The ride intentions

A clearer view ... Jared Crouch, third from right, with cyclists in Burma.
A clearer view ... Jared Crouch, third from right, with cyclists in Burma. Photo: David Sygall

If it's good enough for Barack Obama to visit, it's good enough for the Sydney Swans. David Sygall joined a premiership winner, a couple of future stars and a crew of intrepid cyclists on a journey of personal growth across Burma.

At a food-filled table in a restaurant overlooking the Irrawaddy River in Yangon, Sydney Swans premiership-winning player Jared Crouch is addressing our group.

It's the final day of our nearly 500-kilometre cycling odyssey around Burma, during which Crouch has seen the best (and probably worst) in each of us. He pinpoints who was the humorist, who was the foody, which team member was challenged by cultural differences, which by social and political concerns, and elaborates on each.

Children at an orphanage in Burma.
Children at an orphanage in Burma. Photo: David Sygall

One rider had a cohesive quality, another an inspirational effect. Each brought something unique and valuable to the group, he says, even if they didn't realise. And, each had performed feats on bicycles they likely never imagined they could, covering long distances on searing, potholed roads among fume-spewing trucks and the odd herd of cows.

It is a clever niche the retired Crouch, now the Swans' reserves coach, and his business partner at Premiership Quarter, star Swans player Ryan O'Keefe, are expanding into a travelling personal-development program that blends young elite athletes with reasonably fit everyday people. The aim is to provide an exchange of information, giving us a privileged insight into how elite athletes and coaches operate and the athletes a broader perspective on team-building and leadership. Each personal journey occurs within a challenging physical and cultural environment. This is Premiership Quarter's third trip, after Vietnam and southern China, and, though O'Keefe missed this one on doctor's advice, he and Crouch are already looking forward to next year's adventure, likely to be in Spain or Cuba.

Our sense is the hum of freedom is growing louder.

The Burma challenge has been magical and confronting. It has taken us from the water world of Inle Lake, with its silk weavers and silversmiths, across the Shan Hills to the former British station town of Kalaw. We've been to Pindaya, where a stunning cave has, over centuries, been filled with some 8000 Buddhas. We stayed in the buzzing, mystical city of Mandalay, and rode across baked arid plains to the trading town of Monywa and into Bagan, where hundreds of pagodas mark Burma's embrace of Buddhism a millennium ago.

We've discovered a country waking from hibernation. Nearly half a century of corruption, isolation, media control and oppression are slowly yielding, since the military leadership began drip-feeding democracy to the nation's estimated 60 million people (there hasn't been an official census since 1983). International sanctions are being lifted, including those imposed by Australia, the World Bank has announced it will lend to Burma for the first time in 25 years and Barack Obama last week became the first serving US President to visit.

Our riding group is developing, too. At the restaurant in Yangon, Crouch is filling the humid, garlic- and chilli-scented air with a mentor's sermon to Alex Brown and Jed Lamb, the young Swans players on our trip. They may have grand careers ahead of them, but for the past fortnight their "team" has not been footy players, rather a group of "normal people" seeking adventure, knowledge and to test their physical and mental fortitude.

Crouch recalls Lamb, 20, speaking about the day he stayed at the rear of the riding pack to help one of the group through the pain barrier until she finished the stage.

"You said you'd never seen someone in such pain stay so determined to succeed," Crouch says to Lamb. "Well, when you're struggling this pre-season, hurting so much that you feel you can't go on, think back to that time in Burma and push yourself to a new level."

Lamb absorbs the advice, and the rider, a novice cyclist who has exceeded her expectations, is shocked but proud she's given a professional sportsperson a motivational template.

"Also, realise that you've got a few more friends now," Crouch continues to both players. "Friends who'll be watching your progress with special interest."

We will also watch the progress of the country that has hosted us. Our sense is that the hum of freedom is growing louder. Posters of Aung San Suu Kyi and her legendary father, General Aung San, hang proudly in restaurants and shop fronts, alongside ever-present Buddhas. Where once the Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma radio and television broadcasts were listened to in secret, markets now sell Chinese-made radio transistors. In a land where a legitimate form of transport is still cow and cart, satellite dishes sit atop millions of dilapidated homes.

With rapid adjustment, however, comes danger. During one weekend of our trip, 22,000 Rohingya Muslims were left homeless after ethnic clashes in Burma's west.

Nation-building challenges are everywhere. A newspaper editorial in the New Light of Myanmar newspaper lists vast requirements: formation of economic and social public institutions, environmental laws, flexible investment, trade and taxation conditions, adoption of functional monetary policies and overhauling the unacceptable health and education systems. Twice on our trip our group donated boxes of learning supplies to schools, as charity is part of Premiership Quarter's ethos.

At the airport in Yangon, perhaps only a dozen aircraft sit on the tarmac. There are no teller machines for foreigners and credit cards are unheard of. Stunning potential tourist attractions are free and open to anyone. We walked unhindered around a remarkable landscape near Monywa filled with more than 10,000 Buddhas, marvelling that, sadly, tranquillity will soon be replaced with tourists.

The blocks are being put in place. Numerous hotels and transport projects are under construction in preparation for the Southeast Asian Games there next year and 2015, when the popular prime minister, Thein Sein, may step aside. On a small scale, too, the challenges of change are clear. In the deeply traditional Shan State, four young boys ride water buffaloes on the side of a dusty rural road.

We pull up, joining a rarely seen couple of Europeans. The children rise to their feet on the beasts' backs and pose for the cameras. Then one puts out his hand. "Has anyone got food bars," our guide, Myo, asks us. "We can give them food, not money." Shan is desperately poor. However, Myo explains, if the children bring home money from tourists, their parents won't send them to school.

Myo's concern for his countrypeople reminds me of an American woman we'd met earlier, who was on her seventh trip to Burma. "It's probably my last," she said. "It's all about to change. This is going to be a very different country soon."

Our lunch is over. Myo escorts us through chaotic roads to the barren airport, where a man pressing a sign against a window signals to us it's time to board. "I have shown many visitors around," Myo says. "But none like you." Some of us have seen a lot of countries, we reply. But none like Burma.

 

Trip notes

Getting there

Thai Airways flies to Yangon via Bangkok for about $1500. Malaysia Airlines and Singapore Airlines also offer flights.

Staying there

Emerald Land Inn, Mandalay. Rooms from $25 a night.
Hotel Panorama, Yangon. Rooms from $90.

Touring there

Raw Travel, rawtravel.com/trip/bike_burma. For details of upcoming tours by Premiership Quarter, follow @PremiershipQ on Twitter, or email Ross Lewis at rosslewis1@live.com.

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