Myanmar travel diary, part one: The scooter journey is a slow one

Thomas Heaton traveled around Myanmar for six days in April. Here, he shares the diary of his 750km journey on a motorcycle.


“Huh?” the man replied, staggering toward us through the hay.

Turns out he doesn’t speak Burmese, we’ve crossed the border into Shan State and they have their own.

As he spoke, he smiled, showing a broken tooth. A dusty vest hung from his tough, weather-beaten skin, tucked into his skirt-like maxi skirt. Thirty-eight degrees, we’re thirsty, and so is our scooter.

He was elated when the young man hitchhiked.

Thomas Heaton

He was elated when the young man hitchhiked.

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Pointing to the scooter’s seat seemed to suffice: we got lost and one of the bikes ran out of gas. Another man approaches, a typical cigar in his mouth. He turned his head and waved, and a little boy ran into the village.

The boy came back and dumped a litre water bottle full of petrol into the thirstier bike. 1,000 kyats (about $1) were handed to them. We thanked them in Burmese and they laughed, as did the rest of the village. They probably know Burmese as well as we do.

We are located between Kalaw and Inle Lake, a favorite place for tourists in central Myanmar. Where exactly we are, we don’t know. The farmland is like a crocheted blanket in shades of brown and green; so-called roads gradually blend into the landscape.

So far on our day trip we’ve crossed a river, walked through villages, climbed over what looked like a mountain, and turned around again. Literally, they pointed the way for us.

That day, the third of six, was huge. Very different from the previous days, and like fate, the following days. On paper, the journey doesn’t seem all that daunting. We did a loop of about 750 kilometers: from Taungoo, north of Yangon; to Mandalay, then east to Kalaw and Inle Lake; then back to where we started.

Day 1: Taungoo to Napidyaw, 120 km

Our trip from Taungoo to Naypyidaw was very easy. We hit 70km on the 110km section. The 110cc scooter we rented from the locals in Taungoo does this easily.

This road takes us from the small town of Bago district with more than 500 years of history to the capital. The road was dry and hot, and the sweat evaporated as soon as it left every pore.

People and livestock pop up occasionally. Where they came from, I’m not sure; where they’re going, I’m still not sure. But they raised their eyebrows at the sight of two large foreign males speeding by on small scooters. Either that, or they’ll shout out the few English words they know as loudly as they can.

My travel partner, my brother James, chose a confident maroon hitchhiker.

Maybe 10, and he was an aspiring Buddhist monk. We took him for a spin and dropped him at a dusty intersection with a few starfruits and some water. This is a harbinger of an upcoming adventure, if anything, good for our karma.

The sun had already set when we reached Nay Pyi Taw, the capital and newest city of the country. A strange place, created as a government home, with its few weapons and few other things we had to visit. We went to the 20-lane boulevard, a road in front of the country’s parliament – there’s even a stage built for parades and political events.

The place is the capital of one of the poorest countries in that part of the world, so grandiose buildings and extra-wide boulevards seem out of place and a waste. We do giant loops on figure-eight boulevards. We saw one, three at most, cars drive past. With soft saddles and sun-drenched skin, we decided to find a hotel.

We retire to one of the designated “zones” – the hotel zone – for $25 a night. The hotel is huge and has all the amenities you might expect from a good hotel, but the lifeless stuff they have is hard to ignore. This hotel is like the capital: nice exterior, but not so flashy inside.

Probably the most redeeming feature of Napydaw is the place’s comedic value and that absurd boulevard.

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