Biking Through the Ages

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Words: Stuart Danker Photography: Affandi Abd Hamid (FND)

I stood before the touring bike that would be my mode of transport for the next three days. The other cyclists were equipped with athletic sunglasses, hydration packs, cycling shoes and GPS devices. I was the only one dressed in shorts and cheap sneakers bought from a flea market. Never having cycled more than 10 kilometres at a time, I wondered if I might’ve been a tad unprepared.

biking in Bagan
The tour takes cyclists right through the villages, offering visitors first-hand experience of the locals’ lives.

The guide assigned to my cycling group was going through the pre-departure briefing when one of the participants pointed at my pants, saying that I should’ve worn bicycle tights to prevent saddle sore. I had no idea what this condition was, but I was certain it was something I didn’t want to be saddled with. However, before I had the chance to find out more, my guide had ridden off, signalling the start of our journey.

LAND OF HISTORY

I’d signed up for a tour with biking specialist Grasshopper Adventures to explore Myanmar, taking roads less travelled and a means of transport that was much more challenging than anything I’d ever experienced before.

This particular trip spanned roughly 200 kilometres. Starting from Mandalay, we would cycle southwards to Sagaing, Popa Hill, Kyauk Padaung and Bagan, each city offering a vastly different experience, and I was excited at the prospect of exploration.

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Bein Bridge in Mandalay was constructed in 1857, and at a length of 1.2 kilometres, it’s believed to be the longest teak bridge in the world.

The flag-off point, Mandalay, is Myanmar’s second-largest city and home to the Mandalay Palace. The last two kings of the country – King Mindon and King Thibaw – both resided in the palace, which was built around the year 1859. The palace is surrounded by a 64-metre-wide moat that circles the palace, totalling up to an impressive nine kilometres in length. It was here in this city region that my adventure began.

BACKCOUNTRY BY BIKE
Our tour group started off by exploring Mandalay’s backcountry trails with terrain that put our bikes’ suspensions to the test. Barely an hour into the journey, my hands were numb from gripping the rattling handlebars, and my behind was starting to hurt from the bicycle seat as well. This challenging ride kept up as we cycled through villages, observing the locals’ day-to-day activities.

We cycled between farmers’ rice crops, barely a few spans away from oxen ploughing fields. We rode from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, witnessing craftsmen making alms bowls and villagers tending to textile machines that produced silk.

biking in Myanmar
The market in Kyauk Padaung is a bustling hive of activity and colours.

With every turn, children and adults shouted minggalabah (hello) to welcome us. The people were warm, and it even showed in their driving etiquette. Despite the lack of bicycle lanes in the country, I felt safe cycling. Motorists were vocal on the road, but they didn’t honk out of annoyance. They merely did so to announce their presence, and were very empathic to those on two wheels.

CANALS & COMMERCE
After 10 kilometres of harsh trails, we finally arrived at asphalt roads, and we followed these roads to the 1.7km-long Irrawaddy Bridge that spans the Irrawaddy River, Myanmar’s largest river and most important waterway. The river runs 2,100 kilometres through Myanmar from north to south before emptying into the Andaman Sea. A vital avenue of trade and transport to the country, the river traces its history of commerce all the way to the 6th century.

biking in Myanmar
In Myanmar, a deeply Buddhist country, it is customary for young boys to spend a period of time living among the Sangha (Buddhist monastic community) and studying the Dhamma (teachings of Buddha). It is common to witness processions, part of the Shinbyu (novice ordination) ceremony, along country roads, as the boys make their way to monasteries to begin their novitiate.

Canals were constructed along the river to channel water for the irrigation of fields, vastly improving the capacity of local farmers to grow their crops, rice paddy in particular. Due to the abundant rice harvests, Myanmar (formerly Burma) became one of the world’s largest rice exporters while under British rule in the 18th century. Today, the river is still widely used for transportation, with goods such as teak and rice moved along the river.

After passing the Irrawaddy River, we headed towards Sagaing, a religious centre with more than 500 Buddhist monasteries, schools and meditation centres. The city is famous for its white- and golden-tipped pagodas – not unlike the ones you’d see in Bagan – and it was even the royal capital for three years during the 1700s. It’s a prime destination for religious scholars, as well as Buddhists seeking a greater understanding of their religion.

biking in Myanmar
A worker carrying goods to be sold in the market at Kyauk Padaung.

The climb up Sagaing Hill was gruelling, prompting me to dismount and push my bike up the steeper inclines. I used every last morsel of strength to make it up to the Soon Oo Ponya Shin Pagoda, but it was worth the pain. Built in 1312, the pagoda is one of the oldest temples in Sagaing Hill, but even more impressive is the fabulous panoramic view it proffers. From the balconies of the temple, one can revel in the breath-taking sights of the surrounding lands. Below, I could make out the steps leading from the foot of the mountain to the pagoda. In the background, barges floated along the Irrawaddy River, and when I looked closely, I was even able to spot our starting point, all the way in Mandalay!

