Our latest trip was January 2006. Click above to view past trips. In 1995, we visited all the major highlights and encountered only a few hassles. In 2001, we seemed to luck out for a nearly perfect trip. In 2001, we started in Yangon then went south to the golden rock, Meimalein and even further south then back north to Penabway then east to Inlee Lake, back west all the way to Bagan (skipping Mandalay)and finally back to Yangon through Pyay. We never encountered guesthouse problems. In 2006, however, we wanted to visit new places like the Delta Area and we encountered towns, where we were not allowed to stay in the guesthouses (see road story), and returned to Yangon. Then, after Tangoo, because the Military government changed the capitol to just north of this city and do not allow tourists to stop in the new capitol, we were forced to take a train from Tangoo to Thasi. Then we biked to Mandalay. We intended to go to Bagan through Myingyan but we were told that the roads were rough. So we returned to Meiktila and then to Bagan and via Pyay to Yangon. Between Pyay and Yangon, in Letpadan, we had one more guesthouse problem and a local man helped us get permission to stay. This took almost two hours. We had a police escort on a motorcycle for 25 miles one day. As we left one province, a new motorcycle cop took up the surveillance from the previous cop. We were riding on the other side of the mountain from the new capitol. The cops never talked to us but shadowed our every move. Stopping when we stopped, and driving slowly behind us as we rode. The tail ended when we were away from the new capitol area. We had the most difficulties on this, our most recent, trip to Myanmar in 2006. The country is going backwards in many ways but with planning and understanding exactly where you can and cannot stop, it’s still a great place to ride.
How We Rate This Trip
The “best road in Myanmar” is deteriorating so imagine the poorly built roads. They are tarred stone roads. Now you primitively patch these aging highways and you have rough and bumpy. Occasionally you luck into a newly built well-engineered road like Meiktila to Mandalay or the “best road” from Pyay to Yangon. The back roads are rough tar or not tarred and rocky or sandy (soft).
The only high traffic area is Yangon. It’s amazing how quiet the roads get as soon as you leave any town or city. Mostly the long distance trucks and buses run at night, so even the main roads are quiet during the day. There are 2 things to get off the road for. 1) The Military convoys which can be long (1000 trucks were reported) with slow trucks and 2) The Military brass in small convoys of SUV’s moving fast and with a warning siren. Also recognize that you are always honked at (friendly) by approaching vehicles. The drivers are generally respectful.
It’s almost for sure you’ll have no rain from December to March. It is dry. For us, Yangon has the perfect tropical climate in January. Shirt sleeves at night and almost hot at midday. The further north it’s cooler at night. In Mandalay, we wore jackets at night. Now, in Kalaw, at night and the early morning it’s downright cold. Leaving Kalaw early AM we encountered frost on the roads. (Yes, we slide sideways on black ice)
The November to April (dry & cool) season brings North West winds, generally. In 2001, we were surprised by a tail wind going north for 2 days but the northwest winds blew hard at our backs heading south from Bagan. Rather in 2006, going north we had the typical head winds but heading back south we encountered light variable winds instead of the usual tail winds. So, by our experience, the North west winds are not so predictable. They’re only a likelihood.
Most of the allowed area for tourists is in the wide Irrawady Valley so the scenery is not spectacular. The trip to Inlee Lake is probably the scenic highlight. The plains can get monotonous especially in the dry season. Finally, in Bagan, which is flat and dull the overwhelming number of Pagodas is a visual delight. Our favorite sunsets were from a quiet Pagoda which could be climbed affording a spectacular view of the other temples.
