Crossing the border with China: Muse / Ruili

Please also read recent comments below this post from other travellers regarding this crossing.

There is only one current border crossing between Myanmar and China and there is a certain amount of uncertainty and mystery about how cyclists can cross.

There is comparatively very little online about cyclists crossing this border and lots of differing information about what you need to organise to be permitted to cross. Posts by cyclists on the Lonely Planet ‘Thorn Tree’ forum led us to an agent and described what others had done.

The area between Lashio and Muse remains a restricted zone in which foreigners need a government permit to cross.

We had read some reports that we also needed a guide, the travel agent we were liaising with regarding the permit (Exotic Myanmar Travel and Tours) was insistent we did, although 2 weeks previously they sent other cyclists up the road without a guide and only a permit. Apparently the rues had recently changed and now you need a guide, and not a cheap guide!

Initially we were also told that we needed to go with the guide all the way from Mandalay but we knew that we could definitely cycle as far as Lashio.

We are uncertain why exactly the area is currently closed, the official line is that there is still regional fighting between Shan separatists and the government; the area has seen its fair share of fighting in the past. We suspect the real reason however is more opium related.

Either way we were told we could cycle to Lashio but that we would need to meet the guide there and then rent a car from Lashio to Muse. The guide would bring our permits with him and organise the necessary paperwork at the border.

The whole thing is an expensive option, but we hooked up with a Dutch couple, Geart and Sytske, cycling the same way and split the guide cost with them. We temporarily had a 5th member of the team, but Victor had to withdraw after a pretty bad illness forced him to cut his trip short.

Dealing with the agent was very tricky due to language differences and the shifting sands of information which trickled from her. After 50+ emails we finally settled on the plan, costs timing etc…

As the day of crossing approached Geart and Sytske decided they wanted to put the system to the test and head for the border without the guide or permit. Would they get through?! Unfortunately well never know as they fell ill and did well just to get to Lashio in time.

This meant the 4 of us met the government guide in Lashio in the evening. He turned out to be very friendly and helpful arranging a good value taxi for the morning…although the information he would give about the area, permits, his role, his expenses, was incredibly vague and changeable – but we enjoyed his company.

We set off in the morning for Muse with Tandem sitting upright on the roof of an estate car sandwiched between the 2 other bikes.

We only passed one checkpoint on the road from Lashio and that was just outside Muse. Our guide needed to show our permits and passports and his official guide identity card. Our guide told us that this check point is open 8am-6pm so it might be possible to cross after hours with a bike and avoid this… 

Upon arriving at Muse at 4pm and finding out the cheapest hotel in town was $30 (!!) we persuaded our guide to take us over the border that day.

There were a few phone calls back to head office to check this was OK before he headed into the border post with a big box of biscuits for his friend to speed up the process. Finally, around 5pm,  we crossed into China.

We still have no idea if we needed the guide or whether we got ripped of by the agent, the guide or the government policy for travel in the region… but this is part of the game! We got to China and are now very comfortable with our overall schedule.

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Hope in Myanmar

I guess we couldn’t leave Myanmar without making a reference to the current political situation which has been taking place while we are here. It has certainly been an interesting time to visit the country. 

Support for Aung San Suu Khi’s National League for Democracy party is strong throughout the country, clearly demonstrated by the many flags, placards and t-shirts sporting the gold pheonix on its red background. I have often wondered how many of these people have suffered severely for simply showing their support to an opposition party.

Having read Aung San Suu Khi’s book Letters from Burma and heard many stories and reports of the repressive regime that has raged here for decades, our time here has felt very peaceful and full of optimism in comparison.

Things have been changing here for a while but it is still a massively divided country. A small group of men wield all the economic, social and political power and corruption makes it impossible to achieve almost anything.

A number of Burmese have spoken openly about their new found optimism now that their heroine has finally taken office, and although they say they realise that things will take time and that their  new leader has huge pressure on her to bring peace, prosperity and freedom to their country you can’t help feel their heartfelt optimism.

Aung San Suu Khi failed to be Myanmar’s first freely elected female president, but it looks like she will be its first prime minister instead. I write this from China having just seen on the news that 60 political prisoners have been released so things are definitely moving in the right direction with her in the top job.

