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.    
 

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Last Day in Hinthada... and I was Asked to Give a Speech!

The fact that the training took place at the DMTC had nothing to do
with it being a disaster. It just happened to be a ministry facility that
fit the needs of the training. I suspect there will be more gigs
like this in the future.
As the students gathered around the front steps of the Disaster Management Training Center, taking selfies and pics of one another, there was a buzz in the air. It was the last day. A grueling 15-day, 6-hour per day training session was almost at an end. The last day of school is still the last day of school no matter what the context.

A couple small language lessons to give, a long review of the last bit of the class, one final progress test, some one-on-one interviews, and we were done! Picture time. Here are some of my wonderful students.



Then it was off to the closing ceremonies. I suppose it's the same with all government agencies everywhere. Ceremonies are very important. What made this one unique for me is that I was
Me delivering my first speech in some 25 years.
approached in the afternoon of the last day and asked if I would deliver a 7-minute long speech as part of the ceremony. I still had teaching to do at the time. Sure, I said, I could do it, although my preparation was nothing more than a few scribbled notes I made during our final coffee break.


Jack begged me to make some kind of Trump reference in my delivery. Some mannerism or phrase that only we would get. People tell me that English language training is hugely important. Very important. Believe me. Something like that. I resisted his prompting.  

The ceremony ended with gifts for the teachers (mine was a shirt which I really doubt is going to fit my big belly), and the students bowing with respect to their teachers. This is an old Buddhist teaching about students and teachers, and it has carried over into the secular world. Not the first time I've been bowed to. 



Enjoy my cheesy speech....






The Last Day in Hinthada... and I was Aksed to Give a Speech!

The fact that the training took place at the DMTC had nothing to do
with it being a disaster. It just happened to be a ministry facility that
fit the needs of the training. I suspect there will be more gigs
like this in the future.
As the students gathered around the front steps of the Disaster Management Training Center, taking selfies and pics of one another, there was a buzz in the air. It was the last day. A grueling 15-day, 6-hour per day training session was almost at an end. The last day of school is still the last day of school no matter what the context.

A couple small language lessons to give, a long review of the last bit of the class, one final progress test, some one-on-one interviews, and we were done! Picture time. Here are some of my wonderful students.



Then it was off to the closing ceremonies. I suppose it's the same with all government agencies everywhere. Ceremonies are very important. What made this one unique for me is that I was
Me delivering my first speech in some 25 years.
approached in the afternoon of the last day and asked if I would deliver a 7-minute long speech as part of the ceremony. I still had teaching to do at the time. Sure, I said, I could do it, although my preparation was nothing more than a few scribbled notes I made during our final coffee break.


Jack begged me to make some kind of Trump reference in my delivery. Some mannerism or phrase that only we would get. People tell me that English language training is hugely important. Very important. Believe me. Something like that. I resisted his prompting.  

The ceremony ended with gifts for the teachers (mine was a shirt which I really doubt is going to fit my big belly), and the students bowing with respect to their teachers. This is an old Buddhist teaching about students and teachers, and it has carried over into the secular world. Not the first time I've been bowed to. 



Enjoy my cheesy speech....






Friday, November 11, 2016

Du Ya Really Want to Go Down That Road? Hinthada Adventure Part Five

This last Sunday, Jack Bartram and I headed out on our motorbikes to do a loop around the small city where we've been stationed here in Myanmar. It was quite the day.

The initial idea was to do the modest loop of about 80 miles you see pictured in the map above. It wouldn't take that long, but if we were generous with our stops along the way, we might be able to stretch it out into a full day's adventure. And after teaching 6 hours a day, 6 days straight, we were in definite need of some excitement. 

If you look at the map, you'll see a stretch of verdant green not that far west of Hinthada. This was the
forest we'd briefly visited on our last journey, and we were both excited about going back and seeing more of it. We chose the least muddy looking roads along the way which ended up being nothing but mud, and eventually just ended. 

Here we see Jack poised to go down the path we didn't take. He wanted to go down this road. Having just struggled to get my bike out of the mud of the last road, and having had a lot of experience with muddy roads in SE Asia, I knew we were looking at impassable roads. The reason there were no motorcycle tracks in the mud was because no one would be stupid enough to traverse these roads in anything short of an ox and cart. 

Then we got to the crossroads, the place on the map above with the red star. Here, we made a left to go down to the town of Nyeik Ban. The guy on the side of the road confirmed we were going the right way, but warned us, "that road very bad"  


Soon we found ourselves on a rural track which was really nothing more than an agricultural access road. We weren't complaing; this was exactly the kind of back roads experience we were looking for.



Old temple being restored or new temple being built old?
When we finally got to Nyeik Ban, the proprietor of the teahouse where we'd stopped for cold drinks told us we had to go check out Nyeik Ban's temple complex just a couple clicks out of town. 

Now, lots of expats here in SE Asia say that when you've seen one temple, you've seen them all. I couldn't disagree more.
There were lots of aspects to the pagodas at Nyeik Ban that made the place unique and an interesting place to visit. Included among them this kid at the temple teashop. 

So we found ourselves in Natmaw (see map above) and it wasn't even 2 PM yet. I looked at the Google maps on my phone and saw that although there were no roads shown linking the two places, there was
Du Ya? Sure you can get to Du Ya from here.
another town called Du Ya directly east of where we were. We were in the densely populated beginnings of the Irrawaddy Delta; there was bound to be a road connecting Natmaw to Du Ya. We made the next right and proceeded on hope. 



After reaching the end of the brick road, and crossing a river on a very harrowing bridge, we found ourselves on the tiniest possible tracks one could imagine. Yes, they were paved, but they weren't even wide enough for two motorcycles to pass one another without getting off the road. 

We passed through a lot of communities on our way to Du Ya (we also made lot of puns about the name Du Ya). One of note was a Christian village. I'm guessing these are folks who came from the Karen area of Myanmar several decades ago. Here we found an actual cathedral, albeit in a great state of disrepair. Yes, those are plants growing out of the building itself.

Eventually, we found our way to Du Ya and then back to Hinthada.


Monday, November 7, 2016

The Most Remarkable Bridge I've Ever Crossed

This footage will be part of a longer video in the next few days, but it was such an experience that I felt it needed its own video and blog unto itself. No music. No editing. Just a crazy bridge.

Jack and I were out exploring the countryside here near HInthada and decided to just make the next right and ask around until we found where we wanted to go. Turned out we needed to cross a river. The only bridge across that river was remarkable. Like no other bridge I've ever seen, much less crossed.

So, here it is: a floating bamboo bridge with a gap in the middle to let boats through. Intuitively, I knew how it worked. One part of the bridge must detach and then connect with the other side. Who did it? Did I need to know how to move it?


Seems like the first thing to do would be to ride out onto the water, so this is what I did. Now what? — in Hinthada.


Aha! Help from the other side! A kid ran down the far bank, ran up the bridge and moved the moveable section over to my side.




Shuttle craft docked. Ready to load




Here's the heart and soul of this transportation method. Moveable bridge powered by ten year old boy 

  

Welcome to this side of the river.

Welcome. Smiles, everyone, smiles!
 
·


I'm almost off this crazy bridge! Get out of the way doggie!

The welcoming committe on the other side. Two emaciated cows and a kid.
 

Jack Bartram followed right behind me, and whereas he's been known to have that crazed smile on his face on other occasions, this one was because we'd just been through an insane experience
  
 

On the Go in Manado 5: On the Road

F inally, it was time to get my motorcycle rental and hit the road. The agency's rep was going to meet me at the dock where the boat ...