This is the toughest part. Its very hard to communicate. The local English speaker does not necessarily know about the roads or the guesthouses. We were constantly misinformed.. First, the road conditions change. Second, the rules for accommodation change. Third, all information is handled through the controlling Military. The Lonely Planet cannot keep current. Your best bet is to comb the internet. Also, be aware that there is no email in Myanmar
Road Safety: 9
Only on the “good” roads does the traffic move at any speed. The Military SUV convoys always move fast. The fast buses generally move at night. So that leaves the sparse intercity traffic which always announces its approach with its horn and the most numerous highway users: the oxcarts, the horse carts, the bicycles, the trishaws, the walkers and the mini motor cycles
General Safety: 9
Call it a derivative advantage of having a Military government. Nobody wants to cross the line. At that, the people seem so gentle and honest even without the fear of punishment factor. Even in Yangon or Mandalay, you can walk any street at night and feel safe. The government control theoretically keeps you out of the dangerous (read minority) areas so there it is an unknown. It’s great to drop your guard occasionally.
It’s cheap living in Myanmar. Descent guesthouse rooms with attached bath can be had for $10 – $15 Dollars. At times, we overpaid for flophouse rest houses in non tourist towns. As much as $10. Other times, these basic places cost only $3. Food is cheap. Good meals will cost $2-3. Water, soda, beer, tea and coffee are very cheap. You can live well for $10 per person per day.
Cheap and good bottled water was usually available. The larger bottles were even a better deal. Often its cold. The soda pop is way too sweet but always available. Tea and coffee are typical but served very hot. Beer, especially the draught Myanmar Beer, is light, cold and very cheap. Nice for in the tropics.
Burmese food is some of the least exciting Asian food, rather bland. The main issue is the style of their service. It is cooked in the early AM and held thereafter. We wanted to partake but the result for the intestines was frequently poor. Breakfast of fruit, coffee and eggs is often included with the room. Lunch was usually a big hot bowl of Chinese Noodle and Vegetable soup. Dinner was never Burmese (cooked in the morning and held all day) but usually was Chinese and in the cities, Indian.
You often find nice, middle of the road, guesthouses at very reasonable prices. The issue is where to find a place in the out of the way places. These guesthouses can be very basic and dirty and then they are probably illegal to stay at. Information about where to stay is not reliable so we have encountered frequent problems (see road story). It is reported that staying in Monasteries is free (no women allowed). Camping stuff could help a lot in connecting the major tourist areas.
The Burmese are kind, gentle and honest and at times, they actually fawn over you. I recall having a simple, good Chinese meal in a small town with a waiter assigned only to us. If I dropped a noodle, he swooped in to wipe it up, service like in Paris but not pompous and very friendly. Communication is a problem. English is rarely mastered. Misinformation is constantly dispensed. The greetings, Hey You and Where you go, are endless and eventually tiring.
Almost all of the allowed area for tourists is Burman, the majority tribe. The uncontrolled areas offer diversity like the Sahn State is off limits to tourists. However, the central area is vibrantly Buddhist. The longi, is worn like a symbol, by men (the military wear pants) and women. The food is unique but dull. Seeing the game of Chinlon (keeping a rattan ball in the air by foot) played by incredibly lithe and limber players in every town. Gathering places are the teahouses and the beer halls. There is the incredible ancient capital of Bagan with over 1000 temples. There are the deteriorating colonial buildings of the delightful city of Yangon. Lastly, there is the unique culture of the 6 foot deep Inlee Lake.
Most ancient buildings are temples, which are everywhere. Of course, the highlight is Bagan where there are over 1000 temples. All towns of size have some colonial remnants and a pagoda of significance. Mandalay is a relatively new city but Yangon is a dilapidated jewel of aging colonial structures. Yangon also offers Schwedegon Pagoda, known as one of the greatest pagodas of its kind in the world. You can spend a half day here. Finally, the recent histories of the Military rule us palpable.
TOTAL SCORE 94
Route Descriptions and Maps
Avoid the center of the city as much as possible. Busy with buses and bumpy. All the streets (main & secondary) are rough with potholes.
