Decision time after a rough (but very friendly) introduction to Myanmar

Mae Sot

We spent a few rest days in Mae Sot before crossing the border to Myanmar, partly because we needed to make some minor repairs (new chains, sew up some holes in my shorts, find an electronics repair shop to fix my horn who’s cable had snapped, etc.). But also, we ended up meeting up with a really interesting guy who’s settled in Mae Sot for almost 20 years working with Burmese refuges and teaching.

Ton had some great recommendations for cycling in Myanmar, and while we were hanging out with him, we also ran into three other cycle tourists in town, all going the opposite direction, leaving Myanmar. So we had several meals together and traded stories and advice. One of the most fun random gatherings of cycle tourists we’ve had since Belgrade.

Here we all are at the excellent night market in Mae Sot.

Tea leaf salad, a famous Burmese dish, served at the co-op Ton works with, Borderline cafe, which also sells handicrafts made by Burmese refugees.

Wall art at Borderline cafe.

The road between Tak and Mae Sot was brutal in spots with the shoulder missing due to construction and 12% grades (over 1500 meters total climbing) so we walked a lot of it to keep out of the heavy truck traffic. We will find another way to go on the way back into Thailand.

He needs some work on his upper body, what do you think?

Myanmar Day 1

The cycle to the border and border crossing was really easy, just some paperwork to fill out. 10 minutes and done. On the way in, we met a Chinese cycle tourist who spoke almost no English, and we used Google Translate to say “let’s ride to Kawkareik together.”

We picked up some money at the ATM and bought some SIM cards. Our new Chinese friend had trouble translating what he wanted for a SIM card, so I helped him out and we got it working. As a thank you, he took us to breakfast at a Chinese restaurant, where he was able to order in Mandarin.

The chicken feet weren’t quite to our Western tastes, but we enjoyed the rice, cabbage soup, and stir fry (either liver or coagulated blood sauteed in veggies, not sure what it was but it was tasty).

These women saw us at the Chinese restaurant and asked us to go swimming with them. We had a long way to go so had to turn them down, so we did selfies instead. It’s like being in India again, where we get a lot of waves, thumbs up, hellos, and “mingalabar” (hello in Burmese). Being so new to foreigners and tourism, people are very genuinely interested in us, and it’s really refreshing and fun.

The “tourist police” checkpoints are a bit annoying. They stop us randomly and ask for our passports. I was suspicious at this one because his uniform looked cheaply made and when I asked for ID, he laughed and said “no ID”. Also, cars were driving by handing them 1000 kyat ($0.75US) notes, which seemed fishy. But it turns out it’s legit and we didn’t need to bribe them to get our passports back.

Our new Chinese friend wanted to continue further than Kawkareik, so we said good bye and friended each other on Facebook! We hope he has a great ride and some amazing experiences! Safe travels, 宇文之! Keep in touch.

In Kawkareik we met Su Su, an aspiring tour guide who speaks excellent English, and she was an absolute angel to us, helping us find a guesthouse, showing us a noodle factory, taking us cycling to a monk cremation ceremony where we were served free curry and rice, and even making us breakfast the next morning. We can’t thank her enough for easing our worries and making our introduction to Myanmar a more positive one.

The best hotels in town were full because of many Thais coming for the monk cremation festival, so Su Su found us this budget room.

It seems $10 doesn’t get you as much in Myanmar as in Thailand. We have been a bit spoiled I will admit, so this was a little challenging for us, but we were lucky to get one of the last rooms with its own bathroom, albeit with a squat toilet. The power was out so the fan didn’t work, and it was 100 degrees, so we decided to take a walk around town to be cooler.

Burmese text on a tablet near the town temple.

Entrance to the temple. Coca Cola really is world wide, isn’t it?

The cremation festival was really interesting and upbeat! The monk was in his 90s so it felt more like a celebration of life than a funeral. This structure houses the monk’s remains, which they will later burn that evening. People were buying small pieces of bamboo, walking up to the center, and making a pile there. Maybe it burns with the monk later. Around this structure was a huge market with many things for sale from mattresses to food. We were the only Westerners at the festival, so we got lots of greetings from other guests and vendors. We felt very welcomed. Su Su brought us to an area where free food is served to any who ask for it. The very low tables had us sitting nearly on the ground along with many others on the same bench joining in the feast. We had a lot of rice, some pork curry that was very greasy and fatty but flavorful, some fish broth that I didn’t care for, and some delicious sweets. The people were very generous to us, even finding a cloth napkin for us to wipe our hands. One man sat down next to us and had a conversation towards us, but none of us knew what he was saying; Su Su explained later he was speaking a local Kayin language that she doesn’t know.

