All started quite spectacularly, although we would’ve never made up such a start ourselves. We crossed the border in Mae Sai/Tachileik without any problems, having valid visa for 28 days, issued in Chiang Mai (Thailand). Then we went straight to the bank to exchange money. We were greeted by five men before entering the building. The bodyguard began, followed by the employee who was opening the door, and then a few uniformed men, dressed in long skirts, blue shirts, and flip-flops.
The visit ended successfully, and we left the building with a bag filled with thousand-kyat banknotes (the first consonant of Burmese currency – ‘kyat’ – is pronounced with ‘th’ sound, as in ‘cheer’ or ‘chilly’).
We had lunch in a nearby restaurant, and after that, with great mood and full belly we set off to the north. Some people said that the road from Tachileik to Mandalay could be closed for tourists. But the people say different things, and we decided to check ourselves and to make sure it this is really true.
We were turned back after cycling just ten miles, at the first checkpoint. With an apologetic-looking face, a policeman in flip-flops explained to us in his broken English that he was very sorry but we shall not pass and ‘we should go back to the shadow’ (no, he didn’t resembled Gandalf at all). He advised us to go back to Thailand and get permission to continue traveling, or go to Tachileik airport and take the plane.
It turned out that the tickets were far cheaper than we had thought, and the airfield crew really helped us a lot. Not only did the ground personnel from Myanmar Airlines bring pieces of carton for wrapping our bikes, but they didn’t charge us for excess baggage. If they did, we would have had to pay additional one hundred dollars per person. We took a commemorative photo and promised we would recommend the airline. Yes, I can recommend it with all my heart. If you are interested in how wrapping and all looked like, you may watch the video, which you will find at the end (at the very bottom) of the text.
We flew to Mandalay without any mishaps. In the town we spent the night in the hotel, for which we paid equivalent of twenty dollars per room. And it was the price for the tourists. Locals or the Chinese (and there are lots of them travelling) usually pay about three times less.
There is one big problem for budget travelers in Myanmar – you have to sleep in hotels and wild camping is strictly prohibited. Similarly – locals can’t accommodate you. I will write more about that topic next time. Now – enough to say, that during our stay in Burma it was possible to omit that strange requirement and only a few times we were forced by circumstances (or our tired bodies) to stay in hotels.
Places in which foreigners stay in Myanmar have to have a special license. Again – we slept a few times in guest-houses, which definitely didn’t have ones. I will write more details about that next time. Now, I just want to say that there is one gap in the system – Buddhist temples. Several times we slept close to the temples. Only a few times monks refused our request to pitch the tent. Usually there was no problem at all with staying with them.
After two weeks of cycling I may say that Myanmar completely stunned us. Everything was so full of life. Starting from the cuisine. Although I liked food in Thailand, in comparison with Burmese, Thai cuisine seems to be quite monotonous and far too spicy. We liked very much the way they serve the food in Burma – you get it in the bowls, from which you may take as much as you want. If suited me particularly, because, no matter if you like Thai food or not – the size of the Thai portions is far from filling your belly, especially when you cycle and you need more calories. But even if I had travelled without bicycle, in Thailand I would’ve had to order two dishes not to get hungry after an hour, which was not the case in Burma – I have to admit we ALWAYS had to leave some leftovers on the table.
We liked their tea, which taste I remember from my travels to India. They mixed tea with condensed milk, and call it ‘La Phat Yay’ (the first two words are pronounced as [lapa] and the third word have two vowels, as in English word ‘yeast’, so you should pronounced it like [lapayea]. If you want to say: ‘I want tea’ You can try: [lapayea taucheende]. Good luck – people will love it once they understand).
The food was good, so were the people. We were astonished by their curiosity, humbleness, hospitality, and yes, embarrassment. Their sad faces caused by the fact, that they can not invite us to their houses. Their existence – so strange, so unreal, and given to us just for a moment. How many more of those encounters will we have on that trip?
What is particularly visible instantly when you look at them – their faces are painted. They call it thanaka – a yellowish-white cosmetic paste. Apparently, it gives a cooling sensation and provides protection from sunburn. Some people say it even helps removing acne.
We don’t know the language. Everything seems to be illegible, even more than in Thailand, because in Burma rarely you may find letters and sounds you will recognize. They have their own alphabet and letters, which are absolutely unfamiliar to us.
And, generally, we don’t understand people, either. We look at each other, but we don’t know what they say. We may guess, but that’s all. Sometimes it is enough. Sometimes the huge gap remains and the big wall of misunderstanding stands between us. Nevertheless, we try to climb it to see what’s on the other side of it. Maybe once we get it, the wall will disappear.