Days - 16: Bikes - Honda CB500x: Distance - 3,200km
We kicked off 2017 on a high, with another Big Adventure.
Starting in the beautiful, cool climate of Chaing Mai, Thailand, this two-week motorcycle tour took us right into the heart of Burma – exploring ancient pagodas, rugged jungle and unforgettable winding roads.
Though crossing the Thai/Burmese border was laborious (several trees’ worth of paperwork were used in the process), we had a lovely welcome. A Burmese official greeted us with ‘A warm welcome to our tourism country’, as locals grabbed their smart phones to film our bikes crossing over the river.
Within the first few kilometres, the contrast between Thailand and Burma couldn’t have been more stark. Gone were clean wide roads with pristine concrete curves. Instead, the edges scattered, dropping off into tree-lined red dirt.
Pot holes and bumps, as well as wet surfaces from heavy rain, made the riding more challenging, so we had to keep alert at all times.
Conditions got more chaotic as we hit the mountain range, where trucks and road works were added into the mix. This triggered our first drama.
One of our riders was travelling around a bend when his bike skidded 60 metres down the road between three oncoming vehicles. If he’d connected with any of them, the bike would’ve been a write off, and so would he.
Thankfully, by some miracle, he came away unscathed and the bike pulled off some sort of remarkable stand up manoeuvre. It was a bit broken but, amazingly, still rideable.
Counting his lucky stars, he brushed himself off and we pressed on.
As day merged into evening, we passed families cooking on the roadside, filling the air with scents of open fire and delicious food. We reached Hpa-an in high spirits, ready to relax after a fantastic first day.
Rain continued to hammer down that night, and was still going strong the following morning. Luckily, it began to ease off as we made our way along flat, twisty roads towards Kyaiktiyo – home of the Golden Rock.
Legend has it that a supernatural-powered king found the huge, distinctive boulder at the bottom of the sea. To make it easy for people to find, he placed it on top of Mount Kyaiktiyo and built a pagoda on top. Inside the pagoda is a strand of Buddha’s hair, which prevents the precariously balanced Golden Rock from tumbling down the hill.
After incredible 360˚ views of the Mon state, we jumped back in the saddle, bound for the new national capital city – Naypyidaw. As we rode through the misty morning air, we found a little cut-through on an unsealed dirt road, winding through rural villages.
This led us to the A1 highway, which felt like an arcade game in comparison. Everywhere you looked there was chaos – traffic to dodge, coconut stalls right on the edge of the road, and high speed scooters loaded with huge bags of grapes.
We stopped on the roadside for tea and cracking samosas, before hitting quieter roads towards Naypyidaw.
The purpose-built capital of Burma absolutely blew us away. It’s an unbelievable place, with 20 lane mega highways. It was unveiled as the new capital in 2005, by the old military regime. Although the population is said to be one million, it appears to be running at about a 20% capacity at the moment.
Naypyidaw seemed so out of place in a country we’d come to associate with broken roads and heavy traffic. With grass-lined avenues, massive hotels and shopping complexes, it looked like an alien lost in the middle of Burma.
We took some time to explore this bizarre, eerily empty capital, including a visit to the Uppatasanti Pagoda – a replica of the previous capital city (Yangon)’s sacred Shwedagon Pagoda.
There was a big transition in the landscape the next day, as we began to see more grasslands, small forests, brush, and a little bit of jungle. With the sun shining and idyllic roads stretched out before us, it felt great to be on a motorbike.
Due to a closed road, we made a slight alteration to the route and came across a nice, cultural stop-off point – the birthplace of General Aung San. This guy was an important figure, heavily involved in the independence of Burma. His daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, currently serves as the First Female Minister of Foreign Affairs.
As we continued to Bagan, the scenery became more agricultural, with far less traffic, and far fewer people. Winding through tiny roads, we encountered a few surprise drops. Some of the riders were getting some big air, with big smiles to match.
The grins only widened when we hit Bagan, one of South East Asia’s most stunning areas. Motorcycles are banned in this UNESCO world heritage site, so instead we hopped onto electric bikes to whizz around and see the legendary pagodas.
The main highlight was the Shwesandaw pagoda, also known as ‘sunset pagoda’ for its impeccable views. Our climb to the top rewarded us with a real sight to behold – a huge expanse of terracotta pagodas poking out above the jungle. We watched, enraptured, as the descending sun painted a warm, golden trail across the red brick pagodas. They looked like ships scattered across a vast sea of lush green jungle.
