A Keyhole into Burma – A boy and his bike

Cycling around Mandalay provided the most intense adrenaline rush I’d had since I jumped out of a plane in New Zealand, screaming like a little girl all the way down.

The traffic is particularly lawless in a country where most driving conventions are improvised. Certain death is faced and somehow magically avoided every few seconds while plunging through traffic that would make a New York cabbie weep. The accompanying clouds of floating dust and debris that coat your body, while you suck down the hot, foul, fume choked air makes it look like you really did something at the end of the day. Not like those pansy package tourists in their vans with tinted windows, stereos, air conditioning, cold beverages and genuine seats with seatbelts! Rubes.

OK, it sounds horrific and it kinda was, but it wasn’t beyond endurance, even for my delicate constitution. And it was liberating to be in charge of a vehicle (of sorts) for the first time in months. Moreover, jockeying the bike through Mandalay’s dense, every-man-for-himself traffic conditions proved to be faster than any other form of transport, including motorcycles. I covered a fantastic amount of ground and was very productive on that bike, a travel writer’s wet dream.


Although I have to assume that tourists must be seen on rented bikes on a regular basis, each local nevertheless stared at me like I was riding a yellow, winged hippo, doing violent double-takes like I was a once-in-a-lifetime peculiarity. Every few meters people were yelling and waving at me from the sidewalk or passing vehicles. A slow moving pickup truck-cum-bus, full of rambunctious guys encouraged me to speed up and catch them, which I did, at which point one guy hung out the back to take my hand, towing me along for two exhilarating blocks before the truck/bus took a turn I didn’t want and I had to let go.

What made me even more conspicuous was my speed. I don’t know if it was in deference to the heat or due to the fact that most Burmese are riding half busted bikes, but the locals were riding their bikes at a pace only slightly faster than typical walking speed. I was blowing the doors off my fellow bikers. With my shiny, freshly shaved bullet head and the rate that I was moving, people usually only caught a blurred glimpse of me before I was gone and they were left to wonder if the military was cutting corners and mounting their missiles on purple three-speeds with flowery baskets on the front.

Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, contributed three stories to the upcoming anthology “To Myanmar (Burma) With Love: A Connoisseur’s Guide” published by Things Asian Press. His personal blog, Killing Batteries, and his staggeringly vast travelogue could fill a lifetime of unauthorized work breaks, if one were so inclined.