Ride: Kyaikto to Bago (then the train from there to Yangon)
Terrain: This should have been a straightforward 95 kilometers, but ended up being much harder than we anticipated. The first 30km are up and down fairly small and gentle hills, none of which are any trouble on their own, but after a while it gets tiring. Then the next 20km are the complete opposite – flat, empty monotony. The last stretch of 40km is backbreaking with the high amounts of traffic. All in all, we were very glad to see the station in Bago and get the train on to Yangon.
Eat: Because we were pressed for time, we were sparing with our breaks and only stopped once in Waw, at a roadside restaurant next to a busy truck stop. There's plenty of those about - you won't starve, but you might go deaf from the relentless beeping.
Sleep: We wanted to spend our next rest day in Yangon, and because of its status as one of the three main tourist cities in Burma (the others are Bagan and Mandalay), we called ahead and had reservations set up for the Chan Myaye Guest House.
In retrospect, we should have known that this was not going to be an easy day.
Since it was going to be another dawn to dusk job, we woke up insanely early to get started. After a free breakfast of fried egg and rice at the hotel, we packed up and kicked off. The now-customary evening tinkering session had allowed us to sort out our slow puncture and out-of-step pedals, and we were fit and ready for anything. It was a long but direct 95km to Bago, from where we'd take the train to Yangon and have ourselves a well-earned rest day.
Myanmar Railways does not have a website, for it is not of this century. Nor even the last one, really. Timetables are mostly an exercise in fantasy too – the train comes when (indeed, if) it comes. You just have to wait and see.
After some serious Googling, we established there was definitely an operational train line between Bago and Yangon, and that there might be a train around 4:30 PM. So that was our goal for the day. That gave us 8 hours to ride the whole 95km. Easy peasy, we thought. All we need to do is get the head down and do the work.
Our positive attitude was strengthened by the fact that on our way out of Kyaikto, we ran into another couple on a tandem!
No strangers to the region, as they had lived in Burma for 7 years and in Thailand for many more years before that, Curt and Cathy were taking their tandem in the opposite direction and riding from Yangon to Bangkok. Originally from Colorado, they had cycled around the world before settling here and were the founders of Thirst-Aid, which strives to bring clean water on a countrywide level to some 15 million Burmese in need. We enjoyed exchanging our stories before being off on our respective ways. And we couldn't stop giggling at the thought that wherever in Burma we were, they were out there somewhere too.
But the morale boost was only temporary. It was beginning to feel like one of those days. The next 30km were tediously, annoyingly hilly and windy, and on a loaded tandem that weighed 200kg+, each undulation felt like Everest. However hard we pushed, the bike stubbornly refused to move with any kind of speed. Three hours of cursing and muttering consumed us.
But like all things, this eventually came to an end, and we were then presented with 20 glorious kilometers of flat land. You might think this would offer a relief and an opportunity to make up for lost time. But this was about the most soul-destroyingly boring ride either of us had ever done. Dead straight, dead flat, through countryside entirely devoid of features, with the midday sun sapping whatever was left of our spirits. Even the innumerable cheery roadside watermelon sellers got samey fast.
The sole amusement came from the ubiquitous clusters of people raising money for their local temples. They're a common feature throughout the country, standing by the roadside rattling collection urns, exhorting passers-by to exchange a few kyat for an unspecified quantity of karmic merit. We've mentioned before what a noisy country this is, and these folks are the ultimate exponents of it, standing in front of PA systems loud enough to give Motörhead a run for their money, blaring music across the countryside. We would ride past with fingers in our ears if we could – a day's fundraising must be enough to render you stone deaf.
This almighty din was exacerbated today by the sheer number of them that we passed. Sometimes they were so close together that you could still hear the PA of one by the time you reached the next, resulting in an insane Buddhist soundclash arms race loud enough to knock passing birds out of the sky.
