Posts Tagged ‘Myanmar’

A land of hope and stories


Yangon retreated, streets bled slowly of traffic and people, as I pedaled north with my friend Al, a TV camera crew and a thundering headache from a cheap and pesticide-scented red wine I’d knocked back the night before, or so I thought. When Al and the camera crew peeled off a fever kicked in, chased by diarrhoea of a Hiroshima quality and my hangover theory faded with the urban clutter. The murdered chicken made into Yangon street food was wreaking revenge, and its target was my intestines and Burma’s roadside foliage.

By dusk I was a tremulous train wreck of a man, but I found the owner of a guesthouse, all would be OK if my imminent coma was near a toilet.

‘I have a room but I’m afraid you cannot stay. No foreigners.’

‘Please!’ I beseeched him ‘I’m sick and there’s nowhere else to sleep’ adding some operatics: a belly clutch, a wobble, a loose-mouthed nod that foretold some medical disaster on his doorstep.

‘I’m sorry. The soldiers will punish me’

Great, I thought, and cursed the military junta, adding my woes to their various sins. Forced land confiscations, torturing advocates of democracy, recruiting child soldiers, and now this.

That night, as my fever clambered to ever greater altitudes, I sneaked off the road into a fruit tree plantation to rough camp (which is flouting the law in Burma). I scrambled urgently out of my tent every few minutes, in the style of an army recruit, to squat in the ant-filled dankness, and besieged by mosquitoes, I hoped vaguely that the sonorities of bowel gas didn’t alert the Burmese army to my whereabouts.

The next day I rode until I found a hotel in a town in which the entire street became a stadium: pop-eyed people stalled, slack jawed, as I pedaled by. Travellers, and their dramatic pantaloons, are coming to Burma but few reach these backwaters and I swaggered about in search of dinner, enjoying my new-fangled VIP status. Tourism is not the only change, technology too has proliferated: two years ago Internet was virtually non-existent outside Yangon and mobile phone sim cards cost 200 dollars. Now Yangon has a beguiling clothing store called Facebook Fashion, complete with the logo, a ‘Epson’ sign has been laid over one of the giant Buddha effigies inside the Shwedagon pagoda (which is either product placement or people are now praying to Epson) and there is even an ‘Apple Store’, though it is an un-ironic rundown shack with a jumble of fractured circuit boards and dusty radios that, charmingly, has borrowed the name.



Drivers in Burma are afflicted with that particular Asian compulsion to use car horns so loud they must have been borrowed from oil tankers. Outside Asia, and New York, if anyone sounded their horn for that much time you would expect them to have sustained a gunshot wound to the head and be slumped lifelessly over the steering wheel. Here cars barrel past in a frenzy of clamor and dust and then a flapping hand flies from a window, the right hand window of a right hand drive car which drives on the right hand side of the road, and three letters, tall and robust, pitch up in behind your eye lids – W T F. The explanation: Cars come from Japan, Thailand or India (all of which drive on the left) but in Burma they changed the driving side of the road to the right, to snub old colonial associations probably, (though it is also rumoured one of the General’s wives was told by her astrologer that it would be better this way) and now overtaking means placing the least flappable of the posse in the passenger seat and is as perilous as donning an Aung San Suu Kyi t-shirt and striding into a military base with pamphlets and a megaphone.

North of Pyay the country turned a vivid green scattered with oxon and carts, devoid of modern farm machinery. Women in rice hats set about their crooked work in the paddies, all for the accomplishments of subsistence and lordosis. Its women who build the roads too, and women who work the shops, and women who care for the children. Many men in Burma have the more sweatless tasks of loafing in shadow, whiskey bottle in hand, or approaching me by way of a self-important march and announcing their position in the army or police so I can acknowledge their status and pay due respect. It’s unsurprising though in the context of an authoritarian military regime or government (insert whopping inverted commas) – it’s the minority groups, the women and the poor who always pay the biggest price.



Cycling through Burma I get the impression, however self-aggrandising this may sound, that my being here will find its way into stories: my stories, of a Burma then unsmeared by mass tourism, and those of children I meet who may one day recount stories of the old Burma to the next generation: the military state before Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, and their memories of the flagship tourist they saw as a child – a hirsute, odorous man on a bicycle, tired enough to wear an air of disaster.

