SpiceRoads Cycle Tours Burma Adventure: The Myanmar you'll never forget

"Don't cycle too close to the gutter," fellow cyclist Carly says, watching me watching the traffic on the six-lane bridge that crosses the Irrawaddy River on the outskirts of Mandalay. "If you stick to the middle of the outer lane the cars will have to change lanes to overtake you." 

It's a logical tactic – and in Australia or Britain (where Carly hails from) – it makes perfect sense. Here in Myanmar … not so much.

We've spent the past week cycling on primarily quiet roads, weaving our way through picturesque villages, clambering up hills and then flying down as part of the SpiceRoads Cycle Tours Burma Adventure.

The journey began in Yangon and from there the 11 of us caught a flight to Heho in Shan state, where we attempted an off-road 40-kilometre jaunt to Kalaw to get used to our bikes. 

We did get used to our bikes … albeit rather slowly. We managed only 25 of the 40 kilometres on the first day. That said, the course was extremely rocky and tougher than we anticipated (our first day in the saddle was also our most challenging). 

From Kalaw we glided down to the scenic Inle Lake, soaring past expansive sunflower fields, stopping to natter to locals going about their daily rituals, and cycled side by side getting to know each other.

We stayed at Inle Lake for two nights, exploring the area a little by bike and mostly by boat. Inle Lake is home to about 100,000 Intha people, who reside in stilted villages that look as if they are floating on water. The only way you can really get a feel for their unusual life is via a boat tour.

Our last stop before reaching Mandalay was Pindaya, roughly our halfway point and best known for its limestone caves crammed with ornate Buddha statues and images. 

Our ever-smiling guide, Myo, took us on a guided walk through the spectacular caves, reeling us in with fascinating history tales. Then we farewelled  Shan state with a feast at a local restaurant where we stayed up talking deep into the night (note: deep into the night on a cycling tour means 9pm).

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In Mandalay, Myo and his courteous assistant, Phyo, stressed that we'd need to cycle in single file. And this is where Carly recalled my nervousness when it comes cycling in city traffic. 

The six-lane bridge that crosses the Irrawaddy River is the only way to Sagaing and Mingun, our sightseeing destinations for the day. Cars, trucks and motorbikes weave in and out of lanes like there's no tomorrow … it's as if the white lines are just there for decoration. But having spent more than a week in the saddle I'm feeling (somewhat) at home in my surroundings, and slip into our single-file crew without too much hesitation.

Halfway across the bridge I'm forced to stop as a young couple abruptly pull over in front of me. They proceed to get off their scooter; then the guy takes a bunch of photographs of his girlfriend posing. She seductively leans on the scooter for one shot, then sits on it for another, there's a third … a fourth … even a fifth shot I think. And then she starts taking photos of him. I'm a little stunned they're doing this in the middle of a road, but no one else bats an eyelid.

Eventually, the photo-mad couple skedaddle off and I catch up to the rest of the group to explore the ancient pagoda-speckled town of Sagaing.

My favourite spectacle is the massive, incomplete Mingun Pahtodawgyi would-be stupa. Had it been completed, it would have been the largest in the world, but even half-constructed its magnitude stuns. 

I take my time snapping photos of this marvel and don't even notice two brothers who sneakily begin trailing me and deviously imitating my moves. When I do finally notice their grinning yellow-paint-stained faces (the yellow paste is made from ground bark and is called Thanaka cream; it supposedly cools the face and minimises sunburn) they explode in a fit of wild laughter, high-fiving each other with their muddy hands. Although I'm lagging behind my teammates, I can't help myself and stay and play for a while. 

Travelling – for myself – has always been about soaking up the unexpected. Itinerary highlights are the initial attraction (after all, why else book a tour), but when I think back to my most memorable moments, I'm usually hanging out with locals or enjoying some kind of festival I have accidently stumbled into.

And that's exactly what happens the next day. As we cycle out of Mandalay (single file, of course) after visiting the magnificent Shwenandaw Monastery, we find ourselves amidst a merry crowd in Patheingyi town. Curious to see what is going on we decide to follow the revelry on our bikes.

Like our guides, our support van drivers go above and beyond their job description and within minutes they've found the source of the fun – a shinbyu.

In Myanmar a shinbyu, or novitiation ceremony, is a symbolic gathering where boys are lavishly robed up to look like princes and then have their heads shaved and are re-dressed in simple attire – a customary move symbolising their commitment to the Buddha.

Not all parents can afford to hold a ceremony for each child, so sometimes a village will chip in and put on a massive party for the children at the same time, resulting in cost savings for families and an exciting day out for anyone who happens to be nearby. 

And when I say anyone nearby, I mean anyone nearby. Hardly dressed for the occasion (lycra is never a good look) we stroll into the celebration and are welcomed with open arms and ear-to-ear smiles. 

Beaming people we have never seen before (and will probably never see again) eagerly usher is into a decorated hall to watch the proceedings. We are given napkins so that we can help ourselves to complimentary food and shepherded around to the best viewpoints so that we can photograph the children.

Parents cheerfully position their children for our photographs; folks wearing tattered old shirts offer us food from their own plates; even elderly residents rise to offer us their seats (there aren't many around, it's a mostly standing and sitting-on-the-ground kind of event). 

The experience is utterly overwhelming. We've jumped off our bikes and just sauntered into what could well be this town's biggest celebration of the year. And immediately we were welcomed with heartfelt kindness, fed, shown around and encouraged to stay and celebrate. 

This is the Myanmar that I'll never forget. We've still got Mount Popa and Bagan to come, and from what I've heard both destinations are astounding. But it's the experiences that are not incorporated into itineraries – the unexpected surprises – it's these moments I'll be raving on about for years to come.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

myanmartourism.org

GETTING THERE

Cathay Pacific has more than 70 flights a week from six major Australian cities to Hong Kong, and offers daily flights from Hong Kong to Yangon with sister airline Dragonair (soon to be rebranded as Cathay Dragon). See cathaypacific.com.au

CYCLING THERE

The SpiceRoads Cycle Tours Burma Adventure expedition begins and ends in Yangon, covering Heho, Kalaw, Inle Lake, Pindaya, Mandalay, Sagaing, Mingun, Pyinsi, Mount Popa and Bagan. The 14-day tour includes seven full days of cycling, three half-days and four days out of the saddle (including arrival and departure days). The tour is priced at $US3850, plus an additional $US230 for bike hire. The cost includes guides, accommodation, meals, entrance fees and vehicle support. See spiceroads.com/tours/mandalay

SLEEPING THERE

All hotels on tour are rated three or four star at minimum, providing bikers with the creature comforts often sought after a long day in the saddle. Highlight hotel stops include Dream Mountain Resort in Kalaw (see dreammountainresort.com), Pindaya Inle Inn in Pindaya (pindayainleinnmyanmar.com), Popa Mountain Resort in Mount Popa (myanmartreasureresorts.com/location-5/popa-mountain) and Kandawgyi Palace Hotel in Yangon (kandawgyipalace-hotel.com). 

Tatyana Leonov was a guest of SpiceRoads Cycle Tours

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