Yangon to Kyaunggon 130Ks
Out on Strand for 14Ks. Always 3-lanes. Generally a good surface but at times it’s rough. All urban riding. Left at junction to bridge at 15Ks. After bridge there’s a good side road on the left for 5 to 20Ks. At 22Ks, Circle, 4-lanes, moderate traffic, lots of buses. Flat. Dull scenery. At 50Ks, the road narrows so there is no room if 2 buses pass at you. Greener. The road is older but still good. Winds NW (headwinds). At 63Ks, junction, go left. At 71 Ks, junction, go right. At 90Ks, over big bridge. Nice (flat) rural scenery. Light traffic. At 130Ks, Kyaunggon (off highway 2Ks).
Note: No legal lodging in Kyaunggon.
Kyaunggon to Pathein 65Ks
Kyaunggon to junction 11 Ks, right. Narrow 2-lane road. Strong NW (cross) winds, light traffic. Variable road. Sometimes good, some broken and old and some construction but mostly rough with potholes. Less interesting scenery. It’s hard to get orientated in Pathein. Center at 65Ks.
Pathein to Chaungtha Beach 62Ks
Strand Road along river on rough road (but being improved). At 5Ks junction, left and over new bridge. Good views from bridge. At 6Ks junction. Left to Ngwesaung (27miles) Right to Chaungtha (33 miles) Good gravel road, light traffic, good scenery (rice fields). Strong NW (head) winds. At 16Ks, junction left then at 20Ks, a single lane rough and potholed paved road. Now hills. Some short and steep through scrubland into Chaungtha Beach to Junction at 62Ks. Right to most hotels.
Pathein to Yangon (see above in reverse)
The ride into the Delta is excellent. Mostly good new roads, mostly quiet, good scenery, interesting rural life. But there are No Legal Hotels from Yangon to Pathein which is 195Ks. (See road story).
Yangon to Bago 91Ks
Past Shwedagon. Inya Road to Paya Road, right. Past airport at 17Ks. Straight. And gradually climbing to Sacred Tree at 35Ks. Six lanes, sometimes broken. Moderate traffic. At 36Ks, WWII cemetery. Junction at 37Ks. Left toward Pyay, right toward Bago. At 38Ks, toll booth (bikes free). At 48Ks, Hlegu. Four lanes with a wide shoulder, light traffic. So-so scenery. Light cross to tail winds (NW). Gradual hills start at 70Ks. (At 90Ks, at Mosque, to left for 6K circuit to Pagodas including the reclining Buddah). At 91Ks, Bago.
Bago (mile 50) to Nyaunglebin (mile 98) 78Ks
Out of Bago on a busy road, 2-lanes. Rough black top, no shoulder, mostly slow moving moderate traffic, flat. So-so scenery. At 17Ks, Phayagi, past the junction (mile 61) to Mawlamyaing (south). Mountains come into view on the right. A lot of big shade trees along the road. Interesting village life. North (head) winds.
The Yangon effect – faster buses and cars leave Yangon in the early AM so there’s a crescendo of fast traffic here in the AM.
Better scenery as you go. Nyaunglebin, 78Ks.
In Nyaunglebin, there’s a licensed Guest House for Foreigners but it is frequently full.
Winds from the north. Occasionally, they will switch from the south as in January 2001 for 2 glorious, fortunate, trail wind days.
Nyaunglebin (mile 98) to Taungoo (mile 175) 125Ks
Rough tarred road. Sometimes its been improved. North (head)winds. Flat. The same scenery and village life. Less traffic. Trucks often travel in groups. Fewer shade trees. After 85Ks, the road improves and its almost all good into Taungoo. The last 5Ks into Taungoo is a wide, busy, 4-lane road.
Now (2006), the capital is changing to Pynmana so its no longer open to tourists so there’s no place to sleep. In fact, cyclists or tourists cannot even stop in Pynmana now. In 2001, it was possible to stay in Pynmana and Yamethin then on to Meiktila.
Taungoo to Thasi by train in 2006
Thasi to Meiktila (13 miles) 22Ks
Out 2Ks on rough wide road to junction. To the right, toward Mandalay, to the left, toward Meiktila. Left on narrow slightly broken and potholed road. Beautiful old shade trees in parts. Mostly flat. Cross winds (north). At 21Ks, junction with main highway at the lake. Right to downtown a 22Ks.
