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Myanmar (Burma) Bicycle Tour – February 2013 / 26.05.13

February 2013

In This Blog:

1) Summary
2) The Details, our route day by day: Inle Lake to Bagan
3) FAQs for bicycle touring Myanmar
4) Our journey through photos

1) Summary

Myanmar bicycle touring – To go or not to go. Go! Myanmar was the highlight of this Germany to Thailand tour for me. Wonderfully friendly people and rural scenes out of another era.

Just be prepared for very rough roads, long days (80-100km), distances measured in miles, people and signs usually underestimating distances, the occasional forced move by local police to a neighboring town with an official foreigner hotel, unreliable maps (even Google), carrying most of your money in perfect condition US$ bills (20s and 50s best), and being with many middle aged European/American tourists in the popular touristy areas during peak seasons, now booming since 2012’s political reforms. Travel before 2012 was possible, but many chose to not go so their money would not support the Myanmar military government. Bicycle touring allows you a much better opportunity to distribute your tourist dollars to family-run businesses off the tourist track.

Two of us from FBR 2 (Steve and I) met up with fellow Minneapolis bike traveler, Patrick, (biked New Zealand fall 2012) to bicycle in Myanmar in February 2013. We found that there was little information out there besides a blog or two from a year before. This is my contribution to the Myanmar bicycle touring literature.

First, I will say that everything is changing very fast there now, especially regarding ATMs: As of fall 2012 only Mastercard was accepted at a very few ATMs. As of January 2013, Visa is now accepted. In February 2013 when we were there, a very few touristy towns had ATMs, but they were never open or on when we wanted them. The ATM at the airport was the only one we used successfully. So, you still need to bring in most of your money for your whole Myanmar leg in US$ cash, which has been the tradition in Myanmar for decades. It is safe.

Our ROUTE – Two Weeks, 5 biking days:

Inle Lake to Bagan, via Kalaw, Heho, Pindaya, Ywengan, Myittha (NOTE: no foreigner hotel in Myittha, stay in Kyaukse town 20km to the north), and Myingyan.

We asked Jasper and Uta, two members (the couch surfing site of bicycle touring) who live in Yangon, for recommended routes. Jasper recommended busing north and Uta suggested instead biking northwest from Yangon to hit mountains and ocean coast. In the end we followed Jasper’s suggestion to head north, which involved two bus rides and a mix of the two most popular tourist sites (Inle Lake and Bagan) as well as the road less traveled between the two in the beautiful and mountainous Shan State (where Inle Lake is located), which was fantastic. I would recommend spending more time biking there if you have it. He said biking north from Yangon would waste a lot of time (and it’s all flat in the valley corridor between Yangon and Mandalay). I would also suggest this route if you only have 2 weeks like we did. To avoid the buses, you might consider flying to Mandalay, though the three of us enjoyed wandering around Yangon’s busy downtown back streets (arranged in a grid) just watching all the activity (we did not go to Mandalay).

An Excerpt from Jasper’s e-mail:

I would recommend to take a bus to Kalaw, Shan State. That is pretty
elevated, cool and very nice. Cycle around the Shan hills, visit Inle lake
(touristy but still nice I guess) and from Inle cycle to Heho, Pinthaya (take
the small road north from Heho, don’t take the road from Aung Ban). From
Pinthaya you could go north a bit and down from the plateau in the lowlands
towards Mandalay. From there to Bagan, which is a must see. Then take a bus
back to Yangon from Bagan.

This route has pretty good accommodation option. Other areas are more
difficult especially if you only do 60 km day. Often you have to do 100-150
from one option to the next. Camping you can do but pitch your tent out of
sight and only after dark. You will not be arrested but police might want you
to move if they see you, meaning bikes in truck or something. A hassle anyway. If you want to avoid that hassle, ask for accommodation at a monastery, that is normally no problem.


However, if you really want to stay away from tourists in Inle Lake and Bagan, you may want to consider Uta’s route.


2) The Details, our route day by day: Inle Lake to Bagan

I missed biking through Myanmar on the first Fueled By Rice journey in 2008. We were hoping to bike across Myanmar from Thailand to India – the logical thing to do when looking at a world map and figuring out how to get from Bangkok to India – but country borders and the policies that govern them are often not so simple. A funny thing, borders: an imaginary line drawn to separate “us” and “them.”

So this time, I really wanted to make it to Burma. It still has that allure of the mystic and the road less traveled. But, there was always uncertainty when I told people along our route earlier in this journey: “We hope to bicycle through Burma,” we told people. It seemed difficult to get good, if any information. After finally talking to a Burmese tour agent in Bangkok in January 2013, we were convinced it would OK to go. And it was!

