Setting out at dawn each day on a bike, Ben Groundwater explores a temple-studded corner of south-east Asia.
It's early morning in Mandalay. The sun is rising behind us, bathing the river, boats, trees and grassy plains in a soft-orange glow. But it's not peaceful here. It's anything but peaceful. Those trees and plains are on the other side of the Irrawaddy River; we're still on the city side of the river amid the cacophony of early-morning traffic. Cars race past. Bicycle bells ding. Trucks occasionally trundle by. And I've got one foot balanced on a bike pedal, preparing to enter the fray.
Cycling in Myanmar can be many things, but it's never boring. Some days it's a quiet jaunt through deserted countryside. Other days it's weaving past temples and pagodas in the morning mist. Sometimes it's brushes with shocked kids who wave hello and gaze as you pass by. Other days are like today, in the city, on a road full of south-east Asian traffic, surrounded by the beep and honk and ding of life.
You just want to be part of it.
My guide, Cheung, signals with his hand, and all of a sudden I am full of life. Our group of cyclists falls into single file behind him and off we go, pedalling madly into the traffic, skirting the Irrawaddy to our right as we make our way from the city on the first full day of our cycling adventure.
The trip is World Expeditions' Cycling Myanmar tour, a 10-day biking journey through a country that until a few years ago was off limits to most travellers. Myanmar still feels untouched, too, despite the recent addition of mod-cons such as ATMs and mobile phones. While tourists might have found the main sights, take one tiny step off the beaten track in Myanmar and you really are in an undiscovered land.
That's the beauty of a journey by bicycle. The bike is not only your average Myanmar resident's preferred form of transport, it's a ticket to a side of the country that could never be viewed from the window of a tour bus. This cycling tour isn't just about the bumpy road, it's about the smell of tea brewing in the early morning air; the look of surprise on a kid's face as he sees our hardy peloton glide past in the middle of nowhere; the feel of sun on your skin as you pedal across an ancient landscape.
Given its physical nature, our trip through Myanmar is an unexpectedly comfortable one. We're on proper mountain bikes here, 21-speed jobs with nice fat tyres and reliable brakes. It makes for a bit of added ease when you're riding 30 to 40 kilometres a day through the great unknown. We're also staying in the nicest accommodation the country has to offer, which in a place like this, given the lack of tourist infrastructure, can mean a lot after a big day in the saddle.
Our journey began a few days earlier in Yangon, Myanmar's old capital, a city of crumbling British colonial architecture and south-east Asian charm. There's no biking in Yangon, just a more sedate tour through the city's major attractions, a getting-to-know-you time.
It feels different immediately. The sounds of yelling touts pierce the humid air; a bell rings on a wheel as a vendor squeezes sticks of sugar cane for their sweet juices. Men wander the streets in longis, the skirt-like traditional dress. Women sport the dabs of paste on their cheeks that are so typical of Myanmar. It's the perfect introduction to the country.
From Yangon we board a flight to Mandalay, a city that evokes the Burmese empire's former glory. There are myriad temples and pagodas here, and a huge moat-bound palace complex sits in the middle of the city. The palace is an impressive sight, and the most obvious sign of a once-great empire - it's also sadly off limits to travellers, given it is now occupied by the Myanmar military. Still, it's a pleasure to stroll the palace perimeter in the evening and take in the sight of locals jogging or playing sport in the dying light.
So far, so sedate. By day three, however, it's time to get in the saddle. That's why we're pedalling through Mandalay's outskirts, the traffic becoming increasingly lighter as we wend our way into a countryside studded with the pointed shape of Buddhist pagodas.
Soon we're the only ones on a narrow road that approaches Amarapura, the old 18th-century capital of Myanmar and still home to a 200-year-old teak bridge.
From there it's out to the middle of nowhere, heading towards the temple complex of Mingun and getting a taste of the unexplored lands that we can expect to find during the next few days. Those days will centre on Bagan, perhaps Myanmar's most famous site. There we'll cycle amid the hundreds of pagodas that seem to spring from the morning mist. We'll pedal along canals and stop to explore villages whose only contact with the Western world seems to be the odd group of cyclists trundling through. (They must think we all wear very tight, shiny clothes in the West.)
Our time in Myanmar isn't spent entirely on a bike. At Inle Lake, in the centre of the country, we dismount and step into a longboat for a day of cruising through one of the country's most beautiful spots.
There are precious few signs of tourism here either, and certainly none of the backpacker bars you might expect to find further south in Thailand. Instead there's a market, and a temple in the middle of the lake where statues of Buddha have had so many tiny slivers of gold leaf added by worshippers over the years they now resemble lumpy gold nuggets. This is Myanmar life at its rural, untouched best.
I'm woken early one morning by the sound of drums and cymbals outside my window and watch as a procession passes by on the dusty street, people dancing around costumed children who are perched on top of horses. The kids are about to begin their training as monks, we find out, and are being paraded through the streets in celebration. It seems as though the whole town has turned out to partake.
It's the perfect morning to have tea at a street-side tea house and take it all in. Myanmar can be many things, but it's never boring.
Ben Groundwater was a guest of World Expeditions.
Join Fairfax columnist Ben Groundwater on a new 10-day cycling journey in Myanmar. The introductory-level trip is from November 10-19 and costs $3990 a person. Click here for details.