It’s easy to see where we’re going. In the distance, a massive white face is visible high above the treeline, balanced on golden shoulders shining in the hot sun. As we ride along country roads, the figure of Laykyun Setkyar, the second-largest standing Buddha in the world, draws us in, like a beacon.
Our cycling group pedals toward the serene-looking statue on quiet country lanes, passing farmers shepherding goats to new pastures and through villages of thatched bamboo houses. Rarely out of sight, the Buddha, standing tall on the hazy hills, soon looms large directly ahead.
The giant statue was built in 1995 and stands at 116m. Laid out in front is a 91-metre-long statue, the largest reclining Buddha in the world, and at the foot of the hill below, smaller statues: 1,000 Buddhas sitting cross-legged. There are 700,000 Buddha statues scattered across this area around Monywa in central Myanmar.
Despite being an obvious point of interest in the newly open Myanmar, the statues of Monywa aren’t on many tourist itineraries. Most travellers still stick to the ‘classic’ sites: Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Bagan with its splendid array of temples, the cultural hub of Mandalay and the much-photographed Inle Lake. “By bike, you get to see the rural areas not many tourists see,” suggests our cycling guide, Aung Zaw. “Bikes are the way to see the country. You see the country inch by inch. You hear things, smell things.”
Since the release of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in 2010, curious tourists have flooded into the country. There were just 791,505 foreign visitors in 2010, but figures from the tourism ministry show 4.68 million international arrivals in 2015. Avoiding the back of a tour van and increasingly crowded tourist hotspots, a bike saddle provides the perfect vantage point from which to discover the country.
After a flight north from Yangon to Nyaungshwe on the edge of Inle Lake, the cycling trip heads northwest into the highlands of Shan State before tacking south again to the temple city of Bagan.
Early on the first morning, we gear up outside the hotel as monks walk the misty streets of Nyaungshwe collecting alms. Our group rides out of town against the flow of traffic, as villagers old and young, with noses and cheeks daubed in the yellow paste known as thanakha, travel into town on bikes, tractor carts and loaded trucks. Visible through the mist are silhouettes of fishermen working nets out on rivers and lakes, the water turned gold by the morning sun.
We pedal through sugar cane fields and little farms, past villages, ornate golden pagodas and a weatherbeaten teak monastery. White herons stalk through waterlogged fields.
At the village of Inthein, we park our bicycles on a bridge to watch buffaloes wading in the river, before walking up to the hilltop Shwe Inn Thein Pagoda with its 1,000 crumbly conical stupas.
The afternoon is spent cruising around Inle Lake’s villages of stilted houses and floating gardens. As the boat travels across the lake, local fishermen hunt for their catch in the traditional way: standing upright, paddling with one leg, keeping both hands free to fish.
Smells of burning incense, kitchen fires and manure drift across our path the next morning. It’s a deceptively tranquil start to a challenging day of riding from Nyaungshwe up into the Shan highlands. Some of Myanmar’s roads are surprisingly new and smooth, others bone-rattling and pothole-riddled. Soon, there are long, steep climbs, including a leg-burning 8km uphill ascent in the scorching afternoon sun. Relieved to reach the summit, we freewheel down the other side.
There’s curiosity and a warm welcome as we ride through rolling hills the next day, working our way through tough climbs and cool avenues shaded by gum trees.
Climbing 1,000 steps up a mountain doesn’t seem an obvious way to end a day riding 95km of challenging, uneven roads, but that’s how we expend the last of our energy, making our way up to reach Shwe Oo Min pagoda. With bare feet, we enter the limestone cave, which glows with 8,094 golden statues of the Buddha. From the high viewpoint, we can see Boke Ta Lote Lake, also shining gold, but this time from the setting sun. Not too far off is our overnight stop, Pindaya. Cold beers at the hotel at the end of the day feel well earned.
Sweaty travellers sporting Lycra are still a relatively new sight in Myanmar, especially for people living in little-visited rural areas. There’s curiosity and a warm welcome as we ride through rolling hills the next day, working our way through tough climbs and cool avenues shaded by gum trees. Schoolchildren cluster together, calling out “mingalabar” (hello). Monks nod from the roadside and road crews wave as we zoom past. There are no other tourists, only locals on motorbikes, farmers riding on overloaded ox carts and women carrying baskets on their heads. Suu Kyi has called Myanmar a land “of charm and cruelty”, a country that’s endured suffering and poverty through 50 years of military rule, but the people we encounter face daily life with zest.
It would be wrong to suggest Myanmar has been magically transformed overnight or that the country’s issues have been resigned to history. Complex problems remain, and armed conflict continues to plague some regions. The military has proved reluctant to relinquish power. Political prisoners remain in jails. Poverty remains a pressing issue for many in the country. Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party have failed to prevent state-sponsored violence against the persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority.
“Change will not happen overnight,” Zaw says. “It will take time.”
The next morning we ride through Mandalay, weaving to avoid dogs, stray cows, spluttering trucks and women carrying baskets of flowers and vegetables to market. “This is where I was born,” Zaw tells me, riding alongside. He is pleased to now have the freedom to show it off to tourists. “We’ve been waiting a long time for this,” he says, smiling.
We cycle to U Bein Bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world and an iconic sight, where ox carts cross through the water, fishermen cast nets and boatmen shepherd fleets of ducks across the river. Riding on through the back streets, blasts of music and clanking workshop machinery hit me. We join the flow of the traffic to cross the industrial Yatanarpon Bridge, which has views of boats on the Irrawaddy and gleaming pagodas downriver.
At Mingun, we walk around the town’s famed pagoda, an ambitious project by a former king to build the largest pagoda in the world – 170m high of solid brick. He only made it to 60m, but it remains an impressive achievement.
The following day’s ride takes us to Monywa and those giant Buddhas. We make our approach and follow a steep winding road up to the feet of the standing Buddha. The floors of the interior are filled with artworks, including gruesome depictions of sinners skewered on spears roasting over flames.
The next day, we carry our bikes onto a wooden boat to cruise down the Irrawaddy, alighting on the other side to pedal into Bagan, which has about 2,300 pagodas within 42 square kilometres. We make our way around the highlights, including the oldest, Shwesandaw Pagoda, and the area’s most holy site, the gold-covered Shwezigon Pagoda. At Shwesandaw, we climb steps to the top for a view of the temple city: countless spires of brick red, gold and white point up out of the trees. Chanting drifts across the sun-bleached landscape.
It is a magical end to the penultimate day of touring. Our last day of riding starts from the hilltop monastery at Mt Popa. I savour every gruelling climb and hair-raising descent of our last 60km before returning to Yangon; taking it all in, inch by inch.
The author traveled with Exodus on their Cycle Myanmar (Burma) trip. The 16-day trip costs from $2,400 per person, excluding flights. For more information, visit exodus.co.uk