Detour to Yangon

Despite a 5a.m. wake-up, we pulled out of our host Yun's place a little bit later than we'd hoped. He kindly accompanied us to the border to send us off and watched our bikes and bags as we attempted in vain to figure out how to secure a re-entry permit on our single-entry Thai visa.

  About to enter Myanmar via the Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge at Mae Sot (photo by Yun)

As Canadians entering Thailand via a land border we would only be granted a 14-day visa on arrival, definitely not enough time for us to cycle to Malaysia. We were trying to avoid having to apply for a new visa and it seemed like it was a pretty straightforward procedure for us to get a permit that would allow us to re-enter the country on our current 60-day visa. We showed up at the Thai Immigration at Mae Sot with our duly completed forms (downloaded from the Immigration Bureau of Thailand website).

It became clear pretty quickly that nobody knew what to do with our forms. Despite what we thought was a pretty obvious heading, written in both Thai and English, “Application permit for re-entry into the Kingdom”. After being shuffled from window to the next, someone grudgingly filled out forms for us (20 baht/each). They turned out to be vehicle permits, which we're pretty sure we didn't need. Our completely ignored re-entry application forms were shoved back through the window at us, along with the vehicle permits. The confused immigration officers responded to our enquiries by repeating that we would get 14-day visas upon returning to Thailand, so we didn't have to worry. So we exited Thailand without the re-entry permit that we needed and concluded that we'd have to make our way to the Thai consulate in Yangon and apply for a new visa.

Going to Yangon had not been part of our original plan, so we had to regroup and figure out what we would be doing in the country. By the time we actually entered the border town of Myawaddy it was late morning, quashing our half-hearted hopes of cycling over the mountains of Kayin State to it's capital Hpa-An 150km away. It was a two day ride that we had thought we might be able to manage in one day with an early enough start and an after-dark finish. We decided to take a bus, at least part of the way.   Loading our bicycles on to the bus at the Myawaddy bus terminal

By the time our bus cleared the mountains, there were about three hours of daylight left and over 100km to Hpa-an. The mountain road was a one-lane, pothole ridden disaster with switchbacks that often required our bus to make multiple three-point turns to clear. Kind of scary and definitely uncomfortable. There were several checkpoints where copies of our passport were handed out and we were even once photographed. The road has only recently been opened to foreign tourists, with the area under cease-fire after years of devastating civil war.   View from the bus of a traffic jam that took us almost an hour to clear, just outside Hpa-an

  Smiles of Kayin State

We hadn't been told that our bus wasn't actually Hpa-an bound. We were dropped off at an intersection about 10km out of the city. It was nearing dark and as we disembarked we realised that the bus was probably headed to Yangon. Rather than attempting to load our bicycles onto a new bus the next day we decided to continue on. It would be another seven hours before we arrived in Yangon, at 1a.m., at the bus terminal 30km out of the city. We had called a few hotels from a pay phone at our dinner stop but hadn't found any with vacancies. We found a taxi driver willing to drive us around until we found a cheap hotel.

It was almost 3 a.m. by the time we found a room. It was a windowless mildew-box on the fifth floor of a downtown hotel, the last one in the entire place. The last one in Yangon as far as we could tell (although we did reject our taxi driver's first pick that appeared to have several prostitutes waiting in the lobby).

To add to the terribleness of the situation we had picked up a third-wheel at the Yangon bus station. A solo traveller who didn't have a damn clue what was going on. He was in the country attempting to get a long-term Thai visa so that he could continue to live there with his wife. It seemed highly suspicious to us that anyone would marry this guy. We had agreed to let him share our taxi, forcing us to share a single seat in the back, with our bikes and bags piled on top of us, while he sat in the front. And in a moment of even more perplexing sympathy we agreed to let him share our tiny double room. It was, after all, the middle of the night and we didn't have the heart to send him on the continued search for a room (we had tried four hotels before finding this one). We weren't able to get rid of him until three days later, when we basically got on our bikes and rode away. We did however, kick him out of our room after the first night (incredibly, he resisted).   View from the roof of our downtown Yangon hotel

Despite the oppressive humidity and our equally oppressive side-kick, we managed to get out and explore the fantastic bustle of downtown Yangon, get our Thai visas and squeeze in a visit to the Shwedagon Pagoda (the country's holiest Buddhist pilgrimage site). We were pretty mesmerized by Yangon. We stayed in an area with a large concentration of hotels but we found that everything, including the traffic, seemed to be indifferent to the presence of tourists. Although we did get a lot of huge beautiful smiles!   Afternoon commute, downtown Yangon

  Evening at Shwedagon Pagoda

After two days in the city we secured onward bus tickets to Mandalay. It was a pain finding a company that would agree to transport our bicycles for a not outrageous fee. While the seat prices were all in the same standard range, there was some serious price-gouging on the excess baggage fees. We eventually had our hotel staff reserve tickets for us (at the price that we had balked at before trying to negotiate the fees ourselves). We cycled out to the bus station, even though we had read that bicycles and motorcycles were banned from Yangon streets. The downtown riding was perfectly fine, but as we exited the city it became an increasingly hair-raising ride. We ended up on a busy, undivided, highway jockeying for space on the narrow shoulder with hundreds of pedestrians, rickshaws and bicycles in complete darkness.

