Cycling Myanmar: A Life-Changing Adventure
Willi Broeren from Canada recently went on a life-changing cycling adventure through Myanmar from Yangon to Bagan. Here she shares her experience including some of the best places to visit and why cycling really is one of the best ways to experience the highlights of Myanmar.
Cycling in Burma: From Yangon to Bagan
Myanmar was a dream come true. Many years ago while on a cycling trip to Thailand, I was near the border and could see it in the distance. I was intrigued by this mysterious place and dreamed of going to Myanmar even though it was closed to tourism at that time. Fortunately, the country opened up to tourism in 2012 but it took another five years before I booked my ticket!
News of political unrest in the western part of the country came to international attention a few months after booking my trip. Much thought was given as to whether or not to go. I continue to struggle with the disconnect between the beauty of the people I met and the ugliness of what is occurring.
Ultimately I stuck to my plans and am grateful for my cyclotourism experience in Myanmar. I came away with a unique perspective on this beautiful country and safety was never an issue during our travels. Cycling is a very special and unique way to see a country and allows for experiences that a person might otherwise miss.
Of course we visited the main attractions, but the treasures and true spirit of this place are on the country roads and villages in between.
Here are my top highlights and some of the unmissable places you need to check out if you are planning a similar trip:
Yangon including Shwedagon Pagoda & Chinatown
My journey began in Yangon, a bustling sprawling city of 5 million people. It was an easy walk from the hotel to the Shwedagon Pagoda. The Pagoda is one of the country’s most sacred Buddhist sites. This impressive gold gilded structure stands 326’ tall and dominates the Yangon skyline. Shoes are forbidden in the main area - the marble floor is refreshingly cool. Temple wear is also required which means shoulders and knees must be covered. Long skirts can be rented! If time permits, return as the sun goes down. As the light dims and the crowd thins a different energy arises from this sacred place.
There is much to see in Yangon, but strolling through Chinatown is the most visually stunning. The collection of dilapidated Colonial buildings, restaurants, wooden shuttered houses, restaurants, Chinese temples, street food vendors and trishaws at every corner is amazing. The buzz on the main streets is electric but I would heartily recommend that you take some time to stroll down the quieter side streets to get a fuller feel for the place. As with the Pagoda, the light before dusk is ethereal, transforming this place into another world.
Although I was on a cycling trip, getting to Inle Lake area included a short flight to Helo and then a bus drive. This took us to Nyaungshwe which is the principal hub of this large and very interesting region. Nyaungshwe has a unique wild west flavour with interesting wooden houses, temples and stupas, interspersed throughout the streets.
From there we cycled to various towns around Inle Lake. Life on this Lake is a sight to behold. There are amazing markets which circulate to different communities around the lake every five days. Numerous ethnic groups including Intha, Shan, Pa-O and Padaung reside here, each with their own distinctive type of clothing and colourful headgear. Wandering through the markets and taking in the flurry of activity and colour is intoxicating. Life is very much centred on the waterways and transportation is primarily by long boats. Houses are made on stilts and floating gardens line the waterways. The area is also well known for its leg rower fishermen who use one leg to hold the oar while their hands are free to throw the conical nets.
One of the most memorable parts of this trip was riding our bikes on country roads through small villages. At times the roads were congested with scooters (especially during local festivals) but often the only traffic was oxen-pulled carts. We spun by rice paddies and fields of sugar cane as well as other crops. One day we stopped to chat with women who were picking chili peppers by hand in the hot sun. Subsistence farming is the order of the day here. As we came through the villages, children raced out to greet us singing “minglabar” and eager to give us “high fives.” The people are incredibly friendly and typically very receptive to having their photos taken. Although few of the inhabitants in the country-side speak English, this was a very unique opportunity to connect and engage with the locals.
Mandalay & U-Bien Bridge
After spending several days exploring the villages and hillside, we travelled on to Mandalay. This larger city allowed for the opportunity to see Mandalay Hill and other sights. There are pagodas and monasteries at the top of the Hill and it is a major pilgrimage site for Buddhists. For the foreigners, it is an opportunity to watch the sunset while overlooking the city plains and the Ayeyarwady (formerly Irrawaddy) River. Mandalay is also the site of the iconic U-Bein Bridge. You won’t regret getting up early to be on the bridge for the sunrise. This teak bridge is over 1 km long and is a special place for both foreigners and locals alike.
As we left Mandalay we were once again cycling on quiet roads. Some days were quite hot and some of the rides undulating. Thankfully there was ample opportunity to stop for snacks and fluids, and as we rode along we took lots of photos and interacted with villagers. One of our stops included a beautiful temple with not a soul in sight except for some of the local children on school break. They were delighted to follow us along and practise their English. We all appreciated this special experience that cycling afforded us.
Our arrival in Bagan included another boat ride on the Ayeyarwady River after a morning of cycling. Old Bagan encompasses a vast area of 26 square miles. Between the eleventh and 13th century, over 10,000 temples and monasteries were constructed…we didn’t make it to all of them! One of my favourites was the Ananda Temple. This temple is the most revered by Burmese Buddhists and is considered the finest, largest and best preserved temple.
Fortunately, this temple has not suffered significant damage by the numerous earthquakes that have occurred over the years in this region. Although Bagan is considered one of Myanmar’s main tourist attractions, there were few foreigners, especially at the smaller temples. Cycling was a very easy way to visit the various temples of interest, but if one was inclined, the entire area could be visited from above in a hot air balloon. Drifting over hundreds of temples as the sun comes up is magical.
Back to Yangon ~ Full Circle
After completing eleven days of cycling we flew back to Yangon and enjoyed having a little more time to explore this city. Only a few blocks from our hotel, we walked to a daily morning street market. We leisurely wandered about taking in an endless range of fruits and vegetables, flowers. fresh fish and plucked chickens. Everyone seemed pleased that we were observing the local culture and likely we were a bit of a novelty ourselves.
Leaving Myanmar & Reflecting on an Incredible Experience
It was with mixed emotions that I left Myanmar. Travelling by bike was a wonderful way to see this beautiful but impoverished country. It allowed one on one connection with the people and a first hand glimpse of life in the country. Despite the language barrier, the people were incredibly kind and welcoming. I travelled with other cyclists and we were well looked after by our guide and his assistants and at no time felt endangered. The guide was very appreciative that people from various other countries chose to come to his home. As we were cycling through one of the villages, someone shouted out in English “thank you for coming to see my country”. This confirmed for me that I had made the right choice in coming.
Myanmar has a complicated history and unfortunately a long history of conflict involving various ethnic groups. Tourism however provides a significant amount of revenue for local businesses. Cycling also gave me new perspectives and stretched my view and imagination. Pedalling through Myanmar allows you to be part of the rhythm and spirit of this beautiful country.
By Willi Broeren
Family doctor, avid cyclist and intrepid traveller
You might also like to follow Willi on Instagram: nevertoolatewb or check out his Facebook page: Never too Late.