All photos courtesy of Atlas and Boots.
The English novelist Graham Greene once wrote, “Sometimes it is more difficult to make a scene than to die.” His words ran through my mind after I agreed to take a cycling trip through Myanmar (also known as Burma): I pictured myself falling off the bike, hysterically demanding a break, and, finally, bursting into tears of exhaustion.
Histrionics aside, I was initially reluctant to book the trip because I was convinced I’d be the weakest cyclist in the group. After all, I only learned to ride at the age of 28, on a second-hand bike in an East London park. In the ensuing years, I practiced only periodically — and fell off frequently, most recently in a tumble that led to one hospital visit, two black eyes, and three unsightly scars. So I was reluctant to book a 13-day cycling tour of Myanmar when it was first pitched by my partner, Peter. I agreed on the condition that he’d be with me every pedal along the way. Ultimately, he wasn’t, but we’ll come to that later.
We arrived in Yangon on a blazing February morning, and were relieved to find that the rest of our fellow-cyclists-to-be were normal people, not the would-be Olympians I had imagined. Helping ease my anxiety farther was the fact that some, like me, had been brought along by their zealous partners.
But then we convened for our first day of cycling, and my anxious nerves returned. I pulled on my gloves with purpose, hoping they would lend me an air of gravitas, and asked Peter to adjust the size on my helmet — surreptitiously, so the rest of the group wouldn’t see that I didn’t know how.
Soon after we set off, I fell behind, just as I’d expected. I didn’t mind straying behind the pack until I had to dismount and walk up the first big hill. Soon after, I did the same at the second one. Chit, our guide who was taking up the rear, cycled to my side and encouraged me to experiment with my gears — something I’ve historically avoided for fear of losing balance. With his advice, I adjusted my settings and finished that first ride without further incident. After 30km (19 mi) in the saddle, we arrived at Inle Lake, sweaty but satisfied.
We headed to Pindaya the next day. With confidence built from the day before, I had a chance to enjoy the pretty hilltop views and even shout mingalaba! (hello) to a curious local or two, who beamed and returned the greeting. It struck me that seeing the country on street level was so much better than by vehicle, since there are no such exchanges on a 4x4 or bus.
We successfully finished the 33km (21 mi) ride and ended the day at Pindaya Caves, a surreal subterranean collection of more than 8,000 Buddhas.
Over the next few days, we took a break from cycling and turned to hiking, instead. A 10km (6 mi) trail led us to the remote Yazakyi Monastery, where we had a chance to spend the night and meet some locals.
Unfortunately, after the hike, Peter was struck down by a tummy bug — so I had to ride without him. To make matters worse, my other crutch, Chit, wasn’t riding at the back that day. His replacement, Mr. Longman, was appropriately lean and competent, but I had become familiar — and comfortable — with Chit. To make matters even worse, that day had the heaviest road traffic of all.
I tried — oh, how I tried — to keep up with the group. But all it took was one too-loud motorist’s horn to distract me, and I found myself separated from the group. I followed traffic onto a dual carriageway on a bridge instead of turning off onto the segregated cycle lane, and heard Mr Longman shout behind me. As I glanced over, I realized I was on the wrong side of the wall-high barrier between cyclists and cars.
“Nothing to be done now,” I thought, as calmly as I could. “Just keep cycling.” And so I rode on, alongside zooming cars and thundering lorries, across what felt like the longest bridge in the world. Mr Longman soon caught up with me, taking the wrong lane on his own bike on purpose, and guided me to safety. When we finally reached the other side, I thought of Peter’s promise: “I’ll be by your side the whole time.” I have to admit, I was happy when the day’s ride ended.
The next day was the big one: 82km (51 mi) of steep cycling up to Mt Popa. Despite my progress in the days before, I knew I couldn’t complete it. I opted to ride in the support vehicle — otherwise known as the “broom wagon” — not far in.
And while I was rooting for everyone else to complete the ride, a tiny part of myself hoped I wouldn’t be the only one who ended up in the broom wagon. Incidentally, only four out of nine of the group made it to the top, the rest quit partway through due to heat and fatigue. Thanks to the trusty broom wagon, the quitters and perseverant cyclists alike got to share the views from the top — some of the most extraordinary we’ve seen.
We paid an early morning visit to Tuang Kalat Temple, which is perched on a volcanic plug 737m (2418 ft) above the sea. The 777 steps up to the temple were ample warm-up for what I decided would my personal big challenge: a 52km (32 mi) ride — the longest I’d ever done.
This is where Chit proved invaluable once again. He rode by my side, giving hill-by-hill instructions. Until then, I had some misplaced notion that cycling was meant to be hard — that I should be struggling up the hills — but Chit kept telling me to drop my gears again and again.
I realized that most of the battle was psychological: as soon as I believed I could do it, I did it. That day, I finished the longest ride of my life to cheers from the group of “PB! PB!” (personal best) — and in what better place than Bagan?
We spent sunset at the iconic site, and enjoyed a beautiful sunrise the next morning. Our cycle tour for that day — the final ride of the trip — took us down deserted dirt pathways to seldom-seen temples.
Despite my newfound confidence, it was not without incident. Halfway through the morning, my tire swerved in the sand, threatening to topple me from the bike. But I remained in control: I braked calmly and, as I felt the bike go beneath me, I hopped off, escaping without a scratch.
The trip definitely improved my technical skills. But more than that, I had learned that the grace, goodwill, and patience of others is often more forthcoming than we might fear. My fellow cyclists and our guides were incredibly supportive of me — their weakest link — and I was proud to have cycled such a distance in their company. It was truly an extraordinary way to see the country.
I turned to Chit during our last group dinner. “Be honest,” I said. “When I stopped at the hills on that first day of cycling, were you worried?”
He smiled sheepishly. “Yes,” he admitted, prompting laughter across the table.
I smiled, too. “So was I, Chit,” I said. “But it all worked out in the end.”
G Adventures' Cycle Myanmar tour is a great way to see this beautiful, unique country on two wheels. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this enchanting country as you’ve never seen it — check out our Cycle Myanmar itinerary here.