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Myanmar (Burma) – Take Two 2018

My second epic tour in Burma / Myanmar will be in early December 2018. This time we will be heading south from Mandalay through the central areas of the country, down the coast of the pan-handle and finally end up at the Thai border. Our previous trip took us west to the jungle, mountains and beaches, ending up in Rangoon / Yangon.

Route South from Mandalay

Our route will take us to lake Inle with Intha-people and floating gardens and the new capital Naypyidaw and further down along the narrow pan-handle. Not forgetting some quiet beaches on the way. Finally we cross the Thai border west of Bangkok and continue to Kanchanabur and to Bangkok.

The new capital Naypyidaw has a very interesting history – a very short one as well. The construction of the city started only 2002 on a greenfield site, 320 km (200 mi) north of the old capital, Yangon. On 6 November 2005, the administrative capital was moved to this new city. It is not known why the capital was moved. Speculations range from more rational reasons to a “vanity project”.

The heading image of my Facebook pages is from Myanmar 2015

The trip is, again, made possible by a bored expat ex-chicken farmer Zach (www.mandalaymotorbike.com) and an adventure seeking  architect Severi (www.Mad.bike). Our bikes will be Honda CRF 250L dirt bikes.

Zach and Severi in Mandalay 2015

Myanmar or Burma?

Just WHY is the country caller Burma or Myanmar and which is correct?

Some background first. The ruling military junta changed its name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, a year after thousands were killed in the suppression of a popular uprising and one year before Aung San Suu Kyi won a landslide electoral victory that the junta simply ignored. Rangoon also became Yangon.

Flag of Burma until October 21, 2010

The change was recognised by the United Nations, and by countries such as France and Japan, but not by the US and the UK. American embassy address still is “Rangoon, Burma”

In a Lonely Planet guidebook to Asia, the country can be found listed after Mongolia, not Brunei. The Rough Guide does not cover Burma at all, because the pro-democracy movement has called for a tourism boycott.

There does not however seem to be any strong feelings about the use of either name. The two words mean the same thing and one is derived from the other. Burmah, as it was spelt in the 19th Century, is a local corruption of the word Myanmar. If Burmese people are writing for publication, they use ‘Myanmar’, but speaking they use ’Burma’

According to BBC, Mark Farmener, of Burma Campaign UK, says:  “There’s not a really strong call from the democracy movement saying you should not call it Myanmar, they just challenge the legitimacy of the regime. It’s probable it will carry on being called Myanmar after the regime is gone.”

For those, more interested in the two seemingly very different names, The Economist gives an explanation: Though the words look radically different in Roman scripts, in Burmese they are pronounced almost identically: with a quick, unstressed first syllable, either “buh” or something like “munn”, followed by a longer “MA”. In neither name is there a hard “r” sound anywhere. It is never pronounced “MAI-an-marr”. Gustaaf Houtman, an anthropologist who specialises in the country, explains that native speakers use both words: Myanmar is the formal, literary form and Burma an everyday term. Burma has the advantages of ease of pronunciation (for foreigners), and visual consistency: the adjectival form is Burmese, not Myanmarese (still less Myanmese, ugh!).

Locals are always happy to join foreigners in pictures. The Burmese are very nice people altogether.

Other countries to rename themselves like this include Iran (formerly Persia), Burkina Faso (Upper Volta) and Cambodia (Kampuchea).

Helsinki Finland to Minsk Belarus

Heading South the Scenic Route

Our route took us from Helsinki Finland to Tallinn Estonia on a ferry – just two hours to cross the Gulf of Finland. Weather was fantastic and we opted for a less travelled route and eventually crossed near Estonian village of Lilli (road 54) to Latvia (road P17). A fantastic winding road with very little traffic, no speed traps or police like on the standard Via Baltica route.

Overnight near Riga and a morning departure towards Vilnius Lithuania, meeting our friend Vyga for lunch on the road.

Vilnius Old Town

Settling into our accommodation just outside the city followed by dinner in the old town with Zilvinas in a Georgian restaurant and a visit to see his bike shop, Speed Crank. Little adjustment to my KessTech exhaust by a butt-crack man and we were on out way to Minsk.

Nothing gets done without a Butt-Crack Man
Vilnius Song and Dance Festival Goers in Lithuanian National Costumes

Now the weather was changing slowly for the worst.

The Plan

Clouds Cathering

Sometimes in biking you may need to change your plans. Sometimes it is the weather…

As some of our group had already been to Minsk several times attending the end of season rally, we thought it would be a good idea to see Minsk in the summer and to explore the surroundings a bit.

