Bullet in my kneecap

A Nepali market
It was love at first sight. There were mushrooms, beans, asparagus. There were eggs, sitting now in a small lake of my own drool. There was something vaguely sexual in the lay of the bacon, the way it was sprawled, invitingly, in melted cheese.

It was a breakfast that would have prostrated Homer Simpson, and it came courtesy of my friends and masterchefs Annelie and Rahul. I pedalled a full 100 km before I needed to eat again, to Gawahati where another friend, Sumanta, had organised a place for me to sleep. When I left the day  after though, I had forgotten to pack my towel. 40 km later Sumanta appeared in his car to hand it back to me. To fully explain how generous this was, let me for a minute describe my towel. 

There is a thing that lurks in the fetid, nethermost crevasses of my rear pannier. Perhaps it was once white, but it’s impossible to tell. It is the Gollum of bathroom accessories. Claire once held it aloft with a finger, asking, with a more than a faint sense of alarm, ‘what is this?’ It was a genuine question. ‘My towel’. She cocked her head, working her imagination where the most credulous would falter. It’s the kind of thing you might use to wrap your dog in, if your dog was bleeding and needed to be taken urgently to a vet. But only if you really hated your dog. And Sumatra, the kind Sir, drove an 80 km round trip to give it to me. There is no better demonstration of how generous the Indians are than that.

I cut west from Gawahati, enjoying sunny days at last, past vivid green paddies, until I hit the flood plain of the vast Brahmaputra River. The waterway is one of Asia’s greatest: it drifts down from the Ansi glacier through Tibet before fattening up through India and spilling into the Bay of Bengal. It is one of the few rivers in India that are known as male and not female. The annual floods are expansive, and I cycled through a surreal water-world where just forested islands and the odd village were spared. An immense bridge spanned the river, on the other side an elevated railway had become the thoroughfare between villages and hundreds of people marched its course. I slept on the edges of the forest, the air thick with fire flies at dusk.

The next morning a soldier in the road asked me to stop for tea.

‘I’m really sorry I have to push on’ I told him, thinking of my flagging VISA .

He thought about this for second and then said ‘No. You’ll have tea. Please sit down.’

‘I’m really sorry but…’ he turned then to bark some orders at another soldier, as he did so the barrel of his rifle, which was dangling from a shoulder, brushed against my thigh. It then hovered just over my leg as he continued his conversation, the bullet’s trajectory: my kneecap.

He turned to me again. ‘So you’ll have tea?’


It tasted amazing, like a prisoner’s last meal might.

(This post title might be a little misleading, but I ran with it because I’ve just finished Tim Cahill’s ‘Jaguars Ripped My Flesh’. And it got you reading, didn’t it?) (sorry Mum)

My first sight of the Himalayan foothills, a low blue-grey saw beyond a spread of tea plantations, became quickly blurred through weeping eyes. I was surprised by this burst of sentimentality, but then getting here did feel meaningful, like when I arrived to the Arctic Ocean or at that first snatched glimpse of Table Mountain. Crossing the biggest mountain range on earth, along with the coming winter I’ll spend in central Asia, I count as my last big barriers between my wheels and England.

Each day the mountains remained a low silhouette, striped by cloud or masked entirely, but they loomed nonetheless, swelling in my mind, sneaking into my dreams. It was impossible to view the peaks and not wonder what these flats looked like from the opposite perspective: in the thin air where self-doubt reigns, on the steep and jarring trails that wend among the peaks, the ones that set your heart pounding and chest shaking and soul searching.

I pedalled through the Buxa forest next, a place of ivy-dressed trees and scrambling monkeys. I noticed the road I was on swung close to Bhutan and then a small road branched off and penetrated the country, which was now just 17 km away. I didn’t have the coveted Bhutan VISA but perhaps I could sneak in, nose around a little, export some of their fabled national happiness, import some of my own.

Two Christian missionaries on motorbikes didn’t like my chances – there were, apparently, roadblocks and officials ahead. I decided my tactic would be one of speed over stealth. The Bhutanese officials would most likely be Buddhists, I reasoned. They probably wouldn’t shoot me.

The Indian post was easy, it may have been manned but any chance of being discovered sneaking out of the country by officials was dimmed by the very Indian-ness of the tableau: goats shambled, vendors streamed, rickshaws swerved. Then I saw big arch etched with dragons. Bhutan! A truck went past as I did, the timing was perfect and I slipped by unnoticed. Another roadblock loomed though, and I was sure I’d get stopped until I saw a solider talking through a car window and oblivious to anything on the road. Suddenly I was in the unlikely position of cycling through Bhutan, and without a stamp, VISA, permission or care.

I decided on a smaller road to a place on a signpost called Kanyo Thang because the road stayed low and because I wondered if the town might have been named after a Bhutanese rapper. I saw the wall that designated the border stretched out across the fields. Prayer flags flapped beside a river bringing cool water, I imagined, from distant ice caps. The local people I came on looked surprised to see me, wondering perhaps how someone as dishevelled as I could afford the 250 dollar a day VISA Bhutan insists on.

I made it a school, the children dressed in the traditional robes of Bhutan, were perhaps the politest children in the world. As they filed past me I enjoyed a chorus of ‘Happy journey sir!’. A sign on the outskirts of the village warned about the perils of drug trafficking and the hefty penalties for those caught. There was no mention of the penalties for those pedalling religion like the missionaries I’d met before. I wondered whether it was drugs or religion that would cause the most harm.

