The budget motorcycle diaries

Clapped-out bikes, potholed roads, copious breakdowns – even a stop at an ethnic army mausoleum. This four-day adventure through eastern Myanmar had it all.

Words & Photos OLIVER SLOW | FRONTIER

THERE WAS excited chatter as our bus chugged and trundled through the night to Taungoo, in northern Bago Region.

Most of the talk focused on what motorbikes we would be picking up in the morning for our four-day, 600-kilometre trip through the hills of eastern Myanmar.

“I reckon we’ll at least get 250cc’s, but a Harley is a bit of a stretch isn’t it?” said one member of our cohort. (Out of respect for their professional careers, I’ve given them all nicknames. This comment came from The Happy One.)

There were four of us onboard the bus: myself, The Happy One, The Intelligent One and The Hungry One. A fifth, The Experienced One – a sarcastic nickname administered due to his ludicrous claim that he “understood motorbike culture” because he once hired a bike to get around Mandalay – had lost his passport, then magically found it at Yangon International Airport and would join us in Taungoo on a later bus.

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The plan for the trip was ambitious: We would travel first to Nay Pyi Taw for a relatively simple first day, then on the second day climb into the Shan hills and make our way for Loikaw, the Kayah State capital. Day three was to be equally ambitious; a journey along rarely traversed roads that we couldn’t even be sure were open to Thandaunggyi in northern Kayin State, before finishing the trip the next day with a relatively simple roll back down to Taungoo.

True to form, I’d done none of the planning and climbed aboard at the last moment. The Intelligent One and The Experienced One had spent hours poring over maps to work out a viable route. The Happy One had liaised with local sources to find out what roads were open and The Hungry One had scouted the restaurants along the route.

Day One: To the abode of kings

After a hearty breakfast, we stepped outside to survey the beasts that would carry our burdens for the next four days.

As expected, there was no Harley. The bikes were, like their riders, a rugged bunch of misfits, with parts dangling off and various components apparently not in working order.

“Ah this is a Toyota, I’m claiming it,” yelled The Experienced One excitedly.

“Mate, that says Toyotur,” said The Intelligent One. “And do Toyota even make motorbikes?”

After a final survey of the bikes – actually little more than a swift boot to the tyre – we were on the road.

“Is there anywhere we can stop for food?” said The Hungry One as we rolled out of the hotel.

We stopped briefly to top up on water, petrol and bungee cords to secure our bags to our bikes. Applying them was an exercise in incompetence. Eventually, The Intelligent One took pity on most of us and took over.

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Oliver Slow | Frontier

By 11am we were on the old highway heading north to the capital. Travelling along a flat road with trucks hurtling alongside us was always going to be the least enjoyable part of the trip. But we settled into a steady rhythm, applying the mantra that we’d agreed before setting out: the “don’t be a dick” rule. It’s quite simple: Don’t do something that could be considered “being a dick”, whether it’s making a dangerous manoeuvre, being rude to a fellow road user or leaving one of your mates behind.

Just outside Nay Pyi Taw we turned off the main road for a much quieter and more pleasant ride along a tree-lined route. And then we hit our first hurdle, when the chain on The Happy One’s bike snapped. As we stood around scratching our heads, an elderly man in a tattered white vest and longyi emerged from his home holding a toolbox. He quickly fixed the chain, refused payment and we were rolling again.

The bumpy roads were replaced by smooth, wide surfaces, an indication that we had arrived in Nay Pyi Taw.

The nation’s capital often gets a bad rap, but the more I visit the more I enjoy my time there. Yangon is a wonderful and exciting city, but the traffic, the smog and the noise can fast dull the enjoyment. Nay Pyi Taw, with its green spaces, lack of traffic and fast internet, is the antithesis of all that.

Before arriving at our hotel there had been some discussion of exploring the city’s museums, but then The Experienced One pointed out that we had access to a swimming pool and beer, and our plans for the evening were decided.

Day Two: Into the Shan hills

After a relatively straightforward first day, the next two were more gruelling.

We woke early – and a touch groggily – and were rolling through Nay Pyi Taw’s silent streets before dawn, past grand government buildings to the left and the Uppatasanti Pagoda on the hill to the right, against a dramatic blood-red sunrise.

My enjoyment of the view was spoiled when my bike coughed, spluttered and duly conked out. I was out of petrol.

Spending time perusing the map for the nearest settlement, it was left to The Experienced One to ride off in search of supplies. About an hour or so later we were moving again and leaving Nay Pyi Taw.

The smooth surfaces we’d been enjoying were promptly replaced by the bumpy, pot-holed roads we had endured the day before. We spent a perilous hour or so on a narrow stretch with trucks hurtling towards us before turning off the main road and up into the hills.