That was the plan. The weather however, did not agree. It was colder, windier and rainier than any of the end of season rallies we had visited in September!

One night in Minsk (or two)

Once we arrived in Minsk in the rain, we settled into our Hotel. There are at least three of the Victoria hotels near each other and they are all good and friendly. This time we stayed at Victoria Spa.

Druzya dance floor

Dinner at a very popular food and dance spot Druzya Minsk, a good night out.

Great Patriotic War Museum

The morning weather was miserable. Temperature 9c, strong wind and heavy rain. So we opted for some indoor activity.

It is amazing how history is mainly written through wars. Great Patriotic War Museum was no exception but it was one of the finest museums I have seen. Having visited the Stalin Line earlier, this was a fitting next place to visit.

Nanking massacre exhibition

Minsk is a very modern city and a short stroll in the centre was due. A visit to a department store and yet another borsch-soup.

Minsk Department Store
Presidential Palace

The weather being atrocious we stayed at the hotel for dinner, examining at the weather forecast. No change for the next three to four days! Perhaps it would be nice somewhere else?

Bus Stop in Belarus

Change of plans – Ride to Jurmala

At the breakfast table the plan was agreed. We would cut our Minsk visit short and ride to Vilnius for the night and continue to Jurmala just south of Riga for some better weather and beach front activity!

Our Hotel Pegasa Pils

Although we had some adverse weather, the trip was again a good one. Nice time with nice people, always worth it!

Belarus Expedition 2018

Coming up! 

Belarus –  A Gem Waiting for Discovery!

I have visited Minsk several times on a motorbike and every time it has been just phenomenal. Minsk is a very modern city with friendly people, excellent food and great nightlife. 

Coming July 2018, it is time to look a bit further afield. Riding with a small group of friends from HOG Capital Chapter Finland, we will be holding Minsk as our base and exploring the countryside and the sights we have missed during our earlier visits. Hopefully we will meet some of our local HOG-friends to give us a steer as well! 

Earlier rides have taken us from Vilnius, Lithuania to Minsk and that is the plan is also now. Road surface is good on both sides of the border. The ride from Vilnius to Kamenny Log border crossing is only some 35 km and from Kamenny Log to Minsk, some 150km, total distance 185km.

Formalities at the border take some time and there is a set procedure to follow. Officials have always been friendly and guided us if there were questions. Formalities run according to their set plan. No ifs, ands or buts!

Border may be busy – Just pass the trucks

The documentation one needs include passport with visa, green card for the bike and health insurance for the rider. Additionally you can download a Passenger Customs Declaration and fill it before leaving for the border. You will be given one at the border, but easier to do in advance. The document is the same for both Belarus and Russian borders.  

At the border you will also be given a Migration Card to fill in and you MUST keep the other half with you for your return journey. This is not downloadable, presumably because it has running numbering.

I got my visa from the Belarus Embassy in Helsinki. Easily done and they must have the friendliest staff of any Visa consulate I have visited. This is also the cheapest way – you really do not need to pay any middleman. This applies to coming on land and there is a visa free scheme if you come by plane.

NOTE! As a tourist without an invitation to visit the country, you will need a stamped booking confirmation from your hotel for obtaining a visa. Confirmation from booking.com, etc. will NOT do. Just email the hotel and they will promptly email you a scanned document. 

I am already really excited about the ride and another blog will follow.

By the way… The bike pictured in the main image at the start of this post belongs to president Alexander Lucashenko – Black Ultra with red flames!

Unique license plate

Reminiscing one of our earlier visits:

Riding Motorcycle in Malaysia

Some Practical tips what to keep in mind when riding motorcycle in Malaysia

As a general rule, Malaysians speak very good English and are easy to communicate with. If you have questions, just ask.

Driving License – NOTE!

If you need to use International driving license, it will need to be the one from 1949 Geneva convention, the 1968 Vienna convention license is not valid in Malaysia!!  

Rules of the road

Malaysia rides on the LEFT side of the road. Like NZ, Australia, UK, Japan, …

Speed limits generally:  Motorways 110 km/h. Smaller trunk roads 80 km/h and passing through villages 50 km/h. 

As Malaysia is developing very fast, roads are good but some road works are inevitable. 

Lane splitting / filtering is the norm and expected. Filtering is done virtually from any side where there is room. You will quickly get the hang of it by just observing other riders. During rush hour motorbikes are way faster than cars through the traffic.

Traffic in general is rather civilized and predictable. Road surface is good and if you really want, motorways are wide and fast to ride.

Toll Roads

Toll Roads are free for motorcycles. You should not ride up to the toll gate but need to prepare for a slip road that passes the toll booths. Slip road may be just a narrow lane past the booths or often a small detour around the toll station, in which case the entry may be quite early before the actual booths.

