There is no finer journey than pedaling along, experiencing from the vantage point of a saddle, the rivers, lakes, golden pagodas, colorful hilltribe villages, and spectacular scenery of Myanmar. Emerging from a forty-year slumber, blessed with warm people, wonderful cuisine, picturesque countryside, and most importantly for cyclists, lack of traffic. Myanmar is on the radar as Asia's next place to visit although our Myanmar biking expeditions have been running for a decade now now (since 2001), through our adventure wing — VeloAsia (www.veloasia.com).
What's changed in a decade? Hardly anything... Myanmar remains the last, unspoiled Shangri-La with few tourists, enchanting ruins, warm welcoming smiles, and tranquil roads with no traffic—high adventure! Come cycling through areas closed off to travelers for over the last forty years.
Myanmar straddles two of Asia's great rivers below the mountainous foothills of the Himalayas. As the western gateway to Southeast Asia, the diversity of its people, culture, and topography combined with a rich history make it one of the most fascinating and beautiful countries in the region. Political problems and divisions within the country (to put it lightly), ensured that Myanmar missed out on the economic booms experienced by many of its neighbors, and it remains a rural, undeveloped nation.
Our exceptional biking tours canvas the popular highlights of the country, through the sleepy heartland from pious Mandalay on the storied Irrawaddy River and the picturesque Inle Lake, the vast ruins on the plain of Bagan, but also lesser known ones, such as Monywa, a small town in the agricultural heartland. Along with biking, emphasis on the distinct regional customs, arts, and cuisine, including attending any festivals such as the Paung Daw U Festival in Inle Lake, an annual event where hilltribes from throughout the Shan State gather to celebrate. Personal encounters (including home visits) are emphasized throughout.
Historical highlights include one of the world's premier archaeological wonders, Bagan, where over 4,000 temples stretch over the central plain of the same name, and the ruins from previous kingdoms in and around Mandalay and Monywa. In the ancient city of Bagan, enjoy the thrill of cycling amongst the thousands of pagodas, stupas, and temples that dominate the river valley that was once the center of a powerful and deeply religious empire. Riding through the countryside, we will be greeted by a warm and friendly people few tourists see or meet. In the mountains we'll encounter a variety of tribal people, as well as enjoying the splendid colonial charm of Kalaw, where the officers of the Raj escaped the high heat of the Burmese summer. At the end of the trip there is a chance to relax in Inle before going back to Yangon, visiting the Shwedagon Paya and enjoying the old colonial charm of the capital city and emerging artist's scene.
More of an expedition than cycling tour, we'll bear witness to a largely untouched, fascinating and rich cultural environment, but you may expect some degree of spontaneity (aka predicaments and setbacks), which are particular to this part of the world, level of development, and Buddhist nature. Like the first explorers to join us in Vietnam, we hope adapting to the conforms of the local culture will contribute to our experience, rather than vice versa.
Our Myanmar bike trips can be customized to your preferred dates and travel preferences such as the amount of riding and other activities you may want to include, such as photography activities in our Digital Photography tour.
When to come? September through February is ideal weather-wise, and the other in November dates coincide with the Lights and Taunggyi Hot Air Balloons Festival or the Inle Lake Paung Daw U Festival.
Cycling days average from 20 to 55 miles (89km), on roads of poor to fair quality although this tour can be organized for any cycling abilities or preferences, including non-cycling spouses. After Vietnam, Myanmar is our most popular private, custom biking tour.
Arrive the rustic capital Yangon (formerly Rangoon). After clearing immigration and customs, meet escort in terminal and transfer to domestic flight to Heho Airport, arriving in the Shan State. After arrival in Heho, we'll pause to explore the Nan Pan (5-Day) Market if it is market day in Heho before driving to Inle Lake through the scenic hills into the Inle basin. After arrival at hotel, savoring sublime views over the lake on the resort deck while enjoying drinks and orientation with your guide. Sunset cruise on the lake before dinner overlooking the lake. (B,L)
Inle Lake, located nearly 1,000 meters above sea level is nearly 60 miles long and surrounded by over 200 villages noted for their unique, floating gardens and stilt houses over the water. Highlights in this tranquil setting include fisherman rowing in the one-legged style and the rich tapestry of hilltribes in the region.