We rode our bicycles to the festival, and Su Su asked her friends here if they would keep an eye on them while we walked around. They said sure, as long as they could have a photo with us. Our pleasure!!

Ride to Mawlamyine

The next day was one of the most challenging days of our trip so far and made us seriously reconsider our trip, not only in Myanmar, but overall.

The first 20+km were along a busy, narrow, poorly-paved road. With the aggressive and undisciplined drivers honking their way past us, forcing us off the road several times, and driving quite recklessly, we did not feel safe. The steering wheels are on the wrong side of the car for driving on the right hand side, so they overtake without being able to see if anyone is coming towards them. I was very thankful to have gotten my horn fixed in Mae Sot, as I used it dozens of times to warn oncoming traffic not to overtake. At times I had to hold out my hand to warn cars behind me not to pass me because they couldn’t see that it wasn’t safe! It was very stressful and dangerous, and I vowed not to continue in Myanmar if the roads continue like this.

Halfway into this mess, we ran into this brother/sister duo from Germany. They grew up cycle touring with their parents and are now out on their own. They originally were headed to Hpa-An, but when I told them about the possibility to get off this busy road and go instead to Mawlamyine, they quickly decided to join us. Ton and Su Su had given me instructions to take a ferry across the river in Kyonde and then cycle through rice paddies on the much less busy roads.

The ferry was more like a raft, and Su Su had written us a note in Burmese asking for directions, so I showed it to a gentleman on the raft and he smiled and pointed down confirming it was the right one!

It’s amazing what they take across on these things! Good thing for the life ring.

The road after the ferry was amazing for 5-10km, an elevated paved concrete road through the rice paddies and small villages. But it soon gave way to a long section of very rough dirt roads. It was better than being on the highway with traffic, but we were quickly all covered in a thick layer of red dust and dirt.

Once we made it to Kawt Bein, a small river side village, the road was again paved the rest of the way. We found a small restaurant that made us a delicious bowl of noodles. There’s a noodle soup I’ve fallen in love with here called oh nu khao swè, similar to Thailand’s khao soi soup. It’s a rich soup with chicken stock and coconut milk served on yellow noodles with lots of toppings. So good! These noodles were quite similar but more dry, less broth.

Some stunning and curious temples everywhere around.

Thank you Ton for warning us about the slats in this bridge where he crashed a few years ago. We safely walked across. If you zoom in here, you can see my bike and me are now covered in a thick layer of red dirt lol!

After such a tough day, we opted to hole up in a hotel that was well above our budget, but we needed to decompress and reconsider what to do next. If the roads continue to be this bad, we can’t continue; we don’t feel it’s safe. We are also feeling like our tolerance for adventure has decreased, after nearly a year on the road and a challenging time through India. Maybe it’s time to stop for a while to recharge our batteries and try to make sense of the huge jumble of experiences we’ve had and renew our thirst for adventure.

After speaking with some other cyclists who have been or are in Myanmar, we learned that the section between Kawkareik and Mawlamyine is one of the worst we will have to deal with, and we got a lot of encouragement to not give up. So, we decided to recharge a bit in Mawlamyine before continuing. We also decided to lessen our ambitions in Myanmar and skip Inle Lake and target Yangon by bike and then Bagan by train. After Myanmar, though, we are starting to consider taking a pause for a few months in Thailand to learn Thai and settle down for a bit.

So, we took a very lazy day at the hotel, only leaving once to meet up with some other cyclists whom we’ve been chatting with online. They are on their way from Vietnam to destinations unknown, about to continue a meditation course for another two weeks before heading back to Thailand and Malaysia. Talking to them reminded us that the best experiences happen when we don’t have a plan and we take everything day by day, and we hope to keep our options more open as we meander through Myanmar.

I’ve got a bit of Montezuma’s revenge going on (maybe that free pork curry is to blame??), so we are taking even a few more days in Mawlamyine and hiring a guide to show us around tomorrow when hopefully I can leave the toilet behind for a while. After that we will continue towards Yangon but we are doing our best to avoid having a strict schedule and instead just wander in that direction to see what we see.

Myanmar is slowly figuring out this tourism thing. It’s really interesting and fun to see their approach to tourists, which is often informed only loosely by how tourism works elsewhere. Servers hover awkwardly immediately after delivering a menu, rather than give you time to decide. Staff in hotels and tourist-friendly restaurants struggle to follow obtuse scripts designed for snooty British millionaires. But they relish any opportunity to practice their English and light up with smiles whenever we speak a word of Burmese.

