Monday, January 16, 2017

Change of Plans

It's my first day of 4 weeks vacation. I might have left today, but decided not to because of the ridiculous price differences between flights on a Monday versus those on a Tuesday. See, I have to make a quick visa run to Bangkok tomorrow before beginning the big tour. 

Here, at the last minute, I've had a change of plans. As I mentioned in the previous blog, I entirely anticipated being turned back at a checkpoint in Shan State. What might have been worse would have been being allowed to pass through, and then finding myself in the middle of opium country with no law enforcement around and being a victim of highway robbery. So, yes, in some ways, I suppose I'm chickening out. 

 While researching where to go instead when I get turned back in Shan State, I looked into Chin State, the mountainous western province bordering India and Bangladesh, eventually deciding that I should just go there straightaway. So, new route!

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

This Probably Isn't Going to Work Out

It's been a month since I've last blogged. Sorry about that. I've just not had anything happen lately that I feel to be blogworthy. 

In my last blog, I laid out an ambitious plan to go where no foreigner man has gone in recent history. My Myanmar drivers license was my key. My key to tour Shan State. It would get me access. Or so I hoped. 

First, let me explain why I want to visit Shan. Look at this map. If you travel by motorcycle, the ideal roads to ride on are in the brown part of this topographical map. Mountain roads are what you want to travel down. That's where the scenery, the vistas, the authentic villages are. Shan State has reportedly some of the most breathtaking landscapes on Earth, and I so want to tour it slowly on my motorbike. 

Now look at this map. Here we see the areas of control of the Shan State Army
North (SSA-N) and the United Wa State Army (UWSA). These are two of the couple dozen armed ethnic groups here in Myanmar, and they're also two of the strongest, with thousands of well armed members in their armies who've held off assault from the Myanmar armed forces for decades. Most importantly, they're not signatories to recent ceasefire agreements with the central government. There are highways passing through these territories. Highways I want to travel down. I want to travel through "enemy" territory. Thousands of vehicles travel without trouble from one place to another. It's a war zone, but it's a quiet war zone.

So Ii concluded my last blog with a comment that if I get turned around, I would just go somewhere else. Well, now that I look into it more, it seems more like I should say that when I get turned around, I'll go somewhere else. With less than a week until the month off begins, it's time to start thinking about where that will be.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Asking for Forgiveness is Easier than Seeking Permission

“First thing I want to say is that I’m not a tourist,” this was a great way to introduce yourself at the Yangon office of Myanmar Tourism and Travel (MTT), an agency under the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism which is responsible for granting travel permits to foreigners who are looking to visit the hinterlands of Myanmar.

See, this country has had the longest ongoing civil war of any nation on Earth. Various ethnicities have been fighting for autonomy from the central government going back to the 1940’s. Even today, one reads about this or that battle between the Myanmar Army and such and such liberation front every week. It’s perhaps the biggest challenge this new democratically elected government under Aung San Suu Kyi faces, and there have been some baby steps towards brokering a lasting peace.
This is an old map from 2013. I've already been through
many of the 'red zones' on this map without incident.

As a consequence of this conflict, much of the country has been closed off to foreigners for decades. It’s a lot more open than it was even when I got here three years ago, but there are still areas which are deemed too dangerous to permit foreigners to go there. Parts of Shan State, the place I want to travel on my next motorcycle tour, are included in this forbidden zone. Now, most of the conflict is in northern Shan, and I wanted to travel in southern Shan, so I wasn’t that worried. Still, after being told by some that my trip took me onto roads foreigners weren’t allowed to travel, I decided today to visit MTT and enquire about permits, et cetera.

See, I had been told by a fairly reliable source that my Myanmar Drivers License was all the permit I needed. Short of actual war zones, I could go anywhere I wanted. I explained this assumption of mine to the nice lady behind the desk there at MTT. I showed her my proposed route, explaining how I wanted to go various places and that I was concerned about the road from Hsipaw of Kengtung.

“No, you don’t want to go on that road,” she told me, “it is a very bad road with so many trucks. It’s narrow and you can’t overtake them.”

Okay, my question wasn’t about road conditions. I’ve been on a lot of bad roads here in SE Asia; I can handle anything. So I explained that I wasn’t worried so much about that, instead I wanted to know about whether I was allowed on the road at all and whether or not this story I’d heard about my DL was true.

“Tourists cannot go on that road even in a car with a tour guide,” she explained, “but you are not a tourist, as you said, and since your drivers license isn’t part of my ministry, it’s part of the ministry of transportation, I can’t tell you anything about that.”

Huh. Well. Typical bureaucratic “it’s not my department” stuff. Anyways, I couldn’t get a straight answer from her about whether or not I’m allowed on the road or not. She kept telling me not to even try it, but it sounded more like advice than prohibition.