I’d sketched a route from googlemaps into my journal – it was an improvised ride to Darjeeling, via the back door. I’d bounce about on spindly roads but for forest and mountains I hoped it would be worth it. In Matelli, the local consensus was that there was no way through to the next place on my route, Gorubathan. But a few said yes, it was possible, only 15 km, others assured me it was 30km.Some people smiled in silence. One man dinged my bicycle bell. Eventually someone opted to show me the way, I walked behind him for five minutes and when he stopped outside a Hindu temple on the edge of town he said ‘wait a while with us brother. Share your love.’ And directed me inside.

‘I can’t share my love today brother, I have a long way to go’

He seemed satisfied with that and pointed the way. The track was decades old and in a bad state: ragged islands of tarmac in a sea of dirt. It was a jarring journey past tea plantations and only used by the workers within. A few women glanced at me sideways through sari-shaded eyes and never stopped picking the tea. The track ended in a footpath – this couldn’t be the way, could it? A local man working for a hydroelectric plant offered to be my guide. I wheeled by bike behind him on the path and we arrived soon at a small cliff face, the path ran across its face, sometimes a few inches in width and flanked by a ten metre drop. I have dragged by bike over all kinds of obstacles, but this looked impossible to cross. A farmer arrived though and without conference he grabbed my rear rack and the three of us hefted, rolled and swung it over the gaps in the path. Several times I almost lost purchase in an effort to stop my bike crashing into the river below.

We made it, and when minutes later a road appeared I narrowly avoided hugging my guide. He was going the other way and so left me with a description of my route, adding ‘the forest people will look after you.’ And then, outlandishly, ‘Watch out for tiger and elephant’.

I crossed a bridge and climbed steeply, the temperature brushing 40 degrees, the air a breezeless weight wrenching all my energy away. I dared myself to reach a palm shadow, and then the next, sweat pooling in every crease of skin.

Older tea pickers with lordosis

At Gorubathan I wasn’t sure if I should continue with my plan, which would involve not one big climb to Darjeeling but two, as the route swung down to the Teesta River before climbing again. There was an easier option to Darjeeling. I was exhausted having hardly hit the foothills, but I decided to defer the decision until I was plumped with a good meal. I ate roughly three, leaving the server agog at my effort, and then ploughed on past village girls who scowled at me but couldn’t keep it up for long and burst into giggles further down the road. I ended the day at a village which had a large effigy of Buddha, and local men found me a shelter: I would share a hut with an old man. When I opened the door two rats scarpered up opposing walls, mosquitoes danced in the gloom. I would have been happier in my tent, but it would have been rude to shun their hospitality – the price for such good intentions was a fresh slew of mosi bites and hours of fractured sleep, cut through by tense wakeful moments reverberating with an old man snores and the scuttle of rats.

The valley was steep and pine-sided, the road a fund of switchbacks. At length I hit Lava, a town of colourful several-story buildings and an ornate burgundy Buddhist monastery, 2000 metres above sea level. Prayer flags fluttered and young monks waved at me from the balconies as I mulishly climbed the final metres.

The climb ended 200 metres higher up and then I careered downhill through a run of fetching Buddhist villages in which the houses were poised over a deep valley. From Kalimpong I descended to the Teesta river, spotting three wild peacocks on the way. There are various ways into Darjeeling, all steep, this one though was the steepest. In fact, after 67,000 km of touring I can think of only one other climb this steep and prolonged. I climbed an agonising 1500 vertical metres over just 13.5km which is an average gradient of over 11%, average being the all-important word. Virtually every corner was nudging 25%, and the corners came in droves. It helps to be angry at the mountain, a kind of teeth-grinding murderous rage propels me up it. People passing me in cars looked startled, and I realised that it might have something to do with what was happening on my face.

I topped 2000 metres again and camped on a cloud-rushed ridge next to a Buddhist shrine, a vaguely forbidding kind of place. The next morning I heard chanting so I scrambled out of my tent and strolled towards the voices, through the mist. You have to see it from the women’s perspective to understand their reaction, which was one of eye-bulging terror. You are deep in prayer, on an isolated forested ridge, near a shrine. You are enclosed in a dense mist. The dawn is still and silent. Then something groans. You look in the direction of the noise and there, blundering out of the mist, is a pale hairy thing, releasing a low, unintelligible moan.

The women did bid me good morning in the end  – when they returned that is (they had run away quite fast) and could see I wasn’t supernatural.

Then I whistled into Darjeeling where I had three days to rest before I had to leave India – the time allowed on my VISA was up. The town of course is a famous hill-station, in the foot-hills of the Himalayas. I wasn’t convinced about all this talk of hills. I get it, it’s relative. But in the UK I would be on a certified mountain if I were just half the altitude of Darjeeling.

When the swirls of cloud are thin enough, it is, Darjeeling, one of the most dramatic big towns in the world. On my second day a breeze threw the clouds away revealing a deep valley with roads that looked drizzled on, like icing on a cake. More strikingly though was the vista looming over the town: a row of some of the tallest peaks on earth, including Kangchenjunga, India’s highest mountain and the world’s third, making even the prodigious peaks of Sikkim to the north look cutesy. It’s a sight branded by the travel writer Jan Morris as ‘one of the noblest experiences of travel, one that has moved generations of pilgrims to mysticism and even more to over-writing’. So I’ll leave it at that.

