Across Myanmar in 24 (mostly illegal) sleeps!

Illegal wild camp in Myanmar. MSR Tent in a quarry at sunrise.

What I did in Myanmar... it was crazy. You may say stupid, and perhaps you'd be right. Foreigners must stay in a hotel every night, and it must be specially licenced to accept foreigners, i.e. very expensive. That is the law. But I didn't want to stay in expensive hotels; On my cheap budget it is avoiding hotels and guesthouses (less than 10 in 15 months of travelling) that has enabled me to travel for so long.

I would ignore the law and camp illegally, I decided. And so began the most uncomfortable month of the trip, slipping from the road at dusk to avoid detection, laying awake paralysed by the drone of nearby voices, and showering less frequently than is necessary when cycling 8 hours a day in 37 degrees heat. When I say it was uncomfortable, that isn't to say it was always miserable (although sometimes it was). I relished the challenge and adventure of camping where I wasn't supposed to, and it became a game to avoid getting spotted, one I seemed to be winning.

Night 1

Illegal wild camping in a forest in Myanmar. Sleeping bag on the floor and touring bike beside.

When most people go on a trip they research where the hotels are to decide where to stay. I also looked at where the hotels were, but to decide where not to stay. My theory was simple – On this first night I was 65km from the closest hotel. If the police found me, I hoped they wouldn't make me cycle 65km in the middle of the night (although this is not unheard of), and they would either let me remain where I was, or find me somewhere else to stay such as a monastery or police station.

No police came, the only disturbance being a herd of cows wandering through at 3am. I was ecstatic to have managed to camp undetected in Myanmar and saved ~$20, but overwhelmed by the thought of repeating the ordeal every night for the next 4 weeks!

Night 3

Illegal wild camping in Myanmar. Sleeping bag laid out in the jungle and touring bike laying down.

I was sleeping on the ground and not setting my tent up. Less comfortable, but also less likely to be spotted, and that was most important. I had also heard stories of police confiscating tents to prevent further camping, and I wanted to avoid that!

Night 4

Illegal wild camping in Myanmar. Sleeping mat, sleeping bag and bivvy bag laid out on the jungle floor and bike standing up beside.

The furious bark of dogs had started in the distance, but they suddenly seemed almost upon me. I lay motionless, willing the dogs to leave me alone. They didn't. The dark sillhouette of a dog broached the horizon of my elevated sleeping spot, less than 10 metres away, and with a bark somehow angrier than before. The silhouette of a second dog surrounded me. Then a third.

I sat up, first trying to calm the dogs with hushed whispers and gentle tones, and then trying to scare the dogs away, unsure which approach would work better. Neither, it emerged, and the barking soon caught the attention of two men who investigated with torches that probed the darkness until they rested on me. 'Tourist' one man called to the other. They hesitated, the torchlight still burning into my eyes, and then that they turned and left, clutching the dogs by the scruff of their necks and dragging then away too.

Were they friendly? Were they scared? Were they angry? Did I need to move? Were they going to call the police? I had no answers to the avalanche of questions in my head. Half laziness and half unjustified optimism, I stayed where I was, but it was a restless night knowing police could arrive any moment.

Night 5

Illegal wild camping in Myanmar. Sleeping mat, sleeping bag and bivvy bag laid out on jungle floor and touring bike standing up at the back.

'Thankfully, there haven't been any mosquitoes so far. That would have made this camping very unpleasant.'.I wrote in my diary that evening. Naturally this was the night I first met mosquitoes which would plague the remainder of my time in Myanmar.

Night 6

MSR tent in the jungle in Myanmar at sunset with sun setting behind. Touring bike lent against tree.

I had managed nearly a full week of sleeping wild in Myanmar, probably saving almost $120 in the process. I was very happy and felt braver, finally daring to set the tent up, which felt like a real luxury!

Nights 7 – 10

Adventure traveller and bike tourer standing with his touring bike and his warmshowers host in Myanmar.

Keith from Singapore had invited me to stay with him through 'Warmshowers', an online cycling community, which I readily accepted. It was a great chance to stay in the comfort of a house, regather some energy, and most excitingly have some company - with English hardly spoken in Myanmar, I had spent most of my time alone.

Night 15

Selfie with young Buddhist monks in Myanmar.

Finding somewhere to camp became harder as I headed further south; Bago state especially felt like one elongated village for 400km, with farmland and houses extending from both sides of the road all the while. In desperation I asked at a monastery, who thankfully allowed me to make my bed beside the shrine to Buddha.

I enjoyed the company of these two cheeky monks a lot. I left a donation in the hopes that the monks will also rescue any future cyclists from their desperation and allow them to stay there.

Night 17

Wild Camping in Myanmar, close to road without a tent.

At exactly 9:30pm two people stepped from their house nearly 500 metres from where I slept, and scanned the field with their torches, the giant cone of light sweeping the hedgerow until it came to rest on me. How did they know I was there?! There was no point pretending I hadn't been spotted, so I stood up and waved with as much friendliness as I could muster. But, they both retreated back to their house. I felt sure if I stayed they would call the police. Or maybe they had already...