It’s extremely refreshing to meet people who are so eager and genuine to welcome foreigners to their home, even when their ingenious and novel approaches to tourism sometimes feel a bit strange or naive. We can already see the big hearts of the Myanmar people shining through, proud of their country and eager to share it with those who are interested. We are really looking forward to seeing more and making friends and sharing our experiences here.

Chinese New Year Nakhon Sawan, Thailand

So we learned that the biggest Chinese New Year celebration in Thailand was happening in Nakhon Sawan, a town that we were planning to ride to 2 days before the big parade. We adjusted our schedule a bit to arrive in time to see the parade and had an amazing time.

There were very few farang, but everyone was happy and having fun and we mixed in with the crowd as best we could, enjoying the food, parade, and finale. It was an amazing night! I made a little video showing the highlights.

Running into these local events are the highlights of our cycling trip. We’ve seen German festivals in Italy, Hindu temple festivals in India, Gay Pride in Zagreb, Croatia, a wine festival in Novi Sad, and a summer festival in Dubrovnik, all by chance.

Canals, the River Kwai, City of Angels, Ancient capitals, and rice paddy fields forever

The past few weeks have been filled with fun adventures, a few failures and mishaps, amazing food (duh), heartwarming hospitality, and eye opening experiences.

After our stop in the Amphawa floating market area, we cycled inland towards Kanchanaburi, home of the infamous bridge over the River Kwai (pronounced like it rhymes with “eye”). We met up with a fellow cycle tourist who has settled in Thailand for the time being while waiting to continue cycle touring through India. We exchanged tips for India for tips in Thailand and had a really fun time getting to know him and a friend of his.

Too many Sangsum (local rum) and Coke for us, and too many mocktails for Steve! This is a huge sugar cane producing area, so we saw huge fields of it and truckloads full carrying them off for processing, growing along the many canals that fill the area.

Monn introduced us to kuay tieow gai (chicken noodle soup) made fresh every morning right by his house by a little old woman, and it was amazing! Those chicken meat balls are to die for.

The bridge over the River Kwai.

A Chinese cemetery, where there are perfectly laid-out family burial mounds with beautiful patterns in front.

We are not in tourist areas anymore! This restaurant we stopped at was really busy but not a bit of English was spoken or written. I tried my best but finally just ordered chicken fried rice. I’m getting better at deciphering menus since this, but it’s still a challenge.

I think probably 90% of the cables in Thailand are dark but everyone is afraid to tear them down…

We ended up staying a few nights in the backpacker area of Kanchanaburi and working on our bikes, relaxing, and meeting other travelers. Our cheapest room in Thailand yet, at $11 with a river view. Great place to spend some time, cockroaches included! We met a couple who are living in Myanmar and came to Thailand to renew their visa… It used to be the other way around; you’d go to Myanmar to renew your Thai visa, but with tourism picking up in Myanmar, it seems that some foreigners are calling Burma home now.

I had a small accident a few days earlier slipping and falling in the rain, and it was nice to give my road rash a chance to breath and heal, so we did a whole lot of nothing, in addition to sewing up my torn clothes and bags from the fall.

The bridge.

There are still bullet holes from the war.

Bangkok, city of Angels

After leaving Kanchanaburi, we had big ambitions of making it to Bangkok in one day, ambitions that were quickly ruined by a tedious day cycling on highways through endless sugar cane plantations, followed by following quaint but slow-going canals with intersections every few hundred meters and lots of dogs to dodge just sleeping in the street, mostly just ignoring us, but a few who wanted a bite of our juicy legs. Finally we gave up the ghost and found a cheap guest house that turned out to be near a university of some kind so was full of foreign students. Good news for us, as Steve needed to get a haircut, and I needed some antibiotics for my road rash, which had started to grow a bit funky. Steve found a Thai hipster barber shop that did a reasonable men’s cut. Generic antibiotics are over the counter in Thailand, so with the help of my doctor back home, I found an appropriate one and started taking a course. All the funky stuff went away within a couple of days and it’s healing nicely now.

Across the street from our hotel was a food court full of international students, which can mean only one thing, cheap tasty food! We had an amazing curry and some noodles for a few dollars. The next morning breakfast was a simple but incredible chicken fried rice, but the owner specializes in duck, so he threw in some duck soup for free, which was dark, rich, and flavorful. Yum, have I said how much I love Thailand yet??

The ride into Bangkok was just horrible. I absolutely do not recommend cycling into Bangkok. You should take a train or bus or something. But we hate those things, so we grumpily managed carrying our (fortunately light, bike packing) bikes over three pedestrian bridges to cross highways, braved nonstop (but slow) traffic, and joined a crew of locals for a taxi boat ride across the Chao Phraya river. The fare for locals was written as 3.5฿ each. I’ve never seen anything smaller than a 1 Baht coin so was hoping to get a 0.5฿ coin, but it was not to be because apparently foreigners with bikes get charged 10฿ each. Altogether it was an experience I’m glad I can talk about, but I wouldn’t repeat it.