Two full-days exploration of sublime Inle Lake, by boat and foot, observing fisherman rowing in the eccentric one-legged style, passing villages built over the water on stilts with their unique, vertical floating gardens.
Also exploring the Nan Pan "5-day market," if it is in the area this day and Indein, a village popular for it's collection of 17th century pagodas, pausing for introductions with a local family. Afterwards, visit the unique ‘jumping cats’ monastery, Phaungdaw U Pagoda, and cottage industries in the area. Time permitting, exploring Inle Wetland Wildlife Sanctuary, an area established in 1985 for the safety of migratory birds and their habitat. To date, 254 bird species have been recorded, including the rare Jerdon's Bushchat and Sarus Crane. After exploring the sanctuary, return to resort for sunset dinner overlooking the lake. After dinner, orientation and planning for the next day's journey. (B,L)
Note: Sightseeing priority these days we will be watching activities of the Paung Daw U Festival (pdf), One of the most famous shrines in Myanmar, Paung Daw U pagoda at Inle Lake, houses five small Buddha images. Once a year, at the end of September or early October, there is an 18-day festival during which the five Buddha images are ceremonially rowed around the Lake in a colorful barge accompanied by many other boats with Inle leg rowers.
Full-day exploration of sublime Inle Lake, featuring the most stunning landscapes in all of Myanmar; rising at dawn to photograph fisherman rowing in the eccentric one-legged style, passing villages built over the water on stilts with their unique, vertical floating gardens. Also exploring the Nan Pan "5-day market," if it is in the area this day and Indein, a village popular for it's collection of 17th century pagodas, pausing for introductions and photos with a local family. Afterwards, visit the unique 'jumping cats' monastery, Phaungdaw U Pagoda, and cottage industries in the area. Time permitting, exploring Inle Wetland Wildlife Sanctuary, an area established in 1985 for the safety of migratory birds and their habitat. To date, 254 bird species have been recorded, including the rare Jerdon's Bushchat and Sarus Crane. After exploring the sanctuary, return to resort for sunset dinner overlooking the lake. After dinner, orientation and planning for the next day's journey.
After a leisurely breakfast admiring the sun rising over the lake, we'll depart by bikes climbing up from the lake on quiet roads for the short but challenging climb into the scenic country side to Kalaw, a hill station filled with interesting mix of colonial-era architecture and hilltribe villages. The area is inhabited by a diversity of hilltribes, such as the colorful Palaaung and Pa'O. There are also Indian Muslims, Bamars and Nepalis (the latter descended from Gurkhas who had retired from the British military) who live in the area.
Depending on the time, we can wander through the market or ride around the city looking at the decaying colonial mansions or hoof it on a leisurely hike through the foothills surrounding the town.
Optional climb out of Inle Lake basin in the morning, then rollers all the way to Kalaw. Total distance 41 miles (66 km).
Brief sightseeing and spin around the town to loosen up our legs and check the bikes before we begin biking north towards Pindaya through the picturesque hills. Today, cycling due north to Pindaya on a rolling empty road flanked by beautiful manicured fields from where much of Myanmar's produce comes from and we will pause to visit some of the villages and farms en route.
After arrival, time to freshen up and before dinner hiking up visit the sacred Pindaya Caves and watch the sunset from the hill side offering views over the town and surrounding area.
Total riding over mostly flat with rollers route 32 miles (54 km)
Early departure for the most demanding, if not the most beautiful day of our tour, journeying overland northwest on a recently paved road through mountains, passing huge Banyan tree along the roads to Kyaukse. Few travelers venture this way. After arrival in Kyaukse, refreshments before the bus will transfer us the remaining distance "on the road to Mandalay." Mandalay is the historic old capital and remains the center of Myanmar culture and religion. It is also where traditional arts and crafts are centered. Mandalay is also rich with historical sites, cultural memorials and Buddhist monuments and we will explore some of them after arrival. In the evening, sightseeing in central Mandalay and dinner overlooking the famed Ayeyarwaddy River.