In Darjeeling I met Mike and Chris, a pair of American bikers who had been part of the six strong posse of riders that passed through Myanmar together about two months ahead of me. With their coveted six month Indian VISAs they could afford to loiter and had toured much more of the northeast than I had time to. They were the first cyclists I had seen for months, and it was occasion for beer and stories. In between I visited the zoo and museum at the Himalayan Mountain Institute where there was a 3D plastic mould of the range. I strolled down to the western end, to the Karakorum, where I hoped to cross, but no highway was marked. I stared at it for a while though, dreaming of snowy vistas, hoping for Pakistani VISAs.

I said goodbye to Mike and Chris – Mike waved me off from a bike bedecked in Buddhist prayer flags – and I cycled back down to the lowlands, past tea plantations where the women hip-deep in the shrubs picked away, automatically. I crossed into Nepal via a bridge full of cycle rickshaws, where men in topis and a woman soldier welcomed me to the country. She had henna motifs on her hands and striking green eyes, like the photo of the famous Afghan girl. 

Nepali man, and a Nepali smile, wearing a Nepali Topi

Nepal grew more rural as I pedalled the flat road across the east, travelling over bridges, themselves ranging over sandy river beds. One morning, after pedalling for a few minutes, a snake wiggled past my front wheel. My heart was still pounding five minutes later when I spotted a tiny backpacked child to my left and saw that his school bus was on the far side of the road. Even though he was on the left of the road, his head was fixed to the left as well. When he bolted there was no time to sound the bell, or even to shout. A tailwind was helping me to 30 km/hr. I turned hard to the right and he skimmed off my left pannier and continued to run to his bus as if nothing had happened. He wouldn’t have reached the height of my handlebars and if I’d hit him full on, I don’t want to think about the result.

As I pedalled west, homeward bound and with the sun on my back in the mornings, I passed dazzling huddles of women, eyes bright in the shadows of their saris. There were Sadus too, pacing the road, happy to have their picture taken for an apple or two. There were bristle-faced gaunt-chested men, sitting up straight and dignified on bicycles.

I came to a forested area where I saw some deer and then monkeys that watched me carefully, and moved with tension, like burglars in the night. One morning I came to a big group of Nepalis huddled around something long and thin, stretched out on the road. It was a rock python, killed minutes before by a truck. ‘Ahhh. Just a baby’ said a man, dolefully. The snake was eight feet long. It must be tough crossing roads when you’re that long. The odds can’t be in your favour.

The 13th of September: my birthday. I realised at some dusky point in the evening. I’d forgotten for the second year running. Time unspools like mountain roads, I lose track of where I am. I’ll be home, perhaps, before the next one. I was in a town called Hetauda which was announced via a signpost that read ‘Shivan cement welcomes you to the Green city of Hetauda’ and I had to marvel at a town so apparently eco-friendly it is sponsored by a cement company. I spent the evening perusing emails from friends wishing me happy birthday, and bearing news of new babies. And an email from Claire reminding me of my birthday and telling me not to forget like last year.

The tourist season is short and hectic and Kathmandu’s streets were messy with taxis and motorbikes and people wearing masks to prevent inhaling the pollution and dust. I didn’t bother, its one of the small perks of being an ex-smoker: city air will never match the damage you’ve done to yourself. No need to stress about city air.

In Kathmandu I hung out with Anna, a PhD student from my hometown, and I worked on getting VISAs – another for India, one for China and one for the nightmare of the trio: Pakistan.

The Chinese embassy was the usual confusion of applicants, all jostling and looking defeated from the moment they passed the metal detector. Nobody had a clear idea of what documents were needed, because embassies like to keep important things like that secret until, hours after getting there, you find yourself at the front of the queue and then some self-satisfied paper pusher can tell you what you’ve forgotten. This was my second visit. Three Nepali men in suits strode past the entire line and entered at the front, grinning to each other. They seemed uninjured by the muttering that was, in the end, their only comeuppance. (note to self – do not write blog posts immediately after spending hours in line for VISAs. Wait until stable mental state has returned).

A lady three ahead of me in the line, British, was carrying an extremely cute three year old girl whom she deposited on the counter. The girl pressed herself up against the glass turning the embassy official gooy-eyed and silly-faced. It was the best tactic I have ever seen used to score a VISA. I didn’t hear what the lady said to the official, but I reckon it might have been something like ‘I’d like a five year multiple entry VISA to Tibet please. Oh, and hurry the fuck up’.

So no need for the obsequious noises, the myriad thank yous, the flaunting what you know of the officials native tongue. Just borrow a baby, that’s my advice. Steal one if you have to. Pass it down the queue so everyone can benefit.

As I walked back to my hostel I past the Nepali passport office. The mass of humanity awaiting documents brought to mind a refugee camp. With a UK passport, things really aren’t all that bad, are they?

My brain hurts thinking of all the hoops I have to jump through for the next stage of my trip. I can’t say for sure what will happen next but plan A is a Himalayan adventure in Nepal, then back into India, into Pakistan and over the Karakorum into a very cold China. If I can’t do that, then there will be flights involved, which will be spirit-crushing but unavoidable.

Thank yous – Anna, Sumanta, Lizzie and Sanju.

Finally I’m glad to announce that this blog made it to number 10 in the list of the world’s most popular bike touring blogs (based on Alexa, domain and page authority) so thank you to everybody for reading and sharing.

