The country formerly known as Burma is finally open to foreign bikers. We hear from Heike and Filippo Fania, two of the first riders to ride in…
Burma, officially the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, is still a white spot on the maps of overlanders, a missing link between India and Thailand. It has been impossible to get an official permission to cross and travel the country with foreign motorcycles so far. But it appears that this is changing now, and that the general opening of this fascinating country for tourists also results in the opening of the borders for motorcycle travellers.
Like most overland travellers we had sent our motorcycles by air freight from Nepal to Thailand, since the permission to cross Burma was denied, and the alternative route through Tibet, China and into Laos was closed at that time. But then, while we were in Thailand in December 2012 we got the chance to explore Burma with our own motorcycles for seven days entering from the Thai side. Together with three other riders, including our friend Joerg, a German expat living in Bangkok, and two Thai friends of his, we were the first group that was officially allowed to take their own bikes over the land border into the country.
The preparations, applications and discussions with the officials and the government of Myanmar had stretched over a period of more than four months. Our friend Joerg, who did the bulk of the organization work and who was the initiator of the whole thing, was constantly asked for more information and papers by the travel agency (ICS).
However, we still had doubts whether they would really let us cross the border, and whether it would all work out as planned. We knew only little about Burma, but we had heard about the military control over the government and the suppressed opposition, about human rights violations, civil unrest and ethical conflicts in the country. Would we be allowed to travel freely, to get into contact with the local people, or would the official guide from the government that had to accompany us prevent us from the contact with the locals and allow us only to go to officially approved places?
At the border
When we came to the border on the morning of the day we had to enter Burma, the officials were already waiting for us wearing their best uniforms. They had prepared the paperwork, so that the filling in of the forms and the stamping of our passports turned out to be only minor matters. The custom and immigration officers were actually more interested to pose for photos with us than to check our papers. They closed the whole border for us, and we had to pose with our motorcycles under the big gate leading into Burma.
It was also the first time that we met with our guides for the next days in Burma. These guides, one tourist guide, and one from the government, were the prerequisite that we were allowed to enter the country with our bikes. We didn’t know exactly what to expect from them, and whether they would control us, or what their purpose actually was. But they seemed to be quite relaxed, and so our worries started to ease even further.
The first kilometres in Burma
When we finally rolled over the bridge in Mae Sot into Burma our hearts beating nervously, it was an unbelievable feeling – we were so excited to be in Burma now. The first kilometres we couldn’t get the grin out of our faces.
Just after the border we had to join a police escort, mainly because we were travelling now on a road through the mountains that is open only in one direction that changes every day – and of course we were there on the wrong day. But instead of telling us that we should better enter Burma on a different day, they had simply closed the road for us! Forty kilometres of twisty mountain roads in a terrible condition but through beautiful landscape and without any traffic – this was some fantastic riding. However, when we reached the other side of the mountain range we felt really bad. A very long queue of cars, trucks and busses was waiting there, probably for hours already, and only because we were coming the other way. We expected the people to be angry, or at least not happy, but they all waved and cheered when we drove by, really excited to see us. What a welcome!
Another reason why we had to travel with police escort that day was because this area in the east of Burma is politically unstable due to the Burmese civil war, and from time to time the tensions still boil up. We had to pass several police checkpoints but we were always treated very friendly.
Soon we were allowed to travel alone and without the police escort; we drove along picturesque rice fields and spectacular limestone cliffs, and through villages with golden pagodas and always with friendly waving people on the side of the road.
When we arrived at our hotel late that day, we were overwhelmed by the friendly welcome of the people, the beautiful country, and also our guides seemed to be quite relaxed and very friendly.
The next days – we could fill a book with stories
The next days in Burma were packed with fantastic experiences; we could fill a whole book only with stories from this one week that we spent in the country. We went to the Golden Rock, a holy place for the Buddhists, where we wriggled with the pilgrims to get a place on one of the trucks that took us to the sacred rock, which is spectacularly located over the abyss, and according to the legend held only by a hair of Buddha. We got stuck in crazy traffic jams, and had to travel until late in the night to reach our destination that day. We stopped in little villages, where we were instantly surrounded by curious and always friendly locals. With our riding gear and big motorcycles we must have appeared like aliens to them, and sometimes they were shy in the beginning. But when they found out that we were actually humans, they came closer to have a look at the bikes, and were happy to pose for photos with us, showing us their broadest grins and their rotten teeth that were black from the constant betel-nut chewing, a terrible habit that is common everywhere in Burma.
