Biking through Burma

Bagan bikes







lanterns market stairs







By Mary Louise Speer

Iris Metzgen-Ohlswager clicked her bicycling shoes into the bike pedals and prepared for the first day’s ride through Burma, also known as Myanmar.

Ahead lay a 500-mile journey through a culturally-rich land relatively unknown to Westerners – and an unexpected proposal that would change her life.

Before leaving the United States, the government of Burma issued 28-day visas to Metzgen-Ohlswager, an advisor for the Northwest Community College Initiative/International Programs at Whatcom Community College, and her companion, Freeman Anthony, a project engineer for the City of Bellingham.

Anthony surprised Metzgen-Ohlswager with a gold ring and proposal while visiting the Golden Rock. That sacred site features a pagoda-topped, gilded boulder perched on the edge of a cliff near Yangon, the former capital city of Burma.

She smiled, thinking of that golden moment. She didn’t know he was going to pop the question of marriage, she said. Her smile deepened. “He had a plan.”

Originally the couple intended to visit Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries during the Nov. 23 to Dec. 18 trip.  “We heard that Burma was making a lot of positive changes and it seemed like a great opportunity to go see a country that had been closed off for so long,” Metzgen-Ohlswager said.

Her job brings her in contact with the international students who attend Whatcom – and she said she discovered the experience in Burma definitely helped her better understand the challenges of visiting other countries.

Burma, a developing country, began experiencing significant changes after President Thein Sein’s election last year, according to a BBC World News article published Dec. 31. Burma had been ruled by military regimes since 1962. Some recent changes, according to the article, include easing of censorship and steps to launch economic reforms.

Metzgen-Ohlswager began international bike-touring with a 2005 ride through Patagonia, a region in the southern tip of South America. Since then she’s cycled through Europe, Central America and Asia.

Researching destinations ahead of time allows for a more interesting trip and fewer unsettling surprises.  “We did a lot of research on Burma, maybe even more than we usually would because of the political situation there,” Metzgen-Ohlswager said.

ATMs are a rarity in Burma and businesses that accept credit cards are practically non-existent. Those realities require travelers to plan ahead on paying their way with cash, she said.

Some restrictions remain in place with travel prohibited in certain areas, she said.

Metzgen-Ohlswager said she was impressed with the varied scenery – and how simple life is in Burma. The country is really raw and kind of undiluted since it’s been so shut-off, she said.

That wall of isolation is easing slowly. President Barack Obama visited Burma on Nov. 19. “Any time you would say United States, the [Burmese] people would say Obama,” she said.

While she appreciated the lack of commercialism, consumerism and Westernization, there are certainly pros and cons to those realities, she said.  The country could use a lot of infrastructure to benefit its people, she added.

“There were some good roads, some bad roads. But the scenery was spectacular,” she said. “The people were very kind and open.”

Metzgen-Ohlswager and Anthony covered between 45 to 60 miles on traveling days and spent their nights at guesthouses. The most challenging parts of the ride were intense heat, riding twisting mountain roads and getting sick a few times, she said.

But the trip wasn’t all about riding two-wheelers and gold rings. They visited the Plains of Bagan, an ancient city renowned for its Buddhist temples and pagodas.

The trip definitely brought a new dimension to her life with her engagement – and illuminated the challenges experienced by international students.

“It helps me be a better advisor,” she said.




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