Route Details: Inle Lake to Bagan, via Kalaw, Heho, Pindaya, Ywengan, Myittha (NOTE: no foreigner hotel in Myittha, stay in Kyaukse town), and Myingyan. All but Myitta and Myingyan are in the mountains. We much preferred biking in the cooler Shan State mountains than the flat, hot, and dry Mandalay valley.

Flights from Bangkok to Yangon were the cheapest we found even though we were coming from India, US$250 at peak season in February (Chinese New Year), and as low as US$100 roundtrip. We flew Air Asia which has a brilliant straightforward and cheap pre-booking “sports equipment” by kg additional charge, only US$40 for the bike fee.

Night Bus Yangon to Kalaw (dropped off in Kalaw at 4am – got a room for 6 hours)
Yangon’s long distance “highway bus station” is far out of the city center, to the north around 25km, just a few km northeast of the Yangon airport, but certainly bikeable. The bus station itself is very confusing and we had to ask around to find our bus among many buses with many private companies. We took off our front wheels, handlebars, lowered our seats, and with the help of 5 Burmese, shoved them in the lower storage area. Our bikes made it just fine.

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Yangon Highway Bus Station – a confusing mess

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Yangon Bus Station – Stuffing our Bikes in the luggage compartment – They arrived safely.


Biking Day 1 – Kalaw – Inle Lake (Nyaungshe Town) 60km, relatively easy and smooth road (could bus all the way to Inle Lake on the same bus if you wanted)

When we arrived at the ticket gate to Inle Lake/Nyaungshe Town at 5pm, everyone said all the hotels were booked and we didn’t have a reservation. We biked around and asked at several places, and found at least three that had space for us and they were willing to bargain with us. We also asked at the Monastery, which would have been our preference, but the monk we spoke to told us that if we could not find a hotel, we could come back. Respecting his wishes in a very touristy town, we went out and chose the cheapest of the three we had found, which that night was the Gypsy Guest House for US$23.00 total for all three of us, not bad.

We stayed a day (two nights) in Inle Lake and finally chose to do the day-long touristy lake tour by boat of the villages (US$45), which ultimately is the reason everyone goes there. It was beautiful and worth it.

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Day 1: Biking east from Kalau to Inle Lake (Nyaungshe town) – 60km

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Day 1: Biking east from Kalau to Inle Lake (Nyaungshe town) – 60km


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We used our mosquito nets at all hotels just to be sure. Our cheap room at Inle Lake.

Biking Day 2 – Inle Lake – Heho – Pindaya 80km (take small road north from Heho instead of larger road from AungBan for better scenery – ask for it in Heho)

A long day on a small road, but so great to off the beaten path, winding up and down hills through a handful of villages, amazing to see wheat harvesting by hand and plenty of two-wheeled ox carts. The road surface was good for 1/3 the time, and very bad, dirt/rock the other. We had about 10km added in the last 1/4 of the day due to a road construction detour. We were getting worried around 4pm when people told us different times and distances to Pindaya, all longer than we thought. But we made it in around 6pm just after sunset and found a nice hotel for US$10/person with hot water showers, which was very welcomed. The air was quite cool in the elevation at night, making camping impossible without a decent sleeping bag (which we left in Bangkok thinking it’d be too hot to make it worthwhile).

 Day two biking the small road from Heho to Pinyada

 Day 2  – Heho – Pindaya – Harvesting wheat in a village


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Biking the last 15km into Pindaya on our construction detour

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Our room in Pindaya – very nice, hot water which felt good in the evening cold of the mountains – best value

Biking Day 3 – Pindaya – Ywengan 80km, 7.5 hrs, rough road; contrary to my map, had to go 20km south first before we could go northwest to Ywengan on the 411 road.

Got a late start (12:30pm) after seeing the famous Buddist statue cave in Pindaya. Arrived after dark. Ywengan is a small town. We found a simple guesthouse (Khansan Guesthouse) for US$10 for all three of us, two rooms, cold water bath outside. More Beautiful hilly countryside.

One of the few well-signed intersections in Myanmar – 20km south of Pindaya before we could go northwest to Ywengan on the 411 road (my paper map bought in Yangon did not have this 20km south bit.) Note: distances on sign in miles, standard in Myanmar.

Day 3 – Pindaya – Ywengan 411 road


Biking Day 4 – Yewengan – Myittha 85km biked mostly down mountains (45km) on a very rough road; then 50 mile pick-up truck ride west to Myingyan (US$70 total).

NOTE: Myittha does not have a foreigner hotel, but Kyaukse, 20km north, does.

Very beautiful mountain climb then a HUGE decent into the Mandalay valley on a terrible road surface, so we had to go slow despite the huge drop in elevation. There is a flat 10-15km before the “T” intersection with north-south Highway 1.