We stopped at a temple fest in a small village and watched traditional dances. We came across a music festival in a small town, where we were dancing and partying with the crowd on the streets. We met a group of Burmese punks that wanted to sit on the bikes. We were allowed to test-ride rickshaws, and we invited some locals for a short ride through their village – the happy smile on their faces was beyond priceless. We had many wonderful encounters with the people that made every day traveling in Burma a unique experience.
Very strange was our visit to Naypyidaw, the new capital of Burma. It was built by the government practically overnight, and where only rice fields were only a few years ago, you can now cruise over illuminated boulevards with up to ten lanes, lined by luxury hotels, shopping complexes, and posh government buildings. But the strangest thing was that we saw almost no people in Naypyidaw. The streets were empty, as if they had not found the time yet to put the people into this artificial city. We felt like in a strange film: one minute we were riding over small country roads full of the typical Asian mayhem, and in the next minute we were catapulted into this surreal empty city that just looked out of place.
The touristic highlight of our trip was our visit to the temple fields in Bagan. We watched the sunset from one of the highest temples, and we got up early the next morning to also experience the sunrise. It was a magical moment, when the sun slowly rose above this huge plain full of ancient temples surrounded by the early morning mist, and we were full of awe when the first sunbeams slowly crawled over the beautifully elaborated structures and immersed them in red light. And what fun we had riding our bikes between the temples over small sand paths in this amazing scenery when the sun had climbed a little. We will never forget that morning!
Traveling in the country
Travelling with the guides which had worried us a bit in the beginning, soon turned out to be a rather relaxed thing. They were only following us, and let us drive ahead as fast as we wanted to go. Sometimes we waited for them at a turn, especially where we were not sure which way to take, for a lunch break or at a police checkpoint. But mostly they just caught up with us when we had stopped because we had seen something interesting, and often we arrived at the hotels in the evening before them.
Their main concern was that something would happen to us, and they constantly reminded us to be careful. Sometimes this resulted in rather funny situations, such as a reminder to be careful when we just went to the toilet – after a whole day on the roads full of crazy traffic.
Often the local police were informed that we would be travelling through that day, and they waited for us. They wanted to escort us as VIPs through their town with their little motorcycle scooters fully ‘equipped’ – including little shopping baskets in the front, which made it a tad difficult to take them seriously. Their astonished faces when we rode by with a wave and at a speed they could never ride on their scooters was too funny. Like our guides they actually wanted to protect us, not control us.
The roads and infrastructure in the country are pretty good as long as you stay on the main routes – but if you leave the bigger roads you can easily find adventure and some off-road riding at its best. Petrol is available in all cities, and it is easy to find, but the quality is dodgy.
Was it worth going to Burma?
All in all, it was a fantastic experience to be able to ride through Burma at a point of time where it is opening up. There are still many areas where they are not used to tourists, and this allows some authentic and fascinating encounters with the locals. But also from the touristic point of view it is a beautiful country full of colourful, exotic and old culture. Traveling with the guides of course had some drawbacks: we had to plan the route in advance, we had to book hotels in advance, and we could not stay at some cheap homestays or guesthouses, but had to go to middle class hotels. And of course we also had to pay for the guides and their driver. This is not the style of travelling we usually prefer, but it was the prerequisite for us to enter the country.
In total we spent approximately 1,000 US$ for the trip, including hotels, guides, visas, permissions, escorts, bribes, etc; only the fuel and the food was extra. You can probably compare it with China, where you are also forced to travel with a guide. It sounds like a lot of money, but for us it was definitely worth every cent of it – it was a fantastic experience and the people in the country are some of the friendliest we have met during our trip around the world.
Of course you can argue that the money mainly went into the pockets of a military controlled government that systematically has violated human rights – but not all of the money that we spent in the country went this way. We still ate at local places, we bought souvenirs at local markets, and we stayed at hotels that employ the local people. Tourism brings money also to the normal people, and it is a sign of hope for them that Burma is changing, and that the military is relinquishing more of its control over the government.
Whether it will soon be possible to travel the country alone, and to cross it from India to Thailand or vice versa, still remains open. We have heard of other groups from SE-Asia that entered the country after us. And we even were told that a couple on a motorcycle from Europe has made it through earlier this year all by themselves, but we have not spoken to them in person.
Our trip was only one step towards the complete opening of Burma for overland travel. But all the signs are pointing now in the right direction. Our advice: if you can go there now, do it! Now you will still have the chance to meet the Burmese and the culture in an authentic way, before they are spoiled by tourism. The country will probably change very fast once it has completely opened up.
Photos: Heike and Filippo Fania