Ten quirky things we’ve discovered about Burma

Pretty boys
The boys in Myanmar far outstrip the girl for being ‘into their looks’.

Most of the the teenage boys you see will have dyed hair, carefully styled into an extravagant back comb. All the hairdressers we’ve seen are men and we’ve only ever seen men having their hair cut. Peroxide hair colouring is very popular, we’ve seen a pink perm!

Diamonte flip flops, gold earrings and skinny jeans are not uncommon and these young men tend to move in packs as they drive around on their motos, carefully checking their beehives in their wing mirrors before they climb off.

The girls are comparatively unassuming, meek and sensibly dressed, normally with their hair in a long plait or often cut short.

Dogs don’t chase you

For some strange reason cyclists just don’t get chased by dogs in Myanmar.

We have no idea why this is but its true and other cycle tourers have said the same. Vietnam yes, Cambodia yes, Thailand YES, but Myanmar – no.

Fish knife in replacement for normal knifes
In many of the hotels and guest houses we have stayed in, they like to give you a fish knife instead of just a normal knife!

Spreading your butter is a little harder but otherwise it works quite well!!

Right hand drive????

In 1970 the bizarre decision was taken to switch the country from left to right hand drive. Instead of this decision springing from a desire to cut all ties with its colonial past (UK drives on the left) it is rumoured that the change was in fact made to ‘ward off’ attacks from right-wing political groups. Another bizarre example of how superstition has often dictated government policy here.

The majority of cars, busses, trucks and other vehicles are still designed for left hand drive however. 

As a cyclist this often means you get consumed by large clouds of black smoke from their exhausts… Particularly unpleasant when large trucks struggle past you as you gasp for air.

Trucks with tractor Diesel engines

Many people have replaced their truck engines with a more reliable, simplified Diesel engine which is mounted on some beams sticking out the front of the truck.

Paddy likes to examine these engines closely whenever he can!

Obsession with coffee mix

The Burmese are obsessed with coffee mix (instant coffee, sugar and creamer) here. You see it served in every hotel, it is available in every shop or cafe and there are about 50 different companies who all have an extensive advertisement campaign for their specific brand all across the country.

 Coffee mix in Myanmar is big business. 

It is, of course, horrible but somehow we have both grown to really like it!

Weird Indicating Habits

Drivers in Myanmar use their indicator in a variety of situations on the road, many of which are entirely lost on us. We just don’t understand what the truck drivers are trying to tell us!!! It’s certainly not to say ‘I am about to turn off’ or ‘I’m overtaking imminiently’. 

1.5 L bottles
…are nonexistent in Myanmar.

You can’t buy them anywhere in the country. You can only buy 1L or 5L bottles… If your bottle cages are the standard size/design like ours, be sure to save and reuse your bottles from Thailand, India or China.

Big Portions

Don’t feel a need to buy 2 of every meal in Myanmar like you do in Vietnam or Cambodia. 

  Portions are BIG and a lot of the time more rice will be brought out if they think you are still hungry.

4 Day Cycle: Mandalay to Hsipaw 

Stops along the way: Anisakan Falls, Pyin Oo Lwin, Nuangkio and Gokteik Viaduct

Day 1: Mandalay to a village 25km from Pyin Oo Lwin. 

We did over 2 days (stayed with a local family) but possible to complete the 95k to Pyin Oo Lwin from Mandalay in one day even with the detour onto the smaller road after main climb.

Distance: 61 km

Road: flat until start of major climb on A3 (red) – horrible due to heavy traffic. Road is two way up the mountains which helps and it’s a very manageable incline despite the overall climb, advise to avoid if you have time via longer rd round though. If you do climb via A3, turn off right onto orange rd after summit for roughly 7km and then left onto small white rd leading north through mountains. This road is excellent and only one major climb, really quiet with nice villages and countryside for stops. Avoid the A3 where if you’re not a fan of trucks!

We stayed with a super friendly family in a village where we were well looked after. Here we all are outside the house in the morning.

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Spot the smiling westerners! 

