‘Oh, watch out for snakes’. These were the last words breezily uttered by the Burmese man hiring us a pair of bicycles. Now, a few hours later in the bruising heat of Bagan, sure enough, there was a hissing sound coming from below my pedals…
Myanmar (aka Burma) is currently in more top 10s than Jason Donovan ever was. It’s become this year’s must see destination. In terms of hits, it has many, but arguably its greatest is Bagan. Spilling out from the banks of the Irrawaddy river, among the sunburnt palm fronds and lanky green grass lie more than 2,000 temples. Stories abound as to why this royal city was abandoned in the thirteenth century, whether because of Mongol invasion, or that they too were driven out by terrible asps. Or a flat tyre.
Looking down it wasn’t a pair of fangs clamped in my deflated wheel, but a sizeable thorn. Marco Polo once described Bagan as ‘one of the finest sites in the world’, possibly because he hadn’t explored it on a bike too vintage even for the most committed hipster. Throwing 50 shades of colourful language at my ride, I become aware of a man sat in a haze of smoke as he drew lazily on a cheroot from under the shade of a palm tree. He pointed to a sign, ‘Bike repair’. In this most spiritual of places, my prayers were swiftly answered. PulIing the inner tube from the tire, which had more patches than a three-eyed pirate, he delivered his professional opinion on its hirer, “You want to throw the bike at him.”
When Orwell and Kipling had written their love letters to this corner of South-East Asia, it had been of another time, name and era. Burma and its colonial past long gone, now, after years under a shady military junta, sanctions have been lifted and the curtain raised on modern Myanmar. The locals remain reluctant to talk at length about the government for fear of being overheard by spies. But, curious of the outside world, they offer endearing assistance, gentle curiosity and chit chat about food, family and who exactly are Tottenham Hotspur.
The Myanmar people live by the sun. When it’s up, so are they. And given it was pitch black when we trundled towards a temple for sunrise, they were, of course, fast asleep. Stood among a fandango of farmyard animals, my girlfriend said, “Go and wake him up.” The ‘him’ being a keyholder, a local who lives next to the temple. “But he’s asleep,” I protested, stating the obvious as we watched him snore. The chickens and pigs seemed to like this dawn pantomime. Stopping short of coaxing a cockle-doodle-do out of one of them, a subtle coughing fit seemed to do the trick. The keyholder unlocked the temple with a snoozy smile and shuffled back to bed. We had the pitch black to ourselves.
As the stars faded, the air warmed and ignited the horizon. An ember of yellow, then red, burned away the darkness, uncloaked the ethereal stupas and pagodas. At the same time a silent cascade of balloons pierced the violet dawn. Without sound, a local selling his paintings had joined us. Showing flagrant regard for a business model, he said, “I prefer the quiet temples, too.”
One down, 1,999 to go. We spent the morning biking around powder dust tracks and peering into temples, each hiding peeling frescos, gilded Buddahs and stories to tell. The grand Dhammayangyi Pahto temple, it is said, possibly truthfully, by the eight-year-old boy stood next to me, was built by King Narathu to atone for his sins after smothering his father and brother to death. Exchanging one gulp for another we took respite from murderous monarchs with a bowl of Shan noodle soup – a hotchpotch of spicy broth, pungent tamarind and fresh greens.
With stomachs and bike tyres filled, we hopped aboard our rusting steeds and cycled into the sunset. We also cycled into a Burmese version of wacky races. Weaving between cows and bush scrub were speeding tour buses, e-bikers and horse-drawn carriages. Meanwhile, a lone farmer walked gracefully against the tide, herding his goats homeward.
Oh well, If you can’t beat the crowds, join them. That’s probably no traveller’s mantra, ever. But, they also say beauty is best shared, so we all watched the sun sink into the Irrawaddy together.
As night fell, so did the selfie sticks. The tour buses departed, leaving only clouds of dust, and us. We’d found our solitude again. With the temples cloaked by a glistening stage curtain of stars, we turned to head back with only a head torch and shallow moon to light the way. Then, once more, came that faintly familiar hissing sound.
Do something similar:
The Spiritual Burma tour with Tucan Travel includes three days exploring Bagan by bicycle. 14 days, from £1,205.10, tnttoursearch.com/tours/spiritual-burma
BURMA BUCKET LIST
The gateway to Shan hills; here the snakes are green, the green tea is fresh and the morning breeze fresher still. Overnight treks can be arranged spend the night in tea picking villages.
Myanmar’s finest stretch of beach is Ngapali. Its warm waters and crescent of golden sand are shared by tourists, fishing communities and colourful crabs. Dine out on snapper, swim, snorkel and sunset. Repeat.
Nyaungshwe is the jumping off point to see traditional fishermen, stilt houses and floating allotments. There’s even a jumping cat monastery. Or save your sea legs and explore tofu cottage industries and hillside vineyards by bike.
Mandalay and Yangon
These steamy metropolises have their own calling cards. In Yangon it’s the tea shops fuelling this bustling city and the glimmering Shwedagon Pagoda. And in Mandalay visit the bucolic hills of Sagaing, the ruins of Inwa and the world’s longest teak footbridge – U-Bein Bridge.
Not technically a destination. But sometimes it’s the people who make the places and the Burmese smile is as wide as the Irrawaddy itself. Courteous, friendly and with a gentle sense of humour, if the balmy temperatures don’t warm you to the country, the locals will.
For more tours to Burma, visit tnttoursearch.com