Meiktila to Kyaukse (64 miles) 105Ks
Busy out of town then quiet. 18Ks of the usual bumps over potholes and patches to the new wide highway to 31Ks then somewhat broken tarmac. Featureless scenery. Light north (head) winds. Through Wundwin then at 36Ks, new highway restarts. Over rivers and through towns the new highway stops and you go on the old bumpy road. At 80Ks, the new highway becomes 4-lanes. In Kyaukse, there’s more traffic. It’s better scenery toward Kyaukse. The road is closer to the hills and mountains.
Kyaukse to Mandalay 48Ks
4-lanes in town then 2-lanes rough to 4Ks then 4 lanes new divided highway. Early AM busses, moderate traffic. Views of hill top Pagodas. Flat. At 30Ks, over bridge then older, bumpier 4 lane urban road with a good shoulder and eventually a “bike lane!’
Mandalay is a sprawling city with lots of quiet streets and lots of other bikers so its easy to bike to all the local sites.
Mandalay to Meiktila in reverse.
Only difference a rare south (head) wind.
Alternatives to Bagan from Mandalay:
- Meiktila – Kyaukpadanny rode in 2001 & 2006
- Mandalay thru Monywa on other side of the river in 1995
- Through Myotha & Myingyan. Internet account describes this trip as very rough and not recommended (not rode)
Meiktila to Kyaukpadaung 99Ks
Over bridge then bear right at junction. 5Ks of town sprawl. Easy rolling hills. Very light traffic. Good scenery & rural life. The road is broken (rideable) tarmac that has been widened. Some short sections are very rough. South, cross winds. From 30Ks to 40Ks, a newer, better road. Then the usual broken tar road. Hilly. More up than down for first half then more down than up and more gradual for 2nd half. Junction for road to Mt Popa at 99Ks, right.
Kyaukpadaung to Mt. Popa 26Ks
Up and down easy hills for 13Ks then climb on a snaky hill with views of the Mt Popa Pagoda and the plains below to 18ks then mostly flat to 20Ks. Junction, right to Guest Houses at 21Ks then climb on a rough road and finally descend steeply at 25Ks into the base village at 26Ks. To the pagoda by foot only on final ascent.
Mt Popa to Nyaung U 49Ks
From Min Min Soe Guest House (5Ks down from Mt Popa) its 2 gradual Ks down to junction, right. At 3Ks, start steep descent for 1.5Ks then more gradual and the road improves (no pot holes yet). Rolling hills, more down than up. Only occasional views back to Mt. Popa. Then a gradual descent for 8Ks down to junction with Kyaukpadaung to Bagan highway at 25Ks. Right. The road is only slightly rough. Slightly down through Palms, candy and whiskey making. At 43Ks, divided highway and train station. At 46Ks, airport and entry fee booth then 3 more Ks into town.
Nyayng U to Kyaukpadaung (35miles) 56Ks
Back to Mt Popa junction 24Ks (described previously) then rolling rills generally climbing on good 1 lane road. Some views through palms. Winds north (cross). (No overnight, we diverted 21Ks back to Mt. Popa)
Kyaukpadaung to Magway 109Ks
Toward Chauk. Mostly gradual down. Patched tar road, 2 lanes. OK scenery. To junction 12Ks, left (see Nyaung to Yenangyanng through Chauk for alternate route) Single lane patched tar, bumpy, quiet road south. Sometimes under shade trees. Gradually climbing through farm fields to 26Ks then gradual down (great) to bridge at 49Ks. Then climb 2Ks through oil wells. North winds (tail) then hills into Yenangyaung (we slept here in 2001 at the Country Inn) 56Ks. Continue up and down hills through dry boring scenery. After 70Ks, the hills mellow out, the scenery improves and the road is better. Vistas. At 81Ks, descend for 4Ks to ford a dry river on a sand road. Then climb to 91Ks then mostly easy gradual down to Magway Magwe at 109Ks.
