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Travel reports

Military checkpoints, golden stupas and longyi

First official act on the "Friendship Bridge" to Myanmar was switching to the other side of the street. Unlike both Thailand and India, Myanmar uses right hand traffic. Like most of Europe. In principle, this is actually correct since more than two thirds of all countries in the world drive on the right anyway and almost all of today's countries with left-hand traffic are former British colonies (Myanmar included). Nevertheless, the decision of the Government of Myanmar made in 1970 was rather thoughtless: most cars in Myanmar were and are still designed for left-hand traffic (partly due to cheap imports from Japan) and furthermore this is not particularly conductive for cross-border trade with its two large neighbor countries. Not only Izaak and I had to deal with riding "on the wrong side" (both cars from Australia) now, but most locals also constantly drive on the road 'sitting outside'. Martina, however, with her Land Cruiser from Germany was in the right place now. We rolled down towards the border building, which looked like a great golden archway. And as we stopped, we got spotted by Ye, our guide who warmly greeted and welcomed us. After seeing him with his white shirt and dark blue Longyi (a very common men's skirt in Myanmar), we quickly realized that we were about to enter a different country. Along with his there was an official of the state travel agency MTT waiting for us. He would accompany us on our entire trip through the country, be our 'entry ticket' for the numerous military checkpoints lying ahead of us and had to daily report the movements of our convoy to Yangon. Of this we got but nothing during the whole trip. As well as Ye the official made ​​a good impression and he knew a lot about the country, as we later were able to found out when having some small talk. After we had colelct all the stamps necessary for entering, the identification numbers of the vehicles were tested, we obtained the temporary 'license plates' (in the form of a sheet of paper we had to put in the windshield) and fetched the first Myanmar Kyat at the money changer, after approximately one and a half hours of arrival procedure the convoy began to move to Kinpun. Ahead of us lay a distance of about 280 km. Remarkable about this is the first section between Myawaddy and Kawkareik were the road that winds its way through a small mountain range, is so narrow that traffic of both direction has to run through alternately day by day. While there was no oncoming traffic, it still was difficult to sometimes impossible to overtake the numerous trucks as long as the driver did not show mercy and stop at the side of the road to let as pass.

Highly loaded car
Road east of Kawkareik

During the first kilometers on the roads we quickly realized that Myanmar - compard to Thailand for example - is still a bit behind the times: roads are in a much worse condition, there are numerous cattle carts on the streets, cars are in horrible condition and loaded up to the sky, houses along the roads are built in the simplest way out of bamboo and palm leaves. Faced by soldiers and police men at the numerous checkpoints on our route, dressed in spotless uniforms. Only a very small example for the fact, that 50% of the state budget flow in military, police and intelligence agencies.
From its positive side, however, the deep green landscape shows up untouched in most of the places in the east of the country. We could not spot any palm oil or rubber plantations along the way.
Not only the male Burmese are easy to distinguish from their neighbors (because of their skirts). Especially women and children use to put a bright paste consisting of finely grated rind of certain tree species in the face, which is called 'Thanaka'. It is used by the locals as natural cosmetics and sun protection and prevents skin aging. Another very common practice in Myanmar is called chewing betel nut, called "Kun-ya". Here, areca nut, slaked lime and different flavors or tobacco is wrapped in a betel leaf and then chewed. What is called to cause a stimulating effect, damages and stains teeth and teethridge and simultaneously stimulates the salivary causing the consumer tp spit the resulting red liquid everywhere. Therefore, sidewalks and roads in Myanmar and many other places are lined with large red spots. Not nice to look at.

We drove over the mountain range towards the west and after a lunch break in the early afternoon we got stuck for the first time: the guide's vehicle had a flat tire. While the driver took care of it we received a prompt from the MTT official not to stop until we would reach the our next destination. As we have learned, the situation in the border region was tense again: when it came to a shooting between rival gangs near the border three days ago, probably uninvolved vehicles got caught in the crossfire causing the borders being closed for two days. "Lucky us", we thought.
We went to Thaton where we visited the first Burmese pagoda. Afterwards we moved on to Kinpun, the village at the foot of the mountain, on which the famous Golden Rock (Kyaikhteeyoe) sits. On the way there it got dark and we got faced with another crazy habit of Southeast Asian drivers: driving without lights. While it was pitch dark and raining, more than half of the local vehicles were using no lights at all. Maybe the "Kun-ya" gave them exceptional night vision - we still do not know. Due to the traffic and for safety reasons, our distances between each other had increased in the meantime and so I did set myself a task according to the motto "learning or suffering" to compensate the lights the locals did not us: all oncoming or preceding vehicles, motorcycles and trucks got mercilessly treated with my spotlights and horn. Only a working elephant was spared this.

Hotel in Kinpun
Monk procession
Street scene

Around 7pm we arrived at our hotel and enjoyed at dinner together with our first very tasty bottle of Myanmar beer, got to know Ye and learned more about the days ahead. In the evening we noticed a flat tire at Martina's Toyota which got fixed the next morning before departure. Two flat tires on the first day. That says something about the road conditions.

