Ride: Kawkareik, Burma to Hpa-An, Burma
Terrain: Decent roads, occasional traffic, undulating hills (no real tough climbs, but over the course of a day, they add up), and general headwind which will make everything harder.
Eat: Make sure to stock up on food and water before you set out. Starting the 30km mark and especially after the town of Kyondoe, there is basically nothing for long stretches and you're on your own. Win Sein and Ein Du are good stops for longer breaks/food. Plenty of roadside shacks afterwards to buy water and snacks.
Sleep: Several options but book in advance. We stayed at the Than Lwin Pyar Guesthouse on Thida Street (but we only just got away with it, as everywhere else was booked)
For more information on Hpa-An, read here.
Nothing like the combination of monks chanting and roosters crowing at 6 AM to thrust you out of a short doze.
Given that we were subjected to a thumping night of techno that would make the most religious of all Berliners weep, we were quite good at waking up with the sun.
We are developing a nice routine that sees us getting our clothes ready for the next day and packing everything else back into the panniers the night before. When push comes to shove, all we need to do once awake is throw our clothes on, slather on the sunscreen, clip the panniers onto the bike, and push off.
Knowing that we had 90+km to do until Hpa-An, we set off early at 7 AM. The road leading out of town (yes, there is only one) was very quiet and everything had a lovely haze to it. Those early morning hours before the sun fully comes up can be surprisingly cool, and we both wore our high-viz jackets for the first while.
Thanks to the roaring success of yesterday's masterplan of setting off with no breakfast and subsisting on bananas alone, we thought it would be a great idea to make the same stupid mistake for the second day in succession. So just before we left town, we stopped at a bridge to buy a bunch from a road stand. Jess did the honours.
A moment of silence with tight smiles on both sides.
That's the thing about haggling. There are places where it's definitely the done thing and all part of the fun. And then there's Burma. Where the majority of the population survives on less than $3 a day, especially out in the sticks. What they asked for those bananas was equivalent to half a day's work.
But who were we to begrudge them that? What's it to us? Were we really about to whinge about a dollar?
We paid the 1,500 kyat.
About 10km up the road, we ran into our first police checkpoint. The lone officer called us over and requested to see our passports. Saying that it would take a few minutes to copy down our details, he looked surprised and delighted when we handed him our ready-made photocopies to save him the bother. On a long ride like this, a few minutes could be the difference between getting there before sunset, and running the gauntlet of riding in the dark, so you try to save time where you can.
In retrospect, we should have taken him up on the additional time and stocked up on food. The next 60km proved to be incredibly difficult, as we were both deeply dehydrated and hungry. After the mountains yesterday, we were hopeful that today would be as flat as a pancake. But although there were no serious climbs, it undulated quite a bit, and combined with a fairly considerable headwind, it felt at times like we were riding through mud. The temperature kept rising and the scenery was bare, dusty and unforgiving. Every little thing seemed ten times worse. There just wasn't much to enjoy about this stretch.
It was time to stop for a water break.
The man with the hat first came over looking like he was trying to sell something to us. Confused, sweaty, and slightly pissed off from one thing and another, we waved him away. But he kept coming back. Repeatedly, we shook our heads. Then we got it.
"Oh! He wants us to come and rest in the shade of his shack"
Weary and thankful, we followed him to an elevated wooden platform with a thatched roof and collapsed in a tired heap. The man then walked off and went about his own business with the rest of his family. They gave us space and peace. We got the feeling we could have sat there forever if we wanted to.
It was 12 PM. We were down to our last four bananas and had two small bottles of water left. The next town of any substance was still 20km away. Even if we made good progress, it would be the thick end of an hour before we'd get something real to eat. Maybe.
"Come on, then. We can do it. Let's go."
Sitting there ruminating over your woes won't make the remaining distance any shorter. You have to keep going.
The thing about us is that we have this odd habit of passing up perfectly good places to eat in search of... well, we never really know. We could have stopped earlier along any of the smaller roadside villages along the way for a bite. But on the map, there were precious few villages, and we had decided that Win Sein looked like our best prospect for lunch, so that's where we headed.
And then we found out that Win Sein was actually on top of a hill. A very very steep hill. We're not proud to admit we had to push the bike up the last bit.
But thankfully after all that, there was indeed good grub to be had. The second we sat down at the teahouse, the owners were at our table with a gigantic bottle of water and THREE massive bowls of rice. Across the front of the place, a series of pots were arranged, containing all manner of delights. We pointed at stuff and then went back to our seats to wait for it to appear. It barely had time to hit the table before we'd demolish it. Soups. Meat curry. Vegetable curry. More soup. We ate like we'd never seen food before.
3,000 kyat total to eat until you burst.
Forget all the pain we just went through. This more than made up for it.
As we were shovelling food into our mouths and generally being pigs, a man came over to our table. He was an older gentleman and spoke very good English, sounding a bit like a BBC announcer from days gone by. He asked us where we had come from and "where do you proceed from here?", and was absolutely fascinated by our bike.
The second half of the day was better. You see, when Neil was here before, he happened upon a magnificent place called the Sadan Cave which was on our way to Hpa-An. As we were treating each day here as if we'd never visit these locations ever again, we thought we'd better stop by.
To get there, we took a slight detour into Ein Du, a small town about 7km away from the caves themselves. The ride to here was absolutely gorgeous. Heaps of jungle and luscious green. Follow signs for the cave onto a dirt road (which does not appear on Google Maps) and grit your teeth for another 30-40 minutes until you arrive at a clearing into what appears to be The Lost World.
Check out this post for what happens next.
The morning ride had been a thankless slog, but we flew through the last thirty pleasant kilometres into Hpa-An, rejuvenated by our visit to the caves (and wanting to get into town before dark). It's a nice stretch of road, but after seeing heaven on earth, it seemed unremarkable in comparison which is probably unfair. Nothing about Burma period is unremarkable.
Especially the people. As we rode later on, a car sat next to us and to our great surprise and amusement, a man in uniform opened up his passenger side window and offered us a bottle of water.
We were in Hpa-An by around 5:30 PM and immediately noticed the amount of foreigners walking around, which was a bit of a shock given that this is still considered to be off the main tourist track. More about that in another post. We're knackered.
Tomorrow's our first rest day. It's also Jess's birthday. Perfectly timed.