Apart from the entertaining, enlightening and enigmatic tourist visits the ride across Burma was mostly without incident, which was a welcome break from the daily life-threatening trauma of India. That’s not to say that Burma was boring, far from it, although the time away from the tourist trail was probably the most memorable. On one of the first days that the bikes were allowed off the government leash we stopped in a quiet non-descript town on the way to Monywa for lunch. Now, we can’t speak Burmese and we were conscious that overland European motorbike travellers are something of a rarity in rural Burma and the owner of the local café is unlikely to be well versed in English, French or German so ordering lunch was potentially going to involve some interesting sign language. We had images of pointing at the fish tank or miming a sheep, goat or cow … no idea how to mime a tomato or noodles. Anyway none of this was necessary, the homely Mother Hen who was clearly in charge needed no prompting; when five sweaty bikers arrive it means it’s time to cook something, and wow, did she cook up something impressive. We still don’t know what was in it, but within a few minutes a dozen shared dishes arrived on the table involving lots of fresh vegetables. This has been sadly lacking from my diet for the last few months but here we had raw veg, pickled veg, wok fried veg, steamed veg and veg soups, then came satay chicken, chilli beef, stir-fried lamb and pork, grilled fish, air-dried fish, chilli fish and buckets of sticky steamed rice, and free tea. That’s one of the best things about Burma is the friendly culture of just giving you some simple nice stuff … every café, bar and restaurant has free tea on the table, every petrol station gives you a free bottle of cold water, every hotel brings out free orange juice when you arrive, and everyone smiles, no-one tries to rip you off and even when we offered they wouldn’t take money for the tea!
The most memorable experiences are often the unplanned, random events. Me trying to buy a new mobile phone in Burma; I ended up with a Chinese copy of a Samsung that looked good but wouldn’t actually do anything that phones are supposed to do, and it did it all in Chinese! Critical Dave trying to get new tyres on his bike in Burma; he found some off-road tyres of dubious origin but is now burning up every bit of gravel and dirt he can find on his new knobbly rubber, he’s going to be bald again by Bangkok at this rate. Happening upon a street parade celebrating a young boy being taken to a Buddhist monastery to become a monk; a crazy exuberance of red and gold bling, elephants, horses, oxen, and amazing ornate costumes and makeup; dancing puppets and impossibly loud PA systems deafening the donkeys that were drawing them along on carts adorned with flowers, pink pom-poms, golden birds and Buddha statues. It seems it’s quite a big thing to send your boy off to the monastery to do some Monking and the whole town comes out to celebrate the occasion as he is paraded through the streets. Finding a town square of local bars serving amazing looking food, although one needs to remember that the chicken and fish on their menu has certainly come from the hectic sweaty market where the raw meat has been sitting outside all day in the hot sun covered in flies. You don’t pay a lot for the stir-fried chicken flavoured with monkey's head, goat's hoof and bird claw (I think that's what's in the photo above) but remember that the salmonella, campylobacter and E-coli bacteria come for free and stay with you for the next 3 weeks. It’s one way to lose weight I suppose!
Riding in rural Burma makes you smile. In addition to the shiny happy people (yes I did actually put REM on the playlist) the scorched countryside and barren mountains have some brilliant roads. There was a distinct lack of murderous truck drivers and an abundance of high-smile-factor twisty roads, and with the added protection of the Burmese guide’s support vehicle we took off some unnecessary luggage, dumped it in the back of their van and took full advantage of the quiet country trails. So the only real drama on our 14 days whistle-stop transit to Thailand was brought in with us. As I mentioned in a previous post, the idea of putting five independently minded petrol-headed bikers and two unorthodox Italians into an itinerary where we are all supposed to be doing the same thing at the same time was possibly not going to go well. International crises erupted over complex discussions such as what time are we leaving, which route should we take, what time are we leaving, which room are we in, what time are we leaving, where’s Andrea, what time are we leaving, why is my room smaller than theirs, what time are we leaving, I got here first and what time are we leaving (you may be able to spot the running theme there). Negotiations took on the complexity of the Cold War and occasionally caused a Mexican standoff on the proportions of the Cuban Missile Crisis, exacerbated by beer.
But aside from the squabbles of who did what, when and why, we all agreed that Burma is indeed brilliant. The perfect mix of indigenous culture, unspoilt surrounding but enough infrastructure to get around and get stuff done. We worry that in a few years it will become too commercialised as more and more Western tourists descend expecting globalised outlets and plastic food served to you in glittering red and gold cardboard containers by unisex automatons in boiler suits. But for now everything is the right colour; the Buddha edifices are gold, the chillies are red, the food outlets stir-fry your greens in front of you, the roads are clear and fun. And on the last day, heading to the Myawaddy – Mae Sot border crossing, Burma ensured that it wasn’t to be outdone by the last days of India and treated us to some of the most entertaining dirt tracks and country roads. It is the best of innocent fun to get covered in terracotta-coloured dust whilst hooning along, kicking up plumes of desert sand on deserted paths. So much fun!