Pumping petrol

Petrol pumps operate a strict pay first, then pump -policy. If you wish to fill up your tank and are unsure how much it will cost, just tell the cashier your pump number, leave a high enough value note (or your credit card) to the cashier who will open the pump  and then you can pump the petrol. The cashier will take payment from the note (or card) you gave and return your change.

When entering a service station look out for a pump mainly used by motorbikes. Sometimes there is an assistant and they will take the money and pump the bike for you. Quicker this way. Otherwise you can use any pump. The yellow nozzle is for 95 oct and safe to use in most bikes.

What to Wear – Heat and Rain

The weather plays a role in Malaysia. It can be very hot and humid and locals may ride wearing only t-shirts. As you will be riding at relatively high speeds, protective gear is recommended. Definitely you should wear something that does not give you a heat stroke – a mesh jacket with protective pads is a sensible choice.

Sudden thunderstorms and very heavy rain occurs. And I mean it pours! These do not necessarily last for very long but light rain gear should be at hand when it happens. Rain fronts are often clearly visible and give you a warning to dress up. The rain can be so heavy that water on the road has nowhere to drain and can be really deep for riding. Speeds generally fall but cars still throw bucket loads of water on you – no spray, buckets!

Animals on the Road

Animals on the road beside the usual dogs etc include cows in particular. Cows often are calmly on the side of the road but do not be fooled by their apparent calmness, they also gallop across the road and appear suddenly from a bush. Beware.

Monkeys are also quite usual running across the road and a rare sight today are wild elephants. Watch out for elephant dung though!

Taking a break

Smaller roads have stalls set up by locals for food and drink, which I recommend you should sample.

Motorways have big R&R stations – Relax & Recreation areas. These offer full service petrol, food and play areas. Some may have limited facilities though. In any case these are signposted a few kilometers ahead on the road.

Riding in Malaysia is great fun. As a well developed country, it is a good destination if you wish to explore Asia on a bike but do not fancy a too extreme experience. It also offers great opportunities for combining your biking with island / city holidays.

Malaka – Birthplace of Malaysia

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Unesco World Heritage site – Malaka

After my group ride on the north side of KL, I decided to continue my ride solo and to head south towards a historic town of Malaka, also known as Melaka, Malakka or Malacca.

Malaka has a fascinating history. In brief, the city has been conquered first by the Siamese, by the Portugese on the 16th century, the Dutch on the 17th and finally by the British at the end of the 18th century, plus the Japanese held the city at WWII for a while.

The date of independence for the Federation of Malaya was announced in Malaka on the 20th of February 1956 based on the Agreement of Independence signed earlier that month in London.

Today Malaka is an Unesco World Heritage site and the city’s history is well visible in its buildings and architecture.

Ride from KL to Malaka

The ride from KL to Malaka, some 160km,  can be done quickly on the motorway or by taking time to tour the smaller roads and villages. I opted for a combination and took a quick route out of KL and diverted to smaller roads half way to Malaka. This was also partly due to the extreme heat. I was no longer in the highlands with cool breeze but lower in much hotter weather.

As soon as one diverts from the motorway there are small stalls on the side of the road selling local delicateses – home made juices, fruit (ofter durian in many forms) and food and bakes. I stopped for fruit juice and rather fantastic tasty donuts made from some fruit. Don’t know the name for them but they were goooood! 

The Town

When you book a hotel in Malaka, make sure it is near the old town area and the canal. This is where you want to go, trust me.

There you enter a new world with the busy canal, narrow streets, murals, restaurants, busy daytime and even busier nightlife when streets are for pedestrians only and full of food vendors. Jonker walk / street being the busiest.

True to its history, Malaka has several museums well worth visiting. I went to the Independence Monument museum and the Sultan’s Palace. Many more available.

Sultan’s Palace

A cruise on the canal is also worth the time, taking one out from the old town, still following the border of the old Malaka village and new Malaka high rise hotels. When you walk around a little, you will see the Indian as well as Chinese areas of town.

Both sides of the canal in the old town are nice for a cup of coffee or a cool beer in the heat. Good food available everywhere!

A particular feature in Malaka are the numerous murals.

I was not the only biker in town! Local police was out on a Honda.

When in Malaka, expect interesting history, busy streets, great street food, outdoor karaoke and entertainment of many kinds in the evening in particular. Malaka evenings seemed popular amongst the locals and tourists alike.

The Father of Bodubuilding in Malaysia is a local Malaka Hero

 

… that elusive day we keep putting good things off to…