Cycling: A Way Into Burma’s Heart

By Dani Patteran 1 February 2014

RANGOON — Boasting a stunningly diverse and largely unspoiled natural environment that includes everything from Himalayan foothills and tropical jungle to arid flatlands and more than 2,000 kms of Indian Ocean coastline, Burma is a true adventurer’s paradise.

And for those willing to take up the challenge, cycling may well be a way to avoid the increasing flocks of tourists and journey into the heart of the Golden Land.

As Anne Cruickshanks, country manager for the Asia-based cycling tour company Grasshopper Adventures, told The Irrawaddy: “When you’re on a bike, you get to use all five of your senses. … You’re hearing things, smelling things and of course stopping and tasting things you’re really not going to experience if you’re sitting on a bus.

“It’s a great way of seeing Myanmar,” she said.

Cruickshanks recommends Karen and Mon states as regions with huge potential. Quiet roads, interesting terrain and accommodating weather make areas around Hpa-an and Moulmein, the two states’ capital cities, great destinations. But for those looking for more of a challenge, “the most spectacular riding that is accessible is in the central Shan State. … It’s tough and it’s hilly, but it’s brilliant,” she told The Irrawaddy.

The sheer diversity of the country and terrain means that Burma offers something for people of all shapes, ages and inclinations—whether pleasure cyclists interested in a more relaxed day ride, committed long-distance tourers or those seeking the thrill of a downhill race.

Australian Jeff Parry has been running cycling tours in Burma since 1998 with his company Bike World Myanmar, and sees everyone from “13 to 70 years old” on his trips.

As well as the impressive nature, “In Myanmar, I think you’ve got a good opportunity to see people in their traditional way of life, which is probably disappearing in the likes of Thailand and Vietnam,” he says.

The Irrawaddy joined Parry for one of his regular weekly rides, heading 25 kms out of Rangoon in the early hours of a Sunday morning to an area around the village of Nga Su Taung.

Leaving behind the bustle and fumes of downtown Rangoon, the attractions of cycling in Burma were immediately obvious.

Dusty red tracks ploughed their way through verdant green rice paddies and clusters of small villages, where children rushed out to wave and call “Mingalarbar” to the passing group. Tall plantations of rubber trees offered moments of shade and respite from the fierce sun. A few bikers stopped to take a refreshing dip in a passing lake, before jumping back in the saddle.

Heading out on two wheels offers a unique glimpse into Burma’s rural life. Although a rare sight, Parry has seen both a wild leopard and elephants in the course of his cycling adventures.

His tours, however, are not for the faint-hearted. Negotiating a tricky downhill section ended in a spectacular crash for The Irrawaddy’s reporter, who luckily managed to escape with nothing more serious than a few scratches and scrapes, a bent bicycle crank and a bruised ego. Both Parry and Cruickshanks agree that medical aspects should be taken seriously.

Cruickshanks trains all her tour guides in first aid, while Parry recommends that anyone considering coming to Burma for cycling takes out adequate health insurance and is fit enough to cope with the physical demands of the sport. Health facilities are few and far between, and not up to international standards in rural areas.

There are other unexpected challenges that budding cyclists are advised to consider. Government restrictions mean that foreigners are only able to stay in approved accommodation, which can limit routes to journeys between areas with registered lodging—or require that touring cyclists arrange alternative transport to get between remote locations.

Though it may be possible to stay with local families, “It’s very imposing to go into a local family house if they don’t have their government registration,” says Cruickshanks. “They will always allow you to stay there, but they are running a risk of getting into trouble.”

A Budding Burmese Scene

Contrary to expectations, there is also a vibrant local cycling scene in Burma, with enthusiasts taking to the streets and hills across the country.

Anyone willing to hit Rangoon’s roads before daybreak will see a number of individual and group riders speeding past on bikes, getting precious hours in the saddle before traffic makes riding significantly less pleasurable.

Road cycling is popular, but apparently giving way to downhill and cross-country alternatives, related to the poor quality of many of Burma’s roads and increasing levels of traffic.

Lance, a native of Mogoke in Mandalay Division, has been cycling in Burma for 25 years, starting out on a road bike and moving to mountain-biking 15 years ago.

Like everyone The Irrawaddy spoke with, Lance agreed emphatically that Burma is a great place for biking. He recounted, with a laugh, a story of cycling in Chin State, where only “15 minutes” of a non-stop, 11-hour ride were downhill and the rest was a grueling uphill trek. He acknowledged that this might not be everyone’s cup of tea.

Mandalay-based mountain biking group the Mandalay Free Riders are inspiring interest in downhill racing among Burmese youth, and participated in last year’s Southeast Asian Games.

The main difficulty facing local riders is the prohibitive cost of the sport. Decent mountain bikes start at around US$300, and for many on local salaries, this is simply out of reach.

In a country with such unparalleled diversity, natural beauty and clear potential for cycling, current reforms and a growing economy may help provide opportunities that not only encourage tourists to explore Burma “off the beaten track” and on two wheels, but allow more young Burmese to take part in the sport.

For more information, Bike World Myanmar can be contacted through their website http://www.cyclingmyanmar.com/. They run weekly Friday night rides around downtown Rangoon, and Sunday morning rides that leave at 6:30am from the Bike World Myanmar guesthouse, as well as dedicated cycling tours across Burma.

Grasshopper Adventures runs cycling tours throughout Asia, and specializes in seven- to 14-day tours through Burma, as well as day trips in Mandalay and Bagan. More information can be found on their website: http://grasshopperadventures.com/