Magway to Aunglan 135Ks
Out of town then easy hills on the usual patched tar narrow road toward Taungdwingyi. Cross bridge at 24Ks. Mostly a moderate climb to 35Ks then gentle grades up and down. So-so scenery. Light tail winds (NW). At 51Ks, junction with gravel and sand road. A new hard, smooth and good short cut. Right. Desolate with vistas. This road is being tarred so now 2006 its almost all good hard sand but where they are tarring it, its almost unridable: sandy and rocky. At 82Ks, old tar road left. At 86Ks, main road to Pyay, right. Rolling moderate hills. More up than down. At 121Ks, more down than up and easier grades. A lot of sprawl before town. At 135Ks, Aunglan
Aunglan to Pyay 74Ks
5Ks of sprawl out of town then almost flat on 2 lane patched tar road. After 20Ks, rare Irrawady River views. Nice to 30Ks then inland (flat and dull). We had a friendly police escort for about 20Ks. Why? Light traffic but more trucks. At 70Ks, 4-lanes and a bike lane with light tail winds (NW)! Ride only slowed by poor road (bumpy) Pyay 74Ks.
Pyay to Letpadan 150Ks
Very mild hills for 30Ks. Past Shwesandaw Paya. Then flat or very gradually descending on the “Best Road in Myanmar”. This best road is starting to deteriorate a little but its still good. A drop down shoulder. Still light traffic but it moves faster. Scenery is dull but there are shade trees and the villages and towns are interesting. Variable winds but somewhat favorable. Easy riding going south. At 147Ks, junction road into Letpadan. 3Ks into town. Got dispensation to stay in an unlicensed guest house from immigration.
Letpadan to Yangon Airport 135Ks
3Ks back to Highway, right (south) “The best road in Myanmar”, somewhat deteriorated. Flat, rice fields. Quiet. Irrigated (green) rice fields. More village population on the road. After 80Ks, more traffic, trucks. At 103Ks, road widens. At 110Ks, gradual climb then descend gradually to 113Ks. Junction. Right toward Yangon on rough 6-lane highway to 133Ks then left to airport. 135Ks.
Impressions of Myanmar/Burma 2006
Yangon a city of former English glory is full of crumbling, buildings in need of repairs and paint. A city of public transportation with busses bulging with people, taxies on their last legs, broken sidewalks and pothole roads. They are moving the capitol out of this city so Yangon will be neglected. In the countryside, there is very basic living. Everyone wears sarongs, men, women & children. Oxen work the rice fields and ox carts carry heaps of hay making deep ruts in the sand next to the narrow road. Buses, truck buses, horse-carts and tri-shaw bicycles share the road with us – all at a slow pace. Then a siren breaks the silence and spinning red light on the lead SUV of 20 SUV’s with dark windows. We all pull over and watch the Military go past at break-neck speed. Then we return to the slow rhythmic pace. The small cities are noisy with Buddhist chanting on loud speakers all night or broadcasting strident clanging music. The schoolchildren all wear deep green sarongs and we hear them repeating back in unison to the teachers as we pass. Repetition is the preferred style of learning. Smiling faces calling “Where do you go”, “What is your name?”,”Hey you”. A month later we are in Thailand riding along the border with Myanmar. There is a refugee camp of over 50,000 Burmese tribal minorities whose villages have were burned by the Military to make room for their new capitol. We glimpse the sinister side of the Myanmar Military Government that a tourist is not allowed to see while in that country.