Various rules for tourists are enforced in Burma: I am not allowed to be hosted by locals, to camp or to stay in guesthouses. My only option then is the more expensive hotels, of which there are few. So, petulantly, I got into the habit of pitching up to the local police station at dusk, bouncing my shoulders and declaring that I had nowhere to sleep thereby saying, in roundabout fashion, I am your problem. There were myriad phone calls, notes scrawled and debates made until eventually I would be delivered to a monastery or police station where I could spend the night. If I surreptitiously wild camped and had to explain where I’d slept at roadblocks the following day, I would tell them the town with the nearest hotel, and when that town was 80 km away and it was 10 am, I was relying on them thinking me some sort of super-human which I played up to by broad arm stretches and furious moppage of sweat and ‘yep, tough morning’.

In villages I saw young men and boys, their lungis rolled up into Sumo-esque pants, launching their bodies into martial art style flying kicks, aiming to connect with a rattan ball : a sport called Sepak takraw. I often sat to watch these games of incredible dexterity and skill: imagine volley ball but you use your feet and the aim is to go for the smash. Even these photos don’t do it justice.




In eating houses it often felt like a pit stop: a whole team of people, unasked, would busy themselves around me: a lady would fan me to keep me cool, a guy would apply oil to my bike chain, another might put a waterproof sheet over my bike if it was raining, someone would draw me a map and bring me water. Paying was denied me even after pained guilt-wracked pleas. Everyone would smile copiously and it would make me ponder the enamel dissolving betel nut and another of life’s ironies: the Burmese are a people with the easiest smiles, and the worst teeth.

In one village a girl shot to my side, armed with a phrase book entitled ‘English for Ladies and Gentlemen of Business’ a pamphlet from antiquity compiled by the Burmese regime. ‘Do you have any rubies or gems to trade?’ she asked. I shook my head and borrowed her book to find the appropriate response ‘I’m afraid Madam the matter is quite one-sided’. I also noticed the delightful advice if the esteemed business visitor wants to travel the country: ‘These days the hill tribe people are far-seeing, they come down to the plains to visit the spreading markets, like us’.

The girl, who was in her early 20s, struck me as unusually forthright for a Burmese lady, but her intentions soon became clear.

‘Are you married?’
‘No’
‘Do you have fiancé or lover?’
‘Um, no’
‘I don’t believe you! Give me your passport’

I handed it over

‘Beautiful’ she cooed as she appraised my photo, which was odd since I had always considered my passport photo to smack of someone with a long history of freeganism and paedophilia.

‘I want to travel so much’ she continued. ‘But I have no sponsor for my passport’ Then she looked me dead in the eye, her stare more suffused with determination than desire.

‘My name is Maiah, you will remember me. This is where I work. You can come back here any time’

By the state of me, I surmised that she must really, really want out of Myanmar.

In the tropical wet season there’s futility in scoping the sky for signs of rain, you make slit-eyes at the horizon instead, where a mist sweeps in with the fervor and bite of a Saharan sandstorm. After some torrential bursts in the south though the rains eased and then ended, the fields bieged and were split by rocky gullies. The rivers dried to nothing, vast bridges ranged over sand and succulents. The change of landscape brought with it a powerful feeling of progress: I was moving fast. In this scrubby semi-desert I wild camped, a nameless wild herb perfumed the air and for the first time, possibly since somewhere in Mexico, I left the fly open: there were no mosquitoes in the gloom. In the still dusk I watched hummingbirds zip in and dunk their long beaks into flowers overhanging my tent, and in the bliss of the alfresco and star-lit night, I flopped into sleep.

Bagan: A vast array of ancient temples spots the land for miles. In town the ubiquitous rubble and ladders attest to the explosion of construction for the coming tourists. It’s one of the bigger attractions in Burma and I watched tribes of travelers take to scooters and motorbikes, sitting rigid, upright and uneasy, to explore the surrounds.