Depart Pindaya by bus, shuttling up to the better portion of our route, from Pindaya to approximately Ywangon (74 kilometers). From here, biking to Myogyi (51 km), then to Hanmyintmoh (24 km), and finally 9 more kilometers to Kyaukse. After arrival in Kyaukse, we'll freshen up after riding with a bucket shower. Approximate maximum total riding this day 84 kilometers.
In the morning, sightseeing by bike and boat outside Mandalay, visiting the former royal capital of Amarapura, including an stop at the Mahagandayon Monastery, a school for novice monks who welcome us to observe their daily life. Also visit to U Bein Bridge, a 200 year-old bridge and at 1.2 kilometers long is the longest teak bridge in the world.
Midday, return for lunch and sightseeing in central Mandalay, including notable temples and cottage industries: Mahamuni Pagoda, gold-leaf hammering, Shwe Inbin Monastery; Shwenandaw Monastery, noted for its exquisite wood carvings; Kuthodaw Pagoda, renowned for its stone slabs of the Buddhist scriptures.
In the late afternoon, hiking up Mandalay Hill to enjoy the wonderful views over the area. Dinner and accommodation in Mandalay.
Although Mandalay is well known for its literary fame from a colonial-era past, the city itself has been remade only recently. In the 1980s, the city was hit by two major fires that destroyed tens of thousands of buildings. Much of the central area are buildings erected since that time. But the inhabitants are also new, an estimated 300,000 ethnic Chinese have recently made the city their home.
After breakfast, transfer from Mandalay through Ondaw, west into the desert landscape of central Myanmar where lumbering bullock carts outnumber cars and where very few tourists venture and an ideal place to encounter local people.
Situated on the Chindwin River, this region is a major center of trade for agricultural produce and is known for it's quality weaving industry. There are several interesting sites to explore on the way to the provincial capital of Monywa including a pagoda with hundreds of thousands of Buddha images and relics. The Thanboddhay Temple is Monywa's most famous sight.
A busier road out of Mandalay so will we drive to to explore Sagaing before mounting our bikes for the mostly flat ride to Monywa. By preference, we can drive direct to Monywa (about 3 hours), and after arrival explore around the area on side roads by bike instead.
This morning, we transfer for about two hours south where we'll begin riding overland south along the beautiful Chindwin River valley further into the agricultural heartland, stopping along the way to explore small villages, farms, and notable sites located along the scenic route until the early afternoon, continuing onto Pakkoku for refreshments and where we will rendezvous with a private boat to a cruise the remaining into Bagan.
Henri Yule, one of the first Westerners to see Bagan in 1855 wrote in his reflections: "The whole, as seen from the river, might pass for a scene in another planet, so fantastic and unearthly was the architecture." We will savor this same view coming onto the ruins. After arrival, transfer to hotel and as the day wanes exploration of Bupaya, a Pyu-style stupa which is located on the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy River. At dusk, enjoy refreshments at resort while the sun sets over the temple plain.
A beautiful route today. Shuttle from Monywa to Linkadaw (59 km), riding from Linkadawto Yesagyo (24 km), to Pakhangyi (11 km) and to Pakkoku (29 km). Total from Linkadaw to Pakkoku = 64 km.
At dawn, a spectacular untethered balloon ride offering stunning views over over Bagan, floating high above the temples plain. After landing, begin formal sightseeing tour of one of Asia's most renowned archeological sites, visiting several of Bagan’s distinctive pagodas including Ananda Pagoda, one of the finest, largest and best preserved in Old Bagan, and next to it, Ananda Ok Kyaung, one of the few surviving brick monastery buildings from the Early Bagan period. Also Thatbyinnyu, Sulamani, 11th-century Shwezigon Pagoda , and Wetkyi-in- Gubyaukgyi , a 13th century ‘cave temple with interesting fine frescoes.
After lunch, cycling to Payathonzu Pagoda ("three pagodas"), a complex of three interconnected shrines, and then on to Tayok Pye, a large temple. Following lunch at local restaurant, return to resort to relax by the pool until late afternoon. In the late afternoon ride to one of the sunset temple selected by your guide for a panoramic sunset view over the temples.
