Jan & Karina - www.nie-mehr-radlos.com
cycling around the world since 2011, so far 21 countries and 32.000 km
writing about our experience cycling through Myanmar, April/May 2014
We cycled from Thailand via Myanmar to India by land! Just some months ago, when we were investigating and applying for the visas, we wouldn't think it would be possible, as so many websites were telling us, it is impossible... But yes, it's possible, we did it!
Our Route: Myawaddy - Kawkareik - Hpa-An - Kyaithyo - Bago - Yangon - Pyay - Magway - Mt. Popa - Bagan - Pakokku - Monywa - Kalewa - Tamu, about 1700 km.
Myawaddy-Kawkareik and Monywa-Kalewa were mountainous, the rest of the route was mostly flat. Landscape-wise the area around Hpa-an and Mt. Popa were the most beautiful and interesting. From Pyay northwards it's flat, dry and dusty.
In our opinion you don't travel to Myanmar because of the countryside, but because of the people. The people are so friendly, interested and curious, open for foreigners, smiling, honest and pure. In no other country we encountered so many pure smiles, coming directly from the heart. It's the land of golden smiles!
The roads were better than expected: mostly asphalted. Sometimes a pothole-labyrinth and a bit bumpy, as streets are 'handmade'. But we still had the worst road of our whole trip (32.000kms in 21 countries) in Myanmar: 70 km after Monywa, the road to Kalewa is a 120 km dirt road with big rocks, a lot of dust and quite steep climbs.
With a valid visa for Myanmar it is no problem to enter Myanmar by land from Thailand. For the visa application it's maybe useful to have a flight ticket reservation instead of telling to enter by bicycle, so you get the visa quicker (24h). On our visas there was no information about the entry point or means of transportation.
There are four borders open, but not all of them lead you very far into the country, so check before. We cycled over the Mae Sot-Myawaddy border, which was no problem at all. The whole way to Hpa-an (and also Moulmein) is permitted area, you just have some military checkpoints, where your passport details will be copied. Be aware of the changing road direction: 15 kms after Myawaddy until Kawkareik it's a one way road over the mountains. It changes direction every other day, at least that rule applies to cars. In April 2014 the traffic went westwards on the even days. We cycled the road on an uneven day, which was ok, but we do understand why it is probably wise to wait for the right day, as there're some blind and narrow stretches..
In Yangon we applied for the Special Permit, to cycle in the restricted area between Kalewa and Tamu, as well as for exiting Myanmar in Tamu. Our travel agency that applied for us was "Seven Diamond Express Travels Co., Ltd." (www.sevendiamondtravels.com). Don't go to the MTT (Myanmar Travel & Tours) office, they just tell you, you need to book a tour package and guide to enter the restricted area! Contact details of Seven Diamonds Travel - Yangon: Corner of U Wizaya Road & Damazedi Road (in front of CB Bank), No. 99 (B) 3rd Floor. Talk to Mr. Thit Lwin, firstname.lastname@example.org or Ms. Mar Swe, email@example.com, both very competent and friendly. The application cost 100$/person (they maybe give a group discount, if more than 2 people apply). We needed: passport (they copy the personal details, visa, entry stamp), travel itinerary, money in cash. It took 1 week to get the permit (but can take also 2). They sent the permission letter to the immigration office in Tamu. We were in an area without internet, so couldn't receive the e-mail ourselves. Normally you should have a printout with you to show it at the immigration checkpoints in the restricted area (about 70kms before Tamu and in Tamu).
Cycling in the Restricted Area was no problem. We even stayed in an monastery for the night, because it's 150 km from Kalewa to Tamu, that we didn't make in a day. The police of the town just copied our passport details, as usually, and asked us if we had the permit to be here. The last 120 km to Tamu was the best of all roads we cycled in Myanmar, very smooth. And funnily we saw more English signs along this restricted road, than all over Myanmar.. If you don't have to, don't stay in Tamu's tourist hotel, it's expensive (10$/p) for a clean room, just 3h electricity and maybe wifi. Better directly cross the border to Moreh/India. We stayed in the hotel "Sangai Lodge", about 2 km after the border bridge on the left side. 100 Rupees (1,7$)/Person, clean rooms, friendly owner. Electricity 8-12h/day, cut offs are normal in India, then the hotel's generator runs 6h in the evening.
For Sleeping Places we mixed
- Tourist hotels (touristic cities)
- Camping. Find a spot at dusk, but let nobody see you. We never used flash lights. Be aware of thorns, we had various flat tyres!
- Monasteries (we gave donations), with always friendly monks and interested locals to get in touch with
- Invitations of families. 2 families invited us along the way, even though it's not allowed (we didn't tell the military when they asked). The stay with a 3rd family was even organized by a police officer as it was a remote area and no hotels around. In Yangon there are some Couchsurfing/Warmshowers contacts.
About Money: There's an ATM just after the border in Myawaddy, to get Kyats. Be prepared to pay 3000 to 5000 Kyats fee per transaction. If it ever doesn't work, there's an 'unofficial' possibility of changing Thai Baht in Burmese Kyat near the bank. Other ATMs you find all over the country in bigger cities. We just got money twice, but never had problems with empty automates or other issues. Dollars (beautiful, new, unfolded) we only used for paying the hotels (you get a better price in $), for everything else we used Kyats. The left over Kyats we exchanged into Rupees at Tamu's market (our exchange rate was around 1R for 15,4K), there are several money changers next to the Border Gate 2.
General Costs: Accommodation 4-11$/Person; Vegetarian Food/Restaurant 1000-2000K, Finger Food/Street 100-600K; Coffee 150-300K, Sugar Cane Juice 150-400K, Tea and Water out of 20l Water Canisters mostly for free! There's also water inside of clay pots all over Myanmar, provided for travelers, but we were not always sure about the origin..
To exit Myanmar at Tamu, at the Bridge Gate for foreigners, we just had to wait a little bit at the immigration office (just before the bridge) until the officials prepared all the papers and then stamped our visas with "Left on (Date)". Check if the date is correct (ours wasn't)! When you enter Moreh you find the immigration office (operated by the police) about 1km after the border at the left side of a bigger crossing. Don't believe anybody telling you, you get the entry stamp only in Imphal (we heard that twice!). Finally, they told us to register ourselves in Imphal at the Foreigner Registration Office (ask for CID (SB) Office), that's next to the Police Headquarters on Mahatma Gandhi Avenue/National Highway 39. They copied our names and printed a stamp inside the passport with the duration of our stay in Imphal. We don't know how important that was, and what would have happened if we wouldn't have done it, like other travelers..
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Greetings from India! Karina & Jan