Bagan
For my planned detour to Burma’s mountainous Chin state I didn’t have much to go on. No tour reports, altitude maps or the like, just a patch of orange on my map, as blank as a desert, with the dim names of a few diminutive settlements joined by roads that, with their million sharp wiggles, bore the semblance of electrocuted cartoon worms. My main worry, among a shed load, was that it wouldn’t be possible to ride 900 km over 11 days, usually this would be a cinch, but I had to factor in all the unsealed dirt roads, the 20% grades, the climbs to 3000 metres above sea level, the monsoon turning earth to mud: July was the worst month of the year to be there. I wasn’t even confident I’d be allowed into the state by officials. As far as I knew, no foreign cycle tourer had cycled any of the roads I planned to ride for years or decades. On the road towards the mountains I was offered an alternative: a rod straight temptress of a throughfare, flat probably, soothing my passage to India. I deliberated. It was wet and cold already, it would be worse up in the mountains. But regrets, I remembered, never chase adventures such as this. So I gulped hard, and launching into a game of one-up-man-ship with myself, I paid a wistful glance at the easy road, but instead turned my handlebars hard to the left and set off towards Chin State.

I decided not to worry about miles or kilometres or speeds; instead I’d concentrate on hours. If I got up early, and was on the road for 6 am and ended at sunset with just a few short breaks for food, then maybe I’d make it before my VISA expired. Early one morning I came across two beshawled women, crooked and witch-like, shuffling down the misty road, grinning at me, and I knew I must have arrived: one of the women bore the facial tattoos that mark some of the older women of Chin State, and have garnered them so much renown. The history of the practice is a little cloudy, perhaps the practice arose to make the women less attractive so they wouldn’t be kidnapped by neighbouring tribes. Which to me unnervingly resonated with the practice of cattle branding.


The road twisted into the clouds: on one side of me was a cliff face, lost at times to landslides which I edged around, on the other side a white oblivion, sometimes bright white and heavenly with sun, other times leaden and threatening, but always thick and masking. Near Bagan I had invoked the scarlet smiles and waves from Burma’s betel nut addicts, further out I was met by stone-faced astonishment and I left behind me an array of people statuesque and blank in awe. But as I went up and up, on dirt roads, I found muffled mountain people, an almost Andean evocation, who exploded into half-mocking laughter as I hammered down on my pedals and was chased out of town by snakes of voluble children. In the shabbiest indigent mountain communities leery women would quicken their shuffles, children would scatter, men would shrink into doorways. But always when I approached they would shed their edge and invite me in for tea.

There were only two towns on my route in Chin State, and the villages had no fresh produce, just stale biscuits and noodles and the suggestion of future scurvy, but even in the most desolate of settings I would see the wooden boards declaring ‘National League for Democracy’. Children and chickens would dissolve out of puffs of cloud that drifted through the streets along with men shouldering ancient rifles with enormous barrels, and women puffing pipes, cloth wrapped around their heads. These women led me inside where we all sat around a sputtering fire, the steam rising off my damp clothes blending with the wood smoke, and as the wind rattled the tin roof, and we crouched on our hams, sipping tea in silence, we all wondered what I was doing here.




The cloud obscured the vista from the roads cut into mountainsides but as the wind plowed into me, and drizzle steeped my beard and made glistening morning cobwebs of my arm hair, I felt hardy and alive. It was cold at 2700 metres high though, I warmed my hands on my brake-heated rims after the downhills. When the wind gusted enough to clear the cloud a vast scene launched from the murk: forested peaks dressed in cloud and menace, proving me minuscule. Up here the lowland tropics were a faded photo in my memory, now it was mossy, windy and wet: Wales on steroids. Up two vertical kilometres, down one, up two, down two, up one.

The villages were draped over ridges instead of cut into mountainsides, perhaps because of a particular peril of the season: Landslides. I saw their aftermath every five or ten kilometres, sometimes huge ones blocking the road and only motorbikes could get past so that now no cars or trucks could follow me and if there was a mechanical problem with my bike, I’d be walking out, and that could take a week or more. On cue my right pedal began to click ominously and I realised the bearings were shot. There was nothing for it but denial.

On one precipice-edged mountain road I paused as fist-sized rocks cascaded down the mountain ahead of me. I chose my moment, switched on my Go Pro and pedaled madly past the raining earth and slate. I turned to watch the ongoing tumble when a huge section of soil flowed off the rock face like water. I didn’t feel in danger though until the entire slope suddenly subsided, three trees came crashing down the mountain submerging the entire road, and then the landslide moved horizontally in my direction: I jumped on my bike and pedaled hard shouting, as was later revealed in the video footage, a very bad curse word and the name of a certain deity.

