THE BUDDHA COMES into view through the trees. He’s hard to miss, shining gold and standing 140 metres tall on the hazy hills.
I turn off the busy highway and cycle towards him down quiet sunny country lanes, through villages of thatched bamboo houses and past farmers shepherding goats to graze in fresh fields.
Monywa Buddha is one of the tallest Buddhas in the world. The 90-metre long statue laid out in front of him is the largest reclining Buddha in the world. At its feet are 1,000 smaller Buddhas sitting cross-legged.
It’s a unique religious site but, strangely, not one that’s often visited by international tourists, who, so far, have tended to stick to the sights of “classic” Myanmar trips: Yangon, Bagan, Inle Lake and Mandalay.
“By bike, you get to see the rural areas not many tourists get to see,” Aung Zaw, our group’s cycling guide, tells me as we approach the giant Buddha. This is what I came here for – I wanted to see the famous sights: Schwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, the temple city of Bagan, the leg-rowing fishermen of Inle Lake. I wanted to experience the places and people between the sights, to see what life’s like in this country that’s been changing fast since it started opening up in 2011.
We’ve flown from Yangon to Heho to start cycling from the town of Nyaungshwe on the edge of Inle Lake. Lines of monks walk through the early morning mist, collecting alms, as we set off. We ride against the flow of traffic, as villagers with faces painted with the Burmese thanaka sunscreen travel into town for work or school on bikes, tractor carts and loaded trucks. Boatmen cut silently across the water, through morning mist lit by the sun.
We pedal past a 160-year-old teak monastery and golden pagodas, on into the countryside, through villages and sugar cane fields. Water buffalo and white herons stand out in the green rice fields, where men and women in conical hats are working. “Bikes are the way to see the country,” Aung Zaw tells me as we refuel on samosas, sugared chapatis and green tea in a small roadside cafe. “You see the country inch by inch. You hear things, smell things.”
In the town of In Thein, young women bathe and wash clothes in the river. We climb to the hilltop Shwe Inn Dain Pagoda whose 1,000 crumbly conical stupas are reminiscent of the Angkor temples in Cambodia.
From here, we take a boat out on Inle Lake itself, cruising through villages of stilted houses and floating gardens. I photograph the famous Intha fishermen, their spears, leg-paddles and conical against the shining silver lake. At Phaung Daw Oo, the Shan region’s most famous pagoda, the next day, Aung Zaw points to the crowds. Visitor numbers here were about half the size just two years ago, he recalls. The hawkers, flower sellers and long lines of stalls selling souvenirs are also mostly new additions here.
Almost every cycling trip has its killer day.
Ours comes on the journey from Nyaung Shwe northwest to Pindaya, riding 95 kilometres up into the Shan Highlands.
Most of the roads we’ve been cycling on have been surprisingly solid and smooth.
But today there are long distances of bumpy, uneven, pothole-strewn roads. There are long, steady climbs and several big hills, including a steep, eight kilometre uphill stretch. The afternoon sun beats down and my quads burn, but we all make it to the top.
Speeding down from the high summit feels fantastic, freewheeling, the vast Burmese countryside opening out ahead of me.
Cold beers at the end of the grueling day are well deserved. But they have to wait until after we’ve climbed 1,000 steps up to the mountaintop Shwe Oo Min pagoda, sapping the last of our strength. Barefoot, we enter the limestone cave, which glows from the 8,094 golden Buddha statues.
There are more rolling hills the following day, more difficult climbs that challenge riders. Long shady (and flat) avenues of tall gum trees provide welcome relief. But riding through the remote countryside is exactly what I wanted. I don’t see another tourist all day, just the locals who use the roads: moped riders, women walking with heavy baskets on their heads, farmers riding oxpulled carts. Monks nod as we pass.
Schoolchildren run and gather on the banks to shout the local greeting mingalabar. Road crews and miners in quarries whoop and wave. Tourists are still a novelty there.
We follow the course of the Irrawaddy, Myanmar’s national river. Our ride takes us to U Bein bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world, where fishermen cast nets, farmers cross the river on ox-driven carts and boatmen shepherd large flocks of ducks in formation across the river. Then, there’s an exhilarating ride across the industrial traffic-filled Yatanarpon Bridge, with views of boats on the Irrawaddy and golden pagodas across Mandalay’s hills, and on to Mingun, home to Mingun Pahto Taw Gyi pagoda, a former king’s ambitious project to build the biggest pagoda in the world (he completed 60 metres of an intended 170 metre high solid brick pagoda), and the Mingun Bell, one of the world’s largest bells.
We later stumble on an initiation ceremony for novice monks. Boys and girls fill a tent, each decked out in elaborate colourful costumes of pink, orange and gold. A master of ceremonies chants Buddhist stories, while the band plays what sounds like improvised jazz on xylophone and drums.
The next day takes us to the massive standing and reclining Buddhas near Monywa. It’s possible to go inside, climbing levels of rooms where there are more statues of the Buddha and paintings of what looks like hell with skewered sinners roasting on spears. We stop again at the nearby Thanbodday Temple, which, from the outside, looks like an ornate birthday cake with yellow and pink icing. Inside are 582,357 Buddha images of all sizes.
We load our bikes onto a ferry to cross the Chindwin River, before grinding out tens of kilometres to Pho Win Taung, a temple complex of sandstone caves with ornate mural paintings inside. Outside, monkeys gather to watch the hazy pink sunset.
Breaking up the ride to load our bikes onto a wooden boat the next day, we cruise down the Irrawaddy River, then a few last kilometres of cycling brings us to Bagan, which has 2,300 pagodas within 42 square kilometres. We spend a morning exploring a few on our bikes, including the area’s most holy site, the Shwe Zigon Pagoda.
Long days of riding have left me feeling strong and energised for the final 60 kilometres of undulating hills. Aung Zaw rides alongside me, talking about the changes taking place here. Mobile phones and internet connections are becoming more common. ATMs are on the way.
English and other languages are increasingly spoken in tourist areas. New hotels are being built. Tourist shops and services are springing up. Previously banned books are now available and newspapers are freer to criticise the government, says Aung Zaw.
“We’re quite happy right now,” he concludes as we roll towards Bagan. “We see a lot of change. It will not happen overnight.
It will take time. Many people have big hopes for The Lady [Aung San Suu Kyi]. But we’re happy with how it’s moving.”
At the airport in Yangon, Aung Zaw shakes my hand. “Come back to Myanmar,”
Getting there Malaysia Airline (malaysiaairlines.com ) has return flights from Hong Kong to Yangon, via Kuala Lumpur, starting from HKD$3,458 return including taxes/charges. Exodus (exodus.co.uk ) offer “Burma by Bike” trips. Next departure: July 27