The best way to see a country

BEN GROUNDWATER
Last updated 05:00 24/01/2014
Mandalay Landscape
Getty Images

PEDAL ON: The iconic U Bein Bridge near Mandalay.

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They must think we're idiots. Those people must look up from their fields, or glance out from their villages, and just shake their heads. Idiots.

Because there we go past on the rutted, potholed bitumen, the richest people in the area getting around on the cheapest available form of transport.

We could afford taxis; we could ride on buses. Actually, we could buy entire buses. Instead, we're cruising through the villages and bumbling through the cities on the carriage of the people: the humble bicycle. Why?

Kids smile and wave as our peloton of pensioners cycles past, making slow progress down the roads of Myanmar, each of our members dressed to the Lycra-clad nines in professional riding gear. There are a couple of pot bellies straining against sponsorship logos; there are a few pairs of shoes that are probably worth more than the bikes they're pushing.

We must look a sight, our big group of sweaty, brightly costumed Westerners ploughing down the country lanes, paying small fortunes for the privilege of doing what many of the locals we're cycling past would see as a necessary but probably unwanted chore.

It's hot here. The sun is beating down. Trucks rumble past on narrow country roads. Clouds of exhaust hang for a second before being dragged away by the thick breeze. People on scooters slow to a crawl to give themselves longer to stare.

We just pedal on, happy as travellers can be.

There's a certain appeal to the cycling holiday. It's simple. It feels authentic (even though it's probably as fabricated as any touring experience). It's tourism combined with exercise. It's a daily challenge. The theory for cycling holiday enthusiasts, I guess, is that there's no better way to see a country than slowly, under your own power, face in the breeze, eyes and ears soaking up the surrounds.

And the appeal is widespread. Cycling is not a holiday style that's confined to a certain age group or budget or even destination. There are packs of Western tourists of all ages and financial constraints pedalling their way around the Netherlands, or southern France, or Jordan, or Vietnam, or Australia, or Myanmar.

That's where I am at the moment: Myanmar. That's where the locals are staring at us like we're insane. It's a 10-day cycling trip, exploring the country while children wave and adults look bemused.

Day one was a serious test. We assembled in the hotel car park in downtown Mandalay, were given our bikes, then spent a few minutes adjusting things and checking others before mounting up and entering the street.

That sounds easy enough, but if you've spent any time on a south-east Asian street as a pedestrian, or as the rider of a tuk-tuk, or a bus passenger, or even just the hailer of a taxi, you'll know a south-east Asian street is not like any other street you've ever ridden a bicycle on before.

It was rush hour in Mandalay, as it seems to be every day at just about every hour between sunrise to sunset, and there was traffic everywhere, a sludgy melange of scooters, cars and rumbling old trucks filled with produce and building materials and people.

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You have to tackle it the same way you'd devour some typically spicy Burmese food, going all in from the start, fortune favouring the brave, standing on the pedals and hurling yourself into the chaos, sticking an arm out to indicate and diving into the river of machinery.

That was a baptism of fire. Once we made it out of the city, the rest of our cycling adventure was far more sedate, if you don't count the hills, and the steaming hot conditions, and the tour guide who'd say we had "only about 10 minutes to go" when the reality was about an hour.

You soon realise there are some huge positives to the cycling experience to outweigh the ludicrousness of rich Westerners riding bikes in Myanmar. You're forced to slow down on a bike, to take in the little details, to notice the quirks and oddities of a Myanmar that glides sedately by.

You also meet people, hundreds of people, who wave and smile and call out and seem amused.

Just outside Mandalay we decided to take a break, pulling over for a drink. We'd stopped next to a school, we soon realised, and soon we were surrounded by grinning children who just wanted to check out the spectacle of 18 Lycra-clad Westerners gathered by the side of their dusty road.

I can see why they'd find it so funny - the sight of us was pretty amusing.

But everyone else must have thought we were idiots.

Have you done any cycling on your travels? What was your experience? Post your comments below.

- FFX Aus

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