We always knew that we wanted to use this middle bit as a chance to skip some of the more boring bits of Burma. By boring, we mean this:
It would either be one incredibly long, hot, horrible day, or two slightly shorter, hot, horrible days on the road. The accommodation options in between were almost non-existent, and camping was not an option. So in the interest of time, and because the ride just didn't appeal, we decided to use public transport one last time to take us to Magwe.
When we woke up in the morning, we came downstairs for our breakfast of white bread, butter, strawberry jam, papaya, banana, and all the coffee and tea you could want. There were two Dutch cyclists seated already at the table, and they greeted us with this:
"Are you the tandemers? We've heard about you. Cyclists are talking about the black tandem crossing the country."
You what now?
Turns out that the day we crossed the border from Mae Sot into Burma, eight other cycling couples did so as well. These guys reckoned that we had been in Hpa-An at the same time as them, but then our paths had split afterwards - we'd gone south to the coast, and they'd travelled up west of the Ayarwaddy River, which virtually no foreigner ever does. There isn't much around those parts - all the tourism has developed east of the area. But because of that, it's an even more genuine insight into everyday life in this country. Towns few and far between, no official accommodation for foreigners, and quiet, apart from the occasional "escort" from the local constabulary.
They had been on the road for two years - started in Rotterdam where they are from, and cycled east - you name it, they've been there. All the "-stans", Iran, Macedonia, Greece, South Korea, etc. It was great fun hearing about their travels. We regret never learning their names because by the time we had come back downstairs with our stuff, they were gone. Unfortunately, we were in a hurry to catch our bus so we had to leave without saying our goodbyes.
The night before, the guesthouse owner had set up bus reservations for us on the 8:30 AM bus to Magwe. We also know that there is a 6:30 AM option available, and that there are 4 buses per day between the two cities (you can also catch a direct bus to Bagan, but that leaves late in the afternoon and is an overnight job). Two tickets ended up being 10,000 kyat total, although we had read on a TripAdvisor review to not let the owner make any plans on your behalf because he allegedly skims a portion of the profits. But we welcomed the convenience of him sorting everything out and making sure that the bus didn't leave without us. We certainly didn't feel ripped off by him. He also told us to give the driver 3,000 kyat for getting the bike onto the vehicle, which seemed fair enough as it's a right faff.
The bus station is located 4km east of the centre along Bogyoke Road, and we were there in 10 minutes, charging past cars and motorbikes and frankly riding like absolute loonies because we were running a bit late. We let the porters get the bike on top of the bus (which was actually a Korean minivan modified to cram in an improbable number of passengers), and the cheeky driver tried to get 5,000 kyat off us for the trouble. "No. He said 3,000," replied Jess with a face like thunder. To his chagrin and the great amusement of bystanders, he backed off and slunked away.
The five hour bus ride to Magwe is largely uneventful - arid and featureless with little relief from the burning sun and undulating hills.
Because the landscape is so barren and empty, there's also very few places to stop for food and water. So if you don't plan accordingly, you are in trouble. We kept saying numerous times along the way how glad we were that we had decided to skip this leg, because it's mercilessly bleak. We'd advise you to do the same unless you're an ardent completist and have time on your hands.
We got to toasty hot Magwe around 1:30 PM and were immediately swarmed by motorbike taxis asking us if we wanted a lift. They'd be a pest for most tourists, but when they saw us haul Samson down from the roof they realised they weren't getting any business from us. We set about gathering our things and preparing to find a place to stay.
That's when we noticed something strange going on.