In the words of Kipling, 'this is Burma and it is unlike any land you know'. This may be even truer today when we arrive on two wheels in Bagan, one of Asias holiest cities, giving you the chance to explore this cultural nerve centre of a country only recently emerging from international isolation. Our route takes us to the tranquil Inle Lake with its famous local markets, the striking countryside of the Shan Highlands and the central plains around Mandalay. The key sites are joined up by some fantastic rural cycling in the more remote areas where tourists are still very much a novelty and villagers will be keen to greet you on your cycling adventure.
Start Yangon. The huge Bogyoke market is worth a visit with food, clothing and handicrafts all on sale (closed on Mondays and public holidays), or visit the historic Strand Hotel which was often visited by the likes of Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham. There will be a welcome briefing this evening with an optional group dinner at a local restaurant.
A short flight takes us to Heho, the gateway to the impressive Inle Lake. We then drive (approx. 45 minutes transfer) to Nyaungshwe our base for exploring the lake and its surroundings. The Shan Hills flank the lake on both sides, with villages on stilts, inhabited mostly by the Intha people (meaning sons of the lakes). After getting set up with our bikes we will have a short warm-up ride to visit a local vineyard for some wine tasting. Cycle approx. 15km.
Today begins with a ride to Inthein on the western banks of the lake, this intricate pagoda complex has hundreds of Shan style stupas clustered together on the hillside. Following years of decline, and with the forest reclaiming the site, walking around and through it makes you feel like Indiana Jones. In the afternoon we cruise on the lake passing cottage industries, and visiting the local markets (if possible). We will see the famous leg-rowing fishermen casting their nets in the lake - this technique of standing up holding a long paddle in one hand and their leg wrapped around the paddle lower down leaves the fishermen free to cast their conical fishing nets. This unique style evolved as the lake is covered by reeds and floating plants making it difficult to see above them while sitting.There is a five-day market, named so because it moves between five different villages around the lake on a rota. Here the locals come to sell their traditional wares early in the morning and return to their village in the afternoon. The market serves most common shopping needs and depending on its location, we may be able to visit it. Cycle approx. 54 km.
Heading out on our bikes to visit the villages that surround the lake and the dense farmland, our ride is undulating and on quiet roads. We cycle around the edge of the lake towards Intha minority group villages passing rice paddies, sugar cane, traditional wooden houses and colourfully-dressed villagers. We will stop en route at villages and see what is being made and harvested depending upon the time of year.We take a boat on the lake, firstly visiting the village of Inpawkhone, famous for its traditional silk weaving from the stems of lotus flowers, a time-consuming process that results in high-quality materials. We will see the weaving techniques before visiting a cheroot factory where cigars are rolled by hand. Time-permitting we will also visit a boat-making workshop to learn about this key lakeside industry. We will then return to Nyaungshwe by boat. Cycle approx. 31km.
Making our way towards the Shan Highland there are a couple of tough uphills at the start of the day. Continuing through rolling hills we will stop and refuel at regular intervals. The last stretch of today's journey is the most scenic as we near Pindaya with Pa-Oh and other tribes working in the fields. After checking into our hotel we visit Pindaya caves, exploring its caverns and tunnels. There are more than 8000 Buddha images within the Pindaya limestone caverns and meditation chambers; every day pilgrims flock to the caves and install new Buddha images within this labyrinth of tunnels and chambers. Cycle approx. 59km.
Leaving Pindaya we drive back a short distance to Kyone junction (approx. 20 minutes/10km) in order to avoid starting the day with a steep uphill. From here we continue over the hills to Ywar Ngan passing more fields and small lively villages. After lunch we will transfer the rest of the way to Mandalay - approx. journey duration: 5 hours. Cycle approx. 54km.
Cycle to Mingun, the home of the largest uncracked bell in the world until 2000 at 90 tons. We will visit a huge unfinished pagoda which suffered earthquake damage but whose flat surface is now an ideal spot for amazing river views. From here we board a boat and head back to Mandalay. Cycle approx. 40km.
