Happy 1377 from Myanmar!
Stage 5 - A lot has happened since we posted our last blog nearly 3 weeks ago. Sadly we have not been able to post anything as our trusty laptop seems to have finally given up on us.
We hope to get it fixed but at the moment we will be relying on Internet cafe's which have been nonexistent until our arrival in Pyay (Myanmar) earlier today! This landmark means that we are rapidly approaching India, the last big leg of our journey. The remainder of our route through Laos passed by without any issue at all. Having only spent a week or so in the country I think we have all been left with an urge to return and properly explore what we believe to be the most beautiful country In Southeast Asia.
On top of that, the people are some of the most relaxed and friendly we have ever encountered, even if their relaxed nature does sometimes verge on lazy (often restaurants will say no to you seemingly because they cannot be bothered to cook). The end of our time in Laos saw us arrive in the quiet border town of Huey Xay, on the banks of the Mekong river overlooking Thailand. Sadly we had little time to enjoy the town as we were preoccupied by trying to acquire the border permit we would need to cross into India from Myanmar. As Burmese New Year was rapidly approaching, the woman who was going to help us organise the permit had gone on holiday, leaving us in a difficult position. As our Burmese visa would only last 28 days it was essential that we set our application process in motion before we arrived, given that our Thailand stretch would only be a day, we hoped to do this from Laos. After two days of phone calls and a lot of stress we finally managed to do just that and we were free to go on our way.
Entering into Thailand, like a lot of things on this trip, was not as simple as it should have been. We arrived at the "friendship bridge" between Laos and Thailand only to be informed that bikes where forbidden on the bridge, and we would instead have to travel by bus. As we were keen to cycle the entirety of the route (something that would later turn out to be impossible) we spent an hour or two begging the border police to allow us to cycle across. Eventually, after showing them our website and fundraising page, they agreed that we could cycle across but only with a police escort.
Cycling into Thailand behind a police car was certainly an experience none of us will forget and despite all their warnings we made it to the other side unscathed! Our day in Thailand was really nothing more than a formality as no border crossing between Laos and Myanmar exists for tourists. However the cycling was far from it, and one hill was so steep and hot that Rory had to get off the bike and sit down for a while after everything became a bit much!
After a day in Thailand it was time for us to enter into Myanmar at the newly opened border crossing of Tachilek. Arriving in Myanmar was a massive milestone for us as it saw us enter our fifth county of seven and be well and truly on the "home straight" all be it a 3000km one. However, the high of entering Myanmar was a short lived one. Cycling out of Tachilek we felt confident that Myanmar would run smoothly without any issues, how wrong we where!
About 30 km out of Tachilek we reached our first army checkpoint in Myanmar (there are lots of these) and a gruff Burmese man bluntly informed us that our route was currently closed to tourists due to unrest in the area. Although their English was not quite good enough to convey why this was the case, the gist of it was that there was violence throughout Shan state and due to this we could not even take a bus through the area let alone cycle. After hours in the immigration office attempting to work around this issue, it seemed our only option was to fly out of the area. Sadly this has meant we have had to adapt our route slightly and fly to Yangon in the south or Myanmar, don't worry we have actually added on 100km just to make up for it!
Leaving Yangon was a terrifying experience. The government here recently decided that they would change the side of the road people drive on from the left to the right, meaning everyone’s steering wheel is now on the wrong side. This makes overtaking nothing short of reckless, though it is safe to say everyone does it anyway. This accompanied with the heavy traffic of New Year meant we spent the first 50km weaving our way through buses that don't seem to abide by the rules of the road. Arriving in town after our first day we were exhausted both mentally and physically and ready to find a hotel (Camping in Myanmar is illegal).
However things in Myanmar are never simple, and it turned out our destination did not have a "foreigner" guesthouse. After being escorted out of the town by the police (Who we seem to be getting to know pretty well) we were forced to cycle another 35km at dusk to a town where we were allowed to sleep. Certainly a tough introduction to the country. The next few days passed by issue free as we followed the Irrawaddy river north toward Bagan. Luckily the river meant that the surrounding area was flat and despite the 40+ degree heat, we made great progress as we constantly passed groups of singing locals and whole villages out on the road celebrating the festival.
Despite water festival in Myanmar being one of the highlights of our trip, it is not without its issues. Children line the roads with buckets and water pistols seemingly with the sole intention of making sure we cycle in soaking wet uncomfortable shorts all day. A few days from Yangon we had a slight issue when Rory's front wheel fell inbetween two railway sleepers whilst cycling across a 120 year old bridge (we’re talking bridge over the river Kwai). The result of this was that he bent his wheel quite badly; luckily a local man took us to a mechanic who managed to straighten Rory’s wheel enough to make it to our next major city Pyay. Arriving in Pyay we got our first true experience of water festival.
What started as a cleansing ritual to enter into the New Year has turned into a street party with stages, music and lots of dancing. We were lucky enough to be invited by a family to drive around Pyay for the day to see what the festival had to offer, which meant buying them lots of beer and getting very wet. Despite getting soaked in the process we also managed to find a mechanic who has fixed Rory's wheel! Despite the last few weeks causing us a number of issues, the cycling has been amazing (despite the melted Tarmac) and Myanmar has exceeded all of our expectations!
Next stop India!!