Life in the wrong lane

Mmm. maybe I’ll get the train.
‘Can ask what is your good name Sir?’ asked the immigration official in the border town of Moreh.
I told him my good name.
‘And can I ask what is your religion?’
My answer arrived in a stream of vowel sounds, a mumble ‘none’.
‘No Sir’ I said, bowing my head in deep, illogical shame.

My cap was pulled down low, and as he led me out into the street I didn’t see the top of the gate. My head smashed into it so hard I was knocked to the floor. Dazed, the guard helped me to my feet.

‘See Sir.’ He said. ‘Everyone needs a religion’.

It took a while to get this photo, after each snap one of the three students would appraise the image in my viewfinder and decide they weren’t looking sultry enough. ‘Another!’ I was ordered.
I had travelled straight from the Burmese monsoon into the more illustrious Indian one. Rain gushed through the streets and pummelled my panniers as it has for months now. In Moreh I took a break, I needed one after the rush across Burma, and spent most of the next day gorging in the same eating house. In the morning I had spotted a man come out of it, jiggling airily to Bollywood tunes blaring from within, and holding out a wodge of chapattis for a passing cow. Was there a more clichéd an image of India than this? Deciding not I ventured inside where I found an amply constructed matriarch, whose belly on occasion loomed at me from between shivers of her sari, and her moustached husband who wiggled his head in that most convivial of Indianisms. The Bollywood medley came and went, victim to the region’s many, many power outages. I stopped often at the shop next door too because the purple-saried Indian girl working there was a smoldering beauty and kept called me ‘my brudder’. I am in love with the Indian accent. What’s more satisfying to the ear? It has music, zeal, insouciant charm. It’s an accent suited to the voice from the Intercom in the event of an imminent aeroplane disaster: things could be worse, I would muse, as my burning co-passengers thrashed and wailed around me.

To Indians, on discovering the extent of my journey, I am a ‘roamer’, and I am not ‘single’ with its rather dreary connotations, but a ‘bachelor’: yesteryear’s player. There are scores of appealing inventions: hotels advertise ‘lodging and fooding’, and the idea that food can be a warped into a present participle is a nice one I think because it implies that food might also become a verb. ‘I’m so famished I’m gonna food the hell out of this place’. Or ‘He fooded excessively for most of his natural life, before his stomach exploded.’ Metaphorical language too has an Indian tang: A young student once told me that he’d love to travel, but that in reality he was to remain ‘like a frog in a well’. Brilliant. And on a poster in the street I found an advertisement for a self-styled sexologist offering all kinds of cures for sexual related problems, from STDs and impotence, but it was the thought-provoking ailment of ‘sexual devility’ which tickled me most, conjuring the image of a pot-bellied man in a red devil outfit with a lusty glint in his eye. ‘Doctor you must help me, I keep scaring girls with this damn sexual devility!’

India felt to arrive on me, more than I did to it, perhaps because of where I’d come in from. On occasion I pass a border where the two countries couldn’t be more at odds: Egypt and Sudan, Albania and Greece, Ethiopia and everywhere. Add Myanmar and India to the list. The roads are the first clue: the drivers more bullish, the streets more hectic. Even the animals move differently: nothing whimpers on the side-lines like in Myanmar, here the cows and goats meander unbidden, assuredly loping up and down the street with the calm of pacing school examiners, and moving through the traffic like the tuk tuks – edging slowly and forcibly across the road despite the blare of horns. Nowhere on earth has the intrigue, the explosion of colour and the air (happily in the figurative sense, unfortunately in the literal) of India.

Tea pickers
The road to Imphal was beset by police and army roadblocks – far more than I had encountered in Burma – the officials were hunting for smugglers of opium or currency. I was usually introduced to the commander – there was never any confusion about who that might be: dark aviator sunglasses, a galaxy of obsequious subordinates spilling about him and the mien of leader: someone who simultaneously exuded a warm and don’t-mess-with-me confidence. The soldier’s questions ranged from the eye-brow raising ‘what weapons do you carry?’ to the apparently pointless ‘father’s profession?’ to the unanswerable ‘vehicle registration?’ after which I’d leave them to grapple with that nightmare scenario shared by officials the world over: a form with an empty box. Occasionally we’d chat about the differences between India and the UK which would often culminate in some optimistic ruminations: ‘You have exciting life in England, no? This is simple life for us in India. In England you go out to casinos all the time, and you run about doing exciting things’.

I didn’t reach Imphal in one day because the road climbed to 1600 metres to an army encampment which straddled a cloud-rushed ridge. On the other side of the mountains my chain snapped: I was oil-stained and dejected when a young guy swung by on his motorbike and offered me a place to stay.

Lightson and his family were the very essence of hospitality. They prepared a bed for me and a meal of fish curry and rice. In India there is a grave responsibility to finish everything on your plate – no problem: the food was delicious. His aunt prowled behind our backs, ladle in one hand and huge pan of rice in the other. Frequently she would snap forward and dump another glut of rice on to our plates. I watched how the others would handle this as the meal progressed – as she went for the swoop they whipped their hands in front of their plates, barring the path of the barreling heap of rice, whilst emitting repellent grunting sounds. But she was persistent. When I tried she just batted my hand away and delivered more rice. It was amazing hospitality, and I had a great trouble moving after the meal.

