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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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.

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

Pindaya: Spectacular caves or just a spectacular rip off?

17th March 2016
Distance: 61km 

Road: Paved, good road 

After our luxurious day of eating and drinking and being taken around the lake yesterday on the boat it was time to get back on the bike again and head north, our final destination being Mandalay on the 21st.

Our first leg would be the 61km to Pindaya where there is a large cave complex filled with thousands of Buddhas. 

There is a steady but very manageable incline out of Nwyngshwe and then a flattish plateaux at the top. We meet some cool Americans at the turn off and stop to chat for a while. We have a very strong headwind in our faces which makes the cycle a bit gruelling from there on but the scenery is very nice.

We pass an extravagant ceremony taking place off from the road so we decide to stop to take a closer look. It turns out to be an initiation ceremony for 8 local boys who are about to embark on their first stint as a Buddhist monk. Some of the boys are tiny (5-6 years old) but they will probably only stay at the monastery for a few nights.

  
 

The whole town has come out to either take part in the ceremony or to watch. All the boys are dressed in colourful outfits and headdresses and mounted on beautifully groomed horses, flanked by golden parasols. A riderless horse leads the boys; the vacant seat signifying the presence of the Buddah. 

  

A long line of offerings carried by groups of young people (money, blankets, flowers) proceeds the boys. Four young women carry a plume of beautiful peacock feathers and a parasol and are apparently the teenage girls who will this year ‘come of age’.  

 

The long line of people makes a circuit around the village three times accompanied by live musicians.  

 

This little guy is playing it cool…  

 We reach Pindaya which, is set around a large lake, at around 4pm. It’s very pretty and is a town which is clearly doing well from the tourism.

The only problem with Pindaya is the serious lack of affordable accommodation the cheapest we could find was $20 dollars with no breakfast. It is a true tourist trap and a cheap meal is also hard to come by… To top this off tourists also have to pay a $2 fee just to enter the town!! This would be like towns such as Falmouth, Cardigan or Harrogate starting to charge tourists £5 on their way in. 

The cave is 3000 kyat to enter (hide your camera so you don’t get charged the additional 300 for that). I guess the cave complex is impressive but it’s very set up for visitors and is so lit up by lights that it lacked any real sense of wonder or mysticism for us. Having blown our budget on everything else the 20 mins we spent wondering around the statues just didn’t seem worth it really! 

If you are strapped for time or are trying to save the pennies between the inevitable money traps of Inle and Bagan/Mandalay, we might suggest to leave Pindaya off your itinerary. The issue is the cycle between Inle and the next hotel in Ywengan which would be a long day… Possible if you are in good shape or only semi-loaded. If you have a tent definitely camping would be an option. 

Kalaw to Inle Lake

After a scrummy thali and a good sleep at the cheapest hotel we could find (Green Pine Hotel $10) we got up early and headed to the local market to buy some breakfast provisions as that night we planned to wild camp for the first time in Myanmar. The market is very busy with vendors selling all sorts of stuff.

Camping is not permitted here as all tourists must register each night with a tourist registered guesthouse (where the government takes a cut). Burmese can stay in local guesthouse but people can get into serious trouble with the local police if they offer hospitality to tourists. There was a time here where even family members would need to gain permission before visiting their relatives. 

This means that when camping you need to be well out of sight and be prepared to be ‘moved on’, sometimes late at night, if the authorities do find you. 

Wanting to avoid the main road and plethora of tour buses going up to Inle we follow the main Rd for 12k and then divert right onto the back road just after the town of  Aungban. This road shows up yellow on our OSM map so we were unsure what the road would be like but was pleasantly surprised to find paved tarmac (it gets worse further down) and we made good headway. 
 

We lap up the countryside of red rolling hills, there is barely anyone else on the road and for a long time the only other people we see are some local Pah-O women working in the fields all adorned with colourful headdresses.

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With plenty of time we take a couple of detours around some of the sleepy villages. 