The pagoda was the last stop of the day. I had barely cycled 50 kilometres and I was already spent. I had also figured out what saddle sore was and my legs were ready to give out. With a disheartened sigh, I remembered that I still had two more days to go.

A QUIET SOJOURN

As the sun rose the next day, I knew that the time I dreaded had come. We were to cycle more than 80 kilometres from Myingyan – a two-hour drive south of Sagaing – to Mount Popa. We were shuttled to Myingyan because it was not feasible to cycle from our previous stop to Mount Popa within a day.

biking in Myanmar
The Taung Kalat Monastery sits on the volcanic hill of Mount Popa and is believed to be home to 37 nats (diverse types of spirits according to Burmese Buddhists).

I gingerly positioned myself on the seat as my guide explained that it would be a straight path all the way, which meant that we could cycle at our own pace without the fear of getting lost. It suited me fine because the bigger and stronger cyclists took off at a blazing pace from the get-go!

The day’s route crossed through Myanmar’s dry zone, which had a markedly different appearance from the rest of country. The landscape was barren, and it seemed like orange dirt surrounded everything save the asphalt we traversed. The seemingly endless arid scenery was interrupted only by the odd sunflower farm and cluster of trees. Vehicles – both engine- and animal-powered – navigated the sandy roads, their occupants waving to me as they passed. Besides these brief moments of human interaction, there was nothing but quiet for stretches at a time.

biking in Myanmar
Goat- and cow-herders are a common sight along the roads from Myingyan to Sagaing.

Twenty kilometres in, I came across a farmer and his huge herd of goats and cows blocking the road. The farmer smiled at me and waved for me to pass – right through the herd! Having never encountered such a situation before, I was unsure as to how to do this, without being tail-slapped, head-butted or worse!

Sensing my anxiety, the farmer pointed to his mouth and whistled, gesturing for me to do the same. Too engrossed with imitating the sound, I almost ran into a cow that veered into my path. It took a few minutes before I learned to navigate the mass of bodies, taking utmost care not to fall and get trampled. For a while, I cycled with the herd, fully appreciative of the interactive experience only a bike ride can provide. After making it through, I left the farmer with a parting wave before resuming my long and quiet journey ahead.

THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE

I was running on fumes by the time I reached the foot of Mount Popa. It had taken me four hours to get there, and there was still the final 10 kilometres of steep cycling to go. The roads inclined at an angle, causing strain that no amount of gear-shifting could allay, and I found myself having to alternate between cycling and pushing my bike. Not only was it the hardest leg of the trip, it was also one of the most exhausting things I’ve ever done in my entire life.

However, all that discomfort faded away when I finally reached the top, and found that my hotel room overlooked the Taung Kalat Monastery.

Built on a volcanic mountaintop 737 metres above sea level, the Taung Kalat Monastery – which is a popular pilgrimage site – stood majestically against the setting sun. It’s believed that the volcanic hill is home to 37 nats (what Burmese Buddhists believe are diverse types of spirits) that typically act as guardians. The visual beauty I had worked so hard to enjoy was complemented by melodious chants, and as the sounds of prayers drifted across the valley to my room, I found myself lulled to sleep.

A NEW DAWN

Despite the soreness, I found myself oddly refreshed the next day. We started the day by zipping down the exact mountain we had climbed just 12 hours earlier! As dangerous as the slopes were, I was grateful not to have to pedal as much, allowing the natural incline to take me where I had to go. Because of the speedy ride, we reached the quaint city of Kyauk Padaung – located 20 kilometres away – fairly quickly.

biking in Myanmar
Shop-owners preparing betel-nut quids, which typically consist of betel vine leaves, tobacco, betel nuts, and lime paste.

It was a quiet town, but when we turned off the main road to visit the local produce market, we were greeted by a bustle so unexpected, given the city’s calm appearance. This market was significantly different to wet markets I was used to. The fragrance of fresh tobacco leaves lingered amongst those of pickled fruits, while colours clashed between the assortment of stall umbrellas and the denizens’ vibrant longyis (a cloth worn waist-down). Within the labyrinth of stalls, workers shouted for people to make way as they trudged along with heavy loads of merchandise on their backs.

Nearby, a peddler motioned for me to try some betel nuts. Many countries around the world, such as India and Cambodia, have adopted the practice of chewing betel nuts, and its consumption in Myanmar was equally prevalent. A betel quid in Myanmar typically consists of betel nuts and tobacco wrapped in betel vine leaf, coated with lime paste for taste. The mix acts as a stimulant, which is said to give a buzz. Having never tried it before, I purchased a quid to satisfy my curiosity about this local delight.

