They said it couldn’t be done, but MotorcycleUSA’s adventure-touring expert, Dr. Gregory Frazier, managed to tour the isolated country of Myanmar by motorcycle.
Burma by Motorcycle – Adventuring the Hard Way in Myanmar
“No! You can not ride a motorcycle in Myanmar, foreigners not allowed, and no visa today.” So said the Immigration official at the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok. His firm dismissal of my request was followed by a rapid flipping of the back of his left hand at me to go away from the “Foreigner” visa application window. This was not my first indicator but merely another reminder that getting into the country and traveling by motorcycle was going to be hard.
Myanmar, formerly called Burma, is one of the dark countries on the globe for overland motorcycle travelers. Motorcycling through the country has long been thought to be impossible. One couple managed to cross the country but only by extensive use of trucks to carry their motorcycle through “forbidden zones,” large sections of the country where foreigners are not allowed to enter.
Several years earlier I had managed a short ride into Myanmar from Thailand before being stopped and escorted back to Thailand by armed military guys. I crossed into Myanmar at the small border town of Tachilek on a Thai rental bike. Once inside Myanmar I rode to the first checkpoint, not far from the border. There the pole across the road was up, the guards sleeping, and I rode through thinking, “I’m in.” At the next checkpoint the guards were awake and one stood in the middle of the road with his rifle in front of the metal pole across the road.
I played the dumb tourist but it got me no further up the road. Instead a small pick-up was used by two guards to escort me back to the border. While one guard drove the truck behind me the other stood in the bed of the pick-up with his rifle pointed forward. I sensed the guys were serious about my being where I should not have been, but at the same time I broke up a monotonous day and gave them a chance to head into town for the night instead of spending it at the lonely jungle post.
At the border I was given a stern lecture by the Immigration officials, which included telling me they could confiscate my motorcycle as well as all of my possessions. They could also fine me, toss me in jail and there would be no call to the American Embassy for help or notification because the United States did not have one in Myanmar. In the end, they let me leave but sternly told me not to come back, I was “persona non grata.” I did notice they had no computers in their office. This gave he hope that my name would not pop-up at a later date when I returned.
Three years later I had a new plan. My research had found that there were motorcycles in Myanmar. My plan was to fly into the center of Myanmar with my riding gear, and once there to borrow, rent, or buy whatever I could find, then ride around inside the country.
A week before I arrived, wild elephants near Yangon knocked down 42 houses in a village, killing two villagers. This one was a “retired” working elephant, 42 years old.
My first barrier was getting a visa. At the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok they were issuing only about 60-100 visas per day and the application line started at 1:00 a.m. for the doors to open at 9:00 a.m. I arrived at 6 in the morning only to be told to come back the next day after waiting until 11:00 a.m.; they were taking no more applications. That is when I went to the application window and asked about riding in Myanmar.
When I left the embassy I noticed a food wagon seller just outside the entrance gate had a box of passports from different countries that she was handing out to certain runners who came to her food wagon. The light dawned on me.
The visa application process was slow because the Immigration Office processed all applications by hand, no computers were used. In the morning they would receive 60-100, then during the afternoon they would process them. The next morning they would give back to the applicant the passport with the new visa in it. Paid runners with piles of passports and applications would line-up next to the food sellers stall and the gate, the food seller’s runner having the number-1 spot.
I talked to the food seller in my very limited Thai and her limited English. With great trepidation I gave her my passport, a completed Report on Arrival Myanmar Immigration form with a photo attached, plus $40. She promised me that in two days, saying, “1000% sure,” she would have my $20 visa for the $20 handling fee.
For the next two days I questioned whether my adventure into Myanmar had already been an impossible or stupid one, having handed over my passport to an unknown food seller on the street, plus $40 cash. Two days later I landed in Yangon, Myanmar, with my passport and a valid visa in hand, plus my helmet, riding gear and a wad of American dollars to secure a motorcycle.
Yangon, formally known as Rangoon, was a “forbidden area” for motorcycles. That meant no motorcycles could be ridden in the area except by some military or government official or a police officer. The city had been a former capital of Myanmar and the government had outlawed motorcycles because of their use by gun guys for assassinations, one person driving, the other the shooter on the back. To go a step further, the government outlawed all bicycles in the same area, except for bicycles used for postal delivery. When the government built a new capital further inland they left the laws intact for Yangon.
Mount Popa and the temple on the top was picturesque, but Snoopy and Goofy (my bare feet) complained all the way up and down, especially when I stepped on monkey droppings.
