By the hair of Buddha

How do you balance a 7.3m tall, 554 tonne rock, atop another massive rock, on top of a mountain?

With a strand of Buddha’s hair of course!

Golden Rock is just that, sitting 1,095m above sea level, it hangs precariously over the edge of a cliff whilst Buddhist worshippers cover it in ever increasing layers of gold leaf.

The legend goes that Buddha himself donated a strand of hair to a hermit, who in turn gifted it to the king, and requested it be enshrined in a boulder shaped like his head.

The king found one at the bottom of the sea, and using his supernatural powers, transported it to the top of the mountain where it sits today, with the strand of Buddha’s hair preventing it rolling down the hill.

There were a few tourists (including us) viewing this wonder of nature, but the vast majority had converged from all corners of Myanmar. Many of whom had walked 15km from the closest town, in what is a pilgrimage for many Buddhists in the country.

Crossing into Myanmar from Thailand, you instantly notice things are different.

The countryside is less agriculture, more jungle. The shops are less 7/11 chain convenience stores, and more roadside wooden huts with roofs made of leaves. There are less fancy cars, more mopeds and they drive on the other side of the road.

Thai roads drive on the left, whereas Myanmar roads on the right. Whilst crossing the “Thai/Myanmar Bridge of Friendship”, in no mans land between the two countries, there is a point where you suddenly have to cross the road and drive on the other side.

The traffic lights don’t work, so you just pick a moment where there’s no oncoming trucks – and swap sides.

Myanmar drivers used to drive on the left. This changed in 1970 when the leader of the country General Ne Win, decided overnight to change the driving side from the left to the right.

This sudden change in direction meant that all the vehicles on roads now had the steering wheel on the curb side, and the passenger door on the road side. Next to non existent car manufacture, or foreign import into Myanmar mean it’s still the case today.

Many of the public buses we pass are old, and set up this way. Passengers have to exit the bus into the middle of the road, and then collect their luggage out the storage area whilst dodging oncoming traffic.

Another consequence is if vehicles want to overtake on often narrow roads, instead of inching out to take a look at the oncoming traffic, they need to swing right the way out so the driver side can see the oncoming traffic.

The technique is generally just press your horn as loud as it’ll go and swing right out to have a look. It would be an almost comical situation, were it not so dangerous.

We passed this truck, not sure of the cause of the crash but all the above can’t have helped.

Since car import restrictions have been eased in 2011, the government is trying to import more left hand drive vehicles.

No one is sure why General Ne Win decided to change the side of the road overnight, however there are two prevailing theories.

One is that his wife’s astrologer said the country would be better off driving on the right. The other is that he had it in a dream.

This story is a nice metaphor for the Myanmar government and general political situation over the last 60 odd years: confusing, irrational and dangerous.

Myanmar, formerly Burma, was a British colony between 1824 and 1948. In 1947, shortly after World War Two, Burma gained independence from Britain led by a man called Aung San, who’s party won the first general election. Months later Aung San was assassinated, and over the next four years the country descended into civil war between the army and various regional forces.

The prime minister handed over temporary control to military general Ne Win, who stabilised Burma, before another election in 1960, only for the country to descend into war again.

In 1962 the army stepped in again to take control. This time there were no further elections for 38 years.

During this time, the economy was severely mismanaged leaving much of the country in poverty. All opposition parties and media were banned, as were foreign aid groups. An example of this was the 2008 Cyclone Nargis that affected 2.4 million, and reportedly killed 84,000 Burmese citizens. The military leadership prevented or delayed foreign aid from entering the country.

In 1990 a separate military coup brought a new group to power, who amongst other things, changed the English name of the country from Burma to Myanmar (the two are now used interchangeably), and moved the country’s capital from the major city Yangon, to much smaller Naypyitaw with minimal explanation.

Convinced they had popular backing, the new regime held elections in 1990, but were soundly defeated by the National League of Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Aung San, the former assassinated leader.

Instead of recognising the result, the army imprisoned or killed political opponents, and Suu Kyi spent 15 years under house arrest.

We met a nice Australian guy called Jeff who has lived in Myanmar for 30 year with his Burmese wife. He helped us with our bikes as we needed a few parts, and explained what’s going on at the moment:

“Aung San Suu Kyi was released in 2010, and her party won something like 80% of the vote in 2015 so are now in government”

“There is a lot of good development happening in Myanmar at the moment, the increase in tourism is one thing, there is a lot of infrastructure being built and a load of sanctions from overseas countries have been lifted so we can trade.”

“That said, people are still scared as the army still have a huge amount of control, and lots of guns. They are scared that if the army doesn’t like something the government is doing, trying to change the constitution for example, they will take back control.”

“Only in January a key advisor to Aung San Suu Kyi was shot in Yangon, people suspect by the military”.

The military do still have a huge amount of control. They re wrote the constitution in 2008 and held a referendum to approve it which they claimed got 99% turnout, with 92% approval. It was held in the midst of the cyclone described above, and there was multiple accounts of fraud.

Included in the new constitution is a clause that no one married to, or with children from another country is eligible to run for president – seen widely as a means to exclude Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency, as her children have British passports.

Despite the result of any democratic election, the military retain control of defence, home affairs and border affairs. This article summarises it nicely.

Another clause is that the military automatically get 25% of all seats in parliament, regardless of the outcome of the election. To make any further changes to the constitution, you need a 76% majority to pass them, which is near impossible as the military always vote as a bloc.