“You should be glad you came to me,” she continued, “different people will tell you different things about what is allowed and what isn’t.” Yeah, lady, you’re right, and you told me you weren’t sure.

Shan militiaman and opium poppies
So what I’m going to do is try. Yes, southern Shan State is relatively peaceful right now, but it’s also the heart of the Golden Triangle, Myanmar’s opium producing region. From what I’ve heard, parts of it are lawless and controlled by armed separatists. But what beef would they have with an American passing through on his motorbike?

When it comes down to it, whether or not I’ll be allowed to go there at all will seemingly depend on the mood and mindset of whoever is in control of whatever road checkpoint I’ll undoubtedly be stopped at. If they tell me I can’t continue, fine. I’ll turn around go somewhere else. Myanmar is a big country and I’ve just started exploring it.  

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The next Journey

It's a short six weeks until my next holiday. Mid-January to Mid-February, I'll have a month off, and after a lot of thought, I've decided to stay right here in Myanmar for my next motorcycle tour. A 2500 kilometer loop through the scenic roads of Shan State. 

To accomplish this, my first step will be to trade in my little Kenbo 125 for something a little beefier. A Honda CRF 250

More to come.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Mount Popa to Naypyitaw

As I mentioned previously, Mount Popa is the heart of nat reverence in Myanmar. Nats being the old gods, the pre-Buddhist spirits who inhabit and control these lands. My favorite of these "saints" has to be Kyawswa, the drunken god. Here he is in this picture.

It was a great road east out of Kyaukpadaung. Smooth. Not much  traffic. Then I turned south to catch the Magway-Naypyitaw Highway.  I suppose I shouldn't complain. I mean, these quirky, backcountry roads are what I like about these roadtrips of mine. Yeah, it's a bit annoying having to drive through every river on the road as opposed to over these rivers, but there we are.

traffic in rural myanmar

Friday, November 25, 2016

Mount Popa

Amidst many other miscues on the short trip I'm documenting here, the trip from Magway to Mount Popa included a tragedy that I only found once I was back here in Yangon. The video footage from that leg of the trip has disappeared! Gone! It's a shame because there were quite a few interesting sites along that road. 

Mount Popa is an odd geographical feature. It juts up some 5000 feet above the river plains surrounding it, all alone above the flatlands. It is, in fact, a volcano, which last erupted in 441 BC, not that long ago in geographic time.  

Culturally, the mountain holds an interesting significance as well. Popa is the home of the 37 most important nats, spirits, of Burmese lore. These spiritual entities have been worshiped in Myanmar for centuries and actually predate the arrival of Buddhism. Nowadays, reverence for the nats has blended in with Buddhism and remains live and well.

High up on the hillside, I found the Popa Mountain Resort. This luxurious accommodation would normally be outside my budget when traveling, but it was pretty much the only hotel which offered anything I might enjoy. It the case of the Resort, that was the spectacular view. I'll never forget it.   


Monday, November 21, 2016

Pyay to Magway

I happen to be writing to you this morning from Bangkok, Thailand, where I'm spending my 'weekend' on a visa run. I'm not shooting any video or taking many pictures here in the Big Mango, as I'm still not done relating the story of my recent 4-day motorcycle trip around Myanmar. 

Donating to the roadside charity collectors is good insurance.
Good karma for the road.
On my second day, I headed north out of Pyay, along the Ayeyarwaddy River. The early morning air was crisp and a fog had settled into the river valley. Traffic was light and the road was smooth. Perfect day for motoring. 

This isn't traffic, it's a parade! 

 Eventually, the road turned inland and up onto a plateau. One thing that frequently surprised me during my travels through what could be considered to be the heartland of Myanmar was how unpopulated vast areas of this country are. I'd go mile upon mile not seeing anyone. No villages or agriculture. Just empty land. 

Other things surprised me that day, like when I got passed on the road by a dozen or so 'big bikes'. People don't drive fast here; my little 125cc motorbike was usually the fastest thing out there. I was quite shocked to see these big 500cc Japanese motorcycles go zooming by me. They were obviously some touring group, but I couldn't tell more than that until I eventually caught up with them. 

Not only were they touring Myanmar on motorcycles, they were all foreigners. A bunch of silver-haired Germans and Swiss.  

I could imagine the reaction they generated when they pulled up en masse on some tea shop in a little village somewhere. It would be like aliens had landed. 

As I've mentioned before, seeing foreigners out on the roads of Myanmar is not a usual sight for the population here. Our very presence brings with it mouth dropping awe, and usually really big smiles, like with this girl at a gas station. She grinned from ear to ear the entire time I was filling my tank.  

Magway ended up being a nice little city. Clean, not too crowded, scenic riverfront and it had some amenities. Stayed at a really friendly hotel there. I only stopped there because it was the next place on the map, but I'm glad I did. 

Enjoy the video.