Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Myanmar Motorcycle Epic 4: Up to the Chin State!

It was a very cold January morning as I left Bagan before the sun had come up. In the early morning darkness, there was confusion. A guest leaving before the 7 AM free breakfast had the staff in a tizzy. Worked out in my favor. You may remember from a couple blogs ago how I was happy to get a rate of 45 per night for my nice hotel room. At check out, there were two problems. First, I noticed at the last minute that my laundry package didn’t include their most important content: my socks and underwear. So, as I was preparing to leave, the hotel staff went scurrying about looking for my missing small things. They found them, and didn’t charge me for their cleaning. At check out, I put down my 90,000 Kyats (45K x2) and said thank you. 

Oh no sir, they told me the rate had been 45 US Dollars per night, not 45 thousand Kyats. This was a difference of about 25%. Now wait a minute here. That's not right. Two things worked in my favor: the laundry mixup and the fact that at 6:45 AM, none of the hotel’s management staff were awake, and the line workers were too scared to confront me, and so when I said that the rate that had been agreed upon was 45,000 Kyats per night, they just said okay.

Off into the very, very cold morning air.  I really wasn’t entirely sure where I’d end up at the end of my journey. The immediate goal was the town of Saw which lay at the base of the hills up into Chin State. If I needed to find accommodation there because I was worn out from the trip, I would do so, but if not, I could continue up to Kanpetlet, a Chin village way high in the clouds.
So I saw Saw. Not much to see in Saw. The local tourist bureau has been trying to attract visitors using a very catchy slogan: See Saw! Unfortunately, things have been rather up and down since adopting See Saw.
I like her. She brought me sausage. 
I did see the local chief in Saw. As I stopped for lunch, a man wearing a uniform and a name badge was introduced to me as being the head of the local somethingorother department. He came off as being an important guy. Mayoral. Then he sat down at noon to drink a pint of whiskey.

Off to Kanpetlet! I was quite proud of myself when I was able to read the following sign in Burmese. The first letter was a “K” and the second was an “N”. The stuff above and below were vowel markers, meaning this sign most certainly pointed to “Kan…something”… What else could it be?

I'm pretty sure this says "Welcome to Chin State" which
would explain the photo seekers.
Lovely, smooth, although occasionally gravelly road leading up to Kanpetlet, 2800m, 9000 feet above sea level. Along with the brisk air, I saw lots of old Chin women with their tattooed faces. It’s a custom up there that when you get married, a woman gets tattoos all over her face so that she’ll be too ugly for other men to covet. Seriously. That’s the tradition. 
The view from the hotel bungalow.

My favorite moment of this day came at the very end. It’s very hard to see in the video because of the lighting, but as we going back to my hotel, I witness a group of Chin people trying to strap a young pig to the back seat of a motorcycle. Not a dead pig, mind you, a living squealing healthy young pig. I guess I just have to trust that they’d done it before, because they had absolutely no success trying to bungee cord a living squirming animal to the back of a motorbike. I have enough concerns with my inanimate backpack.

Lastly, I have to comment on a computer problem I’ve been having, and you’re just going to have to bear with me if you enjoy my travel videos. I’m having a problem with rendering, the process by which a digital piece of work gets converted into a publishable format. When I render, I get this inexplicable flickering effect for which I apologize. I can’t find any reference to similar problems on the web and it’s not because I’m making fancy video with lots of effects. I’ve made short, simple trial videos at low res, and I have the same problem. Well, please enjoy the 80% of this vid that isn’t messed up, and if you happen to be epileptic, please don’t watch at all

Friday, January 27, 2017

Myanmar Motorcycle Epic 3 - Bagan

Of course, I had to follow my sunset in Bagan with it’s counterpart, sunrise in Bagan. Once again, I turned to the internet to for advice as to where to go. This time, I was going to get there early to get a good seat. I drove all the way down to the southern end of Old Bagan, some good 6 miles from where I was staying only to realize that I had forgotten my camera phone. Although I had the GoPro, I needed both, and so drove back in the freezing cold morning to retrieve it. This threw a wrench in my ‘get there early’ idea. 