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Yewengan to Myittha

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Yewengan to Myittha

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Yewengan to Myittha – Lunch stop mid-decent

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Yewengan to Myittha – Lunch stop cooks in the kitchen

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Yewengan to Myittha

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Yewengan to Myittha – The 15km flat heading west to the “T” intersection with the main north-south Hwy 1.


The Police kicked us out of Myittha town at 7pm after a very nice gas station family offered to host us (“if the government gave permission” which they did not). The family was extremely welcoming and generous, giving us seats, water, and snacks while we waited for the police. We definitely could have camped if we hadn’t stopped to ask about a hotel at the gas station, at which point, we were being taken care of by that family that followed the rules and couldn’t respectfully leave. Since it was after dark, the police suggested we hire a pickup truck to go 20km north to Kyaukse, but since that was the opposite direction we wanted to go and Steve wasn’t feeling very good, we opted to pay more and buy more time in Bagan and went the 50 miles west to Myingyan for US$70, a two hour journey. Upon our asking, the police escorted us to a restaurant where we ate with the gas station would-be-host. They found the pick-up truck, and we bargained the price. Even though the ride was on National Highway 2, it seemed more like a back road, and was similarly rough.

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Myittha – We arrived after dark again on this day, to a town large enough to have a hotel allowed to host foreigners, so we thought. On the edge of town, we stopped at this gas station to ask if there was a guesthouse we could stay at and they said no, but then promptly invited us to stay at their house, but first, “we must ask the government.” The police said no. But they warmly welcomed us and gave us water and snacks while we were waiting for the police.

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Myittha – we were forced to hire a pickup truck to drive us to a town with a foreigner hotel by the local policy (a common experience for bicycle travelers in Myanmar). Although Kyaukse town could have taken us, only 16 miles away, since it was in the opposite direction (east) of where we were headed, we opted to be driven 50 miles west to Myingyan to have more time in Bagan. The cost for this ride was US$70 for the three of us.


My biggest observation and realization on this bike tour came to me today:

Deforestation is the most critical environmental issue facing us as a global society. I’ve been reading Collapse by Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel author) who also emphasizes how deforestation has often led to a slew of environmental and agricultural catastrophes leading to societal collapses in human history, not to mention all the other species that live in forests. Then, on today’s ride, mass clear-cut deforestation was very clear as we descended down into the Mandalay valley. Mountains as far as we could see had all been clear-cut at the same time a few years earlier, now comprising only scraggly and sickly-looking trees. Every once in a while we would pass a large jungle tree right along the road that had been spared. I witnessed similar mass jungle destruction in northern Cambodia on our first FBR journey in 2008 that was so recently cut and sold to China that the remnants were still smoldering and smoking along the brand new Chinese-built road running from southern Laos to Pehnom Pehn.
I am now convinced that Forests are our most important and precious resource that must be aggressively preserved and replanted to avoid environmental disaster, climate change, drought, erosion, agricultural failure, species extinction, and human extinction. SAVE THE FORESTS!!!

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As we descended into the Mandalay valley, clear cut deforestation became brutally apparent. This is the normal forest before we hit the clear cut area.

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The clear cut forest attempting to recover with scraggly trees from deforestation

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Erosion resulting from deforestation


Northern Cambodia on the main north-south Hwy, Feb 2008 (Fueled By Rice 1st Tour) – Clear Cut Jungle sold to China the local residents told us – China built the new road from southern Laos heading south into Cambodia


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More traffic in the flatlands

Biking Day 5 – Myingyan – Bagan 50-60km, flat, but included the worst/roughest road stretch of the trip – National Highway 2 under construction just outside of Myingyan for 15 km or so.

From my journal:

“Right now I’m waiting on the side of a very rough, under construction patch of National Hwy 2 just out of Myingyan city on the way west to Bagan. Patrick just tacoed his front wheel by turning too quickly out of a dirt rut to avoid an on-coming motorcycle. The dirt track is next to the road since the under-construction rocky road surface is so terrible. Its funny to me that after all the incredibly rough back roads we’ve ridden 80-90km/day in the last four days, it’s this smooth but rutted dirt track that broke one of our wheels. Steve is not here because his knee hurt this morning, so he took a bus to Bagan (Nyeng-U town, the backpacker town of Bangan), where Patrick and I will meet Steve around 4pm..
A nice woman on a motorbike stopped by Patrick and I to see if we needed help. She suggested Patrick ride in on the back of a nearby young man’s motorbike back to town to get a new wheel. So here I am waiting in a shady highway ditch, though thankfully the road has little traffic, mostly motorbikes.

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Myingyan to Bagan on Hwy 2 (final biking day) – Patrick tacoed his front wheel in a rutted side path next to the worst road yet, large rock awaiting resurfacing. Luckily, his hip was only bruised.