This was when the real riding began, and it was glorious. For hours we climbed and climbed, swerving around hairpin bends, enjoying the dramatic scenery along the way. There were hardly any villages, so every hour or so we stopped at a roadside shack to water down our groaning bikes and rest our weary bodies.

Somewhere in the hills my bike conked out again; again, the five of us stood around scratching our heads, pointing at things and not really being much help to anyone. After a while a bike came around the corner – the first we’d seen in some time – and we hailed down the rider, a small man in Shan traditional dress.

He surveyed the bike, pulled a few plugs and tested it. We cheered, whooped and hollered as it roared to life, and the Shan man fixed with a bemused expression, turned towards his bike and rode off into the distance.

Another few miles of climbing and our bikes were sending signals that it was time for another break. It was 12.30pm. Our target had been to reach the Shan State town of Pinlaung for lunch and the spot where we stopped offered a view over what seemed to be a bustling town.

“Is that Pinlaung?” I asked The Intelligent One.

He shook his head and pointed to our location on a map. At least two hours from Pinlaung.

“There’s no way we’re making Loikaw by night,” said The Experienced One, as the day’s first wave of pessimism washed over the group.

“When are we stopping for food?” said The Hungry One.

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Oliver Slow | Frontier

We pushed on for Pinlaung. I’d been talking excitedly about arriving there all morning, as it was – in my mind at least – the famous town where the Panglong Agreement had been signed on February 12, 1947.

As we sat down for lunch, shortly after 2pm, I asked the group if we would have time to visit the monument that commemorates the signing of the agreement.

“It’s a different Panglong,” said The Experienced One. “I knew all along, but just wanted to see the disappointment on your face. And I have to say, it’s even better than I imagined.”

We still had plenty of ground to cover to get to Loikaw before dark, and for the next two hours pushed our bikes as hard as we could. Around 5pm we limped into a pleasant teashop in Pekon on the banks of Moebye Dam. We collapsed into chairs and washed down tea as we let our backs, butts and legs recover somewhat from the day’s riding.

After the tough morning and intense afternoon push, the ride into Loikaw was an easy one. We reached our hotel shortly before dark, washed off the day’s grime and made it to the hotel verandah in time to sip some well-earned beers and sample some Loikaw sausage as the sun began its descent over the same hills we had spent the day riding over.

Days three and four: South to Kayin

It was another pre-dawn start on day three as we aimed to make the former colonial hill station of Thandaunggyi before dark. This was the day we were most apprehensive about, riding along roads that we weren’t sure were open, and in areas that were or had until recently been under the control of various armed groups.

We arrived in the town of Demoso before 7am, where we stopped for a traditional Myanmar breakfast and for our bikes to be fully serviced – for the princely sum of K5,000.

Our bikes (somehow) given the all clear, our group was in a buoyant mood as we travelled towards the tiny village of Heshsuku, which sits on the border of Kayah and Shan states. But our optimism for a pleasant day of riding dissipated when we saw the road. We spent much of the day bumping along at little more than 10 kilometres an hour, the 40 kilometres to Heshsuku taking the best part of four hours.

We passed through the very southern limits of Shan State before crossing over into Kayin. The going was painfully slow, and the anxiety from the day before that we wouldn’t make our destination returned. Still, when we passed what looked to be a mausoleum, we had to stop for a look.

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A mausoleum for fallen soldiers from the Kayan New Land Party, which spent 30 years fighting the Tatmadaw before it signed a bilateral ceasefire with the government in 1994. (Oliver Slow | Frontier)

We later found out it was for fallen soldiers from Kayan New Land Party, which spent many years fighting the government before signing a ceasefire in 1994. The KNLP is unique because it is not involved in the current peace process led by the National League for Democracy.

After a quick stop at Yado, a small town that the group agreed had an eerie feel, we were pushing on again, having no idea at this point where we would spend the night. The pessimism grew. Our bikes were groaning louder and louder after the punishment we’d forced them to endure over the past few days and we were having to stop and cool them at regular intervals. Then we had a prolonged stop after The Hungry One got stung on the lip by a bee.

“There’s no way we’re making it,” said The Intelligent One.

But then the group’s determination kicked in and we pushed on again, pulling the throttle to the max, leaving the other road users in our wake. I’m fairly certain we all broke our “don’t be a dick” rule during this leg, but by 5pm, we’d reached the bottom of the hill to Thandaunggyi.

Exhausted and caked in dust, the easy option here would have been to coast on into Taungoo, just a few minutes further down the road. But we were determined to press on and gave it one last nudge up the hill.

Just as the sun turned orange and darkness crept up on us, we rolled across the bridge into Thandaunggyi and slumped into a roadside restaurant where the purveyor brought us some ice cold beer, which we sipped as we watched the day’s sun disappear behind the mountain.

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