Day 2: Village to Pyin Oo Lwin via Anisakan Falls 

Distance: 35km

Road: very good apart from when you turn off to the falls which then becomes pretty bumpy for a couple of km. Good rd but steady incline up towards Pyin Oo Lwin.

The waterfall is well worth the visit despite the long walk down and sweaty track back up. We really enjoyed our swim even though it was freezing!  

  
We ate in one of the cafes at the waterfall entrance and Paddy made a new friend – a tame Raven who seem to take a real liking to him! 

  
Back on the road we reached Pyin Oo Lwin at 3.30. We didn’t do much sight seeing in the town the next morning as we wanted to send some post to the two families we have stayed with over the last few days as a thank you. 

Day 3: Pyin Oo Lwin to Nuangkio

Distance: 55km

Road: 25km of down with some great views of the plateau. Passed Peik Chin Myaung Caves at Wet Wun but we decided we didn’t have enough time to visit. Good road, fairly heavy traffic still. 

We ended up camping just outside Nuangkio. We had decided we would take the Mandalay-Lashio train from there in the morning as far as Nawngpeng as this way we would experience the famous Gokteik Viaduct and cut out one of the steeper climbs on our journey to Hsipiaw. 

Day 4: Nuangkio – Nawngpeng by train. 

Nawngpeng – Hsipaw by bike

Distance by bike: 63km

Tickets were 250 kyat each for the train and we paid 300 for the bike! Here are some views from the train journey gulp! 

  
The road from Nawngpeng to Hsipaw is a really great ride. A really nice incline decent pretty much all the way and good road. This means you don’t have to be constantly on your breaks and we completed the ride in just over 3 hours with stops.

A few trucks but we did the majority of the journey on the top ring, had an average speed of 26km/ph and even overtook some trucks along the way! Note there is a 10km incline at the end leading up to Hsipaw.

Hospitable Burma 

Needless to say, we have had to rely on the kindness of strangers a fair amount on our trip and the generosity and willingness we have experienced has been pretty humbling in all four countries we have visited so far.

We have been pursued a kilometre down the road in Thailand just so our chaser could present a gift of fresh fruit; another guy in Vietnam took 30 minutes out of his working day to lead us back to the correct road after we got lost and whenever we have needed assistance with the bike swarms of people have always been eager to help us get back on the road.

Nowhere is quite like Myanmar for this giving spirit. The past three days have involved us hitching 150km via 3 pickup trucks, taking refuge in a local monastery and being offered hospitality by a wonderful family in a remote village. 

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After leaving mum and dad in Bagan before they headed back to Yangon for their flight home we ended up hitching the majority of the way to Mandalay just 30km outside of Bagan. We started to hear a crunching and thought it sounded like the bearings in the bottom bracket so decided it was safer to get to a bike shop ASAP. 

Our first ride was a covered truck which already had around 12 teenage boys in it but somehow we managed to fit Paddy and the bike (still loaded) in there too. I got front seat. 🙂
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The second ride was with two guys in a pickup truck who drove 15km out of their way to drop us off. 
We then cycled out of town before hailing down our third lift, another pickup truck which was carrying a family. There turned out to be a slight communication breakdown on this last lift… 

It turned out that this truck made quite a spectacular detour south to pick up a large collection of sugar cane from a village which wasn’t even on our map. By the time the truck had been loaded and we had worked out that they were planning to tie the tandem and us (along with the family!) to the top it was 6pm. 
  
We managed to communicate that perhaps it was easier for everyone if we stayed the night in the village and set off early by bike the next morning. A young 25 year old called Ye Naing, who is studying at a local university, arrived and took Paddy to meet the village head and we were given permission to stay with the monks in the local monastery. 

Everyone was so friendly; we were taken to the river so we could swim and wash, fed a huge meal and then treated to an excursion in the head Monk’s car to visit the Werawsana temple which is the first pagoda made entirely from jade. It’s a popular temple to visit at night, spectacularly lit up with peaceful gardens encircling the base.

  
Here we are with Ye Naing, his uncle and some boys who came with us from the monastery. 