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Patrick’s tacoed front wheel on the roughest stretch of road we found – Hwy 2, east of Bagan

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Myingyan to Bagan on Hwy 2 (final biking day) – The toughest road in Myanmar – Patrick tacoed his front wheel. As if that wasn’t enough, both Patrick and Peter got multiple flat tires in a 2km stretch before we hopped a truck to get past the road work.

Roads: It seems all the road resurfacing crews will never be able to get most of Myanmar’s roads well surfaced at the same time. The mixed gender crews, often teenagers and 20 somethings, break larger stone into smaller stone by hand using sledge hammers and the women are placing the base layer of larger stones by hand. They then apply heated black oil to a smaller layer of stones using hand-carried buckets. Also, the road repair crews seem to be completely randomly placed along the roads, and only are repairing short distances, with bad/destroyed surfaced often both before and after where the crew is working. So, the quality of every road we rode varied greatly every several km, reflecting a long pattern of patchy road repair.”

Road Repair Crew


Two hours later, Patrick returned on the back of a motorbike with his same front wheel repaired! After asking around, they found a bike repair man in a back alley who simply hammered his wheel back into shape. Ha! Wheel repaired though, we didn’t go 2km and Patrick had a flat tire. 300 meters further and I had a flat. Another 500 meters, Patrick had another flat. Ridiculous! There were thorns in the side dirt path, and the road surface was too rough to ride. By now it was nearly 4pm, so we flagged down a truck and got a lift for 25km or so to the driver’s cousin’s roadside restaurant, where we ate a very late lunch. It also got us past the road construction. The rest of our ride was smooth, but we didn’t arrive until 2 hours after dark at 8pm. Luckily, Steve had left a note with the road gate guards as we entered the Bagan area that told us at which guesthouse to find him.

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Myingyan to Bagan on Hwy 2 (final biking day) – The toughest road in Myanmar, large rock awaiting resurfacing.


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Myingyan to Bagan on Hwy 2 (final biking day) – Hopping the truck.


In Bagan, we met up with my good Burmese friend, Soe Soe, whom I met at the University of Minnesota in 2010 during my masters study there. He was in the excellent Humphrey Fellows program that brings movers and shakers from around the world to study at US universities. A character with a lot of enthusiasm and never ending interesting stories, he was an absolutely fantastic and generous host while we were in Bagan, including treating us to an amazing dinner and show at the Nanda Restaurant, where we otherwise would never have gone due to our cheap budget. Thanks for the hospitality and keep up the good work!

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Soesoe and I, a good friend from the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs

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With Soesoe, Steve, Patrick, and I plus two other fellow travelers we met.

After three day’s in Bagan, mostly resting, we caught a night bus back to Yangon.


3) FAQs for bicycle touring Myanmar

1) Is it hard to get a visa?

A: No, it’s easy and took just 2-3 work days in at the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok, it’s a 28 day visa. We needed to have a flight and hotel reservation in Yangon for our visa application. The hotel deal on the website was a few US$ cheaper than in person AND we could pay for the hotel with a credit card online, but NOT in person, but we COULD use their free computers in the lobby to book AND pay online for additional days. We used and stayed at the cheapest one on the site in Yangon, Hotel 63, US$57 for a room for three including a decent all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet. Hotels that foreigners are allowed to stay in are generally more expensive than elsewhere in SE Asia.
Visa on arrival is even possible if arranged through an agent ahead of time, though we didn’t want the uncertainty. We saw the visa on arrival desk at the airport though with some people lined up. I suggest getting the visa ahead of time to be sure.

2) Can we bike enter Myanmar by land borders or do we have to fly in?

A: Despite the political opening in 2012, land border entrants only get 24 hrs and must exit at the same port of entry. However, Indians, Chinese, and those from other bordering countries, seem to not have this restriction. So, those from all other countries must fly in to stay over 24hrs.

Flying from Bangkok to Yangon was the cheapest way in we found even though we were coming from India, US$250 at peak season, as low as US$100 roundtrip. We flew Air Asia which also has a brilliant straightforward and cheap pre-booking “sports equipment” by kg additional charge, only US$40 for bike fee.

3) Are we allowed to bicycle around the countryside or will we be restricted to busses and special tourist areas and their inevitable higher prices?

A: Yes, flying in with bicycles was not a problem (only US$40 pre-paid for bike fee on Air Asia from Bangkok) and biking around much of the country is OK. Although we could bicycle outside the main tourist areas, foreigners are required to stay at hotels registered to host foreigners. This means that inevitably at least once, bicycle travelers will probably wind up in a town without such a foreigner hotel and be forced by police (friendly police thankfully) to hire a pickup truck to drive to the closest town that has a foreigner hotel. It happened to us once and the nearest hotel was 16 miles away (Myittha town does not have a foreigner hotel, but Kyaukse, 20km north, does).

4) Will we be stopped at checkpoints and turned back? 