I came out of the clouds and cycled through rolling primary forest, the road was furnished with mud and dozing buffalos, and I had to stop and haul my bike. By night I rough camped, and one morning I woke to find a bloody patch on the wall of my tent – a leach had attached itself to me and feasted, and then I’d turned and squished it. Sometimes I slept in villages, often the local pastor or teacher could speak some English, and sometimes the village prodigal son was home from the States, a refugee on leave. In their stilted wooden homes the walls owned a picture of a blue eyed, lightly bearded Jesus as well as Avril Lavine (her image in remote villages around the world is one of life’s conundrums) and then in the households of the more prosperous, photos of their kids, their faces pasted eerily onto the bodies of other children in suits, on boats or at the seaside. Many times I was told that I was the only foreigner to have stayed in the village, people assumed I worked for an NGO. ‘Where is your interpreter?’ they asked. Once, I was told, a Frenchman had come. ‘On a bicycle?’ I asked ‘No no! A motorbike. Nobody comes here on a bicycle. Except you, Englishman.’


Flat. F-L-A-T. That is what the pastor had said about the road out of Chin State. He’d even demonstrated, with a horizontal swish of his flat hand, and so there has been no semantic mistake, ‘flat’ is not Burmese for ‘vertical’. At every bend I glanced up from the jagged rocks that ‘paved’ the road to find my eyes settling in dismay on something that looked more suitable for base jumping than mountain biking. Deity-decrying terrain. Eventually I made it up and significantly closer to deep space, through my habit of piecemeal optimism: I trick myself time and again into believing that the next uphill bend (or mile, or day) will be the last. If I were more intelligent or cynical doubt would rob me of the mental ability to ride up big mountains. A week or so afterwards, in India, another man described the road as flat. Are you sure? I asked. ‘Yes yes’ he replied. ‘Flat. But it does get a little cold. Especially when you get up into the clouds’.

I made it to Kale, closing in on the border and found a bike shop to get new brake pads. The zesty and sweaty mechanic in charge was wearing a singlet that depicted a swastika (you may think this to be a symbol of Hinduism, but I have my doubts). He motioned frantically for me to sit and then tried to remove my brakes with a cone spanner, before I could tell him he needed an allen key he began bashing my new shimano xt brakes with it! ‘Stop Stop!’ I yelled, ‘what are you doing?’ He pointed to a little mud on the rim which he had decided to remove with ultimate force. Then he gabbled something incomprehensible, jumped onto my bike and cycled off. ‘what the fuck!’ I think I yelled and another mechanic explained he had gone to the workshop ‘but I can replace brake pads!’ I said exasperated. Now a smack-happy nazi was joy-riding my bicycle around a strange Burmese city and I was haunted by the vision of bike verses truck, a scenario I had avoided for 65,000 km. He returned in 20 minutes, both wheels were paralysed through rubbing pads. I adjusted them as he grinned on, and I regretted my funk – he was only trying to help.

Eventually I got to Tamu and checked out of Burma – a country that has worked its way into the answer of that much posed question: ‘And where is your favourite place?’ Not all Burmese people share my sentiment, and why would they? Many are locked up for political reasons and various groups are still persecuted, especially Muslims in Rakhine. Land is still being confiscated. The army consumes around 40% of the country’s money, about 2% is spent on healthcare – a fact I was reminded of as I looked out over rice paddies, at the bent women toiling, as two cutting edge Burmese fighter jets split the blue Burmese sky.

I leave you with the words of a wooden plaque in the immigration station in Tamu which I had to commit to memory, reasoning a photo may not go down too well.

The Myanmar Spirit

The simple-minded Myanmar has no envy for persons of a fair complexion. Nor hatred for the brownishs. Nor differentiates with the blackishs. Nor judges those of different faith. Myanmars have a brethren respect and affection for all.

But if the affairs of our nation, country, land, history, religion or culture are interfered with by foxy-trick, the persons will be dealt with severely, with all our might, whether big or small, black or white, until the last word at the very end, even if we have many injuries and are lying in a pool of blood.


