Four weeks ago I got so incredibly close to giving up on my adventure. Determined, stubborn Fenja had disappeared behind what felt like countless obstacles. I was in Kolkata after a couple of weeks off and I was, for the first time since I left, having to think about the logistics of the Asian part of my trip. It dawned on me that I’d applied for a single entry 30 day visa for India, rather than the 3 month double entry visa I’d originally planned to apply for – I knew I made that comprehensive spreadsheet for a reason – so my plan to ride through Bangladesh and then back into India wouldn’t work without applying for a new visa. Then I discovered that to cross the land border into Myanmar from India, in addition to the normal visa, I needed a special transit visa which I would have had to apply for a month in advance. Then, after three visits to the Chinese embassy and three days of waiting for my visa to be processed I received the news that my visa had been rejected. This news, coupled with weakened morale from a persistent bout of Delhi belly, I was really ready to throw in the towel. I’d found a mountain I couldn’t climb, too many obstacles, the world was against me, all that stuff flooded my head and mindlessly I found a flight home and proceeded to input my details to end my trip. But then determined, stubborn Fenja popped her head above the parapet. I quickly searched for a flight to Myanmar and booked it super fast, almost with my eyes closed so I didn’t have the chance to register what I was doing and change my mind.
Within a week I was in Mandalay, a dusty and frankly rather characterless city. Had I made the right decision? Not really too sure. I spent a rather lonely morning wandering the city streets, a ’24 hours in Mandalay’ type article had recommended a bakery, slightly off the beaten track, so I decided to head there. The coffee was awful and there was no cake…….hmmmm. Wrong decision? Perhaps! But as I was wandering the one street that I found that didn’t go directly north-to-south or east-to-west, I heard the calls of a group of children playing in what can only be described as a yard. Hi, hi, hello, hello. I waved, called hello and carried on walking. Then the smallest of the children ran to the entrance of the yard and held out his tiny little hand, I took his hand in mine and shook it. Two other slightly bigger boys came over and held their hands out, I shook their hands, and they ran off giggling. The smallest boy then looked up at me smiling and held out his other hand for me to shake, his hand was so tiny in mine. The look on his face and this adorable gesture was one of the best feelings I’ve felt on my trip, he was such a tiny little person but he had the biggest impact on me. He made me realise that I had, of course, made the right decision.
I spent more time in Myanmar than I have in any other country on my trip so far, and I got to see so many different parts of the country, big towns, the capital city, rural villages, untouched nature and the backpacker trail. The country itself is absolutely stunning from a natural environment perspective and has somehow raised the bar to an incomprehensible level. The sunrise over Bagan, with the mist rising from the greenery below, the tops of the temples just in view and the passing hot air balloons, was one of the most mesmerising scenes I’ve ever encountered. The sun setting on the Ayeyarwaddy river, with the mountainous backdrop. The glistening temples on the stunning Sagaing hill. All simply stunning.
The thing with Myanmar though, is that these beautiful scenes are not static moments to be captured on a camera and stored on a computer somewhere to be looked at every so often. Every single beautiful scene is punctuated with life. As I watched the stunning sunset I also watched two people bathing in the Ayeyarwaddy river, washing their hair and their clothes in what appeared to be a typical daily routine. After a sunset in Bagan, I descended from the temple to be met by a wall of heat and light. A mother and her three young children had lit hundreds and hundreds of candles, creating the most serene and magical atmosphere within the temple. As five or six of us lucky tourists enjoyed the moment, the family just hopped on their motorbike and headed off, bidding us goodnight. As the sun set over the Thanlyin, I watched a group of young men playing football on the rivers edge in the cool evening breeze. Outside the town of Pyay, I stopped to replenish my water bottle and as I did I watched a farmer take his cart and oxen into the flowing river to cool down in the mid day heat.
The country, despite its history, is so incredibly open. The lives of the Myanmar people are played out in plain view for all to see, probably through force and choice in equal measure. The climate in Myanmar is such that life is generally lived outside, in the shade, unless you’re a farm worker, but always outside. Houses and huts do not have closed windows and doors, they have large open plan rooms with mesh or no windows or doors. I was given the opportunity to see into the lives of these people. I saw the boredom of sitting by the roadside selling watermelon, I saw the effort of keeping the dust from the woven floor, I saw the happy grandmother rocking the baby in the makeshift hammock, I saw the pain on the farmers face as his Ox lay motionless on the floor, I saw the dirt being squeezed from the clothes as groups of women chatted over their washing duties, I saw roads being built by hand, I heard children singing in schools, I saw struggle, I saw determination, I saw happiness, I saw simplicity.
This country is changing, it has escaped from communism, it has opened its borders, it is developing, but it’s a slow process and so it should be. I don’t believe that the developed western world is the utopia, and the events of 2016 seem to prove that, but this beautiful, simple, poor country is making tiny steps towards a more developed future. This in many ways will be a great thing for its people, hopefully bringing more security and more opportunity, but it will take very many years and the lives that I got to witness will likely remain largely unchanged for generations.
It was a privilege and an honour to cycle through Myanmar and I am so incredibly thankful that I have had the opportunity to do it. Four weeks ago I thought I had some insurmountable obstacles in front of me, now I realise that they were just tiny bumps in the road. Thank you Myanmar.