Then into Imphal, the state capital of Manipur, where I met up with Pedal Attack – a vast tribe of tattooed mountain bikers who adopted me soon after I visited a local bike shop. I spent the next dew days being taken out to scenic sites and restaurants and to a local school where I gave a presentation. Amongst the din and chaos of Indians cities it was great to meet people so enthusiastic and passionate about biking. Thank you guys.

Lightson and fmaily
Leemax from Pedal Attack took me to Loktak lake on his Royal Enfield motorbike
These guys carry car batteries on their backs and electrocute the fish in order to catch them.
The North East of India is a collection of eight states, herniating off the rest of the country and at the slimmest point (the ‘chicken neck’) only a 14 mile wide tract of land connects it to the rest. Many people here would recognize their tribal allegiance, or even just their state, as surmounting their Indian citizenship.

Religion might factor in to this sense of detachment: the majority here are Christian rather than Hindu (and devotedly so). Whilst I sensed a real optimism about the North East (tourism is growing fast in the wake of lifted restrictions and successful PR) the region still has its problems. Imphal was gripped by protests over the reticence of the government to bring in the ‘Inner Line Permit’ – a system aimed at protecting local interests. In the streets I saw a great rush of students in protest, on the walls posters declared ‘Save Manipuri People – Endangered Human Species’ and on the local news hospitalized students were shown in the aftermath of the rounds of tear gas fired by police. The issue is a complicated one, well beyond the ken of a passing tourist like me, but there was a bit of me that was glad to see some evidence of mass dissent, however staged (how political are most 15 year olds?), after a month in Myanmar where to stymie that sort of rebellion, tear gas would be the hors d’oeuvre.

Imphal is pinned in by nine hulking mountains and the rising road out was decorated by government signs that read ‘Drive, don’t fly’, ‘Drive horsepower, not rum-power’ and ‘drunk drivers are bloody idiots’. Soon I battled up the road into the state of Meghalaya which was layered in thick mud, sometimes half a metre deep, halting the passage of traffic entirely. I had to get the help of a team of local men to haul my bike through. To my left a vast sheet of flat land was sprawled, spangled with sun-kissed lakes and rivers, spotted with vegetation. As I admired it a voice from behind me answered my question. ‘Bangladesh!’ it said. Of course it was, but with a single entry VISA for India, it would remain the stuff of remote glimpses.

That night the police at a roadblock found a small tin-roofed shack for me to stay in (‘we salute you and your amazing adventure!’), but first they had to evict seven chickens, one policeman walked out of it with one chicken neck in his grip, mid-execution. It was candle-lit and cobwebbed and dank inside, but it was mine, and from the window the lakes of Bangladesh shimmered like fish scales. The night was jagged with the creak of cicadas, the whirr of the wind and the prickle of rain on metal.

The next day no vehicles were granted permission to use the roads throughout the state of Meghalaya – it was Indian Independence day and local ‘outfits’ (‘militants’ according to the police) had instigated a ban on all traveling vehicles – a protest against a government decision to outlaw a form of coal mining called ‘rat hole mining’ on the grounds that it can lead to landslides, unsafe working conditions and pollution. For me, this meant no traffic and no horns, bliss then, if it weren’t for the torrential, unceasing rain. There was a big depression in the Bay of Bengal – big, I was told, even by monsoon standards. Days were slate-grey and bleary with cloud and soon every bit of clothing I owned was wet through which meant grim-faced shuddering when it was time to get dressed.

India – where even the insects are colourful.
The coolest thing about landslides is the mimicry of elements: for an instant land becomes water. Earth looks to flow and boil, a splash of rock here, a foam of shattering shale there. Running in the dun-coloured gash in the forest beside the road through the Jaintia hills was an actual waterfall, inseparable though from the powerful rockfalls beside it. The road had been closed for two days and as the mountain frayed, spitting out man sized boulders, all I could do was stand about with the truck drivers, who were wrapped in checkered shawls and hypnotized by the tumble. Finally there was something more stare-worthy than I was.

‘Last year we were stuck for a week’ a man told me resignedly. Eventually a JCB got to work but a massive pool of mud remained on the road. A panic of drivers ploughed into it, knowing this might be their only chance for who knows how long. As they drove madly they spread giant wings of mud from their tyres, covering me head to toe. My turn arrived: I whizzed into the soup, eyes ahead, up at the falling rock, ahead, up. Few cars came after me, there must have been another great collapse of the mountain soon after I got through.

Indian streets are knotted with bands of men, chewing paan (betel nut), each crowd absorbing wandering pairs and trios. Everything requires an audience: card games, conversations, arguments, me. India is just a place where people group, compulsively (they have to in a nation of 1.2 billion and growing fast) and here the observation most startling about me, more than the fact I pedal everywhere, is that I do it alone.

I don’t want to indulge in too many gratuitous generalisations but privacy is to be a touch suspicious of in India, famously so. Ostensibly this means people having a good poke and peer at my bike and the contents of my panniers, and there is always interest in the affairs of strangers. Sometimes I hear conversations along the lines of:

‘I’m off to visit Ana’
‘Who’s that?’
‘You don’t know her. She’s in hospital’
‘What’s wrong with her?’
‘Something with her ears I think’
‘What is wrong with her ears?’

Yes, people stared, yes they grouped about me, yes, it wasn’t always easy, but the Indian hospitality was unyielding. ‘There are good people everywhere’ one of Indian silver-haired professorly type told me in Silchar. ‘I was in England in 1988. I asked an Englishman where was this building, and he showed me right to it! He walked with me for 50 yards!’