At the bus station, our "friend" was waiting for us. When we had told him that we were going to Mandalay, he announced that he would be coming with us. The three of us arrived in Mandalay before sunrise after an 8 hour, largely sleepless bus ride. We weren't exactly in cycling condition, but we had already resigned ourselves to the fact that the only way to free ourselves would be to start riding, which is what we did.
Partially sponsored by Mountain Equipment Coop Expedition Support

Across Northern Thailand's Highway 12

Our border crossing into Thailand over the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge was totally smooth. In about twenty minutes we had cleared Thai customs with the two month entry-stamp that we were hoping for. We easily reached Udon Thani, where we ended up for three days trying to find a solution to our wheel problem. Despite our hopes to the contrary, Udon Thani's bike shops had even less selection than Vientiane's. After briefly considering sending Yann to Bangkok for a few days to shop for wheels, we settled on a used one that is now on my bicycle. The wheel's bearings are completely shot making for a very “crunchy” ride (that's the opposite of smooth). But if it lasts us the 2,000km of riding separating us from the Bangkok bike shops then it will have been 25$ well spent.   Goodbye Mavic EX721, you didn't really cut it

Udon Thani is an unremarkable place. It was the location of a US Air Force base during the Vietnam War, so many locals made money and learned English, making it a prosperous city Thai standards. The city has a large expat community but virtually no independent tourists. The only thing we did in Udon Thani, between changing bicycle wheels and mailing packages home, was eating. After having spent a month in Laos where the food was expensive and limited, we were pretty excited by the abundance of cheap, delicious food. So despite the lack of tourist attractions, our three days in the city were rather pleasant, albeit gluttonous.

From Udon Thani we had 600km of riding to the Burmese border at Mae Sot. Our first day was an ambitious 144km ride south to the town of Chum Phae. Here, our rural 3-digit highway intersected the the larger Highway 12 which we would follow until the border. Despite the easy flat terrain, we were wiped when we pulled in to Chum Phae at nightfall. The next two days of riding were brutal. We completely underestimated the difficulty of the route. We climbed twice as many metres as we had calculated with all the ups and downs. With the grades of some of the climbs at over 25% we crawled on the ups, and reached speeds of over 55km/hr on the downs. We've mastered keeping our balance while maintaining a speed of 3km/hr, so at least we didn't have to resort to pushing our bikes. (Yann has insisted that I include the following statement: Yann has never ridden a bicycle under the speed of 4.5km/hr and he will not have the above speed attributed to his riding.)

Our first day on Highway 12 was the toughest. We hadn't realised that for most of the day the highway ran through Nam Nao National Park, home to several wild elephants. We concluded, after riding over a lot of elephant poop, that these elephants must make regular appearances on the highway. The road, though beautiful, was virtually deserted and eerily quiet, making every rustling leaf a potential angry elephant. We felt vulnerable, especially at the speed we were going on the climbs. I spent the day constantly reevaluating our strategic position, how far were we from a downhill getaway? We could outpace an elephant on a downhill, but every downhill was followed immediately by an insane uphill. I pictured us trapped in a crevasse, between two climbs, surrounded by elephants.
Other than our constant worrying about elephant attacks, the day's ride was uneventful, the highlight of which was getting Google street mapped (GPS coordinates: N16.76218°, E101.51997°) on this entirely empty stretch of highway!

Continuing along Highway 12, we spent the next two days on the stretch of the road known as the Green Route. Apparently this title has made the area extremely popular. The road was empty on the previous day and all of a sudden the road widened and tons of Thai tourists appeared. The climbs were just as steep, but with lots of access to food and water and with no threat of wild elephants, the riding seemed a lot easier.
We took a nice long break in Sukhothai, where we joined the hundreds of other tourists visiting its historic old city on rental bicycles. The bicycle is by far the most popular way to explore the temples and it makes for a really pleasant, uncrowded atmosphere. At some of the more remote temples we were the only people there.

Our ride from Sukhothai to the border stretched from our planned two days into five days when Yann got pretty sick fifty kilometres from our destination. We were on our final day of riding, just a few dozen metres short of the first of two passes for the day when we pulled over at a roadside market to rest. Yann lay on the pavement for over an hour, consumed several electrolyte drinks but was completely out. There was no way he was going to make it up another climb. We turned back down the road where we had spotted a small agro-tourism resort on the side of the mountain. It was a pretty nice place to be stuck, the weather was mercifully cool as Yann battled a fever for two days. I walked up to the market every day to buy our meals and emptied the few shops of their electrolyte drinks. After three nights Yann wasn't entirely better but he was feeling strong enough to leave.
A few kilometres out of Mae Sot we spotted another cyclist coming from the other direction, or rather he spotted us. On a fully-loaded touring bike, we thought he was a tourist, but he was actually a local cycling enthusiast coming to meet us! After receiving a call from a friend who spotted us on the road, he had rode out to intercept us. After brief introductions we were instructed to follow him to his place where he showed us to our own room in his home. Our host, Yun, then led us around town. First treating us to two plates each of noodles for lunch, then bringing us to his shop at the border market where we we met his wife and daughter. On the way to the market, we picked up two American cyclists who had just arrived in town and were looking for a place to stay. There were now five of us, parading around town with our touring bikes.
Yun and his family exhibited much of the same traits as our past cycling hosts: boundless energy and incredible generosity. We were fed and lodged and when we woke up at 5am the next morning, we found that everyone was already awake preparing a hearty breakfast for our send-off, including cheese and an assortment of speciality coffees! We were made to promise that we would visit again on our return from Myanmar, this wasn't a particularly difficult promise to make.

Stats for Vientiane (Laos) to Mae Sot (Thailand):

Days of cycling: 8
Days of rest: lots
Kilometres cycled: 749
Metres climbed: 5938

Partially sponsored by Mountain Equipment Coop Expedition Support