A: We read on other blogs that this can happen if the road is entering a foreigner-restricted area. But it didn’t happen to us on our route between Inle Lake and Bagan.

5) Can we camp?

A: Other bicycle travelers said we could so long as we set up after dark away from villages. We didn’t camp because we didn’t bring our sleeping bags from Thailand, thinking it’d be too hot. But we found that Shan State (near Inle Lake) has cold nights because of its mountainous and elevated terrain. There were plenty of great camping spots in Shan State though. You would need to buy food for dinner in market towns where you slept the night before. Also, camping would have saved us from a few long and late days of biking 80-90kms, though would have messed up our schedule of hitting towns with foreigner hotels a bit.

6) Could we be arrested for camping?

A: Bicycle travelers told us no. If the police found us, they would probably just escort us to a hotel or make us rent a truck to take us to a foreigner hotel.

7) What’s this talk of foreigner hotels and having to bring in all one’s money in US$?

A: Despite very very new ATMs as of fall 2012, we only successfully used the one at the airport (which does take Int’l Visa and Mastercards). Although a few other towns on the tourist track have ATMs, they often are turned off and if ever turned on, are only on during certain business hours.

So, most people still bring in most/all of their money in perfect crisp and clean US$. Most will not accept folded/non-perfect bills, so keep them in your money belt. Hotels accept payment in US$ and can also exchange for Chet, which restaurants and merchants accept. We used mostly 20s and some 50s and brought US$600/person for our two weeks, which was ample. This has been standard practice for foreign tourists in Myanmar for decades, and it IS safe to do so, but use a money belt and put a spare stash somewhere else in your bags.

Hotels are often more expensive than the rest of SE Asia (average US$15/person), but food is cheap like other SE Asian countries.


4) Our journey through photos


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Biking into Yangon from the airport – a pretty comfortable 20km ride on non-highway roads surprisingly nice compared to what we expected.


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Our first and one of our favorite meals in Myanamr, on the north side of the People’s Park on our ride in from the airport. Included slow roasted veal, something I’ve never seen outside of the US. It was one of our cheapest meals, the rice and soup was free, we just paid for our meat choice and a vegatable side. Total was just over 3,000 Chit (US$1 = 800 Chit)


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Tucked away in the far southeast corner of Yangon, Hotel 63 is a great value with an amazing breakfast buffet, though is located on a rough road with parked trucks from the nearby port.


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Hotel 63 room for three (fancy for FBR, total US$60/nights)


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Biking around Yangon – reminiscent of third-tier Chinese cities, but with less people and chaos


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Yangon downtown grid


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Replacing a sealed cassete bearing on my rear wheel – NOTE: the other side that is still good was made in WEST Germany (6002 size). The one that failed was a Chinese bearing I replaced 10,000km before on the first trip in Bangkok. I received this bicycle as a gift from a priest friend in Minneapolis. It was custom built in 1985.


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Yangon – These friendly mechanics not only helped me take out the old bearing, but one of them went to get a new 6001 bearing for me. Thanks!


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Myanmar’s famous Inle Lake


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No Illusions. Touristville: Myanmar’s famous Inle Lake


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But, Inle is beautiful


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One of the most beautiful scenes we came across shortly after making it into the Mandalay valley


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But just to the side of it were human scars of quarrying


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National Hwy 2 heading towards Bagan – a shared bridge for train and cars! Never seen this before.

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With our late lunch host and his kids after we were dropped off by the truck on Hwy 2. He offered to host us, despite the risks, but Patrick and I had promised to meet Steve in Bagan. Thanks for the offer!

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Riding into the sunset towards Bagan on Hwy 2


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Bagan with the boys – Steve, Patrick, and myself, Peter


Durukan’s Music Videos – Another following their dreams! / 31.03.13

When I bicycled through Edirne, Turkey (border town with Bulgaria) last November 2012, I met up with an old friend, Durukan, whom I and the first Fueled By Rice group met on the first bicycle expedition in 2008. The 50km before and after Edirne (along with in-city biking in Istanbul and Bangkok) was the only exact same road stretch that I repeated on this second trip from the first. Moreover, on the first Fueled By Rice tour we had an amazing week-long spontaneous homestay in Edirne with Volkan Kahya and family (a friend whom Durukan introduced us to after we played a set at bar) while waiting for a stubborn Bulgarian visa to come through for Nakia – read a great blog summary of that experience HERE). So, I naturally wanted to re-connect with Durukan and Volkan when we passed through. Volkan and his family had moved to southern Turkey, but I was able to meet up with Durukan.

It turns out, Durukan has gone ahead pursuing one of his dreams of being a musician and produced one of his first music videos last year. Not bad at all. Check it out here:

See his other videos linked through his Youtube profile.

Keep on following your heart, Durukan! Thanks for the hospitality!