Thank you this month to Al and Jess and Horizons school for having me do a presentation for the students. 

Next up: India.


Fugitive faces

Cambodia and The Lake Clinic

‘Ladies and Gentlemen, can I have your attention please? We have reached the office where we will all get our VISAs to Cambodia’

‘Scam!’ crooned someone from the front seats on the bus bound for Siem Reap, Cambodia.

‘It’s not a scam!’ the man beseeched us. ‘Scam! Scam! Scam!’ The shouts ricocheted around the bus, each one a whip crack to our disparaged guide. With a final hangdog sigh, he sat down and our bus moved off, gangway untrammeled.

Our ‘guide’ was not savy enough to know that scores of forums, books and blogs all take pains to explain the routine: a representative of the bus company will try to get the passengers to pay for an unneeded, expensive VISA well before the actual border. It’s a bare-faced pretense that helped the epithet ‘Scambodia’ do the rounds, and we were all hip to the jive.

I left my bike in Bangkok for this fleeting side trip to Cambodia. From Siem Reap my plan was to visit a floating medical clinic on the Tonle Sap Lake and the temples at Ankor Wat before hightailing it back into Thailand and riding into Burma, chasing the clock as my Indian VISA marches on, and assailed by monsoon rains.

At the border I looked out from the vantage point of my bus seat to the bumpy terrain of tops of heads cut by trains of rickshaws and hand-pedalled carts with raggedy kids gripped to the sides, and chickens under free arms; a TV camera crew filmed the melee. An estimated 200,000 illegal workers from Cambodia were fleeing the country in the wake of the Thai military coup, fearing arrest.

Siem Reap, the launching point for tours of the world’s largest temple complex at Ankor Wat, is a vast muddle of tourists, haranguing tuk tuk drivers (slash drug dealers) and well-primped transexual masseuses, a pair of which grabbed me by the arms. ‘Massage! Massage!’ I slipped the grip of one, ducked, side stepped, tugged my arm away from the other but her grip was more determined than I imagined and the effect was to drag her brutally down the street which made a cluster of backpackers giggle wickedly.

There are several sureties that come with visiting any of the world’s most popular tourist attractions and Ankor Wat was no different to the Pyramids, Petra or Machu Picchu. Someone will usually try to convince you that a more authentic experience means arriving on the back of a large mammal. The British will get miffed because for those of other nations, forming an orderly queue is not such a venerable pastime. There are always people too skinflint to pay for their own tour guide who glide around the margins of tour groups, their deceit half-cloaked by the unfurled maps and newspapers they feign to study. And someone will perform an indecent act with one of the religious statues to the glee of their friends – this may include high fiving Buddha, picking an imaginary bugga from the trunk of Ganesha, or riding bareback on the Virgin Mary.


‘Dr Fabes!’ John stood up, festooned in a billowing Hawaiian shirt, a crop of silver hair tinged red; his voice spiced with the subtle twang of his Rhode Island roots.

John is a self-proclaimed ‘problem-solver’, and with obvious and abundant talent for it – he founded the Paediatric Hospital in Siem Reap and once managed psychiatric wards amongst a fleet of other varied endevours. He is also the man in charge of the Lake Clinic which serves the people who live in floating houses on the lake and river systems of the Tonle Sap.

Years before John had been drifting on a boat down the Tonle Sap, in tranquil admiration for the beauty of it: the swatches of water hyacinth amidst the glimmering water, the house-boats in gentle sway. But he took a closer look: at the houses, eight bodies a piece; at the murky margins of the image in his camera viewfinder; and there they were – scores of people washing, drinking and defecating in the same frame. It was that moment that he vowed to help, take up the slack, and the first spark that would later emerge as the Lake Clinic was cast into the black.

My journey to see the project for myself began at the staging post of Kampong Khleang, a village set on the banks of the river. I was encompassed by a host of stilted houses, but not for another six months would the wind-rushed wavelets of the lake water slap against their floor boards – now the lake drains into the Mekong, though when the direction of flow switches, as happens twice a year, the water will back up, filling the lake anew and swelling it’s area five-fold.

