Late for Nowhere

From life in Southeast Asia to backyard adventures in Kodiak, Alaska

Posts Tagged ‘Hlawga Wildlife Park

A bike ride to welcome the Buddhist New Year

leave a comment »


Along Lower Mingalardon Road, a young boy is dressed as a prince as part of a shinlaung hle pwe, a procession of aspirants heading for a monastery to take part in a ceremony to become Buddhist monks.

Whenever a new year rolls around, whether it be Gregorian (January 1) or Theravada Buddhist (mid-April), I try to start things off right by spending a significant portion of the day on my bicycle.

This year the Buddhist New Year started on April 17, a day during which I was road-tripping through Kayah State with my wife and step-kids. My first ride of the year was therefore deferred until April 19, the day after we returned to Yangon.

As a result of the Kayah road trip, I hadn’t cycled for more than a week, so I opted for simple, familiar 50km (30-mile) loop north of the city on mostly flat terrain but with a few short, gentle hills thrown in about one-third of the way through.

Although the route is mostly paved, I always use my mountain bike because 1) the roads are pretty rough, including a few sections that would be quite troublesome on a road bike; and 2) there is an off-road shortcut that I sometimes use when I feel the need to spend a few kilometers speeding along dirt single-track.

I live on the far northern end of Baho Road, about 20km from downtown Yangon, so it doesn’t take much effort to get out of the city: a few minutes riding on Baho, a right turn onto Lower Mingalardon Road, a few more minutes of traffic congestion until I cross Kyayae Pin Road, and then I’m out in the countryside.

Sort of. The bumpy road – which skirts an industrial park and passes through several suburban villages as it wends its way up the west side of the Hlawga Reservoir – still sees a fair amount of use, but the cars and trucks are generally slow-moving and drivers usually eschew the homicidal tendencies of mid-city vehicle operators.

On this occasion I was lucky to witness a procession of a dozen or so young boys riding ponies and dressed as princes as they made their way to local monastery to have their heads shaven and don the robes of Buddhist monks. The rural version of this ceremony – where participants are conveyed by horse and bullock cart – is a bit more inspiring than the urban approach, which normally involves convoys of cars and trucks blaring earsplitting music.


An ordination procession along Lower Mingalardon Road.

A few kilometers later I passed the Dagon Beer brewery, and then turned right onto a hilly, winding, lightly trafficked road past forestland, a Chinese cemetery and a typical Mon-style Buddhist pagoda.



Up until a few years ago this was a dirt road, and during a bike ride out here in September 2007 I discovered that this backwater area was being utilized as a staging ground for a convoy of trucks carrying Burmese soldiers – they were being brought into the city to raid monasteries and brutalize Buddhist monks who were protesting against the military government at the time.

About halfway along this road, concrete tracks split off to the right and lead to a gate that provides access to a network of dirt trails around Hlawga Reservoir. This is the off-road shortcut mentioned above: There’s some fun, challenging mountain biking back there, but on this occasion I decided to stick with the pavement for the longer, mellower road loop.


The right-hand fork leads to dirt trails around Hlawga Reservoir.

I sped past Hlawga Wildlife Park, which I have described in a previous post, turned right into the town of Htaukkyant, and then made a left onto the highway leading to the town of Bago. (Turning right leads past the Htaukkyant Allied War Cemetery and back to Yangon.) Passing through Htaukkyant requires negotiating an insane scrum of buses and taxis obstructing traffic flow as they drop off and pick up passengers. On the way out of town I caught the draft of a motorcycle cruising along at a perfect 40kph, which allowed me to make quick work of this busy section of highway until I turned onto pleasantly peaceful Number 7 Road just before the Htaukkyant toll booth.

Then it was back to peaceful and quiet cycling on a dead-flat stretch of road through an idyllic world of open paddy fields, white egrets and farmers travelling by bullock cart.


Traffic is so light out here that it’s not unusual to see the road being used as a space to spread harvested rice for drying in the sun.


But the Edenic sheen proves itself to be less complete than first supposed: A few years ago, small shanty villages started appearing along certain sections of the road. These were built by people who were unable to keep up with skyrocketing rents in Yangon and had to move into the countryside just to survive.


These small houses were built by people who can no longer afford rent in downtown Yangon.

After about 20 minutes of cycling on Number 7 Road, I turned right at a government-run hepatitis vaccine factory. By this time, even though it was only about 10:30am, temperatures had reached 38C (100F). I’ve never been one to complain (much) about cycling in the heat, but I was definitely starting to feel the effects of not having exercised for a week.


The hepatitis vaccination factory.

This stretch of road is a bit peculiar: There are many patches where the metal bars meant to reinforce the concrete have instead emerged from the crumbling roadway like the dangerous tentacles of a retro-futuristic roboctopus. In other places, dirt and rubble appear to have simply been dumped into the traffic lanes. This state of affairs has persisted for several years, with no apparent attempt to make repairs.


Roboctopus road hazard.


Why a mountain bike is better than a road bike, even for the “fully paved” route.

The road eventually gets better, and it doesn’t take long to figure out why as you pass through a neighborhood of ritzy houses and the turnoff to the Mingalardon Golf and Country Club.


Compare this with the shanty houses just a few kilometers back down the road.

By this time I had been cycling for nearly two hours. I passed through the first red light I had seen since crossing Kyayae Pin Road at the beginning of the ride, and now I was back on a six-lane section of Kyayae Pin and pedaling up the steepest hill of the route. (Locals on their single-speed clunkers were forced to dismount and push.) I then made a left onto the Yangon-Bago highway for the busy 10-minute stretch to Lanthit Road, which was the turnoff back to my neighborhood.

