had gotten a decent enough exchange rate from baht to kyat. The amount of money we had carried over the border made for a mighty wedge of kyat, which we threw into our sandwich bag with the note (pun intended) that we had to distribute this around our panniers as soon as we could get away from the crowd.
As a side note, five years ago, the biggest banknote they had was 1,000 kyat, which at 1,300 kyat to the dollar, isn't worth much. Around that time, they introduced a 5,000 kyat note, which at first could often be problematic to spend because people just wouldn't have the change. Now there's a 10,000 kyat note, which probably wouldn't go down too well at a roadside vendor either, so we're planning to only ever use them to pay for hotel rooms.
Feeling as flush as you could in a country as poor as this, we were ready to be on our way.
First impressions of Burma:
- It's loud. Everything is loud. The roaring old diesel engines, the horns of the trucks and buses, the enormous PA systems of the monasteries...
- Cars, trucks, and motorbikes will always honk at you, but it's only to make you aware that they're there. As if you hadn't heard them rumbling towards you already.
- It starts to get really hot at 10:00 AM.
- You are a novelty.
- You are especially a novelty on a tandem.
*Clank. Clank. Clank*
What in the dickens was that noise?
We pulled over and inspected the bike. After taking all the panniers off and flipping it upside down, we realised that we had over-tightened the couplings holding our bike together, which Pedalpower specifically told us not to do. This then made the washers keeping them in place come loose, which meant that we had a creaking, flexing bike frame. T plus 10km into our 1,200km trip, and just ahead of a big climb over a mountain range through the middle of nowhere.
After MacGyvering a solution that saw the frame staying secure as long as we were riding it (how convenient), we rode on until we came to the fork in the road indicating either the "Old Road" or the "New Road".
The new road is a brand spanking new highway that's been recently completed to join up to Asia Highway 1. It is now the main way of getting through the Dawna Hills between northwestern Thailand and southeastern Burma, as it boasts significantly better road conditions and safer, shorter transit times. It's wider, straighter, flatter. Boring.
The old road was the main link before that connection was built, but it was so narrow that the traffic had to run in single file, east-west one day, and west-east the next. Home to several tiger and elephant species and ecologically sound, it was the site of fighting between Japanese and Burmese troops during World War II. Landmines scatter the surrounding lands. Conflict between the Tatmadaw (the Burmese national army) and rebel forces still persist in the area. Over the years, major usage by heavy trucks and lack of maintenance has forced the road into disrepair.
The old road it is, then.
And boy was it worth it.
Road conditions going up were surprisingly not so terrible. It is generally decently paved, with the odd short gravelly bit here and there. Although we were indeed going up a mountain, it was mostly a relatively gentle, steady gradient of 6-7%, which was easily dealt with using the granny gear. The occasional short, sharp bump of 10% or so burned the thighs for a bit but it was never cause for concern, and if you aren't on a tandem you could easily get out of the saddle and blast over them.
But the beauty of it is that thanks to the new road, there is no traffic whatsoever. We saw two or three trucks, a couple of motorcycles and not a single car. It all seemed to be local traffic. Other than that, it was somnolent and silent. People in huts coming out occasionally to say hello. Barefoot children and stray dogs abound. Luckily, we never ran into any major incidents with dogs chasing us, as we had heard they were wont to do. When a small pack did give chase, the people living by the roadside called them off immediately.
You get the feeling that with the popularity of the new road, these people's livelihoods have been reduced to nothing much at all. They are forgotten. There is little left to do but sit and wait.
But goodness, the view.
There is no choice, really. Take the old road. You would be absolutely mad not to. Where else will you find, effectively, a giant bike lane across a mountain range in the jungle? But if you do, maybe stop and buy something from one of the few remaining stands. Show the people that they still matter.
If we thought going up the hill was tough, the downhill was actually the hard part.
Before we had embarked on our trip, we had set up our other tandem to the turbo trainer at home to build up muscle and get fitter. But one thing a turbo trainer doesn't do is test your ability to turn. Going down a mountain on a loaded tandem weighing over 200kg through twists and bends is difficult, especially when you've packed the bike to put weight over the front wheel so that it stays planted on climbs. Neil was a champion with getting us down in one piece, and laughed all the way down, delighting in throwing the bike through the hairpins, picking a path through the narrow paved sections between the sand, gravel, and mud. Jess couldn't decide whether to laugh or cry. The phrase "Darling. Unclinch the ringpiece" was said many a time to the pale-faced stoker in the back.
Once we reached the bottom, it was smooth sailing and dead flat until we reached Kawkareik. You could feel how much warmer it was on the ground than up in the sky. Loads of armed soldiers were about, but they never gave us much bother other than to point and laugh, which, given the circumstances, we were quite happy about.
In our haste to get away that morning, we had broken our cardinal rule of cycle touring and neglected to eat a good breakfast. The absolute folly of this became apparent as we realised that we were riding over isolated mountains with absolutely no facilities, and we had nothing to eat but bananas until we got to Kawkareik.
We ate a lot of bananas that day.