A clutter of long boats rocked near the bank as men loaded petrol and watermelons onto the out-going vessels and buckets of fish were claimed from the incoming ones. Nine of us packed into the boat and we set off, growling through the muddy water and sending a spray like erupting lava out behind us. Soon a thin layer of land on each side of us was all that divided the lake from the sky.

After three hours we turned into a river, past a slew of fishermen, the air rank with fish, and pulled up in front of a low-slung blue hut: The Lake Clinic, one of four floating clinics on the Tonle Sap, the water too low this time of year for the pontoons beneath to be of use. We debarked as clumps of green water hyacinth drifted by as easily as swans. Three hours on a boat helped explain why the people here might need the clinic, but it opened up a question too: why do so many people live in such isolation?

Life is cheap on the Tonle Sap. The path to a rickety floating home, far from cities and roads, might start with some small event, explained John, a sick child perhaps the first domino to fall. To cover medical costs the family might sell their cow: domino two tumbles. No cow to plough the fields? Then you sell your land, and so on, until deep in debt they drag what they have left to the lake and set out on a life of subsistence and for many, struggle. Some of the old timers have a different tale – after the war, fresh from the forced labour camps, they returned to their old homes only to discover new occupants. Often these intruders would have some document from the Khmer Rouge which supported their claim to ownership, some others may have a six-chambered and rather more persuasive argument.

The setting is sumptuous, a backcountry Venice and the very essence of serenity. Somewhere a radio speiled, a hammer concussed, the voices of gabbing neighbours carried. Thick armed men brandishing long wooden poles propelled their boats through the water. Wood smoke corkscrewed through the purple haze that lingered after the sunset.

Next morning the waiting room was soon well stocked with wriggling children and their wet coughs, women in loose patterned clothes, a few men: sun-wizened and blinking. They brought with them the scent of wood smoke, which hung from their clothes.

Many patients came with ailments that were bound to their lifestyle and habits on the lake – a fish smoker with a cough, babies with diarrhea, and spindly boys with skin and eye infections. There was the usual gamut of patients that might rock up to any family practice, bright looking teenagers with acne and arthritic older ladies, though I didn’t count any patient much over 60. Every third patient would respond to ‘what’s wrong?’ by pointing to their upper abdomen. Gastritis, driven by diet and perhaps by parasites, is rife.

But there are others, too. A small grubby boy, sunken-eyed, body lost inside a Man United top, hopped onto the chair; aside him his mum, her face a road map of wrinkles etched into caramel-coloured skin. She looked forlorn, uneasy and very poor. The boy was weighed and it was roundly agreed – 15kg is far from the ideal in light of his nine years. ‘Skinny, dirty…’ said the doctor to me, and I wondered whether she trailed off with thoughts of the relative futility of a few vitamin pills when there were forces at work were well beyond our ability to set right. They left with a prescription, hand in hand, incanting blessings in Khmer.

For the men, a visit to the Lake Clinic means time off fishing, and so I quickly started to steal myself as we examined the ones who did show up, their ailments so often long-standing and severe. One man complained of a lump in his neck. A long term smoker with a new raspy edge to his voice and a tennis ball sized lump would cause even the most green medical student alarm, but with no possibility of imaging the tumour, let alone treating cancer, it would have to remain the realm of gloomy guesswork. He didn’t seem disappointed when it was explained there was little that could be done, just stone-faced, but then perhaps he’d never courted much hope, only the relative privilege of life away from poverty and the lake begets those kinds of expectations. Or perhaps he was considering next the traditional healer, the revered traders and tappers of hope. All too often, the doctor tells me, the aftermath of the widespread local treatments reveal themselves – patients with small circular burns made by traditional healers, sometimes infected. Another common practice is to spit into wounds – and suddenly the inexorable bloom of tuberculosis began to make sense.

The Tonle Sap is the source of so much for the people that bob and drift on its waters: it’s their culture, their sustenance, their profit and their world. But the lake is a two-faced mistress and its gifts are not always as desirable, within the ripples gather disease, and the isolation it foists on the people who live here breeds an unrelenting cycle of poverty. The Lake Clinic helps with a fraction of these burdens, a true lifeline for a few and a boon to many.

