Author’s Note: We cycled through Burma for five weeks. The following 10 part series is our account of how recent political changes in this historically isolated country are affecting the lives of its everyday citizens.
Part 3: Off-Roading on Burmese Highways
We left Yangon through its industrial zone, on a smoothly paved two lane highway. We were cycling West, to reach the Southern pass over the Arakan Mountains. Our plan was to meet up with the coast and cycle until we reached Nagpali Beach, a resort area where we intended to lie on some white sand and buy a drink with an umbrella in it.
The net distance was 380 kilometers. We thought we’d get it done in four days. It ended up taking us seven, the result of roads so atrocious that we both longed for the mountain bikes we’d left in California. The coast we found, sheltered from the rest of the country by the rugged mountains, was a world apart from the more developed Irrawaddy Valley we passed to get there. Making it over the mountains felt like stepping back in time. The trumpeted change sweeping Burma has come only to those communities with the roads to transport it.
Our journey over the pass made it evident why. We began this cycling trip a year ago in Paris, and have logged over 13,000 kilometers of riding since. None have been as challenging as the 58 we rode from one side of the Arrakan mountains to the other, and things did not improve much along the coast.
We started our crossing from where we camped, on a small hill at the base of the range. The road quality had started to deteriorate about 100km out of Yangon, alternating between roughly paved and an asphalt variety of swiss cheese. The first hills were paved, but steep. It felt like the engineers had decided switchbacks were too expensive, and so just sent the road barreling up at 8 percent grades. It was steep enough we couldn’t sit in our saddles, and we had to put our navels on our handlebars and fight for each push on the pedals.
As the road continued, it got more and more worn down. Often there was almost no asphalt left, just potholes and a layer of huge rocks that had been used to lay the foundations of the road. It was brutal on our stiff bikes, which had no shocks and weighed 50 kilos with all the baggage on them. On the downhills, the rocks and potholes got so bad we descended at the same speed we climbed. Anyone could have beat us at a trot. At some points, the roads became pure sand, and more than once we dismounted to push our bikes up the grades of silt.
It wasn’t that the roads were neglected. Anything but. Road crews were everywhere, working every ten kilometers or so to repave a stretch of road. Their methods were labor intensive and slow, reflective of a country where manpower is still far cheaper than machines. Along the sides of the roads were piles of rocks of various sizes. The youngest and fittest men on the crew broke the big rocks into slightly smaller ones with sledgehammers, and then another group of men and women broke those into even smaller ones with the same instrument. A bed of large rocks was laid, topped off with layers of progressively smaller ones. Tar was manufactured on the side of the road in gutted oil barrels, where old motorcycle tires were melted down over wooden fires, and the tar would be hand poured over the rock piles. Then the steamroller would come over, the only part of the process that was mechanized, and the tar and asphalt would be applied.
The result was roads that were so unevenly paved even the new ones felt bumpy. More importantly, they were roads that washed away in a few years of rain and abuse by trucks, leaving only the rocky foundation underneath. By the time the crews had finished a road, they needed to start over again.
The 58 kilometers over the Arakan mountains took us 8 hours. The roads shredded a back tire, broke off a rack, and so abused our wheels we had to stop to true them.
In the valley, close to Yangon, we had noodles in stands by paved roads, where the cooks applauded Barack Obama’s recent visit. On the other side, we were brought breakfast by a man who did not know who Thein Sein was.
Part 4: Chowmein Chowdown
“Play it!” the kid said, shoving a cheap acoustic guitar towards us. There were now about 60 people surrounding us on the beach, and they all hushed and looked at us expectantly. As Americans, surely we must be rock virtuosos. A little Freebird, anyone?
But unfortunately for our eager audience, we are not Lynyrd Skynyrd; there would be no coastal concert on this Burmese beach. “I’m sorry” we said lamely “…but we don’t know how.”
After finally convincing them that we didn’t know a D chord from a C chord, the villagers acquiesced. Eyes then followed us curiously as we pulled six bags of greasy chowmein out of our bicycle bags. That was, after all, why we were there — we had stopped in the village to buy food, and because we expected it would be a good spot to sit on the beach and eat lunch as we cycled up the coast. What we hadn’t expected was that half the village would join us.
Even though it was 50 miles south of Ngapali beach, a major tourist destination in Western Myanmar with four star resorts and day spas, the unnamed fishing village felt like a relic from a different era. Fishermen and their families lived in Bamboo-thatched huts built on stilts, and the two general stores in town doubled as the owner’s homes, as well as the centers of village social life. When we cycled the dirt paths meandering through ferns and palm trees to the beach, children and elderly peered at us from the shadows of their huts. It was a group of teenaged boys who first gathered the courage to approach the two, strange white men in spandex shorts sitting on their beach. Once the other villagers saw that we welcomed their company, we were surrounded in minutes.
Many were drawn towards our bikes – with their shiny gear clusters, electronic trip computers, and saddle bags. The boy with the acoustic guitar, an 18 year old who spoke some English and grew up on a nearby island, was especially interested in our gear. After inspecting our bikes, he proudly showed us some of his own prizes: a Samsung smart phone, a Honda scooter, and a belt buckle with detachable brass knuckles.
Others were simply amazed we were there, excited that we would visit their village. Their village! When they saw that we were eating our chowmein out of plastic bags, a group of women rushed to fetch ceramic bowls. Another man gifted us with more dried fish than we were able to carry, as well as two fresh coconuts which he cut up on the spot. It was wonderful.
If we were not the first foreigners to ever visit the village, we were among them. There was none of that jadedness which you experience in places overrun by tourists, which was telling, considering we were sitting on a tropical beach that could have served as the postcard of a five star resort. The village was its own isolated, self-sufficient world. People recognized the word “America” but when we mentioned Barack Obama, we drew blank stares.
Of course, things won’t remain that way for long. The village’s very interest in us reminded us that we, ourselves, are a big part of the changes occurring in Burma. Five years ago, few Westerners would cycle into a remote village on the Burmese coast. But based on our experience, and the increasing influx of tourists in Myanmar, it made us wonder, how long until the next foreigners come by? What ideas will they exchange?