Naypyitaw, 6th November. We start the day with yet another frustrating conversation with our guide. His stories, which he usually announces to a couple of people only, never to the whole group despite our repeated requests to speak to the whole group, change as he speaks, and within 5 minutes, we go from having to meet at a check point in 50kms and him needing to give some letters of authorisation, to him going ahead and doing all the paperwork for us, to now suddenly not needing to provide any letters at all. ?!?! Next, motorcycles aren’t allowed on the super highway to Yangon. And finally, we are to meet outside Yangon where we have to leave the bikes and travel to the hotel by bus as we are not allowed to ride the bikes to the hotel.
Some bikes have already gone ahead and we wonder whether they have been turned back. We have 380kms to cover today, we know it is going to rain and the idea of riding through endless villages and covering that distance (or more) when we know we usually average 30-40kms/hour means we would be in for an extremely long day. In the end, we all decide to take a chance and go down the super highway – a beautiful, smooth and deserted 2 lane each way highway, with concrete posts indicating our distance to Yangon every furlong!!!
It is not long before the heavens open up again and we feel the cooling of the toes as the water sloshes in our boots. Lovely! We pull over at the only food stop along this highway – the only 2 stalls providing some shelter both sell identical snacks: packets of chips and steamed eggs. Pity they don’t sell different items. They might both get more business… We ride on, do a couple of “U’ies” to refuel, go through a few more toll gates – bikes always either go around the edge or get waved through which is the case here. No problems. Then, at the final toll gate, at end of the super highway, on the city outskirts, we are greeted by a couple of whistles and cops frantically waiving at us. There’s no politely smiling and waiving and driving by here. We are told to pull over, stop and that we will be escorted to our hotel but we must first wait for the 4 riders (smokers always need more stops than us) behind us. The senior policeman explains that motorcycles are illegal on this motorway. Oops… Maybe our guide was correct here… Eventually, we spot our pilot car and our frustrating guide – although he must be frustrated at us too now!!! We are only 10′ from our hotel he tells us and the others are not far behind (how does he know that?!). After a while, as it is still raining, we find refuge in an unused toll booth. After an hour, my lips have now turned blue I am so cold. We have no idea why the others have not arrived yet. I then decide that if we are only 10′ from the hotel, why can’t we be guided to our hotel and our guide returns for the others. At most they’d wait 20′ for us if they arrived just as we left. It takes some convincing, Anthony points out my purple lips but he eventually agrees.
25′ later (not 10) we arrive at our hotel. For some reason, our guide checks into the hotel and gets himself some lunch. What about the others?!?! The pilot went back alone we presume. We find out one of the bikes had broken down and when they eventually arrive at the toll gate, 2 hours after we left, the policeman is not at all happy with them, with us all in fact, and decides the 4 bikes will have to be taken and left at the police station.
The next day we are introduced to our new guide for the day – Albert is taking us to see some of Yangon’s sights. This young man of 21 is fantastic. He speaks very good English, is very well educated and knowledgeable and is even good at “herding cats”!!! That’s what our group has been like, “as difficult as herding cats” – imagine 11 bikers, used to travelling alone, or at most 2, having travelled thousands of kms successfully and suddenly having to be ready by a certain time and ride following a pilot car.
Albert was far more interesting than the sights he took us too. He was happy to answer any question we had: he explained that Myanmar had come a long way in the last few years and he was now free to say what he wanted about the government without fear. He talked about the upcoming elections next year. The constitution of 1998 states that any citizen who is married to a foreigner is not allowed to be president and in 2008 it was changed barring anyone from the presidency who is widow(er) and parent of foreigners. Aung San Suu Kyi is therefore unlikely to be able to stand for presidency because her husband was a foreigner… It felt strange to drive past the lake I had seen so often on the news, where her house in which was placed on house-arrest for 15 years was located, and the place so many protests took place… Immigrants, which make up 10% of Myanmar’s population are never allowed to vote nor are their kids. Only those who can prove their descendants back to 1835 can have the pink ID card which allows them to vote. 2-3% of Myanmar’s budget is spent on education and health and 45% on military. Myanmar had 1 million visitors in 2012, 2 million in 2013. I hope Myanmar is able to cope with such rapid growth…
Reflecting on this reminds that we have not commented how how sweet, friendly, courteous, happy, smiling the people of Myanmar have been everywhere we went. Myanmar feels content, in spite of the controlling government. The driving especially is such a dream: every single car or truck always indicated to let us know whether it was safe or not to overtake. First of course, you have to understand whether indicating to the left (they drive on the right) means “ok to overtake” or “not ok”.!!! Once you have established that, you don’t blindly overtake of course, but it gives you a good indication – and they were never wrong in the whole time we were in Myanmar. And traffic coming towards us would do the same for the vehicles behind them. Hooting is Myanmar is very rare. Most people here don’t speak any English, yet we are able to communicate. And building a rapport with people is easy here. We are absolutely loving Myanmar 🙂
Back to Yangon. We visited the reclining Buddha, 65 metres long and 16 metres high. Next, Kalaywa Tawya scriptural learning centre and monastic education school, a holy learning centre on 17 acres of land, where we witnessed the monks arriving with their food offerings, queuing to enter their dining room and then pray before tucking into their lunch. It felt very intrusive to be there watching them pray and taking photos…. Next stop a nunnery school. Again, it felt wrong to be taking photos although I did enjoy the serene feeling of the place, watching a lone monk reciting and learning.
Shwedagon Pagoda, originally built by king Oklalapa in 600BC to enshrine eight strands of hair from Goutama Buddha and was maintained by subsequent kings to the 14th century. In 1453, when Queen Shin Saw Pu ascended to the throne, she had the pagoda raised to 302 feet. When she turned 64, she had 64 pagodas built at the base of the Shwedagon pagoda and also had her own weight in gold (25 viss or 41kgs) beaten out into gold leaf to cover the Shwedagon pagoda. The main pagoda undergoes regilding every 5 years because the gold plates become pale over time due to the local weather. This year, pagoda officials forecast to use over 81 kilos of gold and cash of 11.4 million US dollars in gilding the over 320 feet tall pagoda. Donors contribute in cash or gold – each plate measuring 30x30cm. I found it interesting seeing it under scaffolding and appreciating the enormity of the task of regilding, even if it meant we didn’t get to see it in all its glory.
The pagoda complex is enormous and stunning but what struck me most was seeing the huge crowds of locals, visiting and praying. While it is a major tourist attraction in Yangon, it is still and foremost a place of worship.
A very interesting day in Yangon. We all wish we could keep Albert for our last 2 days in Myanmar but he is unsurprisingly fully booked until February. Good for him!!
Tomorrow is the 8th November – that is Anthony’s 60th birthday!!!! Because we have an early start (going via the police station to retrieve the 4 bikes), I ask Anthony if he’d like his birthday cards this evening as the morning will be rushed. I have one traditional paper birthday card, which I carried since we left Australia, from our dear friends Pat and Andy and 59 electronic messages (amazing how it turned out to be exactly 60 in total – I recounted to double check!!!) from family and friends. Anthony will tell you all about his birthday in the next post 🙂