Pedal-power travelers lured by border openings


A mountain road in Chin State. (Ye Aung Thu / AFP)

A growing number of intrepid travelers are discovering that one of the most rewarding ways of experiencing Myanmar is from the seat of a bicycle.


Hilda Deuss and fiancé Bernd Isenberg are in the middle of an epic but gruelling trip across the Eurasian landmass. With their luggage strapped to two sturdy road bikes, they have cycled from Guangzhou in southern China through mountainous landscapes, bustling cities and tranquil, sprawling farmland. Their destination is Holland.

They encountered a few other cyclists undertaking long journeys in China, but expected to find Myanmar untouched by bicycle enthusiasts. Myanmar was to be the most adventurous leg of their journey. That was the idea, anyway.  

“This is actually the country where we’ve met most cyclists since we started our trip,” said Mr Isenberg, 28, from Germany, as the couple waited in Yangon to get visas for India.

“To give you an idea, maybe in total on the 5,000 kilometres from China to the border with Myanmar we met 10 to 15 other cyclists, and on the 500 kilometres from the border to here we met about the same amount,” he said.

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“We crossed the border with, I think, eight other cyclists,” added Ms Deuss, 28, who is Dutch.  “That is something that hasn’t happened at all yet.”

Despite notoriously bad roads, Myanmar has become a hot destination for intrepid cyclists in recent years. The country’s political and economic reforms have made it easier to visit and border crossings have opened to tourists. That’s a boon for those who like to skip international flights and arrive on two wheels.

The number of travellers arriving in Myanmar by bicycle has increased in recent months, said Jeff Parry, who with a partner runs Yangon-based travel and tour company, Bike World.

“We’re getting more people coming to our guesthouse who have cycled into the country, either through Thailand or coming in from India, that’s definitely increased and more people … coming in to rent bicycles to do touring around Myanmar.”

Among travellers, cyclists are among the keenest to experience Myanmar as it continues to emerge from decades of near isolation. In late 2013, when the Mae Sot border crossing at Myawaddy in Kayin State opened to tourists, the first to cross were three European cyclists.

Myanmar’s serene landscapes and crumbling ancient temples provide much allure for tourists arriving by plane, but for cyclists the benefits of visiting go well beyond the main tourist attractions.

“We didn’t visit Golden Rock,” said Ms Deuss, to which her fiancé added: “Which really upset the people in our guesthouse.”

After cycling for thousands of kilometres, the couple have decided to give most of Lonely Planet’s top recommendations a miss. 

“We see so much from our bikes all the time, we get constant visual and audio input,” said Mr Isenberg. “It’s really hard to process already, so on the days that we don’t cycle we very often feel like giving ourselves a break.” 

So far the couple haven’t had too much trouble with Myanmar’s roads, but they expect that to change after they leave Yangon.

“The roads are improving,” said Mr Parry, shortly after traveling from Kanpetlet in Chin State on a much improved road.

“The last time I did that it was pretty much a dirt road the whole way,” he said.

Until there’s an overall improvement in Myanmar’s tourism infrastructure, touring the country by bicycle will remain the reserve of the more intrepid. “You can’t just pitch a tent or rock up to a town and find somewhere to stay,” said Mr Parry. “That’s one hurdle they have to come to grips with, they have to plan.”

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