Australian Natural Health
25 May 2016
Exploring Myanmar by bike offers travellers a unique way to meet the locals while working on fitness. Tatyana Leonov jumps in the saddle to traverse the country’s scenic Shan State.
Bliss. That’s what I feel right in this moment. Remember when you were young and free? When happiness flowed from everywhere? When you had no pressing thoughts or to-do lists? That’s exactly how I feel right now.
Yesterday was our first biking day on the 14-day SpiceRoads Cycle Tours Burma Adventure expedition. And today I’ve got my cycle groove back. The tour includes 10 cycling days (including three half days) – that’s 10 days of bliss, 10 days of endurance work, 10 days of really getting to know Myanmar.
We flew from the former capital city of Yangon to Heho a little farther north, and jumped on our bikes to test them out almost immediately. Twenty-five kilometres doesn’t seem like much (we’re covering over 500 kilometres in total), but the off- road track was a challenging mix of rock-strewn ups and downs. Although most of the time we’ll be cycling paved roads, this first day was all gravel and wobbles.
Today we’re pedalling on a level road and everyone’s confidence has improved five-fold. I pass sprawling sunflower fields to my left and take in spectacular vistas of the majestic Inle Lake to my right. Our instructor, Ko Nay Myo, has given us free rein, and unlike in busy areas or when negotiating arduous terrain, we can cycle as fast or as slow as we wish, meeting up every 15 to 20 kilometres. In this joyful moment I am completely alone and at one with nature. It’s only when I stop to snap photos of the bright sunflowers that some of the others catch up. They too break, awed by the sheer beauty of our incredible backdrop.
Why book a cycling holiday?
Cycling holidays offer many benefits. From a health perspective, holidaymakers can work on their fitness while exploring. A big part of the fun is sampling local delicacies and when biking you can pretty much taste anything and everything without worrying about not burning it off.
Biking also lets you get closer to nature and the environment. You’re breathing in fresh air and there are plenty of opportunities to venture off the beaten track and away from traffic-dense roads. (The SpiceRoads expedition does include a number of support vehicles that lead the way and trail the group, but they are there for safety and convenience, transporting luggage, snacks, medical gear and the like.)
Interaction with local people also comes much easier when in the saddle. You can wave and bellow mingalaba (Burmese for hello) when biking through villages, you can stop and chat any time, and you can rest at any roadside shop where it smells likes something tasty is cooking. I do that often...
Inle Lake adventures
Although we bike as a group, we stop often to admire the changing landscape and watch local life unravel around us. Some of us linger longer, ogling the many sights; others enjoy amping up the pace and taking in the vistas while whizzing along.
Myanmar is renowned for its many pagodas, temples and stupas and the scenery is a captivating mix of these religious artefacts, stunning landscapes and bustling villages.
We click as a group from day one, and although we’re not always cycling in view of each other, we catch up every one to two hours for planned snack breaks. By day three on our bikes we feel like pros.
Day three is a relatively short day in the saddle compared to the others – just 25 kilometres from our hotel to the lakeshore boat excursion meeting point. Cycling tours aren’t only about biking and we spend most of the day sitting back and watching the Inle Lake world glide by as we casually cruise around the lake.
Boat tours are the only way to explore the lake – home to approximately 100,000 Intha people – and we split into smaller groups (four people per boat) and coast past stilted villages, observing Intha families going about their daily life. Mothers launder clothing in the murky water, glancing up to smile at us as we skim past. Fishermen cast nets into the water, sometimes niftily using one leg to paddle the boat as they do so. Children laugh and splash around.
We glide past floating gardens and Myo points out tomatoes and squashes thriving in the water. It’s fascinating to learn that Intha farmers have been growing vegetables on long strips of floating land for centuries. Myo explains that they bind the delicate land down to the base of the lake using bamboo poles so that their gardens and vegetable patches don’t float away.
There are plenty of restaurants serving Shan cuisine peppered around the lake and we stop at Golden Kite Restaurant for lunch. The charismatic owner greets us like we’re long-lost friends and goes straight into his lunchtime spiel. The strawberries used in the juice come from the mountains and are picked daily by families from the hill tribes, the tomatoes are grown on the lake, the rice noodles are handmade by a local cook who has been making them the same way for decades. Lunch, predictably, is amazing.
We spend our afternoon at Hpaung Daw Oo Pagoda, one of the Shan State’s most significant religious sites. Myo leads us through the shrine, pointing out the five ancient golden leaf Buddha images the monastery is famed for before giving us some free time to roam around the grounds.
The next day – our fourth day in the saddle – is our last day navigating the Shan State before our transfer and descent into magnificent Mandalay.
Just two days prior we soared downhill to Inle Lake with the wind in our hair. Today, it’s mostly uphill, with a marathon 10-kilometre climb that has some of us reconsidering our reasoning behind booking a cycling holiday.
Truth is, it wouldn’t be as much fun if it was all flats. A certain kind of person books a cycling holiday – and that kind of person enjoys (although perhaps that’s too strong a word) the challenge of uphills and the freedom that downhills bring.
Inclines force you to stop more often, presenting an opportunity to soak up the wonders around you.
The Shan State covers almost a quarter of Myanmar and is home to several ethnic groups. The most memorable moments involve meeting the residents – a result of these unplanned out-of- breath stops.
About three kilometres into the climb I meet a mother and her jovial toddler. Although we don’t understand each other, I sit with them and together we feast on bananas and papaya chunks. I stop to watch farmers perched on wooden carts pulled by Brahman oxen. Some are transporting hay; others have just dropped off their loads. An elderly woman wearing a straw hat and holding a hoe notices that I’m taking photos and stops me, wanting to star in her own photo. It’s these moments that I tell my family and friends about.
We reach Pindaya by early afternoon with enough time to mosey around the charming lakeside town before we head out on a guided expedition (off the bikes) to the famous limestone caves buried in the hills – home to thousands of Buddha images.
I don’t know where or when Myo recharges his energy, but his unceasing enthusiasm to showcase his home country is a great asset to the tour. He leads us on a captivating journey through the caves, some of which serve as meditation chambers, pointing out various extraordinary Buddha images and delving into fascinating stories of the past and present.
You could spend hours roaming the caves and studying the Buddhas, but eventually we scuttle out. We’ve still got a trip to a paper umbrella-making workshop and a beautiful Shan cuisine dinner coming up before we retire for another restful night’s sleep before our long and picturesque ride to Mandalay tomorrow.
The SpiceRoads Cycle Tours Burma Adventure expedition continues onto Mandalay, Ava, Pyinsi, Mount Popa and Bagan. From Bagan the group flies to Yangon, where the tour concludes. The 14-day tour includes seven full days of cycling, three half days, and four days off the bikes (including arrival and departure days). The tour is priced at USD $3,850, plus an additional USD $230 for bike hire. The cost includes guides, accommodation, meals, entrance fees and vehicle support.