Myanmar or Burma, whichever you please, such a pure country and society. Financial poor yes, but incredibly rich in culture and happiness. There is little wealth divide and families, children and village communities live a quiet and happy life, away from the pressures, anxieties and expectations of a western culture.
The trip took us from Mandalay in the centre of the country, going West over the dry and sandy plains towards Chin State, Myanmar’s mountain region, exploring people, culture and summits, inaccessible via car and rarely visited by travellers.
A plan to visit Myanmar had been in the back of my mind for a while but there was only way to do it; by motorcycle. The only problem is that I didn’t have a licence albeit plenty off road experience on scramblers as a kid and renting dirt bikes in the Philippines. Technically I didn’t need a licence to ride in Myanmar, but it isn’t worth the risk in a country supposedly run by the military. Off I went to do my CBT, Theory, hazard perception, Mod 1 and Mod 2 of my full unrestricted bike test, all in the dark months of November and December of 2016 in Liverpool!
Doing this kind of trip via public transport is out of the question in Myanmar. Bicycle is an option but the heat would have been unbearable. 4x4 would have been too cumbersome and limited us to reasonable tracks and led to many dead ends.
The team consisted of three. My friend Kachina from New York, a stunt woman and general badass who has been riding for years including in many films. She took time away from the “Gotham” series to come and do this. Ian was already living in Bangkok, has ridden bikes for his whole life and including trips to India and remote Thailand. He had already made arrangements for “some good” bikes in Mandalay! His last trip across India was on some old Royal Enfield copies which required some sort of welding or fix on a daily basis. From Bangkok we flew to Myanmar, quickly made arrangements for the bikes, realised that riding in full biking gear was out of the question in the heat, left it in the hotel and got on the road.
Within 4 hours we stopped for a bite to eat in a local village and were immediately treated like kings. A curious lad came out to greet us and soon his whole family joined us whilst a feast was prepared. Even this close to Mandalay we were fairly certain they had never seen a white person. They would not accept any form of payment regardless of our efforts. This sort of kindness, as it turned out, would be the norm of the trip!
Making our way up to the foothills we took a short cut through a disused rail tunnel, discarded from the days when rail could have made significant impact on the transport network throughout Myanmar, but was discarded by the military regime at some stage.
We were now using Google Earth to pick our way up into Chin State. The bikes could pretty much go anywhere and we used that to our benefit, finding single track and back roads wherever possible. This way we got into the heart of the Myanmars culture and people. The downside is an enormous amount of sand and dust. Each evening we would be caked from head to foot.
Moving through the mountains we rode the rolling grassy slopes of My Kennedy to find an enormous golden Buddhist temple surrounded by red petals. We saw no one on the entire mountain that evening and the track to the summit was certainly not passable by truck or car.
We were now well within Chin State. The people here regard themselves as independent to Myanmar as a whole, much like all the other regions in Myanmar. We must remember that many of the fixed boarders we have today are relatively recent and cultures were mostly formed from geographical barriers or areas rather than the large-scale warfare or diplomacy of today. Here the Chin people are mountain folk. They are predominantly Christian or animists, the belief in a supernatural power that organizes and animates the material universe. It has links to ancient Hindu and likely the main belief or religion before Buddhism, Christianity and Islam took hold.
Buddhism is by far the most common belief however and temples are strewn across the country, old and new. The belief is that you gain merit for the afterlife if you build or help build a new temple or pagoda. You don’t gain merit for the upkeep or renovation of an old one. This leads to a hell of a lot of them and we were fortunate enough to come across and good many on the trip. Often very remote and crumbling.
Moving over the mountain passes, river crossings were common. Sometimes thigh deep which we could ride through, sometimes by dubious bridge and sometimes by boat. Each had their moments from bridges that rocked and bounced to small crossings that suddenly got a lot deeper than you bargained. One time whilst crossing a large fast flowing river on a small boat, the ferry man insisted that he could take three bikes in one go. We on the other hand had doubts given we clearly saw his son bailing the water out using an old pot on the way over.
We were now approaching Southern Chin state, famed for its tattooed women. We knew it was possible to see these rare tribal people as a tourist on a pre-arranged excursion, but who knows if it is genuine or not. You can find numerous images and info if you google “myanmar chin tattooed women”. Anyhow, we weaved our way through the area towards the summit of Mt Victoria, the highest peak in Chin State. En-route we took a small track to a village and met a couple of families going about their daily business. We chipped in and helped them remove corn for a while. Their people were certainly not on any tourist trail and well within the jungle. Look closely at the lady’s face! In the not too distant past, Chin women were regarded as the most beautiful in the country and Burmese kings and princes would travel into the mountains to steal away the ones they desired. The Chin parents, in an attempt to protect their daughters, started tattooing their young child’s face.
Onwards to the summit of Mt Victoria where we camped at over 3000m and watched the sun rise up through the jungle and touch a golden pagoda before anything else. Quite a magical experience and fitting end to the trip before a 2-3 day ride back to Mandalay.
As a conclusion, the real Myanmar is not what you read in the press. It is not, or is no longer a repressed military state. It is also not what I would call in “poverty”. Since the country has not been exploited with investment yet, there is very little wealth divide and people just get on with their lives, trading, farming and living. Men and women are equal and happiness exudes from every family and village we visited. I have visited many developing countries and it has to be one of the safest places I’ve had the privilege of visiting.
We’re planning another trip by bike and considering central America, but something is drawing me back to Myanmar. Maybe the northern Kachin Region with it’s unclimbed Himalayan peaks, even more remote than Chin State. We’ll see.
For more photos, videos and extended trip description see here.
Words by Tim Good