He remained there frozen, truly impressed. I thought about how much his example paled in comparison to the generosity I received in the first two measly weeks in the country. Six different people have hosted me so far, strangers all, generally inviting me after spotting me on the street, and more have offered. I wondered if I would recount these stories to visiting Indians back in the UK one day. The man of course then paid for my breakfast, insisting as he did so that he was representing India.

My bicycle often acts as an ice-breaker and opens the door to conversation. At length, it’s established: I’m British, I can’t speak Hindi, I’m going to Darjeeling, Yes I’m a bachelor, yes I’m alone, yes really, yes completely alone. Lately I’ve been getting fed up with the surface nature of travel through countries in which I don’t know the language, so in India its great to learn what people feel about all kinds of issues: the legal system,dowries, population control, religion, the environment, Imperialism and the Commonwealth Games. Oh and cricket, of course.

The rain continued when I reached Jowai on Independence Day, an event which the town celebrates through a display of profound glumness. There was the incessant rain of course, but more depressing to locals was the decimation of their industry: this was the heart of the mining country.

I arrived into Shillong ready for time off, and wet through, though the rain had eased a touch. That’s not to say it was anything less than torrential, it was just marginally less sopping, like stepping out from under Victoria Falls and directly under Niagara. Shillong was much nicer than the other Indian cities I’d visited – with a very blue cathedral, the odd cafe and even pedestrianized areas (though cars do drive down it) and a no-beep zone (though everyone still beeps).

There is nothing as shameful as finding yourself in KFC when you are in a country of food of sublime flavour and renown. Nothing. Not even if I had stolen lunch from a blind street child would I feel this guilty. The Colonel’s crispy chicken only just quelled my self-loathing. But it was in KFC that I met Ankan.

Ankan: an immensely affable and intelligent guy working on an environmental project who had spent time studying in the States. Within minutes of our meeting he had invited me to stay and I took him up on the offer. A presentation was arranged, media interviews, delicious dinners, and drinks and meetings and tea and then we teamed up with his friends: Rahul, Annelie and Max to visit the world famous living root bridges near Cherapunji.

We also did a lot of eating – of good food, not KFC. I’m getting used to people referring to me in the third person when I’m eating. As I gorged in Shillong, among my new awestruck friends, I heard things like:

‘wow, look at him eat. How much do you think he’ll manage?’
‘Dunno. Doesn’t look like he’ll stop any time soon’
‘Give him more rice, lets see what happens’

The Root Bridges, Near Cherripunji, Meghalaya

I am in the about the wettest place on earth, in the wettest time of year, during a particularly wet spell and I am wet. Soaking, in fact. I stare out at a high rim of land, the Sohra plateau, striped by immense waterfalls, a view so vast it’s addictive. I notice Max by my side. ‘Might clear up’ I venture. He stares out, grimly. Silence. Lightning silvers the murk.

Why weather researchers still quote the annual rainfall of Cherripunji in milimetres is not clear considering it comes by the metre, usually around twelve of them each year. It has been raining hard and unendingly for three weeks, a local family tell me. Uncountable waterfalls streamed down every rock face on the way here. We were all out late last night and the twisting road flaired our hangovers.

Outside the car water immediately hijacks my senses: it is all I can see, hear and feel. ‘The clouds come from Bangladesh’ explains Rahul,’and when they hit the mountain, BOOM! They burst. Its incredible man’. Twelve metres, I recall. Incredible indeed.

Resigned to the fact I’m about to get wet, I stomp in the puddles which soon turn into streams. We descend steps, the first of a couple of thousand to the river below, and in its state of swollen fury, I can already hear it’s rumble.

‘If you need to pee, do it now.’ says Rahul. ‘I’m serious. Forest is sacred. No peeing.’

Locals have stories. Of a woman dressed only in white who dissolves out of the mist and wanders through villages: the spirit of the forest. You would do well not to offend her. Another tale recounts the plight of a local man who had forsaken the spirit of the forest in some way. Slowly, tell locals, he went mad – cooking meals for a family he didn’t have.

Eventually we make it down and cross iron bridges, where the violence of the water beneath our feet is mesmerizing, to reach our destination. The living root bridges were built by the War-Khasis native tribe who guided the growth of secondary roots of the Indian Rubber trees using wooden planks so that the roots eventually traversed entire rivers. It takes time to grow a bridge – decades in fact – and some here are over 500 years old.

The one we have hiked to see is known as the Double Decker. As I shuffle across, peering below and then into the mist-dressed jungle, a butterfly as fat and black as a bat flutters past me. The bridge is solid, no sway or give, sturdier in fact than the metal ones in our wake. Miraculously the rain has eased for our hike back, but not for long. As we reach our ride it rains anew. Pelts it down. I say a silent goodbye to the massive waterfalls still in sight, their majesty a good trade for the rain in my hair, in my boots, seeping into my clothes, foisting shudders. I realise at once that my hangover has vanished. In fact, I feel great.

I left Shillong a touch sentimental to be leaving behind new friends and there are a heap of thank yous this month:

Ankan – thank you so much dude, Aiban, Rahul, Annelie and Max, everyone at Asian Confluence, Sumanta (you will feature in the next blog post my friend), all of the boys at Pedal Attack, Lightson and family, the school in Imphal, Vikash and a big thank you to India for being generally fantastic.