Andrea, a Swiss doc






Western Thailand

I looked over my worn out Brooks saddle like an adolescent appraises a groin rash. I was reticent to deal with it – my old saddle, Bernard, had been a long and constant companion; moulded to me, dented by sit bones, splayed and bum-ready. So for months I’d just shot the thing an occasional doleful glance before shoving it again to the dregs of my to-do list, beyond the motivational wastelands of ‘sew pants’ and ‘find old to do list’ – a job that features on almost every one of my to-do lists. Bangkok though was the logical place for swapsies, and my arse stealed itself for a thrashing the likes of which it hadn’t seen since Kent.

The west of Thailand was laced by myriad small roads which coursed through chartreuse rice paddies as evenly hued as golf greens. In Bangkok I watched what seemed to be every single person in a frenzy of technology where only selfies were worthy interruptions to facebook – I didn’t anticipate the same in rural Thailand. An effete old man approached me though as I peered at my map; he was shabbily ragged, unshaven, grizzled. He towed a battered cart behind him past toward the ramshackle hut he called home.

‘No GPS then?’ he enquired

‘What?!’

‘You don’t have a GPS?’

‘Um, no’

‘No Iphone either?’ He was mildly startled now. I shook my head.

‘But you must have a satellite phone?’

A few days after leaving the city behind the mountains peeked up over the horizon, as sudden as a bend in a race track. Chieng, a young tall Chinese biker on his first national exodus, rode with me for a day. He had a hunger for the road I envied a little now that it seems more ordinary; his face filled with joy as he told me of a free coffee he was given at a police station, pausing then to let me absorb the shock of it, and I smiled at the simple things that mean so much when you’ve pedaled 150 km and run countless laps in your own head. His mum calls him every day on his cell phone to persuade him to return home. ‘I want to cycle around the world too’ he said, dreamily. ‘Chinese parents…’ he lamented ‘they don’t understand’.

I climbed over the Tanontongchai Range to a market where women from the hilltribes in loose green robes sold me the best lychees I have ever tasted, as fat as satsumas, and then I finally arrived at Mae Sot. Since the 70’s the border between Thailand and Burma has seen a mass of refugees who are now settled in camps near the town. I had planned to visit one of these camps and to give a presentation to the students, but the Thai army took over command the day I planned to visit, evicting foreigners, ordering searches on the pretext of ‘drugs’ (which likely meant ‘uncertified people’). This was worrying to say the least, especially set against the backdrop of military rule in Thailand with no government to answer to.

Instead I paid a visit to SMRU, medics treating migrant workers and refugees along the border, (story to come in a later blog post) and also gave a presentation to some refugees who had been taken by an NGO into higher education in the border town. In my presentation I often share my perception of people the world over as munificent and good-natured – I want to counter the all too common belief that the world is a terrifying place replete with boogie men. Sometimes though, I feel like I’ve been conned. Bicycle travel doesn’t offer the warts and all vision of the world I had hoped for. Most days I am treated to a roadside of mad grins and shining eyes, I’m gifted food and sometimes a bed, I’m treated almost always with nothing but deference. It breeds a kind of naive and unchecked optimism: I have to remind myself I’m only a surface traveler, usually immune to the violence and mistreatment the malignant forces around the globe dole out to their own people beyond the ken of the passers-by. I spoke to these Burmese students of how lovely Planet Earth is, forgetting then that the very fact that they live in a foreign land was because the military junta at home has persecuted and abused their own people for decades. Afterwards, I felt a bit of a dick.



Burmese Daze

I sprawled my map over the bed – Burma looked up at me, daringly. The border crossing I would use had been open only seven months, and crossing the country into India had been the mission of only a half dozen or so intrepid bikers since the rules were relaxed. Rarely had the prospect of a new frontier felt so thrilling.

I rolled under the golden arch which declared ‘The Republic of the Union of Myanmar’ thinking about how debatable those terms are: Republic, Union, and even Myanmar.

I rode on, the inside of every passing truck was thick with bodies, their eyes ablaze amid the shadows of their neighbours, full of astonishment as they peeked at me. Bare-chested men, red-mouthed from chewing betel net, wearing lungis riding up to their naval, and with dragon tattoos from shoulder blade to small of back, nodded hello from the shade of teak leaf-roofed huts. I didn’t mind the steep hills, the mashed up tarmac, the tails of stench that trailed from trucks chocker with chickens. The scenery, the smiles, the exoticism – all more than a fair trade.

