Burma - Frost thawing

Take a ride off the beaten track to unearth Burma’s hidden gems…

‘Burma by Bike’ – my excitement was initially clouded by apprehension. With the release of the ‘The Lady’ from house arrest in 2010, the end of the tourism boycott and a period of relative stability, the number of visitors to Burma has rapidly increased, turning from pariah to a must-see destination. I was afraid I’d find a country invaded by tourists and slowly losing its authentic character.

However, after the first friendly waves from local adults on the side of the road shouting ‘mingalabar’ (‘hello’ in Burmese) followed by young children high-fiving us, I soon realised I was mistaken. In fact, beyond the classic tourist circuit and predictable hotspots, visitors are still rare and cause of excitement.

The journey started around the picturesque Inle Lake, pedalling through small villages, sugar-cane fields, passing golden stupas and an old teak monastery. Red-robed young novices played football in the warm sunset. All Buddhist families send their boys to the monastery, but they can leave when they like. Zaw Zaw, our Burmese leader, confessed he only lasted a week as monks only eat one meal a day – a deal-breaker for Zaw Zaw!

Following the western bank of the lake, we reached Inthein, an intricate pagoda complex home to nearly a thousand exquisitely carved, crumbling stupas nestled together on a hillside. A few pagodas have recently been restored through donations from local families – Zaw Zaw explained that, no matter how little people have, it’s very important for Burmese Buddhists to accumulate ‘good merit’ through charity and good deeds in order to improve their afterlife.

Boarding a long and narrow, motorised canoe, seated in a single file, we explored Inle Lake. We cruised through the maze of narrow waterways that characterise this area and glided through floating gardens.

Moving from the canals, the lake opens up and we found ourselves in the most idyllic setting: the vast expanse was dotted with one-legged fishermen, famous for their unique technique. Balancing with one leg on the stern of their shaky boats, they row with the other which is wrapped around a long wooden pole plunged into the water, leaving their hands free to fish using cone-shaped nets. We moved slowly over the tranquil water until dusk - the fishermen silhouetted against the glow of sunset and the immense lake, framed by the surrounding mountains - picture-perfect!

We left Inle, cycling through the early morning mist rising from the lake. Two fairly long and challenging climbs, alleviated by refreshing fruit stops, took us to the fertile Shan Highlands, similar to Tuscany’s rolling hills. Apart from our bicycles, only buffalo carts occupied the twisty roads. An invigorating downhill took us to the Pindaya Caves - even though we had to climb up 200 steps to the entrance! The caves contain thousands of gilded Buddha statues of all shapes and sizes, nestled in the limestone cavities.

Road conditions up to this point had been unexpectedly good but the undulating roads across the Shan Highlands and its lively mountain villages were bumpy, dusty and undergoing numerous repairs. Most of which are carried out by local women who were raking and spreading gravel in 30-plus degree heat, yet smiling and shouting ‘mingalabar’ as we passed – astonishing!

Saddle sore from the bumpy ride, after lunch we all happily hopped on the minibus for a hair-raisingly steep downhill drive heading away from the plateau and then on to the bustling city of Mandalay.

We cycled through Mandalay’s morning traffic and colourful food market. After a week cycling through peaceful countryside, it was quite a shock but at the same time a refreshing change of scenery. Still, we soon reached the banks of the mighty Irrawaddy, where the region’s main attractions are. The most iconic is the U Bein Bridge, the world’s longest wooden footbridge which curves gently across Taungthaman Lake for a leg-wearying 1.2km. We left our bikes by a teashop and walked along a section of the bridge to look around and take in the magical atmosphere. On the lake’s shores, two women, bent double, were planting rice and a local couple were posing for their wedding pictures. Fishermen cast nets, young children bathed and splashed, and a flower decorated bullock cart was pulled through the shallows, presumably for a ceremony.

We continued cycling towards Mingun, home to what should have been the world’s biggest stupa, had it been finished. Along the way, as we passed through a small village, we were invited to assist with the initiation ceremony of a novice monk. Dozens of young boys and girls dressed in white, pink and golden costumes gathered on the temple’s floor chanting in Pali while a musician was playing traditional music with a xylophone.

A soporific journey across the Chindwin River on a wooden boat with comfortable deckchairs took us to the little trading town of Monywa. This interesting area has seen very few visitors, as tourists usually fly from Mandalay directly to Bagan. Following quiet country lanes, we cycled past ox carts, local cyclists on rusty bikes and a group of shaven-headed novices walking in single file. The landscape was dominated by a giant standing Buddha. This 130m tall (the equivalent of 31 floors) impressive golden statue stands on the top of a hill and is claimed to be the world’s tallest. Lower down the hill, at the foot of the standing Giant Buddha, another enormous Buddha reclines.

The final stop of the day was the wonderful Po Win Taung caves, where we were the only visitors! This site, thankfully not featured in guidebooks, boasts around a thousand manmade caves, all of different sizes, containing countless Buddha sculptures beautifully carved out of the stone, and elaborate murals representing Buddha’s life, dating from the 14th and the 16th centuries. According to the legend, these caves were named after an alchemist with magic powers called U Po Win. We explored this fascinating site going from chamber to chamber until the sun sank behind the hills.

We left Mandalay and traversed the Irrawaddy by boat before reaching Bagan, our final destination, home to over a thousand pagodas and temples. We pedalled through the town, zigzagged around the pagoda-dotted fields and climbed to the top of the tallest one. The steps were perilously narrow. When I enquired why, Zaw Zaw replied “Because the Gods have small feet” – obvious really! I was rewarded with fabulous 360 degree views of red-bricked pagodas and golden stupas stretching out as far as the eye could see… a view that will stay in my memory – as well as on my computer screensaver - for a long time!

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