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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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. 

Mektila to Kalaw: Our First (semi) Hitch 

Distance: 50km by bike another 75k roughly by bus

Mektila is a pretty large town and we stopped for breakfast (tasty samosas and large churos like bread sticks) before continuing east. The countryside here is very flat but we knew that we’d reach the bottom of the mountains which lead up to Inle Lake after roughly 65km.

Paddy was still feeling a bit dodge and out progress was a bit slow. We managed 50k and then agreed to stop and hitch the rest of the way. We wanted to get to Kalaw that night.
After two minutes of standing by the road a small truck stopped and two guys got out. They were already pretty loaded up with boxes and we couldn’t see how we were going to fit the tandem in. They inquired as to where we were going and then helped us flag down another vehicle, this time a minivan. 
This van was going all the way to Kalaw. Yay! 
It wasn’t clear what this van was… Initially we thought it was just a family car. They said they could strap tandem to the top and nothing was mentioned about payment… Paddy by this time was feeling pretty ropey and we were just glad that we had managed to catch a lift so quickly.
The journey took about 2 hours total. After around half an hour it became clear that we had actually flagged down a private bus service, run by two guys. People were picked up and dropped off as we twisted and turned up the mountain. 
We were met with some spectacular scenery but neither of us regretted the decision to grab a ride rather than cycle. This was a tough climb, busy with cars and trucks.
As we neared the end of our journey we had come to the conclusion that some sort of payment would be required. We were happy to pay, and discussed whether we should raise the subject before our stop. In the end we decided to ask how much before we arrived. We think this was probably a mistake as it gave the two guys a good while to discuss how much they could get away with charging – it was pretty obvious what they were discussing!
They quoted 20,000 on arrival – 7000 each + 6000 for the bike. This, we though was a bit steep, and we tried to question it but a local stepped in and explained this was a fair price. 
Tandem was lifted down from the roof unscathed. In the end we paid the two guys their 20,000 in the knowledge that at least it was all going directly to them (rather than us paying a local bus or tour company who have to give a heavy cut to the government.)
We learnt a lot from this experience. When hitching, if a passenger van stops – check to see if it has a sign in the windscreen to indicate it’s a local pick up service. Always agree the price (if any) before your bike is tied on and if you can check how much locals pay before you set off then that always helps!!! 

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. 
 

Bustling North, Without a Hitch

Sunday 13th March 2016
Due to the limited 28 visa situation in Myanmar we have a stricter schedule here than usual.

Myanmar is a BIG country and we will be spending what promises to be a great week with the two ‘Sheen Seniors’ who we are meeting in Mandalay on the 21st. We were determined to visit Inle Lake before then.

All this meant we needed to get north, fast. We’ve not done too much by public transport yet… Just a couple of cargo trains in Thailand in and out of Bangkok and we had read many times that the trains in Myanmar are slow, unreliable and uncomfortable.

Bus seemed the best option – but how willing would they be in taking a tandem? 

There are only two buses from Hpa-An to Mandalay (12 hours) and both are night services leaving 6pm and 6.30pm. There is a decent motorway servicing Bago to Mandalay which makes up the majority of the journey. We wanted to be dropped off near Meiktila so we could head East form there.

Our hotel called a bus company and the request to take the tandem came back negatory. Unperturbed we agreed we’d hitch hike instead and went and had dinner with some other cycle tourers. The only worry was that we needed to hitch over 700km… and Paddy’s stomach hadn’t been feeling too good for the last day either….

Hitch Hiking in Asia is very easy and although we hadn’t tried it yet, we’ve heard many stories of other cycle tourers sticking their thumb out to grab a ride. ‘People always stop’ said one cyclist to us. 

Before we left the next morning to start our hitching we stopped at the bus ticket kiosk in town to see if the bus company could be persuaded a second time. Whether the guy was more forceful, or whether he just knew the right people to call, this time the bus company said yes to the tandem, as long as we removed both wheels. 

Faced with either a 10 hour bus journey or hitching for 24 hours in trucks we knew which one we’d prefer, the only sticking point was that the tickets were 15,000 kyat each + 10,000 for the bike. Our daily budget here is 35,0000. 

In the end we bit the bullet and went for the bus. Despite wanting to experience the hitching, we agreed that maybe covering 700km on our first hitching trip with tandem might be an overstretch. 

Maybe we were too carful, maybe not… 

Tandem (minus his wheels and handle bars) was well looked after by the loading guys and was placed carefully in the hold next to a collection of huge spikey fruit. We enjoyed our comfortable bus journey, complete with pillows, blankets and reclining chairs. We even slept a lot of the way (despite an over friendly monk waking us up at every stop to check we didn’t need the toilet!) 

We arrived at our stop just outside Mektila at 5.30am. We were dropped off on the hard shoulder 12km from Mektila. It’s not as bad as it sounds, this motorway is famously deserted (there are myths that kids even fly their kites on it apparently) and we set up the bike under the friendly eyes of some Motorbike taxi drivers who race each other up and down the tarmac.

Time to get to Kalaw!