Myanmar travel diary, part two: to the hills of Shan state
Thomas Heaton travelled around Myanmar for six days in April . Here, he shares his diary entries of the 750km journey by scooter.
I'm sure copious amounts of $2-a-litre Mandalay Rum and equally cheap Grand Royal whisky were consumed during our night in Naypyidaw. We didn't touch any of it, mind you.
We were kept up by the lack of air-conditioning (it's about 40 degrees outside) and some random work conference was being hosted at the hotel. Cue terrible karaoke and bacchanalian shenanigans, and rather decent bags under this travelling pair's eyes.
So, with not much sleep and a quick breakfast of coffee and fruit, we hit the dusty trail.
It's going to be a hard road ahead, once we get out of the reach of the country's capital, it will literally be an uphill battle. We're heading 211 kilometres to Kalaw, an old colonial haunt for the British during the hotter months of the year, in Shan state.
The first 30km pass quickly, the roads start off nicely. The remnants of Naypyidaw's newly built multi-laned roads disappear, people begin to re-emerge. Out of the surreal weirdness and back into Burma's vibrant reality. Undulating roads slowly degrade, giving way to gravel and dust, becoming bumpy.
Every so often, out of no where, music and chanting is blasted on loudspeakers. As people drive through these groups, they throw 1000 kyat (NZ$1) notes out the windows, others stop, some ignore them. They're raising money so they can build schools or places of worship, as they stand in front of the half-built structures, or in some cases: piles of bricks.
We continue north towards Mandalay. Skimming through the region, we move into the lush hills of Shan state. Our final planned stop is at the foot of the road that will eventually twitch steeply into the hills, to Kalaw. The best place for our final perch is at one of the thousands of tea houses around Myanmar, so we skull laphet-yeh, yeh-nwe-jan and attempt to scoff crunchy, under-ripe mangoes with chilli salt in the heat. Those three things become our fuel for the trip, other than copious amounts of water. Among the wandering cows we enjoy the strong black tea, sweetened with condensed milk, and green tea while attempting to absorb all the vitality-bearing qualities each supposedly has.
The landscapes aren't unlike something you may expect from Apocalypse Now, the further east we travel and the higher we get. I was expecting some old Iriqouis helicopter to swoop in, with Creedence Clearwater Revival's Fortunate Son blasting.
We scale the mountains, stopping only for a swim in the river and to let our bikes cool down. The only drawback of a bike the size of ours is the fact they don't have a cooling system, so we do it ourselves with bottles refilled with dirty and undrinkable water.
Otherwise we stop at watering stations on the winding road, which are in place for thegiant lorries' brake pads.
It's not long until my brother's bike conks out, possibly 25km out of Kalaw, and we experience the knowledge and generosity of the locals for the first time.
We stop at what could only be called a shack, but they have a couple of taps to help us cool the bikes down. The man of the shack slaps and smack the bikes like they were a cow's rump. It works, somehow, for about a kilometre. With little English and nowt Burmese, we managed to begin scaling the rest of the journey after confusing a well-meaning local for a mechanic.
He lets us go, without asking for any payment. Apparently we were working the bikes too hard. No surprises there, this is likely they longest trip and I'm heaviest rider they'll ever experience.
Eventually, Kalaw appears around a corner at we finally reach the cool, quiet, colonial town. Churches appear, the sounds of the call to prayer at the mosque echo, tourists begin to appear too. This place is unlike many in Myanmar, it's a bit of a melting pot and it also has the benefit of being a cool retreat from the sun.
We find ourselves a hotel, indulge in a local brew and proceed to find ourselves some of the best Shan-style food we can get our mits on. It was a long day, just like the day before - unknown to us, it wasn't going to get any easier.