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We slept well and after breakfast Ye Naing arrives and tells us he has arranged a lift for us to U Bein Bridge, the famous teak bridge in Amarapura, just outside Mandalay. He says we should visit the bridge as it is a good thing to see and then we can perhaps cycle the 10km into the centre to find the bike shop. We can’t argue with this plan but can’t help feeling that they are all going to so much trouble for us. Ye Naing simply tells us they are very happy to help us.

  
U Bein is pretty cool, and a great place for us to sit, enjoy the peaceful views and morning sunshine while thinking about the generosity we have just experienced.

 

Young female nuns with a herd of cattle swimming across below
 
We take the bike to a workshop who give the bike a good service. Turns out the bearings are fine and the crunching was the back chain which just needed a thorough clean…! Onto Pyin Oo Lwin!

  

Bagan and Mandalay with the Sheens

Like all the literature says, Mandalay is rather a disappointment. We had one day to explore some of what the city had to offer before taking the river boat downstream to Bagan. After our 4 day cycle to reach here we were very happy to take a backseat in terms of the ‘itinerary planning’ and so mum and dad hired us a day taxi (there are no tuk tuks in Mandalay!) and we spent the day exploring some of the main temples and monasteries.

We also indulged in our first proper western meal which was, to tell you the truth, very very enjoyable!
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Occasionally you need that taste of home, even if what your eating is a poor imitation of home comfort food.

  

We also enjoyed a great sunset over the river and polished off the evening with a traditional puppet show which was very interesting despite some of the puppets lacking a little ‘finesse’. The erratic half flying horse sequence was probably the best… 🙂

The next day we spent the whole day on the boat down to Bagan. Expensive at $40 a ticket (they charged $5 extra for the bike). Mind the baggage handlers at the dock area who will insist on carrying your bags down the steps. At first they perceive to be part of the boat team but it soon becomes clear that they are a very well organised scam, placing official looking tags on your bags which don’t really mean anything and then demanding 1000k from each person.

The trip was a very pleasant way to travel though and we all enjoyed relaxing on the boat and taking in the scenery. We teach mum and dad Yahtzee and have a good few games along with partner whist. Mum manages to beat everyone in both games despite having to double check the rules at every go!

We arrive at the north port in Bagan at 6ish. All the major roads into Bagan town have checkpoint stations where tourists are required to pay a $22 admission fee for the site. Normally we wouldn’t mind paying this fee but currently in Burma most of this money goes straight to the government with very little of it actually going to the upkeep of the actual archaeological site. We would prefer to donate to each temple as we visit, and hand out cash individuals rather than propping up the corrupt system (plus we’re trying to save some pennies!).

If you are arriving by taxi, bus or other kind of transfer it’s difficult to avoid paying the fee. Being on the bike, we were able to cycle the back way through the shanty towns on the edge of the city but if you were wiling to carry your bags you could also walk it. It was hard going on the bike sometimes but very doable and there’s a good article on the wiki travel web page on how to skirt round the various ticket booths depending on which direction you are arriving from. You only really get asked for your tickets at the temples you can climb (8 in total).

The next 3 days were spent exploring the 4000 (there used to be twice that before the 1975 earthquake!) temple sites which litter the flat planes of Bagan. We enjoyed tailing mum and dad on our tandem as they trotted around on their horse (called War Horse) and cart. 

War Horse taking mum and dad round

If you cycle, take care on the very sandy roads!

Some pictures to end…

 

Paddy and mum discussing the 11th Century carvings

   

Exploring inside

 

Sunset view
 
 

  

   

3 Day Ride: Pindaya – Mandalay (via Ywengan and the ‘back way’ from Kyaukse) / 224km

Day 1: Pindaya – Ywengan

Distance: 80km (19th March 2016)

Road: up and down all day, paved but bumpy road; had to go 20km south from Pindaya first before you head northwest to Ywengan.

There is a steady climb out of Pindaya and then you get to enjoy some lovely rolling countryside. 8km in, our chain gets really jammed and we have to take an hour to tease it out from inbetween the derailer and kick stand… The cycle otherwise was pretty uneventful although there was a fair amount of climbing involved.