An early start as we head out to one of Myanmar's most iconic sights, U Bein Bridge. This teak bridge spans over a kilometer and is best seen at sunrise when villagers use it to begin their journey to work and fishermen below get ready for a day on the water. This is one of the most photogenic sights of the country and not to be missed. After driving to Myin Mu (approx. 2 hours), we cycle to Monywa visiting the Hindu style Thanbodday temple en route. Thanbodday is one of Burma's main attractions, yet like a lot of sites outside Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan is seldom visited by foreign tourists. The site dates to 1303 and contains hundreds of gleaming gold-topped stupas. Inside, there are more than 500,000 Buddha images of all shapes and sizes. We will also stop at Boditahtaung pagoda, which houses the largest reclining Buddha image in the country, at 100m long and 27m high. Nearby is the largest standing Buddha in the world, Laykyun Setkyar. Cycle approx. 65km (the first part is along the main road which can be busy: depending on traffic and how everyone is feeling, your leader may suggest cutting out the first 25km, so that you avoid the busy section and only cycle the last 40km on quieter roads).
We start off cycling from the hotel towards Ma Au village and then transfer to Pakkoku jetty (transfer approx. 1 hour/55km) where we board a boat on the Irrwaddy River to the ancient wonder of Bagan (Pagan). In Bagan there are over 2000 temples and pagodas in many shapes and sizes to explore amongst the 25 square miles of brick that compare to the Angkor Kingdom of Cambodia, Chichen Itza and Machu Picchu as one of the world's most spectacular archaeological sites. This is where Buddhism, Hinduism and Nat worship come together in an array of different shrines. Cycle approx. 50km.For those that would like to do the optional balloon ride please consult the Optional Extras section.
This morning is spent exploring the temple complex spreading out as far as the horizon with its peaks of brick stupas that dot the skyline in many shapes and forms. Building commenced after the former Kings of Bagan introduced Theravada Buddhism in the mid-11th Century, a string of Kings followed building temples to worship their gods. Ananda Pahto with its bejewelled 'hti' (umbrella), Dhammayangyi pahto and Shwesandaw Paya are the largest and most impressive sights we will visit along with the smaller hidden gems offering unique opportunities to climb and delve deeper into the history. We return to our hotel in the afternoon for free time but will finish the day with sunset at one of the viewpoints overlooking the temples to enjoy stunning viewsas they glow in the diminishing light - a truly magical experience and a photographer's paradise. Cycle approx. 25km.
Our scenic cycle to Mt Popa takes in more stunning brick temples, before reaching the petrified forest that surrounds the extinct volcano. At the base of the mountain, there is a display of 37 Nats (spirits) with frequent nat pwes (spirit ceremonies) held in their honour. One Nat, Ko Gyi Kyaw, is adorned with whisky bottles because he was a heavy drinker and this vice took him prematurely to his grave. He is the patron Nat of tramps and alcoholics. We have the option of taking a hike up the 777 steps to the summit and paying respect to the mountain top pagoda as well as enjoying the scenery of the surrounding area. For anyone that does not want to do the walk, we can go to a nearby resort to enjoy the views over lunch. We then have the option of either cycling back to Bagan or hopping on the coach for the journey. Cycle approx. 50km / 100km if return cycle chosen.
After a free morning, we fly back to Yangon. The bikes and your leader will be available this morning for one last optional ride to Kyuak Gu U Min north of the main temple area on the banks of the Irrawaddy for anyone who is interested. This temple has intricate stone carvings and is situated away from the main archaeological zone, so here we can discover a different side of Bagan. Cycle approx. 30km.
Yangon sits under the shadow of the glittering Shwedagon Pagoda, the most religious site within Myanmar that is said to contain eight hairs of the Buddha. As the stupa glitters in gold with 5500 diamonds and numerous other precious stones overlooking the city, life goes on in the busy streets to the south where we will explore dilapidated colonial edifices on our city tour. Chinatown offers plenty of photographic opportunities with its unpaved streets lined with old wooden shuttered houses, medicine shops, temples and the more colourful markets. Close by, we visit Shwe Bontha, perhaps the most photogenic of all streets in the city, with its leafy sidewalks, pavement tea-shops and magnificent colonial buildings. Finally our tour takes us to Lake Kandawgyi to view the glittering Karaweik replica of the Royal Barge before ascending to Shwedagon Pagoda for impressive views over Yangon at sunset.