Our second detour takes us through the village of Part tu and we stop for a drink. The road out of Part tu turns into a mud track but we’re feeling adventurous and we soon find ourselves trundling along a bumpy bridle way. It gets pretty tough and we’re forced to get off and push for a good long way, a few crossed words are spoken out of sheer frustration and exhaustion but the scenery is spectacular and we soon find a path which leads back to the road (which has now turned to gravel).
   

We manage to head off the guy attempting to charge us 13,000 kyat to enter the ‘lake area’ (this is a legitimate cost according to the guidebook). We tell him we’ve already paid but lost the ticket and cycle on quickly.

A few km on however I realise my glasses are missing and so with a groan we turn back before I leave Paddy with the bike to retrace our steps down the bumpy track. After 30mins of searching I admit defeat and hot, tired and grumpy I walk back empty handed. 

When I get back Paddy has fixed up a long flag pole at the back of the bike and tells me he made some new friends who were fascinated by the bike. 

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As the sun sets we turn off down a side track to find a camping spot and manage to pitch just before dark. The nights sky is spectacular. 


We have a visitor in the morning, a guy who obviously lives nearby. We make him coffee which he accepts but then leaves us to cook up our breakfast with a cheery wave goodbye.

We’re soon dropping down towards the lake – the view from here is fantastic, a large pagoda sat on a hill in the foreground sets off the whole misty morning scene nicely. 

   

People are washing clothes, bathing, arriving by bus and generally milling about. We take some photos and as usual we and the bike also get a lot attention.

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We complete the 30km left to Nyaungshwe passing rich fields of sunflowers, vegetables and orchard trees. This is certainly an area of plenty. We check in at our hotel (Gypsy Inn $15) before heading straight out for lunch. After we head up to the nearest winery. The wine isn’t great but the view and atmosphere is great. Especially after 4.30.

Back in town we spend an hour shopping for a boat trip around the lake for the next day. We pay 21,000 for a boat which includes a student guide. We turn in early ready for the 7am pickup the next morning. Time to enjoy being taken around the markets and various cottage industries which exist on the lake.

Three tell-tale signs you are in Myanmar!

As soon as you arrive in Burma, there are three distinctive cultural practices that you cannot fail to notice. 

The Longyi
Everybody in Myanmar wears a longyi, a piece of long fabric attached together by a single seam and tied at the waist. 

Men tend to wear checked or plain fabrics and pleat at both sides of the hip so they can tie in the middle. When done neatly this gives the impression that they are wearing baggy trousers. Women generally fold their longyis just once at the hip and tie or tuck to make a sarong like skirt. They wear longyis of all different patterns and colours. 

  

They can be hitched up to different lengths – men who work on boats can often be seen tying theirs up to resemble nappy like shorts. Most tourists come away from Burma with a souvenir Longyi – here is Paddy modelling his! 

  

Thanaka
Pretty much everybody in Myanmar covers their faces in a pale yellow paste called thanaka, which is made by grinding the bark of the thanaka tree (a kind of sandal wood) with water to form a liquidy paste. This is then applied to the face in a variety of ways, depending on the preference (and age) of the wearer. 

Thanaka works as a natural sun screen, so you will often see the faces of older women and lots of children completely smothered in the stuff giving a ghostly-like appearence. Applying to just the cheeks and nose is also very common. 

  
But it is also used as decoration and many young women (and some teenage boys) will carefully paint artistic lines and spots on their cheeks and around their eyes. 

Betel Juice
Walk down any street or glance at any car door and you won’t fail to notice splatters of red which look horribly like dried blood! 

This is the tell tale sign of just how many Burmese (the majority of them men) are addicted to chewing betel quids which contain the areca nut. 

The nut is often combined with tobacco (and sometimes other flavours like sweet coconut or dried mango) and wrapped in a betel leaf to make a small parcel called a quid. This is then covered in slack lime.

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When chewed slowly in the mouth your saliva turns a dark red and it is important you spit the liquid out which is why so much of the road and car doors are covered in the stuff.

It is a very addictive habit and regular use stains your teeth and gums giving you a vampire like smile and results in terrible dental problems (oral cancer) later in life.