Life in Bangkok is vibrant, chaotic, and wonderful. Where else in the world are there (numerous!!) street vendors selling nothing but various kinds of brooms?? And half the taxi cabs are pink!

We didn’t make a reservation for a room because the quantity of hotels and guesthouses in Bangkok is totally overwhelming. We messaged one, and they said we had to keep the bikes outside during the day. In a city of 8 million? No thanks. So we showed up with a few places in mind and our first choice, At Smile Guesthouse had an indifferent guy working at the front desk who didn’t seem thrilled to let our bikes in (shoes aren’t allowed, according to a big sign), but also didn’t appear to show any other kinds of emotions as we carried them up the stairs. And for $25 for a double with a private bath, with an attached bar, 1 block from Khao San Road in the middle of season, it was a really good choice.

We walked to the Golden Mount one day to ring the various bells for good luck and admire the city views.

We really wanted to eat at the Michelin star street food stall of renowned Jay Fai, but the waiting list is over 2 weeks. Next time we come through, we will reserve in advance. If you haven’t heard of her, YouTube it! I caught a picture of her with her signature goggles and wood-fired stove.

Instead, next door is “the best pad Thai in Bangkok” at Thipsamai. It is definitely the best I’ve ever had, for 90 Baht ($3) and a 45 minute wait. Highly recommended!

More bells at Golden Mount (sorry these aren’t in order, the Android app for WordPress really sucks).

Temple close up.

On the road to Bangkok we stopped at an Amazon Coffee; it’s like Thailand’s version of Starbucks. Every Amazon Coffee we’ve been to that has parking also has bike racks. How cool is that?? Starbucks, take note!

After having a good khao tom (rice soup) for breakfast one morning, we passed this shop selling nothing but steamed buns. If you’ve had dim sum before, you’ll recognize the pork buns with the pink dot. They also had different flavors, but when I saw them, I said, “we have to come back here for breakfast tomorrow.” And we did, twice!

Say what you will about Khao San Road, notorious backpacker party hotspot and center for counterfeit goods of all kinds. But it is a must-see place and definitely entertaining. It is not Thailand; it has grown into something totally unique. And that’s why we spent a few nights here with friends who happened to be in Bangkok when we were (we were going to miss each other by a few days but we made it happen!). So that’s how Angela came to taste a scorpion! Photo below (again, WordPress yadda yadda).

Cocktail bars are a huge thing in Thailand, it seems, and this bar had some amazing ones. This delicacy of passion fruit and chiles was delicious and quite provocative… What does it look like to you?

Dragon vs… flamingo?

The inside of that pork bun, with a little nugget of egg yolk. I could eat this every day!

These, on the other hand, are gross. It sounded horrible (sweet bean and salted egg, really?), but I was hoping for a “lost in translation” moment because they looked so good. But no, it tastes exactly like beans and (a bit spoiled, quite dry) egg. Blech.

She said it was pretty good! I dunno, I tried crickets last time I was in Thailand and did not care for the legs that got stuck in my teeth.

Here’s that “best pad Thai in Bangkok” served wrapped in an egg. You have to try it!

Ringing the bells!

So my SD card died and I bought a new one. I had some suspicion that it could be fake, but do people actually waste time counterfeiting a $20 product? Yup!! Yes they do. Ran a test on it… Actually capacity, 1GB. Actual speed, unusable. Don’t buy electronics in Thailand, lesson learned.

Our bikes nice and cozy in our Bangkok hotel.

Ancient Capitals

Leaving Bangkok, we’ve been making our way north though the ancient Thai capitals towards the border crossing with Myanmar. One we got out of Bangkok, the cycling has become amazing, lots of quiet country roads through fields of rice paddies, sugar cane, and other crops. Random aggressive dogs too, but so far only one or two have nipped at our heels; 95% ignore us, 4% bark, and the 1% bark and chase.

We decided to stop and let this herd cross since we weren’t in a hurry. The cattle herder yelled “thank you” to us for stopping. We had intended to climb up those mountains towards Khao Yai national park, but after 20km on an 8-lane busy highway, we called it quits.