That night I found a hostel in a town of dust and nervous dogs. The plywood paneled room was only just big enough for the bed, and I lay down, watching mosquitoes dance on the ceiling, listening to the sounds of this new land.

Burma proved not to be as behind the times as I had expected, ATMs and Internet exist outside the capital despite what Lonely Planet says; change is afoot, and guidebooks are out of date as they are published. I stopped for food – the girl who served me instructed her friend to ready her camera phone and then she jumped into the frame with me, hand draped over my shoulder. A few minutes after fiddling with the device, she showed me her handiwork – on the screen the image of us was now surrounded by a pink, heart shaped frame, like a wedding photo.

A motorbike raged past, it’s driver had swiveled 180 degrees to assure himself the best possible gawk at me whilst his un-chauffeured machine rallied off on a tangent to the direction of the road, eventually satisfied he turned back to the road to find himself almost upon the forest, and he jerked to the left, turned to me again, grinned insanely, wordlessly saying ‘hey, check that out!’ and disappeared.

A mother and then daughter walked past, the first demure and expressionless, the younger smiling widely. I thought about what might be behind that grin. I’m a novelty here, and perhaps it’s just that, but change is upon Burma, perhaps not the upheaval many desire, but change nonetheless. Tourists are a clear stigmata of that fact, and maybe not always smile-worthy in themselves, but because they remind of future promise. Or perhaps I just looked idiotic, as I often do, and Occam’s razor prevails.

I cycled past sudden outcrops of rock, and gold pagodas which studded every hill. Burmese roads offered a conveyor belt of arresting sights – a cow in a rickshaw, drunk soldiers, beautiful flower sellers with heart-fluttering smiles, a mad man in conversation with himself, bands of monks in their burgundy cowls claiming free food from eateries and teams of local people, not workmen, repairing the roads – the forced labour human rights groups so oppose. 




A mum and her son. Burmese put Thanaka on their faces – a cosmetic paste made from ground bark


One night I stayed in a hotel and locked my bike in the downstairs restaurant for the night, the next day though it had been propped up unlocked on the street on the opposite side of the road, anyone could have wheeled off my entire life, luckily theft is rare here. It is illegal for local people to host foreigners in Burma, but I didn’t resort to hotels every night and sought refuge once in a tin roofed derelict building, listening nervously to voices that sliced the night, playing hide and seek against the world.

On many buildings were adverts, on huge plastic drapes, for Grand Royal and High Class whiskey, with their taglines: ‘enjoy life!’ and ‘taste of life!’, which given the state of the people I saw drinking the stuff is ironic indeed. I got to Yangon via a back road that journeyed past tumbledown shacks steeped in a swamp and reachable by four-strong bridges of bamboo poles. I’m staying with Al and Jess – a pair of brilliant teachers who work at the International School. So far I have scored a permit for travel north, presented to the lively school kids and gave an interview for national TV.

Burma must be amongst the most electrifying places I have traveled, and I can’t help remember Ethiopia, a country about which I felt a similar buzz. But with these destinations comes an uncomfortable truth – the exoticism of Burma lies in the same ‘apartness’ I saw in Ethiopia, and it’s this separation that has dealt such a blow to the people who live here. The world is becoming ever more interconnected and cooperative, and good – the less apart we are the better – but the result is that we slide towards an ever more homogenised planet.

My plan is a blur of pedal strokes to Bagan, and then if the soldiers at the road block let me pass, an adventure through the wilds of Chin state, eventually arriving in the border town of Tamu, hopefully before an expired VISA, and then I’ll cross into India.




Producer, Anchor, man with hair on his face, and Herb The Chicken

‘Dig beneath exotic surfaces to find something even truer and more troubling, go beyond the postcard vistas and tourist shots to a sense of how places can not only surround you, but transform you’ 
– Pico Iyer, Tropical Classical.

Thank yous aplenty this month – shouts out to Al and Jess, the SMRU crew: Steph and Anne, Francois, Mellie, the Bangkok crew: Elena and Mim, The Cambodia crew: John Morgan, Ian Fergusson and Jess, Tobi and Andrea, the teachers and pupils at Horizons School and Moses and all those at MITV.