I was confidant as I drove up to what looked like the temple entrance; there were no other vehicles parked there. Might I have the place all to myself? I parked and made my way past a private residence to get to the temple itself. There were no signs of any other humans around. I turned a corner, and looking up I saw plaza high up on the temple. There were dozens of tourists visible. When I got up there myself, there were about 100. Turned out I had entered from the back gate; the main gate’s parking was packed. 
I've just discovered the "panorama" function on my camera phone.
Sunrise in Bagan was beautiful, but it was kind of ruined by the fact that there were so many people, there was no place to sit down, and that given the dregs of viewing angles I was given, there was no way to experience it without seeing other people experiencing it too. A Canadian guy who was standing next to me noted sarcastically to the Danish girl he was kinda hitting on, “What a spiritual experience it is to be having with 50 other people”. 

That comment sort of sums up what I noticed about being in Bagan and interacting with people who happen to have the same skin color as I. Even though my experience is different having been a resident here nearly three years, most of these folks felt the same way I did, i.e., Bagan would have been so much better if all you weren’t there

I’m not sure if you noticed in the previous videos, but I have brought an ukulele with me (yes, an ookulele). I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to combine it with the backpack when strapping it down onto the back half of my motorbike seat, but I brought it because during previous trips, there had always been a point when I’d thought to myself, “I wish I’d brought my uke.” Since I’ve brought it, I should be using it, more than just in the hotel room. Well, last week’s Seasons of the Ukulele Contest was perfect in that I could play a song I knew by heart without having to print out any lyrics sheets or anything.  As I was leaving the sunrise pagoda, I snuck around back of an adjacent, slid into the thousand year old entryway of this Buddhist shrine, and sang some John Denver. 

The rest of the day, I just kind of wandered around looking at stuff. I probably didn’t see some of the most “important” monuments, at least not up close, but I saw a bunch I’m sure most people who go to Bagan don’t bother with. The site is so packed full of antiquity, that you can’t swing a stick without hitting something 900 years old. 

The day ended with getting the bike washed, and as you’ll see in the video, watching the fascinating process of an inner-tube being repaired.Lastly, I'm aware of some problems with the video. Four times I tried rendering, and each time, there were some weird flickering frames. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Myanmar Motorcycle Epic 2 - Meiktila to Bagan

I wasn't expecting much from Meiktile.
I was pleasantly surprised.

I write this at the end of my sixth day of riding the motorbike through unexplored Myanmar. There’s all kinds of things fresh in my mind about what’s happening right now that I’d like to recount, but for the sake of the narrative, I’ll go back a few days and talk about going to Bagan and thereafter. 

The performance of my motorcycle was a big concern of mine as I left Meiktila for Bagan. On the previous day, interestingly occurring immediately after I’d had the oil changed, my bike war running extremely sluggishly. No matter what gear I was in, the bike was struggling to accelerate; the problem was more marked in the higher gears. Something was slipping. It felt like I was trying to go up a hill in too high of a gear all of the time. Now, as the day progressed, the problem lessened, so I decided to give it another day, and if the problem continued, I’d get it checked out in Bagan. 

As you’ll note on the map of my route, I seemed to have chosen to go the long way to Bagan, and I did. See, about a third of the southern, more direct route includes a road I was on when I went from Popa to Naypyitaw last November. Travelling down routes you’re already taken is just that, travelling; it’s not exploring, as I so love to do. 

On the road from Myingyan to Nyaung Oo, there was a narrow bridge that also doubled for the railroad line. It was only wide enough to allow 4-wheeled vehicles to pass in one direction, although two-wheeled vehicles could putt along the side facing opposing traffic. Well, once the cars and trucks had
gone by, I decided to skip over to the lane between the railroad tracks, as that looked much smoother. Unfortunately, I slid over too casually, allowing my front tire to get caught in the groove for the railroad track. I immediately crashed. Laid the bike down in the middle of a bridge. I seemed to be okay; at the time, I could only hope the same for the bike. It turned out none too worse for wear either.
Picked up the bike, and carried on. That’s what you do. Turns out we both had minor damage: one broken side view mirror and a patch of road rash on my hip. Crashing a motorbike at 5 mph is rarely dangerous. 

Once I had composed myself and got my payload rebalanced, I was actually somewhat excited. I knew the camera had been rolling  and that I’d likely just captured some pretty neat video. 

Rolling into Bagan, I found a hotel that had been given excellent reviews, and I assumed it was my Myanmar language skills that allowed me to secure a room at only 45K Kyats per night, which was less than the 47K Kyats I’d seen as an ‘insider deal’ at Booking.com.