A few of the guys were treated to more monumental views of Bagan the next morning, when they headed out for a hot air balloon ride over the ancient city. Though we’d been told it was no longer possible to fly over the pagodas, it thankfully wasn’t true. The guys flew right over, with eye-popping views of the entire site.
After a morning in the clouds, we hit a selection of small back roads and highways heading North to Mandalay. We managed to pick up some speed, enjoying fast riding on fairly flat, tarmacked roads.
Along the way, we sampled some flavoursome roadside Mohinga – a rice noodle and fish broth combo that many consider to be Burma’s national dish. It was just the energy hit we needed for the last push up to Mandalay.
Burmese cuisine continued to shine later that evening, when we tucked into one of the best meals I’ve ever had. We were brought lots of different bowls and before long, the table was a colourful sea of delicious food.
To embrace the culture fully, a few of us sampled the local rum. Needless to say, there were a few sore heads the next morning.
The road to Inle Lake took us up into the beautiful, rolling mountains of the Shan state. With very little traffic and switchback after switchback, it was exactly the kind of riding we love. There really is no bigger smile than that of a biker on a mountain road.
Inle Lake is set in a valley, surrounded by vibrant green mountains. It’s home to around 70,000 people who make their living through farming and fishing. After a few intense days of riding, unwinding in this historically rich area was a welcome relief on our weary limbs. We spent the day on boats around the lake, visiting local craftsmen – including jewellery and cheroot (traditional Burmese cigars) makers, and lotus weavers.
We were set to ride deeper into the Shan State, but the Burmese government refused to give us permits. This was allegedly for our safety, although several locals we met seemed shocked to learn the Burmese government were painting a negative picture of such a friendly area. Nonetheless, we were left with no choice but to take a new route.
We travelled down winding roads along the East side of Inle Lake, testing previously unchartered terrain towards Loikaw. As we rode, we encountered more hilly, mountainous areas, with limestone rock poking out of otherwise fairly flat scenery.
Our detour really paid off when we discovered a five-acre fun fair up the road from our hotel. It was huge! Full of cheesy stalls, dodgy looking rides and fantastic street food. We tried all sorts of weird and wonderful things, including liver on a stick and five-egg quail pancakes – all cooked fresh in front of us.
The fun continued into the night, when we found a street party with a DJ and some very cheap whisky (less than £1 for a 500ml bottle!).
The East side of Burma may be less developed than the West, but the riding conditions are incredible. We found the most amazing single track road on the way to Tuangoo. With sweeping bends through lush green jungle, we were able to throw our weight from left to right and accelerate over little sections of potholes and ridges.
As we began to make our way back to the Burmese/Thai border, the refused permits meant we had to repeat the section of highway down to Kyaiktiyo. But although we were travelling on the same road, the sun was out and it was boiling hot, so it felt completely different to our rainy first day.
On our last day in Burma, we visited Linno Cave – a unique ecosystem, home to millions of bats – where we learnt about the value of guano (bat droppings). The locals gather it in vast amounts, approximately 30kg per week, to make fertiliser.
With a new wealth of knowledge about bat faeces, we made a last blast down to the Mae Sot border crossing. Here we waved a fond farewell to our Burmese guide, AK, who’d been amazingly informative throughout our trip.
Back in Thailand, we came across a huge camp of over 50,000 Burmese people taking refuge from their country’s regime.
Shocked by the basic conditions the refugees were living in, we pulled together to collect food. We managed to gather a pretty big parcel – around 180 kilos of rice and 300 cans of sardines – but between 50,000 people, we knew it wouldn’t even scratch the surface. Having spent time meeting these amazing people and sharing their country, it was heart-breaking to see them not being looked after by their government.
We stopped at three different checkposts, before we finally found one that let us deposit the goods. All we could do was hope they reached the people who needed it.
A stark reminder of just how lucky we are to have our freedom.
We finished our trip on a really fast, flowing road along the side of a beautiful river – the perfect place to reflect on an incredible adventure through such a culturally rich and fascinating country.
Thanks to all our brilliant riders for upholding the spirit of adventure.
Burma, we can’t wait to come back.