This ride normally takes me about 2 hours and 5 minutes, but in this case I spent about 2 hours and 20 minutes covering the distance. Considering my lack of fitness, even that was a little too far and a little too fast on a day that was just a little too hot.

Written by latefornowhere

April 23, 2014 at 12:22 pm

Monkeying around in Hlawga Wildlife Park

with 2 comments


Sunrise at Hlawga Reservoir north of Yangon

They were coming at us from all directions, a horde of little furry men trying to hitch a ride on the truck we had driven into the park. But then we took a closer look and saw that they weren’t men at all, but rather a large contingent of Hlawga Wildlife Park’s resident population of rhesus monkeys looking for food handouts.

We had bought some bananas at the park gate, and as we tossed them out of the truck, the monkeys trotted alongside, sometimes on two legs and sometimes on four, snatching the yellow fruit from the air and retreating into the forest to enjoy their free snack.


A rhesus monkey leaps for a snack at Hlawga Wildlife Park

After we had left the primate welcoming committee behind, we found ourselves driving on a narrow, winding, red-dirt road through a forest of leafy trees and dry ravines. Before long I started spotting deer among the trees – first alone, then in small groups, and finally in a herd gathered at a feeding area where they vied for food with another group of monkeys.

The animals were tame enough to not scatter when they saw humans but not so tame that I dared try to pet them. Some of the deer were sporting impressive racks of antlers (not to mention hooves) that looked like they would be capable of inflicting a fair amount of damage to anything they perceived as a threat, while the monkeys seemed to maintain a teeth-bared, don’t mess-with-me attitude toward the world at large.


Monkeys and deer vie for food

It was partly for the sake of these animals that the Hlawga Wildlife and Zoo Park was established in 1982 about 35 kilometres (22 miles) north of Yangon. Specifically, the fenced-in Wildlife Park portion was set aside to protect the trees and other plant life in the drainage basin of nearby Hlawga Reservoir (one of Yangon’s main water sources), establish a population of indigenous wildlife species in natural conditions, and provide a recreational area for locals and tourists.

Species that have been introduced to the park include deer (of the hog, barking and sambar varieties), rhesus monkeys, pythons, pangolins (a type of armoured anteater) and mythun (a type of wild cattle). The freshwater Zokanok Lake also provides habitat for a large number of migratory bird species.

Just outside the Wildlife Park is a mini-zoo that includes a Biodiversity Museum, Bird Museum and Environmental Education Center where preserved land animals, birds and butterflies are on display. There are also photographs of indigenous animal and plant species, pictures of threatened birds, and maps of bird migration routes and ecotourism sites in Myanmar. Among the living animals in the zoo are black bears, birds (such as Himalayan griffon vultures, greater spotted eagles and green peafowl) and elephants, the latter of which can be ridden by visitors on a quick five-minute jaunt.

Hlawga Reservoir lies beyond the park boundaries to the south. Like the smaller lake inside the park, it is an important stopover for waterfowl migrating long-distance through Southeast Asia. It is therefore a popular spot for birdwatchers from Yangon to congregate and look for avian species such as the pale-capped pigeon, Asian fairy bluebird, racket-tailed drongo, black-crested and black-headed bulbul, scarlet-backed flowerpecker and black-winged stilt. Trails around the reservoir that are used by villagers also provide recreation for hikers and mountain bikers. However, because the lake is a primary source of drinking water for Yangon, water recreation is generally prohibited.


Pagoda on the south shore of Hlawga Reservoir

Back inside the Wildlife Park, my travel companions and I stopped at Picnic Site 1 to explore on foot. Beyond the vendors who were selling food for both humans and animals was a walking trail that led to Zokanok Lake, where traditional huts can be rented for day use and viewing platforms provide unobstructed views across the water.

After watching a small group of white egrets glide through the air over the muddy lake, we followed the trail across a suspension bridge, which brought us to a boardwalk that skirted the shoreline. At the end of the wooden walkway we found another dirt trail that eventually brought us back to the main road at Picnic Site 2, where our driver was waiting with his truck to take us past more enclaves of monkeys, deer and the odd mythun. (Although we had our own truck and driver, those without transportation can avoid backtracking by taking advantage of scheduled shuttle buses that drop passengers off and pick them up at the four picnic sites in the park.)


Suspension walking bridge in the wildlife park

Picnic Site 3, with its lakefront tables and pavilions, was the most popular by far. Vendors sold traditional snacks and drinks such as pickled tea leaf salad and toddy wine, as well as more general fare like fried rice, whiskey and beer. All around were picnickers enjoying the late morning sun, while yet more crazy monkeys darted from the forest coveting anything they thought they could get their paws on. There was also a gaggle of geese that hung out onshore for awhile before taking to the water and swimming out to an island where I spotted a stork that was so big it had nearly achieved emu-like proportions.

Not far past the somewhat more serene Picnic Site 4 were two hippopotamuses that came trundling out of the water when their keeper called their names, Pauk Kyaw Ma and Thi Thi Maw (I was expecting names that were a bit more African). We dropped some watercress into their open mouths, climbed back into the truck and drove on.


Resident hippos Pauk Kyaw Ma and Thi Thi Maw

As we neared the exit gate, we witnessed yet another group of humanoids hooting, screeching and bursting with activity by the lakeshore. I started looking around for a vendor to purchase some more bananas for the crazy critters before I realised they were an altogether different kind of wildlife – an enclave of teenagers who were enjoying a Sunday in the park in their own loud and restless way.


Come back soon, ya’ll.