Next – I’m heading to Darjeeling and then I cross into Nepal because my Indian VISA expires and I’m optimistically aiming to cross the Himalayas before the pass closes for the winter. Kathmandu will be home whilst I score VISAs for onward travel, collate kit and rest. Oh and write: I have a bunch of articles appearing in various magazines and websites soon – look out for pieces in Adventure Travel, CNN, Adventure.com and Wild among others. I’ll post links to these on my facebook page – and if you haven’t liked it yet: here’s your chance…
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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?’
‘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.

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


‘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.

Dogs in fridges

Dengue fever doesn’t feature in the advertising campaigns of Thailand’s ministry of tourism. They don’t produce brochures scattered with photos of pallid, sweaty westerners with handlebar-ribs and bleeding gums and the words ‘Come to Thailand – land of smiles, white-sand beaches, and devastating tropical disease.’ And whilst malaria is on the down worldwide, dengue has blossomed. A graph of dengue over time has the look of a ski jump. Since my own bout everyone I meet seems to have had it, or knows someone who has. Nobody, as far as I know, was lured to the experience by a brochure.

I left Ao Nang after ten days that brimmed with frustration and lassitude.With dengue, you don’t really feel like eating, and for bicycle travel that’s kind of a requisite. On day one, those anorexic days showed in every laboured mile, but the next day I woke feeling a world better, my cadence returned, and I clocked up 140 km by nightfall. On a rural back road three South Africans on bikes pulled over. Cycle touring for them had been a spur-of-the-moment call, spelt out in their makeshift racks, tacked on to local mountain bike frames. They’d fudged what they needed using string and tape. A kickstand was a piece of wood. Things flapped and jutted. I was inspired by their invention: They were a visual statement of the fact that there are no obstacles to ambition.

The north of Thailand and Laos are inviting places to ride, awash with great scenery, food and things to stop and see. But I was a little uninspired by the thought of months in the more visited realms of SE Asia, the breezy bits, so I formulated a new plan. I wanted to instill some sense of purpose into my journey again, and I yearned for more of an adventure. To those ends I set up visits to medical clinics, one for refugees on the Burmese border and another set in an isolated part of Cambodia. And I changed my route. Anachronistic Burma fits the adventure mandate, despite the growing taste for tourism, so this comes next. Then I’ll be following in the track marks of a few intrepid bikers who have recently crossed into the Indian province of Nagaland via the tightly controlled border with Burma, one that requires permits. More permits will be required for the adventurous terrain of Arunachal Pradesh. I’ve even set my sights on Bhutan, though the VISA remains a long shot. The Indian and Nepalese Himalayas come next (perhaps even riding the Annapurna circuit), then through Pakistan, over the Khunjerab pass before it closes for the winter. Central Asia will be a bitter challenge in mid-winter with temperatures dropping to perhaps to minus 30 or minus 40, but a challenge is what I need so I’ll get kitted out in Kathmandu. Spring in the Caucuses, chased by summer in Europe, will be the prize. Home, very tentatively, planned for September 2015.

I pedalled hard up the west of Thailand pulling long days, chowing down Pad Thai in my short breaks and hammering through until dusk. Wooden shacks selling pineapple and mango and papaya were arrayed on the roadsides, in their shadows cable-thin kids stewed in hammocks, stirring only to the whistle of a customer. The heat was stifling, the air curdled. Afternoons were a fuzzy-headed fight against heat that dared me to stop and rest every half hour. Snakes of searing green lay dead on the road, like scattered twine. Old women kept alive that old Thai cliché, ‘the Land of Smiles’, through their sudden, brown-toothed grins. Here and there I rolled past the hum and jostle of local markets, cooks and sellers perched behind stalls hoping to lasso me with offers I couldn’t understand. The air was perfumed with barbecued meat, a drifting promise of the weight I’d lost to dengue fever.

Sitting in a restaurant, puzzling over a poster in which coca cola purported to be official sponsors of Ramadan, or something, a breeze of murmurs lifted from the huddle of bodies around the TV. A message read ‘following the implementation of martial law, the following are appointed… ‘ and continued with a list of military personnel and details of a nationwide curfew. This was then replaced by the words ‘National Peace and Order Maintaining Council’. Take that, Orwell. Though martial law had been declared, General Prayuth Chan-ocha reassured everyone that this was not a coup, only to change his mind two days later ‘yeah sorry, did I say it wasn’t a coup? I meant it is a coup, definitely a coup’. According to some western media outlets though, whether or not there was mass blood-letting was neither here nor there; what really mattered was how this was going to affect the travel plans of all those virtuous tourists so far from home. Sex tourism never had it so tough.

The Thai Government had been widely charged with large scale corruption, amongst other things they had bought votes by offering farmers deals too good to be true. Most Thais I spoke to considered the coup a good thing for Thailand, and most Thais accepted the military power-grabbing with an easy calm. I had to wonder why – was this simply because they supported the opposition, or was it apathy, or the quintessentially East Asian reticence to rocking the boat, or a fear of repression? There was some dissent, but it was tepid. Students gave out sandwiches announcing ‘sandwiches for democracy’ on the streets of the capital; others clustered in silent readings from 1984, or made three finger salutes (a gesture borrowed from The Hunger Games.)

