Late for Nowhere

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Nearly killed by Lonely Planet

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View of Bagan in central Myanmar

As a reasonably experienced traveler, I should have known better than to trust the guidebook without also gathering some local intelligence about the wisdom of my plan.

At the same time, I’m always reluctant to consult non-cyclists about my cycling trips. It gets tiresome explaining that, yes, I am capable of riding more than 3 miles at a time without collapsing in exhaustion, and, no, I’m not all that bothered by hills or other challenging terrain.

The idea was to spend a day cycling from Bagan to Salay and back. The distance, according to Lonely Planet, was 22 miles each way, so the 44-mile total would be well within my physical capabilities. I also had at my disposal a Trek mountain bike with 24 gears, which would help make easy work of the region’s gently rolling topography.


The road to Salay

The biggest challenge, I thought, would be the heat. I was making the trip during the Thingyan Water Festival holiday, and in central Myanmar in mid-April, temperatures exceeding 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) are not unusual.

With 44 miles to travel, I knew that if I started at dawn I could make it to Salay and back by 12 noon, even allowing for a couple hours exploring some of the old wooden monasteries for which Salay is famous. There would be some heat to contend with, but I would escape the worst of it by finishing before lunchtime.


Dry river crossing on the way to Salay

As the day of the ride made its entrance from the east – a subtle emergence of the blazing red sun through the morning mist – I was already pedaling west from Nyaung Oo along empty Anawrahta Road. There were few people about as I rode past the silent, centuries-old monuments of Bagan: Wetkyi-in-Gubyaukgyi, Buledi, Ananda Temple. At the end of the road I turned left and started riding south toward New Bagan, Chauk and Salay.

I confidently reveled in the simple thrill of cycling on the open roads of Myanmar, gliding over gently rolling hills and through tree-shaded villages shrouded in smoke from morning fires, where kids and adults alike shouted hello as I passed.


Local villager along the road

After about 30 minutes of riding, my wife Pauksi caught up with me – she was traveling on the back of a hired motorcycle, shooting video of the villages and the landscape along our route. She rode on ahead, after we agreed to stop for a rest at Chauk.

A short while later I rode across a wide, sandy wash that marked my departure from Mandalay Region and entrance into Magwe Region. There were some hills with oil fields to cross, and then I reached Chauk after exactly two hours of riding. Pauksi and the motorcycle driver were waiting at a teashop on the main road. Surely, I thought, Salay must be close.


Villagers along the road

But it was here that I discovered that the day would be longer and more difficult than anticipated: The motorcycle driver informed me that, according to his odometer, we had already traveled 27 miles, and a local patron at the teashop delivered the unfortunate news that Salay was still 17 miles away.

Utilizing every spare brain cell at my disposal, I calculated that this added up to 44 miles, exactly double the 22 miles claimed by Lonely Planet. Which, calculating further, meant that the day’s total cycling distance would be 88 miles.


Farm girl along the road to Salay

Despite this fairly conspicuous discrepancy, I decided to forge ahead anyway. It was just past 8am and the air was already warm, but still comfortable for cycling.

The savannah-like landscape south of Chauk was a punctuated by several decent-sized hills, after which came the turnoff to Salay. I found myself on a narrow, bumpy and pleasantly quiet road lined with Indian neem trees and flanked by paddy fields, where groups of women stopped working to wave as I passed.


Carvings at Youqson Kyaung

We made it to Salay just after 9am, and stopped at a teashop for water and some excellent nan gyi thoke before heading a couple hundred meters down the road to Youqson Kyaung.

We found that the museum inside the monastery was closed for the long Thingyan break, but I wasn’t disappointed: We were still able to study the famous teakwood figures around the outside of the structure, and frankly I was happy to have an excuse to spend less time in Salay and start the ride back to Bagan sooner rather than later.


Carvings at Youqson Kyaung

I started the return trip around 10:30am. The heat was starting to build, and the small but repetitious hills were taking their toll on my legs.

Worse, around the time I reached the turnoff to the main road back to Chauk, I noticed my front tire was going flat. I had a spare tube with me, but my mini-pump, after eight years of unblemished service, picked that moment to stop working properly.

A group of locals had gathered to observe my struggles, rivers of sweat running into my eyes as I made a heroic effort to inflate the tire with my dying pump.

Mercifully, not all of them remained idle spectators: One man eventually retrieved another pump from a nearby house, allowing me to complete my repairs. Effusive thanks, smiles and laughter were exchanged, and I was on my way again.

I re-crossed the big, barren hills, a bit more slowly than I had in the morning, and then flew downhill into Chauk, where Pauksi was waiting at a snack shop. I ate two scoops of best-ever strawberry ice cream, drank a liter of cold water, and bought two more liters to take with me.


Carving at Youqson Kyaung

Before I had the chance to re-mount my bike, the motorcycle driver did me the dubious favor of pointing out the temperature gauge mounted to the side of a nearby building. It read 48 degrees Celsius (118 Fahrenheit). It was just past noon, and I still had 27 miles to ride.

At that point I could have justifiably bailed out and hopped into the back of a local truck with my bike for an easy ride back to Bagan. Instead, I told my wife to get back to the hotel and out of the heat as quickly as possible, and I would make it back on my own.

With this decision Lonely Planet, no matter how sketchy or unreliable its information, was absolved of all responsibility. My demise would have to be ruled suicide by stubbornness or stupidity.

The rest of the day was a bit of a blur. The small but incessant hills, the fatigue of riding for hours on end, and the hot, hot heat all conspired to make for a challenging stretch of cycling.


Villagers in Salay

I remember reading somewhere that the signs of heat exhaustion included excessive sweating, thirst, extreme weakness or fatigue, headache, nausea, lack of appetite and giddiness, pretty much all of which I experienced during the long slog back to Bagan.

But these are also sensations that can be triggered by hour after hour of long-distance cycling, regardless of the weather, so in this case I couldn’t tell whether I was dying or having fun exercising.

Difficulties aside, at long last the hideous Serenity Garden Resort loomed into view, marking my return to the Bagan area. I drifted like a ghost through New Bagan and Myinkaba, and soon made the turnoff onto Anawrahta Road. I took the last few gulps from my sixth one-liter water bottle of the day, the liquid made as warm as green tea from the power of the sun.


Buddhist nun in Salay

The last stretch seemed to take hours, the heat relentless, my fatigue reaching unprecedented heights as I pedaled on and counted down the miles – four, three, two, one – until I was back at the hotel with my wife, enjoying yet another liter of water, followed by a cold beer, in the air-conditioned room.

I later read in the local press that the “official” temperature in Chauk that day was 46.1 degrees Celsius (115 Fahrenheit), the highest in 28 years. Several villagers in Magwe Region were reported to have died as a result of the heat. I consider myself lucky to have not been among them.

The ill-conceived foray to Salay certainly was not the first time in my life that willful foolhardiness provided a memorable travel experience, and I knew, even as I lay in the hotel room bed that afternoon, giddy with exhaustion and survival, that it wouldn’t be the last.

Written by latefornowhere

April 24, 2013 at 5:10 am