More impression from Myanmar 2006
Myanmar is a unique place. In many ways, it’s actually weird. The people are open, friendly and honest. There’s virtually no crime. The question is this. Is it in their hearts or is it for fear of the heavy-handed control of the military government? How’s this for a weird and xenophobic? The capital is being transferred from Yangon into a mountain strong-hold near Pynmana, a previously sleepy little town south of Mandalay. We’re told that it’s to escape the foreign spy satellites. We are blocked by the Military Police from entering a state where the new government is being moved. Thrown out of a state! We had to take the train thru this area. We also had a police escort on a motorcycle through an apparently sensitive area for 20 miles. We are always told it’s for our “safety”. In the delta area west of Yangon where there are now new bridges and roads, we were kicked-out of 3 towns where we tried to overnight. We got to the first farm town where we had been assured that there were “many hotels”. There was one flea-trap guesthouse. The head military man arrives and tells us we can’t stay. He’s a worldly, English speaking, handsome city boy who has been posted to this back water town. Now he starts with the usual obfuscation. He tells us it is not “comfortable” enough for us. He arranges a truck taxi to take us to the next town. When the guesthouse owner sees foreigners he won’t let us stay. Then another, again kicked out. Finally, 4 hours later we return to the original town. Our now sympathetic “City Boy” chief goes to work on his superiors and ultimately he prevails. It’s like we are city soul mates thrown together in this basic, hick town and it appears that there is no other solution. He takes our passports and deposits us at the flea trap guesthouse. He tells us “You don’t know what I did for you.” But we do know. We’re dog tired and falling asleep on the hard board bed when “Mr. City Boy” returns with the passports. He knocks on our bedroom door and declares “Housekeeping”. We LOL.
Comparing Myanmar and Thailand 2006
We flew to Phitsanulok Thailand from Yangon Burma on Thai air on January 23. 2006. Unlike other airlines we did not need a bike box, or did not have to remove the peddles or turn the handlebars. Just ride up to the counter and they put the bikes on the plane with a smile. We needed Thai money – ATM at the airport. In Myanmar/Burma -no ATM. We never set foot in a bank but changed “perfect” Hundred Dollar bills in dark allies. A cash only economy in Myanmar while in Thailand there is a big choice of ATMs in every town. After bumping along the Burmese roads, the Thai roads seem like silk with doublewide shoulders for bikes and motor cycles. The vehicles are mostly spiffy double-cab trucks and new busses. In Thailand, even the police are nice. One day we climbed all morning. The highway skirts the small towns so we stopped at a police checkpoint to ask where we could find lunch. The Thai’s are first world with one exception: very few outside of Bangkok or the very touristy areas speak any English. We mime to the cop “eat”. He runs inside and comes back with bottles of cold water, and then he jumps on his motor cycle and waves for us to follow. He turns into the town and a steep down hill, then level and another steep down. Before the second steep down we yell, “No, No, Not down!” and stop following. We stop at a store. The cop returns. He comes in and starts pacing. He is trying to figure out how to explain the situation to us. Then he pulls out a chair, motions for Sally to sit, and then he goes to his motor cycle and pats the back seat for Peter to come. He drives Peter to the restaurant and then drives past to show him that the road returns to the highway with a small climb. What a change from the forbidding police state in Burma. In all restaurants in Thailand, even the simple open-air restaurants we find tasty, fresh and clean food. We enjoy ice to cool our soda. The ice would have put us on the Lomitol Express in Burma, if we could find it. The Thai government is a democracy run by a Prime Minister who’s party’s slogan is “Thailand for Thais”. There is a king who is a descent man is revered by all. His photo is on billboards in every town. This is a stark contrast to the Burmese Military Junta, which would not garner 2% – of the vote. IF there was a vote. Our first hotel in Thailand is the same cost as in Burma but triple the value. In Thailand, there is internet everywhere. There is no internet in Burma for travelers. We were in Burma 4 years ago and things were progressing, but that has all stopped and the government is more repressive now. Changing the capital to an area in the north where satellites are unable to take photos. Building underground bunkers and not allowing any foreigners to stop, much less overnight in the area.
For What It’s Worth
- Only American Dollars are accepted for exchange and they must be new, perfect and with no marks.
- Now (2006) its legally possible to enter Burma from China through Dali and Ruili into Muse in Myanmar then thru Lashio, Hsipau and Pyln-oo-win. You need to have camping equipment for this trip.