With Durukan and Lindsey in Edirne, Turkey Nov 29, 2012

Part of the FBR team goes to Burma/Myanmar! / 29.01.13

While Andrew and Kallie are on honeymoon and Lindsey has departed for Uganda, Steve and I, in addition to one of our other friends, Patrick, who has joined us from his fall cycle tour in New Zealand for 3 weeks, have decided to go to Burma/Myanmar for 2 weeks. This will likely be the most adventurous part of the trip because it is less traveled (or was, now there are over 100 people getting visas a day here in Bangkok). We wanted to bicycle through Burma on the first trip, but were discouraged by learning that foreigners cannot cross land borders for longer than one day, so most have to fly and fly out. We again have found this to be true. But, we have also found cheap flights from Bangkok and decided to take this opportunity to visit this more rarely visited country that has received so much press in the last year for “opening up” and having “positive reforms.” While many caution about being too quick to praise the leaders of Myanmar, I think the best way to learn about a country is to go and see life on the ground myself.

We have read several blogs of cyclists who toured there last year and are heartened to learn that it is possible to bicycle there and that the local authorities are friendly and helpful, not to mention everyone raving about the nice people everywhere. We will likely not have internet (except for the start and end of our trip in the capital, Yangon) until we return to Bangkok on Feb 12th 2013, please do not be worried about this. Prayers for smooth traveling and safety are always welcomed.

For me, this is the last leg of this 6 month tour, and the most exciting. More to come later!

Europe (and the world) on 5 Euros (US$6.73) a Day / 27.01.13

No, this is not a flash back to the 1960s (Europe didn’t have Euros then anyways) – this is legitimately possible in 2013: to live on 5 Euros a day per person in Europe or anywhere, and even less in developing countries. Most guidebooks today suggest 50 Euros a day in Europe and call it “on a shoestring.” How then, is it possible to cut expenses by 10x this amount on the most expensive continent in the world?

Lifestyle Choice.

Just what do I mean by that? Connecting to my previous blog on happiness, all my travels over the last decade (living abroad and two Eurasian bicycle journeys), and my study and work in international development have focused me on this one all encompassing package of daily decisions we all must make: how much we spend, how much and what we consume, where we live, what we eat, how we move around, how we live. This also connects to the second pillar of Fueled By Rice: “Simplicity.” In the spirits of Henry David Thoreau and Rich Dad Poor Dad author, Robert Kiyosaki, I’d like to explore the nitty gritty euros and cents behind our bicycle journey.

Some may look at our travels and wonder, “How do they afford that kind of 6-12 month trip without working during that period? Who is sponsoring them? What a luxury! I will never be able to take that kind of trip, it must be so expensive.” For example, on our first Fueled By Rice trip in 2008, comments on a LaCrosse Wisconsin USA newspaper article about us included some rather bitter speculating by readers who assumed that our rich parents were funding us – how wrong they were!

I am here to share the truth that nearly anyone in the US and other developed countries could afford this kind of extended travel, and many in developing countries could too for that matter. We all have the power to choose how we spend our money, though constraints vary. The economic term is Opportunity Cost: “the cost of any activity measured in terms of the value of the next best alternative forgone (that is not chosen).” Basically, sacrifice and self-restraint in some areas of expenditure is needed to be able to do what one wants in other areas – one can’t have it all so we must choose. Henry David Thoreau realized at Walden Pond that if we don’t buy stuff, we don’t need to spend our time earning that money. Now, I do appreciate the fact that not everyone wants to travel and see the world, or do not prioritize travel over family – I respect that. Yet, I think many of us do, actually, desire to see the world – to see how others live and to expand our horizons to new possibilities and alternatives for our own lives that we never dreamed possible before. My main point is simply that if you desire to travel for 6-12 months (or longer), it is much more financially possible than you may think. I am convinced that most people without children could choose to save up US$4000/person for 1 year of bicycle travel given 6 months to 2 years of saving, and even those with children given 3-5 years.

There are all kinds of ways to cut spending before traveling to save up, but here I will focus on our expenses while on the road. The whole endeavor before and during this kind of trip is an experiment in simple living and constantly asking one’s self – What do I REALLY need? Usually one finds the answer is “less than I thought.” The biggest expense items while traveling (and not traveling too!) are housing, transport, and food.

Since housing is the most expensive single expense, in Europe we simply cut it out completely (or mostly). In Europe, to stay within our 5 Euro/day/person budget we did not stay in hotels, youth hostels, or even official camp grounds – we free camped next to corn fields, rivers/streams, in woods, or in people’s yards after asking them (gardens as the Europeans call them). We also stayed with free hosts in their homes once every 1-2 weeks (with people we spontaneously met or arranged on-line through or – a fantastic use of the internet). In Asia though, we can afford cheap guesthouses (US$1 – 3/person) most nights, with camping and free hosts on other nights.