The bitterness sent my salivary glands on overdrive, and I was beginning to see why red splotches on roads were a common sight. Being apprehensive about spitting on the ground, I found a trashcan I could use. The locals snuck glances at me, though I suspect it had more to do with the thanaka (paste made from ground bark) on my face than my struggle with discrete drool disposal.

biking in Myanmar
Thanaka is widely used as a skincare product and is mostly worn by children and women.

In my haste to experience a dose of Myanmarese culture, I had allowed a peddler selling thanaka bark to apply the paste to my face in swirly patterns. Thanaka paste is commonly used as a skincare product and comes with healing properties. It’s also a natural sunblock. What I didn’t realise at the time was that, generally, only children and women wear thanaka, which explained the double-takes from the locals. But, I was too sunburnt to care by that point and the thanaka cooled my inflamed cheeks.

HOME STRETCH

One hour later, and the market was a thing of the past. We were on the road again and our guide had told us that the strong winds would hinder our pace. I wasn’t sure if my tour-mates’ larger builds were working against them aerodynamically or if the betel nuts were kicking in, but I was able to keep up with them all the way to our final destination. It took another three hours to cycle through the rolling hills and empty plains, and we did so in tired silence, the kilometre markers counting down our distance to Bagan.

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From the 11th to the 13th century, Bagan was home to more than 10,000 temples and pagodas. That number has since dwindled to approximately 2,000.

Bagan thrived as the capital of Myanmar from the 9th to the 13th century. Through the trees, I managed to spot shiny tips of some of the 2,000 pagodas and temples jutting towards the sky – a paltry figure compared to the 10,000 original structures that existed during the city’s golden era. Bagan’s decline began with the invasion of the Mongols in 1277, and has never quite recovered from it. According to my guide, it’s also the home of three main temples, Dhammayan Gyi, That Byin Nyu and Ananda. Locals call them the largest, tallest and most beautiful respectively. There’s even a local rhyme that goes ‘massiveness that is Dhammayan Gyi, loftiness that is That Byin Nyu, grace that is Ananda.’ Unfortunately, this trip did not include those sites, but I decided that I’d discover those monuments on my own.

Funnily, when we finally arrived at the Grasshopper Adventures headquarters to return our bikes after the gruelling journey, my first thought was that I was sad to bid farewell to my two-wheeled companion. After some 200 kilometres of cycling across various terrains and through different parts of the country, I’d become rather attached to her, and it seemed a rather anti-climactic end, given that I’d finally arrived in Bagan.

But then, I remembered how much richer I was then than when I’d started off on the journey; I’d met new friends, tried new things, and learned so much about a country I’d never been in. Then, I realised that the tour – like others things in life – wasn’t about the destination, but the journey, and boy did I have one hell of a ride!

TEMPLE-HOPPING IN BAGAN

To visit all 2,000 temples in the city would be a huge undertaking, so start off with these top-three greats.

ANANDA TEMPLE Crowned the most beautiful temple in Bagan, the Ananda Temple has elegant golden spires and contains four impressive Buddha statues within its walls.

DHAMMAYAN GYI TEMPLE This temple, the biggest in Bagan, was built in 1170 by King Narathu, who was said to have chopped off the hands of workers who didn’t lay bricks perfectly during the temple’s construction.

THAT BYIN NYU TEMPLE Standing 61 metres high, That Byin Nyu is considered Bagan’s tallest temple, and its rustic appearance gives this place its charm. It’s also known for its unique shape, resembling a non-symmetrical cross when viewed from above.

ESSENTIAL EQUIPMENT

Pack these items for a smooth cycling trip.

ANANDA TEMPLE Crowned the most beautiful temple in Bagan, the Ananda Temple has elegant golden spires and contains four impressive Buddha statues within its walls.

SUNGLASSES You’re going to spend a lot of time under the sun, so this will stop the need to squint.

SUNBLOCK & ARM SLEEVES Cycling long distances with a sunburn is never comfortable!

CYCLING GLOVES These will help with grip and comfort, especially if you have sweaty palms.

HYDRATION BACKPACKS It’s good to have extra water supply to keep hydrate.

CYCLING TIGHTS Most cycling tights are padded, which help in preventing saddle sore.

GETTING THERE AirAsia flies from Bangkok to Mandalay daily. For flight info and lowest fares, visit airasia.com.

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About the Author

Stuart Danker

Stuart collects hobbies, particularly those that test the limits of the human body. When not on the mats practising Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, he can be found climbing rocks or running through nature's trails.

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