The assistant mechanic looked to be about 11 years old
First order of business was to get the bike checked out. I needed to replace the side mirror at  the very least, but with the help of the telephone and a colleague translating back in Yangon (I don’t have the language skills to express what I wanted), the mechanic knew as I was heading up to the hills of Chin State, and my bike needed a thorough performance and safety inspection. A couple hours later, they’d replaced the chain and the chain sprocket. What was happening was that the chain was slipping inside the crankcase; the faster I went, the more likely it was to slip. Cost for the whole tune up: less than $20. 

After a bit of exploring along the river, it was time to experience one of the aspects of Bagan that it’s most famous for: its sunset. But Bagan is huge. Thousands of temples spread out over dozens of square miles. Where to go? Look on the internet for that. I found a place that was described as being off-the-beaten-path, having few tourists and underappreciated for what you could see from climbing the temple. Of course, thousands of others had also read this description, and when I got there, it was packed with tourists.

Moreover, the temple that had been described in the blog was closed. About a year ago, a big earthquake struck Bagan, damaging a lot of the 1000 year-old monuments. There was a barrier around the temple in question, and a sign that said essentially “sorry, please do not enter”, written as if it were a suggestion, not a prohibition. Well, there was a temple just next to it, quickly filling up with tourists,
Here's the temple you're not supposed to get up on. You can see why.
that was pretty much the same size and all that. Still, I was tempted to go around the gate and ignore the ‘suggestion’, That’s the thing, out there in this vast countryside filled with ancient pagodas, stupas and temples, there’s no one ‘in charge’. There’s no authorities overseeing anything.  Despite this, I did the right thing and clamored up the stairs of the pagoda behind the one that faced the sunset. Later, I noticed half a dozen E-bikes parked in front of the do-not-enter gate. Call them either braver or more culturally insensitive, in either case, some other tourists saw the sign as merely a suggestion.

Zooming by German tourists on their E-bikes, that was one thing that I smugly enjoyed about Bagan. An e-bike is an electronic bicycle. They look like little motorized scooters, but are capable of 15 to 20 mph, tops. They’re also completely silent and very ecologically friendly; I wouldn’t mind having one in Yangon. The authorities do not permit motorcycle rentals in the Bagan area, so all the tourists have to get around on these 2-wheeled golf carts. Me on my little Kenbo 125, speaking the local language, I’m better than you.

At one point during the second day, I actually made a girl swoon when I pulled up to a restaurant to have lunch. Seriously, me, a late 40’s fat guy, made a 20-something American girl swoon when I drove in on my loud, gas powered, motor cycle. Honestly, I saw it in her face, she was swooning! Maybe it was my square-jawed good looks or my rakish hair. More likely it was that I was the only tourist in the whole city on a good old-fashioned iron horse. Albeit a Chinese scooter, it was at least an iron pony. 

Enjoy the video...

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Myanmar Motorcycle Epic - Part One

My motorbike in front of an amazing Myanmar sky
A year ago, I went on an amazing motorcycle journey, criss-crossing the heart of Myanmar on a two week tour that I'll never forget. At the end of it, I was a bit forlorn, as I thought I'd never be able to replicate the awesomeness of that trip. Now, a year later, I'm on that same little Chinese motorbike, but this time on a 4 week adventure. Consequently, I'm free to go a little further afield and explore the edges of Myanmar. I don't know how this journey is going to compare to last year's. It doesn't really matter. Having to give the trip a name for narrative purposes, and having already used up the name "journey", I've decided to call this trip the Myanmar Motorcycle Epic. Point being, I'm a few days into nearly a month of doing what I love best: touring on my motorcycle and making videos out of it.

There was a preface to the epic. See, I have to leave Myanmar every 70 days to renew my business visa, and so short trips to Bangkok are a regular occurrence. I've started my month off with a trip to the Big Mango. This short intro video gets the party started.

After arriving and spending the night in Naypyitaw, my first morning had me heading up to Meiktila, a college town on a crossroads. Meiktila's most significant attraction is it's lake which you'll see a lot of in the video.

I felt great getting back out onto the road again, and all thoughts of comparing this year's journey's to years past melted away.  Enjoy the first real video.

Actually, this map is inaccurate. Change of plans. I'm going to the town
of Saw, which you see in the lower left corner of the pic.
As I write this, I'm about to begin the next leg of the journey, up into the mountains of Chin State. I suspect the internet will be shoddy to unavailable up there, so if you don't hear from me for a while, know that's the reason.

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.


I thought I was going to retire there. I was the senior staff member. I'd been there longer than anyone. It. Is. Not. Fair.  But on the ...