For us, the opportunity cost of lower comfort (but often better scenery) by camping in Europe instead of staying in hotels is worth the extra days of travel we gain. For example, a cheap hostel or hotel in Europe is usually at least 15-25 Euros/person/night (and I’ve spent as much as 30 Euros a night for just a dorm bed in Amsterdam). Based on our 5 Euro/person/day budget, that equates to 3-5 more days in Europe traveling for every one night we do not stay in a hostel/hotel. This is an incredible exponential savings that in just one week of camping gives us an additional 21-35 days of travel, and over one month gives us an additional 84-140 days of travel (2.8 – 4.6 months!). For us, it is an easy opportunity cost choice. But I realize that for others, greater comfort is worth more than quadrupling travel time. Or another example, some think one US$3.00 Starbucks drink is worth more than 3/5 of a day traveling in Europe (or anywhere) by bicycle, or if bought daily over a year – US$1,095/year and 162 days of travel). But it is a choice. Everyone could save and travel if they really wanted. In Asia though, we can keep the same budget but live at a higher living standard should we choose.

IMG_6687 France -



A bicycle replaces all petrol/gasoline consuming transport except for flights to start and end a trip (and mandatory jumps such as over Iran for Americans who must have a government tour guide which was too expensive for us [US$100/day], and over Burma/Myanmar which does not allow by-land border crossings). No train or bus tickets means huge savings. For example, in Europe, a 4-6hr train ride often winds up being around 80-100 Euros. When I studied abroad in Germany, at the end I traveled for 3 weeks around Europe using the popular Eurail pass which cost around US$500. US$500 now equals 371 Euros, which divided by 5 Euros a day = 74 days (2.5 months – over 3x my original 3 week trip) of bicycle travel that I could have done with just my train budget! And of course, a bicycle is much better for the environment, my health, my happiness, and reducing middle-east funded terrorism activities than petrol/gasoline transport – be fueled by rice and pedal not petrol!

[35] 1- 28x42 cm (Peter Ehresmann)

That leaves us with food – comprising our entire 5 Euros/person/day budget in Europe. The key is that we rarely (about once per country) ate in restaurants or went to bars in Europe because they are expensive. What about eating local food you ask? Some of our weekly hosts cooked us such meals. In Asia though, we usually eat in restaurants because meals are only US$1-3. So, in Europe we went to grocery stores and open markets like normal local people to buy our raw food, like all of us do at home (only we went daily to minimize weight). We also chose discount grocery stores, of which the German brand Lidl [lee-del] (like Aldi but with a bit more variety) wound up being both our favorite and the most common through out all of Europe. We ate two cold meals (breakfast and lunch) and one hot meal (dinner)a day cooked with our single burner camp stove(s) that can burn any liquid fuel including diesel (unleaded petrol/gasoline is the easiest to come by).

Our typical European meals looked like this:

Breakfast: Muesli and milk, fruit
Lunch: Sandwiches with plenty of European cheeses and sometimes meat, veggie salad or fruit/yogurt salad
Dinner: Pasta, rice, or potato base with lots of cooked veggies alternating spicing schemes, sauces, and soup vs stir fry
Snacks: lots of nuts, fruit, and discount chocolate bars

As Henry David Thoreau included an itemized list of his expenses to show how cheaply he could live, here are two of our daily receipts from Lidl and Intermarche when we were four traveling (after Tori’s injury in France). Keep in mind that anyone who knows me knows that I am a BIG eater, especially when I’m biking 50-70km a day, so we did not skimp on quantity:



European Lunch:




The discount prices at Lidl, especially on items like Muesli (2.60 euros for 1 kilo [2 lbs]) and chocolate bars (30-60 cents/big bar) certainly helped us out. It is all a matter of scoping out the grocery stores and seeing what is cheap yet nutritious and getting creative with those ingredients.  That said, when we are living more permanently in a community with more money to spend, most of us do value paying more for higher quality raw foods from farmers’ markets.  That is a compromise we made on this trip.

At one of the many Lidls we shopped at:


In India, we were eating “meals” for lunch, which is like thali or dahl baht full in northern India, where one gets rice and several sides and one can eat as much as they like. Price: US$0.75-2.50. Amazing. Most of the group did get a bit sick of “meals” after a while, and most of us actually got sick at some point, but I recovered and embraced meals just as heartily as before without negative consequence.


Meals – lunch in India


Meals – coming around to serve up more


Travel and Health insurance may be another concern, but there are many international insurance options out there that are much cheaper (and only for big emergencies) than normal domestic health insurance. I have used World Nomads, which is roughly around US$400/6 months. But for most minor injuries in most countries outside the US, it is usually cheap enough to just pay out of pocket without filing claims.