Imagine in the UK some unelected army leaders, automatically getting 25% of all MPs. Surely there would be a riot…

Although it’s not that far fetched. Unelected bishops of the Church of England, right now, automatically get 26 seats in the House of Lords, and are able to debate and vote on legislation.

Presumably the rationale is they have God Himself informing them the right way to vote, so hard to argue with that…

As a result of all this, Myanmar is a country that has only recently opened up to tourism (2011), after being effectively closed off to much of the outside world for years. It is making great strides to try and catch up for lost time as the government tries to improve the conditions for the people, whilst at the same time fighting the shackles of the old regime that still wield a lot of power.

It’s a fascinating place to travel through, especially on a bike.

There are no sign of any western brands. Even in the largest city Yangon, there is no MacDonalds, Starbucks or any of the regular fixtures you see anywhere else in the world. The only widespread recognisable brand is Coke, but unlike developing countries in Africa for example where Coke is plastered all over near every shop you walk past, here it’s much more subtle.

People don’t wear Nike or adidas or other brands common in Southeast Asia, they have their own national dress that is widespread across the whole country.

At Golden Rock some ladies came up to us and asked for a picture with us. There subsequently ended up being a small queue and we did solo shots (the kids did it together) with us and the rest of the extended family. We felt a bit like B list celebs when they do a book signing in HMV and there’s a small queue of people wanting their picture.

At the end we got a full family picture. The gentleman next to Ewan is wearing the traditional “longyi”, a long kilt like garment tied at the waist. The lad in the front left is wearing “thanaka”, a sort of face paint made from ground bark that is worn all over the country. It’s cosmetic, people customise their patterns, and it also protects against sunburn.

The ladies also wear beautiful colourful dress, here is a lovely family photo taken (with permission, they were getting this anyway) in front of a temple.

From leaving Golden Rock it was a long 170km ride into Yangon (formerly Rangoon), the largest city. It was a challenging cycle with a lot of road works, poor roads and heavy traffic.

Local people were very happy to help us out, special shout out to this guy, who spoke no English, but chaperoned us for about 9km.

He rode next to us, shielding us from passing trucks, and waving at them to slow down as they passed. We eventually went our separate ways at which point he smiled, waved and went on his way without asking for anything.

We arrived into Yangon, pretty tired. A hangover law from the military regime is that it’s illegal to camp anywhere in Myanmar, it’s also illegal for any local to host foreigners, or for you to stay anywhere other than a registered hotel.

This rule also applies to locals, Jeff told us:

“When my (Burmese) wife stays at her sister’s houses in (a nearby village, can’t recall name), she has to let the village authority know beforehand and get permission.”

“Even letting someone camp on our (private) premises could get us closed down”

There is not many hotels, but a high demand for rooms, so prices are high. We booked into a cheap one – Everest Hotel, which turned out to be a bit of a disaster.

Our own fault though we should have read the trip advisor reviews! Some of the previous entries are pretty funny:

 “Don’t stay here. Booked as its really cheap but the place is disgusting. Whole place is filthy, bed was dirty covered in hairs, electric wires hanging everywhere”

“The staff were not nice, an African on the settee looked out of his head on smack. But that is not the worst. the room stank of urine, my partner and me slept fully clothed, luckily we travel with our own sheet”

“This hotel doesn’t even deserve 1 star, that’s how terrible the place is. The hotel should be demolished.”

After that debacle we found somewhere better and spent a few days visiting the Shwedogan Pagoda, and planning the rest of our trip.

Due to current situation on the western border of Myanmar we’ve had to change our route.

The persecution of the Rohingya people in West Myanmar has been in the news a lot recently. A UN report, released on the 3rd February 2017 described “devastating cruelty” to the Muslim minority group, including mass murder, mass gang-rape and the beating of elderly people and babies.

Jeff said:

“The Royhingya people have long been persecuted. If you ask many of the Burmese, they say they don’t like them. Many of them think they are here illegally from Bangladesh, and although many people won’t say it they hate them because they are Muslim”

“Muslims are really badly persecuted here. Some extreme Buddhist monks are scared they’ll lose the Buddhist majority in the country”

Aung San Suu Kyi is coming under international criticism for not doing more to protect minorities in the country. In an article on the 10th March she claimed the UN report was “exaggerated”.

With this in mind, unrest in the Eastern Indian province of Manipur, and the physical land border being closed, we’ve decided to fly from Yangon to Bangladesh, and commence leg five of the trip there – from Dhaka to Delhi.

This means we’ve now completed the Southeast Asian leg of the trip slightly earlier than planned, final stats are below:

Southeast Asia:

Total Distance of Trip: 9,881km

Total Leg Four Distance: 2116km

Days Cycled (Leg Four): 16

Total Climbing: 2,320m

It’s a fascinating end to leg four being in Myanmar, and we’ve decided to stay here a week or so longer to travel on buses like normal people, and sort out some admin including our Indian visas, and the necessary documentation for “The Stans” – of which there is a lot.

An English translated Myanmar paper the other day, had an article about the development of the country. The opening line was two old Burmese sayings:

An oar is broken while rowing a boat”, and “We will row with our arms, if the oar is broken”.

It seems like 10 years ago, the “boat” of Myanmar was stranded in a harbour somewhere, or at the bottom of the sea.

There have definitely been plenty of oars broken in the re building, and will no doubt be many more. The country is currently rowing with both arms for lack of oars.

But wherever they are now, is surely better than at any time for probably the last few hundred years before the British arrived.

At least they are now afloat, and hopefully rowing into calmer and more prosperous waters for the millions of kind people that live here.