Local women
Bored at the wheel

Our destination the next day was called Nay Pyi Daw, is a planned city in the center of the country, which was proclaimed by the government as the new capital of Myanmar in 2005. On the way there we stopped at the small village of Waw, where Ye led us through a market and showed local products and opportunity for one or the other shopping was given. Conclusion: many local snacks, which are displayed for sale, are so incredibly sweet that one could summarize the composition with "100% sugar". However, Nadine did not miss the numerous shelfs with passion fruit, salak fruit, pomegranates, cinnamon apples and mangosteen.
We moved on and soon we reached the Yangon-Mandalay Expressway, which is the most developed road in the country. With its almost 590 km in length it connects Yangon and Mandalay ((the two largest cities in Myanmar) and the capital (in between) with each other. There is a 120 km/h speed limit on this highway. Maybe not because of the paving, but the (nonexistent) traffic in my opinion this highway really makes it suitable the best for the practice test of latest sports cars. That fact made me suffer even more since Martina and Izaak unintended to speed up their cars over 85 km/h. Nevertheless, we all enjoyed moving noticeably faster as it was the case on the previous roads.
While I was walking up and down in the car, wondering what one could do with this forcibly gained time and inaction, I had an idea. Basically, we were allowed to move freely on the highway, so our convoy (after all, only four vehicles) temporally spread on a distance of 2 km or more. I let ourselves fall back far and decided to send our "blue beast" in the track. Finally, this is a gasoline engine. And such needs to get exercise! It was time to clean the pistons! We were amazed as the 3.5 liters accelerated our 2.5 tons to 185 km/h. I had my fun! From my beloved co-driver I just received a shake of the head...

Uppatasanti pagoda
Uppatasanti pagoda
Group photo

Having this knowledge gap closed, we arrived in the capital in the afternoon. The roads to and within the urban area have some six lanes (per direction!) and were completely empty. It was on a visit to the Uppasatani Pagoda, a large golden pagoda on a hill, which was modeled after the famous Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. On the horizon, a storm was brewing and we were hoping to visit the pagoda before rain would start. We were lucky. In addition to the really impressive building, which is rather unpopular with the locals (as it is only a copy, which was probably built by forced labor), we also got to see white elephants. On the way through the very clean streets with their lush and well kept gardens around we passed a road construction site, where the workers had apparently just finished their today's work and were not about to go home by themselves, but directly were loaded onto a waiting military truck accompanied by armed soldiers. A sight that was probably not intended for our eyes.
On the way we noticed the many diverse hotels built along the streets, one larger and more conspicuous than the other - and all were virtually empty. When we got to our hotel - the Myat Mingalar - we were amazed. Why this hotel in which we were almost the only guests, is listed as a three-star hotel only, was not entirely clear. We first suspected that this hotel was causing a "noticeable" part of the not cheap tour price, but we were sure that our guides were bound to governmental guidelines when booking a hotel in the capital for foreigners. And yet it also had something good: is was a welcomed change after being used to cheap, dirty and noisy hotels (often with smelly squat toilet). Izaak and I took a car to drive to a nearby mall to pick up some beer. Once we were back and everyone was unhappy with the expensive restaurant prices in the hotel, Pierre and I went again to get some take-away dinner (and more beer). Afterwards we spent a funny evening in one of our comfortable hotel rooms after again mosquitoes chased us away from the balcony.

The next morning we were again expected by Ye at the hotel and it should now go towards Bagan. After it was denied us, to get to see the pompous government buildings, we also received a reprimand for driving without guide in the last evening. This was absolutely not allowed they said. Told. Acknowledged.

During our tour we also noticed a positive side of the slow driving. Certainly also due to little to no dirt roads during the last kilometers we managed with a full tank of fuel to go 800 km (usually only about 550 km).
We followed the highway north and used the exit near Meiktila end moved west. On the way we stopped at a palm sugar station, were tourists can learn about the harvesting and processing of palm sugar and (of course) have the opportunity to purchase liquor, snacks based on palm sugar hand made spray made ​​of bamboo and palm leaves. We reached Bagan, the "Must see" attraction of the country par excellence. Nadine and I already knew from our trip in the previous year, what was awaiting us. But it was a great experience to take your own car along between some of the over 2000 stupas which are located in the plain that lies along the Ayeyarwady river. However, we were also instantly in the midst of mass tourism. This finding was strengthened, as we watched the sunset on one of the overfilled stupas.

Group photo in Bagan
Sunset in Bagan
Buddhist initiation ceremony
Buddhist initiation ceremony
Group photo with the cars
Pagoda in Bagan

In the evening we met Ye in a street restaurant and also got to know Mutu personally, the actual organizer of the trip. He is a very nice guy with whom we enjoyed some beers together.
In Bagan we whould stay for two nights now.