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.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Stupid Mistake Averted - Hinthada to Pyay 2

Have you ever made such a really stupid mistake while travelling that you couldn’t help but kick yourself and think how you could have possibly done it? I made such a mistake during my
post-Hinthada road trip. I don’t mean attempting that railroad bridge you saw at the end of the last video, although if had careening off the bridge and lost my bike and maybe more into the Patthein River, then it would have qualified. But I did make it over that bridge. Twice.

See, about half an hour past that bridge, I realized something: I wasn’t wearing my backpack. I had misplaced my luggage. At first, I was baffled. What could have happened to it? Surely I didn’t leave it at the tea shop where I’d stopped an hour ago for coffee. But where else? After some bewilderment, I came to accept that was exactly what had happened. Turn around. Back over the terrible bridge (with more confidence this time) and then drive as fast as I possibly could back to the town near my starting point where I must have left my backpack. That pack had most of my money in it, my computer and passport. If I had lost it, I’d be screwed.

At the same time, I recognized what Myanmar people are like. In much of SE Asia, if a tourist left a backpack with all those treasures (a US Passport alone is worth $5000 on the black market) in it at a restaurant, there would be some doubt that it’d still be there two hours later. Myanmar people are very honest. Crime here is at a lower level than all but a few places in the world. Still, given what was at risk, I was still shitting bricks and driving like a madman to get back to that tea shop. Of course, it was there. 

I've never hauled bamboo on a motorbike, but I'd think
there has to be a better way to balance the load.
That said, I had still added two hours of what was supposed to be a 5 hour motorcycle ride. On the way back, I looked closer at the map. I praised Google maps in the last video, and then had to cross that bridge, which Google had called a highway bridge. Just a few miles south of that bridge, there was another bridge. You’ll see the difference in the video. 

The band
On the long haul up to Pyay, the highway ran along the eastern edge of the Rakhine Mountains. I’d heard the road was beautiful. I’d kinda doubted that as I was expecting just  a bunch of rice paddies. I was delightfully surprised. 

Another anecdote you’ll see in the video is how I got helped when I got a flat tire. Such helpful people, and the thought of exploiting the tourist was the furthest thing from their minds.

 Enjoy the video. 

Monday, November 14, 2016

On The Road to Pyay

Morning fog and my trusty steed, the Kenbo 125
Teaching gig complete. Four days off before I had to teach again. My motorcycle with me. It was time once again for another road trip! 

My ultimate goal was to bring my motorcycle to the capital, Naypyitaw, where a friend and colleague is starting his own two month assignment in that strange city. I figured I'd help him out and let him borrow my bike. Besides, I've got no place else to put it. 

Village life
In researching my route, I discovered I had to go to Pyay. There isn't a single crossing over the mighty Irrawaddy River between just north of Yangon and the city of Pyay some 200 miles north. Remarkable. So as much as I'm adverse to returning to places I've been before (I stopped in Pyay on my last Myanmar motorcycle journey), there was no getting around it. Besides, I was coming from someplace totally different, and I wouldn't be on any of the same roads.   

None of the roads are marked in English here, and so it might be really easy to get lost. Fortunately, nowadays we have GPS and google maps. My phone knows where it is on the planet which usually aligns with the maps in the Google database. 

So you want to cross our bridge? Think you can?
Sometimes, though, Google misses some important details. My google-mapped route had me crossing the Patthein River, a major offshoot of the Ayeyarwaddy as it becomes a delta, on what was a yellow line, indicating a highway. It was anything but. 

I've written before about how I have a fear of bridges. I don't think it's classical gephyrophobia, as I have no problems on low bridges nor do I have any reluctance of going under a bridge. It's only those long high bridges over rivers that give me problems, make me have panic attacks. Anyways, what I think it is is agoraphobia, a fear of wide open spaces. There's nothing more wide open than high up on a bridge crossing whatever

The bridge in this first Hinthada to Pyay video... well lets just say I was more concerned with tangible fears of how I'd get through it than I was any irrational phobic reactions.