Ywengan is a small town (make your way to the centre) but there is one simple guesthouse (Khansan Guesthouse) for USD 10 – this is pricey for the room you get with a cold water bath and toilet outside although we did re-fill all our water bottles for free from his water dispenser. There are a couple of OK restaurants and a decent cafe half way up the hill – great for breakfast.

Day 2: Ywengan – wild camping 10km NW from Kyaukse (20th March 2016)

Distance: 90k by mostly downhill

Road: Paved – pretty darn good for Myanmar, especially considering how quiet and unused the road is – great ride down with spectacular views!

Mostly Up with a bit of down for the first 10k. You pass some sleepy villages where we stopped for a coffee and cake break and the scenery is great.

We pass a cool temple complex complete with four huge Buddha statues looking out across the valley.

  
The road is lined with white cherry blossom, dusted pink in the centre of each flower.

  Here I am just after we started the long decent! 

The road is narrow but in good nick with very little traffic. It zig-zags down in front of you like a great black snake. The views are AMAZING! This is the best ride we have had so far.

   
For a lot of the time it is completely silent except for the crickets and birds. Giant butterflies flutter past and gold and red dragon flies keep pace with us as we enjoy the downhill.

Every so often we stop to give the breaks a chance to cool off and enjoy the breathtaking views and the big drops into the valley. The landscape is dry but still very beautiful – again, clear signs of mass deforestation.

There is currently 1km of road works near the bottom where the road pretty much disappears, replaced by sand and rocks. It’s amazing how much hotter it’s got as we’ve climbed down. Bye bye cool weather…

We stop at a large restaurant a few km after the road works. A large river runs through the valley and we follow this for a while still on Rd 411 – a lush, green strip of land clings to its banks.

A few km on we then take a right turn onto the white Rd, crossing the river and then skirting around the mountains north. This connects to another yellow rd further North. You can turn left at the T-junction and head to Kyaukse this way, a much nicer ride which avoids the main AH1/AH2 road to the west. 

We had no plans to go to Kyaukse though as we needed to find a camping spot. We turn right again and head up past the huge Chinese cement factory following the road north. The landscape offers very little cover and despite it being a Sundy the road is still fairly busy. At dusk we agree we need to just get off the road as quickly as possible. A few people would likely see us but hopefull they wouldn’t take too much notice. 

We spot what looks like an empty bamboo shelter at the side of a field about 250m from the road. We make a dash for it and it ends up being the perfect hideaway for us. We wait for a while to see if anyone comes but by 7.30 we think it’s safe to pitch the tent. 

We watch a documentary about the English folk revival and then fall fast asleep. 

Day 3: Kyaukse to Mandalay – the scenic, not on the map, back way! (21st March 2016)

Distance: 54

Road: mostly unpaved, sandy and very tricky in places

So as to avoid the main rd into Madalay we cut a new route ourselves through the countryside north east of Kyaukse on our final day of this stretch from Inle.

We followed the road north towards the river, cutting through a valley and skirting the mountains on our right. The road is unpaved, sandy and pot holed but very wide. We need to cross the river to continue on but there is no bridge or official ferry crossing on the map. 

Assuming there will be someone with a boat willing to take us across when we get there we turn off to the left and follow the canal network towards one o the riverside villages (this is not marked on the map). The mountains offer an impressive backdrop as we cycle on this dirt track, banana plantations lining our way on both sides. 

  
It is bumpy and slow – definitely not for those cyclists who like to stick to paved roads but perfect for tourers who like to get away from the beaten track and don’t mind a bit of adventure, we cycled through some really lovely villages, glimpsing the daily lives of those Burmese who live off the land and who have very little.

We reach the village by the river an instantly spot a boat going back and forwards. It is absolutely stunning here and we both look forward to getting across so we can jump in the water for a pre-lunch swim. 

 The boat owner and his mate help us load the bike into the tiny boat and with very little fuss we’re over safely. 

  Only 25k to our Hotel in Mandalay!
After being on a very bumpy track for another 8km we turn onto the canal again and follow it right into centre of Mandalay, avoiding all the busy roads.

The city’s roads are terrible but we find our hotel and get ready to go off to meet mum and dad!

Rooftop cocktails overlooking sunset on the Ayeyarwady river