So by the time we rolled into Waw (Huh! Yeah! What is it good for? Well it's not a bad place to get a bite to eat) at the 57km mark, we were ready to throw in the towel for the rest of the day. We were tired, grumpy, and our backsides hurt like hell. Taking an hour for lunch didn't help either, caught as we were between being starving and fed up, and knowing that we needed to crack on to make our train (which would undoubtedly be delayed, but we couldn't chance it).
We could hardly bear the thought of another 40km today, and wondered if there was any way out of it. We had read on some website or another that the Mawlamyine to Yangon train line stopped in Waw (maybe). So we thought we'd check it out and possibly save ourselves a bit of effort.
But when we rolled to the train tracks, we saw... nothing. No train station, no ticket counter, not a sausage. Just tracks and some railroad crossings.
Cycling to Bago it was. And this was the hardest part of all. We actually made fairly good time, covering the 40km in two expletive-laden, teeth-gritted hours, but we really could have done without it. The sun was at its hottest, the traffic was roaring beside us, and Neil was feeling the beginnings of a cold coming on. Shambles.
When we got to Bago around 4 PM, we were both snappy and peevish. But we had made it. Just enough time to ride to the train station and take that last train to Yangon at 4:30 PM. Riding through Bago itself was thoroughly unpleasant. Horrendous levels of traffic and smog, no space, people running willy nilly into the road and expecting you to work around them, and bus drivers so eager to wave at you that they unfortunately almost run you off the road in the process.
We were so relieved when we got to the train station. Or, what looked like a ramshackle building next to some ancient tracks.
It must have been something to behold back in the day, but today, it is a giant, dilapidated, crumbling structure that looks as if it will blow over in the next typhoon. It's just west of the town centre on the north side of the main road, and when we got there, we found out that the next train to Yangon was actually at 6:50 PM, not 4:30 PM like we had planned for. We weren't surprised in the slightest.
Two hours (at least – goodness knows when the train would actually show up) of waiting in the courtyard with the mosquitos, stray dogs, and ta kraw enthusiasts lay ahead.
Might as well use the time to prep the bike. By this point in the trip we were seasoned pros, and it took a matter of minutes to take it apart and lash it together ready for loading.
This would be the first time that we had been separated from the tandem since we landed in Mae Sot and after all we'd been through with it already, it was understandable that like a new mother, Jess was feeling anxious to see it loaded in the luggage car and out of sight.
The process of getting the train tickets could make a blog post on its own. The obligatory random helpful stranger was at hand to point us in the right direction, this time in the form of a wiry old man who looked like he'd have trouble remembering what day it was, and yet turned out to be spot on about everything.
We sat and watched in the station manager's office as he personally sorted out our tickets. It was a fascinating lesson in what it takes to get anything done in this country, as he sat at his desk surrounded by WWII-era technology, flicking switches, plugging and unplugging his telephone handset. He had to turn a handle to make a phone connection!
After fifteen minutes or so of this, we were ready to go, seat reservations and all. How this man succeeded in using this antediluvian setup to find and reserve seats for us on a moving train, we have no idea. But when the train turned up, an impressive twenty minutes late (which is still considered early in Burma), there were our seats, waiting for us.
Away we went into the dark on the second rollercoaster without a seatbelt in as many days.
This train had the usual hawkers marching up and down the aisle, selling food and drink to passengers. But these guys were not mere human beings – they possessed mystical magical powers. To our utter amazement, when they had finished punting their wares, they simply walked to the exit door and disappeared into the darkness. While the train was moving.
After two bumpy hours, we arrived in Yangon and walked to the luggage car to see, with great relief, that our tandem had also made it to Bago (we would say "in one piece", but that would be a lie). There were no less than 13 men standing around unloading various boxes from the car, and every single one of them stopped to stare when we started to put the bike back together. Many hands offered to help and because of that, we were able to set everything up in under 5 minutes, most of which was taken up with answering questions rather than actually rebuilding the bike.
It was a further 10 minute walk to our final destination at the end of an incredibly long day. And then, there was nothing left to do but collapse.