Final Thoughts:

Extended travel is not as expensive as you think. The hardest part for most people is getting the time, which requires taking the leap of faith away from the security of a job and a brick and mortar home. Certainly selling a home to eliminate mortgage payments is a big hurdle for homeowners.  Renting out one’s home one’s self or through an agency is one solution.  Eitherway, there are many extended travel bicycle couples out there who have done it. You can too!

Many postpone major world travel until they “have money” or are retired. However, while its never too late to start, we’ve talked several times together as a team and have discovered that traveling while young (though continuing to travel throughout one’s life) makes much more sense for several reasons including these five:

1) Easier to get away without responsibilities (i.e. job, mortgage, and children) or the effort of getting out of these responsibilities tying one down.

2) It is easier to keep it cheap because one is more accustomed to simpler living standards (i.e. willing to camp and stay in cheap and potentially dirty guesthouses, taking mass transit like subways and buses instead of renting a car or taking taxis).

3) One is more likely to be physically able when young to get around, hike, bike, or just walk around a city. Renting cars and taking taxis add costs and negative ecological and political consequences mentioned above.

4) There are no guarantees one will live to a certain age in the future. Better to do it (and pursue all of our most important goals and dreams) now if it’s something one wants to do “sometime.” As Dave Matthews sings in Cry Freedom, “The future is no place to place one’s better days.”

5) Although one has less money when young, there is more payback, benefit, and reward over the rest of one’s lifetime including everything learned and one’s changed perspective on life and what’s important. This will impact and potentially change life decisions, career path, lifestyle choices, etc. hopefully for the better.

Made it to Madurai! / 08.01.13

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The Quest for Happiness: Alternative Lifestyles / 17.12.12

This is my effort to offer additional depth to our blog. Something that goes beyond reporting our experiences, rather to reach to explore the depth of reflection that our experiences inspire (when interacting with all our previous experiences and education). In short: what do I think about all day while riding my bicycle week after week? Here is a peek, though you may need several sittings for this to soak up all the links I sprinkled in.

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Final push to Istanbul! / 01.12.12

Lindsey and I crossed into Turkey from Bulgaria two days ago in Edirne. Our route from Plovdiv Bulgaria to Edirne is the only part of this trip that overlapped the first trip. We connected with Durukan in Edirne, who was a key connection on our first trip our first night, who introduced us to Volkan and his family (now living in a different part of Turkey), who wound up hosting us for a week while we waited for Nakia’s Bulgarian visa that us Americans didn’t have to worry about. Durukan graciously came through again, this time finding us an amazing and generous host, Ahmed, who is a chief on a container ship and is only home for one month in four. Lucky us, this is his time home! Thank You Ahmed and Durukan!

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Greece! / 02.11.12

As Drew and Kallie mentioned, we are alive and well in northern Greece! In the interest of time and cutting down on cold rainy weather, we took a ferry from Ancona, Italy to Igoumenista, Greece. Greece has been very mountainous and sparcely populated, but very beautiful. The Greek people have been more smiley than the Italians and very welcoming.

We stayed with a kind couchsurfing host in Igoumenista, Ozan, a 20 year old foriegn student from Turkey who was brave to take us on after only moving in himself 1 month before.

And tonight, a Godsend, Jason, approached us in the street after a hard day of mountains, rain, and cool weather, to invite us in for coffee, that turned into hot showers, that turned into staying the night. He and his roommate, both young Americans, hosted a Lord of the Rings 3 viewing tonight with about ten other people. As movie nights for us are quite rare, this was perfect and well appreciated. Oh, and did I mention they bought us dinner? Huge Gyros the size of my head. Most Excellent. Thanks, Jason, for being our 2nd spontaneous host!

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My Favorite Restaurant in the World – Leivi, Italy / 02.11.12

Imagine sitting inside a gourmet Italian chef’s home with the chef himself greeting and welcoming you into his home. Imagine slowly savoring the first of over 10 courses (counting drinks)in a set meal, which is beautifully and simply local olives soaked in herbs and olive oil, while sipping on local wine that has no lable with enough for nearly one bottle per person by the end of the meal. Then, Liquors following the meal that you pour yourself. Finally, imagine on top of all of this, taking in a breath-taking view down a beautiful valley of olive tree groves and medieval churches to the Mediterranen Sea, where on a clear day, one can see the island of Corsica in the distance. Price for everything: only 30 Euro a person.

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About viewing our photos… / 30.09.12

Some of us are still experimenting with the best way to share photos with you.  Many photos appear under the Photos section of our website, however you are not able to write comments.  While viewing our photos directly on our website is a fast way to view them,  I also encourage you to access these photos through our group – where they are actually uploaded to – and there, you can write comments about the photos.  In, click on the photo to open it individually to see the full description, then you can arrow through the set while continually seeing the full description of each photo, with full screen option.  They are organized by date posted, not taken :

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