Seeing the unseen: taking advantage of the green light

When German expat Joerg Waldmann spotted a golden opportunity to take an officially sanctioned motorcycle jaunt of unseen Myanmar late last year, he jumped at the chance to realise a lifelong dream.

Together with a group of like-minded motorcycle enthusiasts _ German couple Heike and Filippo Fania and close friends Dusit Semangern and Kamol Sukosol Clapp _ the Bangkok-based Waldmann took a lesser travelled route of this mystic, culturally diverse nation during a week-long sojourn.

Getting the green light for such an expedition from Myanmar authorities, once deemed a next-to-impossible feat, turned out to pretty straightforward for the German. While there seems to be a more relaxed approach towards tourism today, he noted that it still requires perseverance and the right connections for up close and personal experiences of the country.

Waldmann, who has traversed a handful of neighbouring countries on adrenaline-pumping off-road bike rides in the past, came up with the idea of a group tour of Myanmar while working on a project that involved a cruise ship that visited Yangon in April last year.

During this work-related encounter, he observed how good connections with officials from the Ministry of Tourism in Myanmar had enabled his company to complete the assignment successfully. He suggested a private, off-the-beaten track tour with a group of bike enthusiasts and was thrilled when his Myanmar contacts agreed.

"I have always wanted to travel to Myanmar on my bike," mused the expat, who rides a BMW 800GS. "The purpose for this trip was twofold, one for the moment-to-moment experience of visiting the country as a tourist and the other to determine just how open Myanmar had become to letting tourists freely travel the country. I know many bikers have failed in the past to get permission to travel into Myanmar or to cross Myanmar on their way from/to India.

"From direct experience, I can honestly now confirm that Myanmar has opened its borders to the outside world. During our trip we also saw a German TV crew and met the entourage of the India-Asean car rally. The new developments seem very encouraging for tourism in the country."

While travelling in a group comes with advantages and disadvantages, for Waldmann the pros seemed to outweigh the cons. Aside from sharing the expenses incurred during the trip, there was an added sense of confidence that someone had their backs in case of an accident or emergency. Having a skilful mechanic in the form of Filippo in their midst put everyone's mind at rest when a mechanical glitch arose while exploring uncharted territory. The only hiccup was as menial as getting accustomed to the pace of the other riders.

Waldmann believes that under the conditions, restrictions and short time they had to explore Myanmar, it was actually ideal to ride in a small group.

Heike and Filippo _ who hooked up with Waldmann in Thailand while on a world tour _ spoke highly of their overall experience in a country renowned for its gleaming pagodas, fabled cities and pristine beaches.

Heike _ who rides a BMW 650GS _ said visiting the city of Mawlamyine, with the must-see Golden Rock at Kyaiktiyo, was a special treat for them because it is a cosy town with a few restaurants along the pier where they could observe the local culture closely.

According to the couple, most roads in the countryside are rather comfortable to ride, but they caution bikers to avoid the main road from Yangon to Mandalay which turned out to be a nightmare for them because of poor roads and traffic.

They had to take this road for a few hours at night to get from Kyaiktiyo to Nay Pyi Taw and the following morning to Meiktila. At Meiktila, however, they turned left to Bagan and all of a sudden they found a smooth passage with minimum traffic and good road conditions, very much to their amazement.

Heike summed up their sentiments saying: "Rubbing shoulders with the locals was a special experience for us. Travelling on our motorcycles made it possible for us to meet people we would normally not have had the chance to meet. We all found the locals to be happy, friendly and respectful. Despite financial woes and political uncertainties, they looked satisfied with life."

For Dusit, who has travelled in similar fashion in neighbouring countries, sampling Myanmar's nooks and crannies was a real eye-opener. It was almost like a sense of deja vu for the Thai, who rides a KTM 690, as a number of towns reminded him of how Thailand might have looked three to four decades ago. The off-road biking enthusiast said that the rural, rather rustic ambience was truly awesome.

Another aspect of the country that he was highly impressed with were its people, both young and old. "They have gone through so much in life, but can still put a million-dollar smile on their faces, its truly admirable."

Another observation made by Dusit was that farming is still respected in Myanmar. "When you come up close and personal with rural folks, you will sense that their ultimate goal is not about becoming rich but rather to make enough money to get by and be happy."

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