With some help from a motorcycle travel friend from Germany, a travel agency was found that claimed they knew where a motorcycle could be rented in Yangon. It was a private deal, cash only. The owner of the motorcycle was the proprietor of a teashop and owned a couple of bikes. He had been a motorcycle dealer before the government had outlawed motorcycles and put him out of business. He still loved motorcycles and had three or four. For $3000 he had bought a Honda XR250 in pieces in 1999 and cobbled it together for a runner. With a cash deposit of 1000 U.S. dollars and $35 day, I could rent the Honda. However, he had to charge me another $25 to take me and the motorcycle in a truck 25 miles out of town, outside the forbidden area and drop me off, then collect me at the same point when I returned. There was no signed rental agreement, no insurance and only a copy of my passport and a handshake to seal the deal, which included my agreeing to pay him another $2000 if the motorcycle were confiscated by road police or anyone else.
Another interesting quirk in Yangon was there were no gasoline stations in the city proper. The government deemed them unsafe. To top off the gasoline tank on the Honda we stopped at a busy gasoline station outside the city and after that the owner told me I was on my own. He did give me his cell phone number to call one hour before I returned to the city so he could send the truck out to where I was and collect the motorcycle and me.
Before leaving his shop I wanted to test ride the bike, because when I first saw it the poor thing was in parts and not running. He got it assembled and I made a quick run up and down the block while his helpers kept an eye out for police. It ran, the brakes worked, and the clutch found me all the gears. By the time I was on my own I figured I had already broken at least a dozen laws and dreaded losing $3000, but I had spent three years buying into this adventure so was committed.
Within the first 75 miles I ran into a government checkpoint. My blood pressure moved into the red zone as the uniformed officer with a big gun signaled me to stop. He spoke no English, and my Burmese was limited to a smile, but I understood he wanted to see my passport when he held out his hand and demanded, in French, “Papiers.” I played the stupid tourist, then tried to bury him with paperwork. This was done by giving him a copy of my International Driving Permit, a color-laminated photocopy of my driving license, a color copy of an old U.S. motorcycle title and registration and half a dozen business cards and motorcycle stickers. I kept my cash and credit cards out of sight.
I hand out my personalized stickers, with my website address printed on them, the one this customized motorcycle owner is holding is his right hand. He asked for a second one wanting to put one on each side of his motorcycle. I gave him two more.
Ten minutes of thumbing through my passport, shuffling papers and talking with his subordinates got him to a point where he did not know what to do with me. He pulled a hand written ledger out of a desk drawer, wrote down my name and passport number, then the city where I pointed on a map was my destination. He kept the stickers at my insistence, but gave me back everything else and wished me safe travels towards my destination. Maybe someday another motorcycle traveler will be stopped there and see my personalized sticker on the wall. Send me an e-mail if you do, I would like to know how you made out in Myanmar.
The road surfaces varied from new cement to bombed-out and pot-holed crushed rock. Traffic was light and there were some small motorcycles on the road, 100-110cc Chinese copies of Hondas and Yamahas. My 250cc Honda was a big bike and attracted attention whenever I stopped, as did my riding gear and helmet. Because of the tropical temperature and humidity in this part of the world, helmets are called “rice cookers” and those that are worn cost $2-10 and are beanie style made of some eggshell-like composition. My Nolan helmet was possibly the most expensive and best constructed helmet many of the local motorcycle riders had ever seen.
The next challenge was gasoline. The first stop was at a place where I spotted five-gallon plastic containers by the side of the road, next to which there was plenty of oil-covered dirt and some funnels. The process was for me to tell the owner how many liters I wanted, which he would pour out of the five-gallon plastic container into a metal liter container with a pour spout. He then stuck a large funnel in my gas tank and put a piece of a T-shirt inside the funnel to use as a filter. He computed the cost on his fingers and I handed him as many bills as I thought he meant, which averaged about $4 per gallon.
In the larger towns I could purchase gasoline at regular gas stations, usually located at the outskirts of town. In the countryside it was gas from the plastic containers. Several times when I offered too much money the sellers would hand me back my mistake. Not once did I sense I was being taken advantage of, but that has a lot to do with the Buddhist culture of most of the population. I felt the same honesty in restaurants and hotels or guesthouses where I stayed.
Traffic moved at a sedate speed, in part due to the varied road conditions, in part due to the quality and age of the vehicles, none being new. The fact that slower speeds meant less gas consumption in a poor country likely also contributed to the slower pace. The one exception was a new Mercedes that passed me at well over 100 mph bearing diplomatic license plates. I averaged 25 mph the first two days. After that I quit computing mileage or average speed, concerning myself more with finding gasoline and places to eat and sleep.
One place my motorcycle could not get me to was the world’s biggest bell. It was made for the top of a temple that was never completed. There was no fee for “gonging” it, which I did several times because the monk said to do so would be good luck. After I did it he asked for a donation.