We love the night markets where you can get the most amazing Thai food for the best prices. But I think we end up spending just as much as at a restaurant because our eyes are bigger than our stomachs. The little bags of curries are the best because they are premade for the Thai pallet, so you know you are getting a really authentic meal, something that’s impossible for a foreigner to order in a restaurant (unless you speak really good Thai!). Unfortunately it also means it’s made with the parts of the animals that foreigners don’t usually eat. My bag of pork stir fry had an amazing flavor and tremendous spice but the pork had bits of indigestible tough skin still attached to it. This stall in the picture was making all kinds of egg pancakes; the grumpy woman didn’t like farangs with cameras; I don’t blame her.

Super fresh seafood everywhere.

For Valentine’s Day, we found a resort in the foothills of the mountains with a Chinese style cottage. The little floor cushions are surprisingly comfortable!

Lopburi is one of the ancient Thai capitals, and we stayed at the backpacker favorite, Noom’s Guesthouse. It was a perfect choice, cheap and right in the middle of the old city, where there was a festival happening for King Narai.

Our Valentine’s Day cottage.

Ayutthaya temple ruins, one of the ancient Thai capitals.

King Narai festival in the ancient palace in Lopburi. Locals dress up in traditional outfits.

Narai palace, Lopburi.

Palace ruins with an event setup; they hold light shows and traditional performance art events here during the festival, I believe. All the info online and on posters is in Thai so it’s hard to find out what’s happening when. If you ask a local, they’re likely to say it’s something that farangs wouldn’t be interested in.

Lots of people in very traditional dress with photographers following them around.

So cool to see these ancient ruins superimposed on a busy modern Asian city in the midst of a festival.

More locals in traditional dress with guards.

They had music, speeches, and fireworks in this plaza all night long. (And big blow-up minions!!)

We learned that it’s Chinese New Year’s and the biggest celebration in Thailand is in Nakhon Sawan. By slowing down a couple of days, we will be there for the big parades! So we’ve been meandering around the area, finding small boutique hotels set amidst small banana farms, and cycling along the many canals. Sunday we will arrive in Nakhon Sawan and see the parade and enjoy the festivities (and food!).

And yes, the year here is 2561, not 2018! That’s talking some getting used to… Even Google search shows 2561 as the date, so weird!!

Calories in > calories out

Thai food continues to astound me. Especially the street food. We have been enjoying the most amazing food we’ve ever eaten, and it’s everywhere! At each city we stop in, we head for the daily market or night market and find the most amazing things, each one for 50c-$1 or so. We can’t help but stuff ourselves every day! We need to start riding around in circles or else we will gain 20 lbs, damn!

Grilled lobster and seafood in Hua Hin.

Amphawa floating market – there are many boats like this with fresh seafood cooking up all sorts of Thai dishes with huge prawns, squid, crabs, and other seafood.

Another boat kitchen.

We had lunch here.

Amazingly fresh!

Some of the biggest and tastiest prawns I’ve ever had. (Though I still dream of the prawns of Denia, Spain, by far THE best prawns I’ve ever tasted, sorry Thailand…)

Amazing pork noodle soup for 20฿.

Grilled scallops.

Floating market in full swing.

Dried fish and other snacks for sale at the floating market.

Egg custard pies, very similar (but not quite as good) as the famous pastel de nada of Portugal.

Some of the engines on these long tail boats are all decked out… Love the Michelin man on this one!

For dessert, coconut ice cream in a coconut shell with fresh coconut pulp carved out, topped with sweetened mung beans, peanuts, and sticky rice. Yum!

Non-food pictures

Zoom in on that critter towards the bottom of the photo. That is a monitor lizzard! We see them popping up in the rivers here from time to time, swimming around, flicking their tongues, and then ducking back underwater. Creepy! I asked a Thai guy if they bite, and he laughed and said, “no eat”. So I’m still not sure… Either Thais don’t eat the lizzards, or the lizzards don’t eat people. It could be an important distinction.

Really interesting temple we cycled by.

Another cycle tourist we met near Hua Hin on an unexpected enjoyable separated cycle lane paralleling the highway, riding a folding Bromptom bike on a few week tour of Thailand. He’s been all over SE Asia and gave us some good advice for our upcoming route.

Our guest house near the Amphawa floating market is immediately on the canal. Waters are very high right now. Riding in, several of the roads were flooded and we had to make some detours, running across highway medians carrying our bikes, and braving cycling through a few deep puddles in flooded streets due to the washed out roads.

Not really sure what this guy is up to in Hua Hin.

Intricate tiled elephant tusk statue in Phetchaburi.

Will try to post fewer food photos next time lol!

เลย์ potato chips

I’m going to bring this flavor back home, hot chili squid! It’s really good, who’s with me? I love the play on Thai/Latin letters in the Lays logo. It reads as “lay” in both Thai and English because of the way they write the letters, pretty cool. Lay vs. เลย์