I gathered my things and cycled through darkness darting down the first track I saw. I was disorientated; in the blackness the nearest house could have been only metres away. The road was close and the blinding lights from passing cars danced through the bushes, scattering on my sleeping bag. I was certain I would be found, I would have bet money on it, but I was too tired to stay awake worrying and soon fell asleep.

To my own shock, it was dawn, and the golden shafts of sweet morning sunlight that roused me from my sleep, and not the stern grip of a burly Burmese policeman on my shoulder.

Night 18

Illegal Wild Camping under a tunnel in Myanmar on my bike tour cycling around the world.

There really was nowhere to sleep to the side of the road so when the road was clear I darted under the road itself, and slept in a dry drainage ditch, lulled to sleep by the occasional oxcart trundling 8 foot above me.

 

Final Thoughts

In total in Myanmar I stayed;

2 nights in a guesthouse,
4 nights with Keith from Warmshowers,
1 night with Lady Soe from Couchsurfing,
1 night with a local family who invited me to stay with them.
2 nights in monasteries
14 nights camping (3 with a tent and 11 on the bare ground)

Crossing Myanmar on my own terms was necessitated by my financial situation, but willingly accepted by my sense of adventure and challenge – Like the entire cycling journey itself, there is something intoxicating and addictive about exploring where your limits are, and taking on a task where the outcome is uncertain. When I came to cross to Thailand (illegal and a challenge also), I was weary. Broken.

But after a shower (my first in 14 days), a belly full of Thai food, and a bed, in a house, I was already reminiscing and romanticising the nights I'd slept in the wilds of Myanmar. Listening to the chirp of crickets and the din of cicadas, almost as loud as the drum of my beating heart, or counting the shooting stars, flitting across the sky,- each of those nights had become a memory, another story to share, and Myanmar another closed chapter in my journey from England to Australia.

Would I recommend this to others? No. Would I do it again? Probably!

Illegal Wild Camping in Myanmar next to termite mound without a tent on my bike tour cycling around the world.

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9 Replies to “Across Myanmar in 24 (mostly illegal) sleeps!”

  1. Great post!
    Myself and a friend are hoping to cycle into Myanmar at the Moreh/Tamu border and through to the Mae Sot exit into Thailand. I was wondering therefore if you have any advice as to how to acquire permits etc. and also how did you exit into Thailand if that way is infact not accessible with yoyr permits?

    Many Thanks,
    Dean Marshall

    1. Hi Dean,

      I have heard that this route has closed in the past few days. The problem is at the Indian board, and not the Thai one,.

      You are best to contact Exotic Myanmar Travel Company for the most up-to-date info. I have a feeling it might be better if you keep it a little quiet that you are cycling.

      Best of luck!
      Josiah

  2. Great report, very useful. Thanks! By the way, did you ever think about all the snakes and such when sleeping on the bare ground? I think that would be my biggest concern. When I go there I will try to wild camp in remote places and stay in monasteries. I’ve spent a lot of time backpacking in Myanmar and what I have learned is that the locals can get in very big trouble for hosting you, so you should never stay at their houses.

    1. Glad it helped!
      Yeah, snakes were something I worried about, but looking back I don’t know why I didn’t worry about them more! I figured they would be more scared of me and keep away. I never saw any, even as roadkill, which suggests there probably aren’t many. In Thailand and Cambodia etc, there are a few squished snakes per mile.

      Yeah, I think wild camping is fairly easy up north, considerably harder in the south.

      Enjoy your trip!

  3. I was also cycling in myanmar, 2 years ago, for 1 months. Yes, I can agree with you. And sometimes I had no other choice to camp illegally. I had different situations, that I WANTED to stay in a guesthouse, but they where not licenced and sent me away.
    But on the other hand I learned something too: Alway low-budget is not helping anybody … you lose very fast your fun in adventure (I did, and as I understood, you did too) and it’s also not helping the people in the country. After myanmar my comfort zone raised not only a little^^

    1. And yes, I was also sooo happy to be back in Thailand 🙂

  4. I’ve just been exploring Myanmar too (en route to Australia) – however, I did stay in guesthouses half of the time (most of which were average priced,, i.e. £5-6 a night and not as much as $20 for sure). Also – camped out three times – once close to a beach and another time in the entrance to a pagoda which was being rebuilt and the third in a barn (well – I assume it was – a big empty concrete place!). A group of soldiers let me stay in one of their open sided huts on stilts the first night. They all looked too young to have rifles. I also stayed on a verandah of family house, round the back of a house for ‘single men’ in a village, in the house of a mission couple who ran an orphanage and bible school, and in a monastery. Only once did a ‘politician’ turn up at a house where I’d been invited to stay and advise against it. Things are changing fast in Myanmar! I haven’t got a tent, but I’ve got a pop-up mossie net – 200THB from a Thai market stall.

  5. WOW! one hell of an adventure. I wish ….
    I hate you 😛

  6. Sylvia youngs says: Reply

    Well done. Jo. But do it legally from now on Your poor. Mum /Dad and the rest of us it’s ok to hear it afterwards sounds very heroic / stupid But so glad to hear alls well now take. Care xxx

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