In 1973 the country changed to driving on the right side of the road, so that felt comfortable. The change was made because most of the cars came from Japan and had the steering wheel on the left side. The most difficult part of riding was reading the road signs, which were in Burmese, especially in cities to get through them. Usually staying with the larger flow of traffic was the right choice, that and keeping an eye on the sun and knowing which direction I wanted to go. A road map purchased in Yangon had the larger roads on it, but none of the ones in the countryside.
Riding north to Mandalay was not possible as there were large forbidden “zones” in between. The motorcycle would have to be trucked through these areas and I would have to book a flight over them. Even Burmese nationals that were non-residents of the area were not allowed to travel through the zones. These restricted zones I would liken to military bases in the U.S., only much larger.
The Honda and I floated back to Yangon on a slow ferry. At the dock the owner was waiting with his workers. One worker pushed the motorcycle back to the teashop a mile away, while the owner and I took a taxi. When the final bill was computed the owner gave me back my $1000 deposit and then asked to be paid in new, unfolded, $100 U.S. bills, which I had. We parted friends, fellow motorcyclists in a dark part of the world for motorcycle riders, a place where it was against the law to honk or beep a horn, resulting in a $50 fine if caught. I suggested I might return someday, this time to ride south and maybe on into Thailand. That adventure would require I purchase the motorcycle, which he said he would gladly sell because it was against the law for him to rent or ride it in his city.
The flight to my next destination of Mandalay was inexpensive but on a turbo prop plane that shook more taking off or landing than the Honda XR250 did on a bad road. The city was teaming with small motorcycles, seemingly the preferred method of transportation. A new Chinese made 110-125 step-through model could be purchased for $450 and up. While there were a few bigger bikes around, most were older or smuggled in by someone well connected with the military leaders. One BMW 600cc bike went by, but that was being piloted by a police officer.
The hunt for a rental motorcycle was fruitless on the Internet, proving again that all the answers and information in the world is not there. Instead, a moneychanger on the street who spoke English said he knew someone who had rental bikes. He told me to come back to the same corner in an hour and a couple of motorcycles would be there for inspection.
A 125cc and a 110cc were ridden up and I tried both. Afterwards I was led down a small alley to a private house where the moneychanger translated the deal between the owner and me. The rental would be $12 a day, with no deposit, but I had to give the owner a copy of my passport and half of the rental amount up front, in new, unfolded U.S. dollars again. The owner also asked me to write by hand the rental agreement which said I agreed to rent the bike for $12 per day, and write my name and passport number on the paper. He could not read my hand-printed English, nor could the moneychanger, but when I handed him the money and a copy of my passport he carefully folded everything together and handed it to his wife. She and the rest of his family, including his mother, sister and several children, had been called into the room to observe the whole transaction, his way of showing “big face” in doing a business deal with a white foreigner.
A Burmese “Longneck” or Karen lady. They start wearing the brass coils when they are very young, adding length as they grow older.
The gas tank was nearly full and tire pressure close to what it should have been. There was even some tire tread on the tires. It had an electric starter but came with no tools or ownership papers. When I asked the moneychanger about the lack of tools he said I should not worry, “Everybody will help you.”
Driving in the north was similar to the south except for the mountain range I went over. On a series of switchbacks a tanker truck carrying gasoline had broken down, causing a 100-200 car and truck jam in both directions. On my little bike I was able to weave in and out of the hundreds of stopped vehicles, saving a three- to four-hour wait while a tow truck and the police tried to clear the road. Had I been on a big bike, with luggage on the sides in saddlebags or aluminum boxes, I would have had to sit there with the cars and trucks.
The upside to the Chinese bike was it got two to three times the mileage-per-gallon than did the Honda XR250. The downside was it was much slower and the seat was a butt buster. After two days there was no place or way I could sit on the seat without experiencing severe bun pain.
When the bike died in a small town, a passerby used his cell phone to call a mechanic, who showed up within five minutes and determined the spark plug was dead. He replaced it with a used one, adjusted the carburetor and chain, and then checked things like the brake cables and spokes. The final bill for the roadside assistance was $0.80, less than a dollar-an-hour, and that included the replacement spark plug.
The little bike kept up with all other vehicles on the road except for the numerous “taxi cars” that ferried backpackers and tourists at breakneck speeds far exceeding road and equipment conditions. I thanked Buddha I was not inside a taxi with the crazed pilot when one passed me in either direction, thinking either he would maim me or I him.
People were friendly everywhere, whether at a restaurant or gas stop. They were often surprised to discover I was an American, and one curious university student asked to have her picture taken with me. Besides the U.S. having an embargo around the country, America has very poor relations with the government of Myanmar. However, at the people level, all seemed gentle and prayerful and talk of politics was generally shunned. One English-speaking guide, who invited himself to walk with me around a pagoda, lamented that he could be thrown in jail for discussing politics and democracy – the topics he tried most to discuss, and those which I begged off entering into.