Inspiration: Big Trip

Motorcycling in Myanmar

Adventure biking in south east Asia

The harder something is to achieve, the sweeter it feels when you do. Just keep that in mind when taking on the roads of Myanmar.

It’s an accepted fact among adventure riders that there’s no ultimate gain without a degree of pain along the way. If you needed proof, then Myanmar is it. Every bump and exposed section of pipework along a scarcely travelled route from India to Thailand is another wheel-turn closer to an epiphany. So, let Julia Sanders and the GlobeBusters team lead the way…

“Not for the faint hearted”

Julia says: “The road from the border to the city of Mandalay is definitely not for the faint-hearted with twists and turns, extreme hairpins, muddy ruts, steep descents, tarmac worn through to the bare rocky under layer and exposed water pipes.

“If you’re used to touring in Europe with its open borders, this place will be a massive shock. The government still exercises a lot of control, so forward-planning is essential.”

The guides, presumably in a show of defiance and in honour of their new explorer friends, lead the way into the heart of the country past tiny villages of wooden houses on stilts and everywhere a warm welcome.

Opening up

The place has been pretty much closed off to the outside world for more than half a century. Things started to change, however, in the wake of political reform in 2011 and Myanmar – or Burma as it used to be known – is gradually opening up to tourism.

You’ll still need to organise paperwork, get permission to travel, submit copies of passport, prep your driving licence and ownership documents, plus taking and sending photos of the bikes in advance.  Without them you’ll never get across the border.

Good with admin? There’s still the added complication near the North East Indian border where civil unrest is common as the locals fight for independence.

Julia says: “Ironically, the safest way to travel into the country is by joining a military convoy past the police checkpoints. This can be time-consuming, especially if they want to check laptops, cameras and mobile phones for pictures showing military installations and activity.”

Sirens and flashing lights

A Myanmar-based agency will know the ropes and is well worth the outlay. Once across the International Bridge of Friendship into Myanmar, an agency can swing into action with a support vehicle, driver, chief guide, gofer and even a road condition advisor for the 9,700km trip.

“They liked to lead us out of towns with sirens and flashing lights. This successfully cleared the road, but as soon as it passed all the vehicles pushed off the road were frantically pushing to get back on it, normally not paying attention to the bikes following the support vehicle,” recalls Julia.

The challenging conditions on the six-week trip weren’t helped for the Triumph Tiger team when 48 hours of rain fell, with the wearing of waterproofs impossible due to the heat and humidity.

Chewed to pieces

“Our local guides were new to this too and road conditions change so much that getting an accurate description of the road ahead from someone who does not have English as a first language, does not ride a bike and has never been there anyway, is hopeless,” she laughs.

“One road was described as being Tarmac. Well, maybe it was 50 years ago but it had since been chewed to pieces by heavy slow trucks trudging up and down a mountain road at 10mph, had gnarly hairpin bends and ruts, with narrow drops and hairy overtakes.  In Myanmar, this translates as ‘it’s OK, hard surface’.”

“Go now… before it changes”

Payback comes in the shape of myriad tea houses and road stops along the way. All at ridiculously cheap prices. In more rural places, a roadside stop leads to an invitation to tea from delighted Myanmars with large, gentle smiles and a wary curiosity of the Tiger 800s.

Julia says: “You won’t find any western influences – there’s no fast food joints, service is slow, English is poor and wifi slow and sporadic. When you cross the border into Thailand it’s like riding into the USA with massive freeways and American brands everywhere.

“But go now, before it changes. In some ways Myanmar reminds me of Cuba with that slightly crumbling colonial atmosphere that makes it all worthwhile. And remember there’s no gain without pain.”