Bagan was the capital of Burma for two and a half centuries (1044-1286 A.D.) under which a dynasty of temple-builders, the kingdom of Bagan became strong and powerful. During this period an estimate 4.500 temples were built of which just over 2,000 survive, spread over 40 square kilometers. Several of these monuments are still highly venerated by the population, and attract numerous pilgrims and devotees from all over the country, particularly at festival times. Obviously worthy of designation, as far back as 1996 UNESCO has attempted to designate Bagan a World Heritage site but has not succeeded in garnering cooperation from the government.
After sunrise, cycling south towards Mt. Popa on our final day of riding. We bicycle out to the extinct volcano, Mt. Popa, which dominates the area. Mount Popa was for centuries where kings of central Burma made pilgrimages to confer with the sacred statues about the future of their reigns and the mount remains a holy site to this day.
After reaching Popa, hiking up the 777 hundreds of steps up the monkey-populated hill (feeding them, if your brave enough). The summit offers expansive, panoramic views of the surrounding area. After reaching the top, taking in the wide panoramic views of the area. Note: On Popa, wild monkeys are aggressive and may try trying snatch things from your hand. Overnight at the delightful, remote Mount Popa Resort.
A great ride, over the plains, pausing at important sites, Popa village, and other places of interest on our flat ride to Mount Popa. Riding a few kilometers from the resort to Nyaung U, then to Mount Popa for 48 km.
At sunrise witness the stunning panoramic views from the summit of Mount Popa before breakfast. Afterwards, exploring the scenic national park before returning back to Bagan by bike along a different route through the countryside, pausing at the monastery at Salay to witness novice monks beginning their day.
We'll enjoy a final spin through the temples, and after last-minute sightseeing, board afternoon flight for return to Yangon, arriving in time for dinner in town and then strolling the bustling downtown area of the Indian quarter at night.
Our last full day of exploring will be spent in the aged Yangon, where shanty towns front gleaming new office towers. Locations include rising at dawn to visit the awe-inspiring Shwedagon Pagoda, well before the tour buses arrive. Also Chaukhtatkyi Pagoda, a colossal reclining Buddha; and the National Museum, rich with an abundance of artifacts and cultural exhibits of Myanmar, , followed by exploration of Botataung Pagoda which retains many ancient relics. Afterwards, lunch in Chinatown before exploring the historic Scott Market, a sprawling 80 year-old complex noted for its variety of handicrafts and other items from throughout the country. In the evening, we'll enjoy our farewell dinner with live, traditional music performance.
Yangon (Rangoon) is the largest city in Myanmar, with over four million inhabitants. Located in the Irrawaddy delta, it is surrounded by water on three sides. A legacy of the British presence in remains in structures that were built between the mid-19th century and the outbreak of World War II in 1940. Some Yangon hotels are located in old renovated buildings, including the Strand Hotel and Governors. The well-known Strand Hotel built in 1901 was at one time along with the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok, was one of the top Hotels in Southeast Asia. Restored and furbished with some modern-day amenities, the Strand still retains some original fittings such as teak wainscoting, ceiling fans, marble bathrooms, canopied beds and Burmese works of art.
After farewell breakfast with escort staff, return to airport for international flight home or post-trip relaxing on the white sands of Ngapali Beach on Myanmar's West Coast [More on Ngapali].
"We were pleased that Indochina Travel was small enough to provide the things larger companies cannot, yet with all the benefits of using a larger one. In Saigon, we were honored to visit our guide's family. The BEST parts of our trip were the PEOPLE we met, especially the real, local people, not just the famous ones (though they were fascinating as well). Cuong made this possible throughout our time with him."
—Ric Haas, Menlo Park
"Chris and I had a wonderful journey. Thanks to you, everything was flawless. All of the guides were superb (especially Thiha in Burma). The accommodations were top-rate in most cases, the special activities and personal service much appreciated!"
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"Overall, we had an excellent trip! Don and I both loved Bhutan and Myanmar. Both countries are beautiful, each in their own way. Our main comment would be to say how wonderful our guides were. As we've discussed in the past, it's really the difference between a good trip and great one. It was really nice to have the same guide for the entire itinerary, you really get to establish a rapport and they get to know us. We thought both guides were very professional, knowledgeable and personable, and we learned a lot from both."
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