Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Myanmar - The country of smiles

Entering a new country is always a special moment. New cultures, new customs and a new part of the trip. Entering Myanmar was even more special as we not only seemed to have crossed a border, but also a time warp. We went back in time about 100 years or so. Talking of time: we loved Myanmar after about 10 minutes... Looking around us we realised quickly that we had entered a beautiful part of the world, where time had stood still for a long time! It was the beginning of an amazing experience, a tour on our own bikes through a country which had been closed to foreigners for a long time. The sting was in the tail though...

Leaving India, very low key but chaotic of course... it is still India!
Right up to the last moment, India proved to be a country where everything just has to be complicated. Arriving at the border, with our passports and Carnets in our hands, we were send back... We had to report to the local Police, which would be a couple of hundred metres back in a blue building. The blue Police building turned out to be quite a bit further back than that and wasn't the building we had to go to... Directions followed to a compound across the street. To be honest, we have no idea where we ended up as non of the people working there were wearing any sort of uniform. But in the end we did receive a stamp with the current date on it. More directions followed to another building where we could sort out our Carnet... again all quite informal... Meanwhile our guide for Myanmar was already waiting. No need to hurry though as the German and Austrian couple who would join us through Myanmar hadn't arrived yet... They appeared an hour late, couldn't be bothered to even apologise and thereby set the tone of their contribution to this trip...

The guides took control of the Myanmar side of things. To be honest I didn't pay much attention to what was going on, we were after all on a mandatory guided tour, so let them do their thing :-) Everything went very friendly, very polite and... very slowly. When the last document had been stamped it was well past 11 in the morning, while we had started at 6.30... The ride that followed made up for it though! The landscape is stunning, the ride better than any we had had in India and... without the Indian madness on the road. We suddenly found people looking before entering a road, giving way to oncoming traffic, being polite towards others on the road, using their mirrors(!), riding on the right side of the road... we couldn't believe it! Surely there must be something we're missing? But there wasn't, it's all good in Myanmar.

Meanwhile we saw a way of life we hadn't seen anywhere. Visiting this amazing country was like going back in time. Ox carts were the norm. The minimal amount of trucks we saw that day were propelled by single cylinder engines... And as we had crossed a mountain ridge to get here, India's pollution had been left behind too. Here the skies are blue, waters clear and open sewage doesn't exist. We could actually see the mountains in all their beauty for the first time in weeks. It was beautiful, magical, to be there. Spirits were up, riding was great again even though the roads weren't all that good.

During the afternoon we slowly but surely began to realise though that the planning for this day had been totally wrong... something we had wondered and queried with the tour organiser as soon as we received the itinerary. He had assured us it would all be fine... it wasn't. The result was that we were riding well into the dark and on roads which had quite a few potholes, missing tarmac and other issues... It also meant we couldn't take many photos as we simply didn't have the time to stop. It's fair to say we weren't happy... especially not as we had stipulated right from the start we didn't want to ride at night.

Later that night the programme for the next day was revealed, which promised to be even longer than the day before... I objected to the length of the ride, not the kilometres but the time required as it would again end well into darkness, upon which the Germans said in a nasty way that I should have booked another tour if I wanted more time... Never mind they were the cause we were late that day and never mind riding at night wasn't even allowed with the permit we had... Their reply was a sign of things to come unfortunately. Working on the average we had done on the day just passed, I worked out we would be arriving at 7 in the evening and quite possibly be riding two hours in darkness again. According to the car drivers, I was a pessimist... At the end of the next day we arrived spot on at 7 as I had predicted and had been driving 2 hours in the dark... By that time we had all had several near accidents as the last hour was driving through a city which wasn't lit and full of unlit vehicles as well...

We requested a meeting with the organiser that evening, who didn't show up, and thus in the morning we refused to continue unless we were given guarantees this would not happen again. The Germans showed their best side yet again by saying we should have a democratic vote... They clearly weren't one jota interested in the safety of the motorcycle riders. Seriously who in their right mind would even consider questioning someones request for safety, let alone suggest a vote? In the end it was a non issue as everyone but the Germans made it very clear they did not want to be riding/driving at night again and said the itinerary needed to be changed. 

Just in case you are wondering why we do not want to ride at night... we came here to see the country, which is somewhat impossible when it's dark... but most of all, in countries like Myanmar riding at night is quite different to riding at night in Europe or the US for instance. Here people ride without their lights on... ox carts are on the road in the dark too... the roads can be fine one minute and riddled with wheel-size potholes the next... people park whatever they want just behind a blind corner and even sit on the road in total darkness. In short, riding at night is definitely not recommended and, like I wrote above, pointless if you want to see the country. Apart from all that, we weren't even allowed to ride in the dark according to the permits and we had booked the sight-seeing tour (not the race though one). The tour guides had their work cut out as drastic changes needed to be made to the itinerary. One of the suggestions we made was to let the motorcycles go on their own as we were being held up by the 4WDs. I worked a treat, but what happened next surprised us all... to be continued.