This is run of the mill in Thailand, there have been 19 attempts at coups since 1932, most have been successful. A coup rolls around only slight less often than an election. This one even began with an apology to the government ‘I’m sorry’ said General Prayuth Chan-ocha ‘but I have to seize power’, before swiftly detaining known activists, journalists and ousted politicians. Justification for the curtailing of the media was that ‘if you let people talk now, they will be critical’ – a cast-iron defence, obviously. After US condemnation of the coup, a widely viewed video on youtube (dubbed ‘a letter to Jon Kerry and the world’) showed soldiers holding not just guns but bouquets of flowers and posing for photos with passersby. ‘Martial-law selfies’, as one newspaper described them, had actually become a thing. The Thai army then began a surreal campaign of ‘bringing happiness’ to Thailand which involved festivals, free food and health checks, which in place of a democratically elected government, is not a great trade. Ironically it was populist manoeuvres of the former government that were sited as a defence of the coup in the first place.  I imagine gathered protesters screaming ‘ARMY OUT! ARMY OUT! ARMY… wait, is that a free hamburger?’

The highway north to Bangkok was an oppressive mess of parked and rushing trucks, edged by electric cables and scattered junk. Thailand’s back roads beckoned. My map though might have been sketched from the memory of a cartographer who was too busy to bother with any research. Every time I got lost I spent minutes gawking at the signposts trying to decode the script, which looked like a row of medieval instruments of torture, some broken horseshoes and small rodents. Locals directed me back to the highway, sure that was what I was searching for, so on it went, looping my way vaguely northwards. Luckily rural Thailand is lovely.

On one afternoon mountainous black clouds clustered over the ragged saw of the Burmese peaks to my west, and the building wind whispered of the coming rain. I took a double take at a temple. Could I ask to stay? As I wheeled my bike inside dogs stirred into charges, yapping. The orange robed monks swished in and out of the temple, like drunk bees about a hive. One approached as I dawdled, ashamed and tentative, in the car park. I did my best ‘International Symbol of Sleep’ – palm to palm, hands placed under my tilted head. He considered me over his glasses and swung around in a whip of orange cloth. I trailed him, assailed by the eyes of the other monks, until he swung open the door of a wooden hut to reveal a small mat splayed on the ground, my own bedroom.

Local people cooked for the monks and themselves at the rear of the temple. Breakfast was epic – rice noodles, chicken broth, curries, sauces, and as we gorged a scattering of children ran figure eights around our feet. As someone who takes breakfast very seriously indeed, this was impressive. Stuffed, a huge silver vat arrived. The man next to me clasped his hands together and said something in Thai I didn’t understand but later realised must have been ‘Great! Here’s the ice cream’. It was not yet 8 am, but time of course is no barrier to ice-cream. Outside I saddled up but noticed that a small procession was snaking out of the temple, dense with wailing women and baskets of flowers, and I was sucked into the ferment.

Prachuap Kiri Khan is a coastal town, presided over by a small hill to the north where a troop of monkeys mooch through the streets, as insouciant as the fishermen. Weekends are dominated by the quay side market which is a tumult of diners, drinkers, breakdancing kids, and women doing aerobics. At night the harbour is stringed by the green lights of squid fisherman. It was here I planned to meet Andrew X Pham, to give him his proper title. Andrew once cycled the west coast of the States and Japan, but it was his journey through Vietnam that came to be the main focus of his subsequent book, Catfish and Mandala, lauded as a triumph of travel writing and memoir. He’s Vietnamese-American, and when a French lady we met turned to him and said ‘Your English is very good’ thinking him a local, I had to laugh.

In Andrew I saw a kindred tendency to obsession – he’d launched himself from one passion to the next, like a freight-hopper – at once an engineer, a cycle tourer, a respected author, who along the way has taught himself to fly ultralights, lived on a sailing boat for two years, and built a farm. We lounged on beaches, drank beer with deadpan Aussies, ‘old soaks’ I believe is the term, with moustaches as big as carrots, and who said, after hearing of my journey ‘well mate, you got bigger balls than me, and I got some big fucking balls’. I met Andrew’s wife and friends, including a Dutchman who years before had arrived in Thailand by bicycle after pedalling from Europe. He married, built a farm despite some vague local discouragement, and when we met he was herding a troop of goats amongst palm trees. I have added ‘goat herder’ to the list of possible consequences of this bike ride around the world, it comes just after pearl diver, shaman and hopeless vagabond.

From Prachuap I followed a canal heading north, eyed by egrets and other birds of almost every hue. Fields of pineapple and sugarcane spanned the vista. At Phetchaburi I asked some roadside fruit vendors for a cheap hotel but an entrepreneur in the pride led me instead to a property he owned which was available and we debated a price. That night I headed out to gorge on Pad Thai, stopping at a convenience store on the busy main road for a soft drink. Inside the fridge I saw what looked like dogs nestled beside the Pepsi and mineral water, two of them. I stalled. Must be toys, I decided. I peered closer only to see wet noses and veiny ears. Shocked I opened the door slowly and they stirred and peered up at me, so I reached behind them for a Pepsi and closed the fridge door. I later confided this story to a European friend who lives in Thailand, who said simply ‘Well, Thai people can be very practical’.

Dogs in the fridge reminded me that Bangkok is the hottest major city in the world (in terms of annual averages). It’s also thick with traffic. I decided to get the train in and resolved to get a train out, back to the same station, so that my journey still feels unbroken. Bangkok is not a city designed for pedestrians, in fact it feels much like the designer of Bangkok was once, as a child, walking hand in hand with his cherished grandmother when she was grappled from behind and pummelled to death by a mad pedestrian. Now, he’s getting his own back. These streets are for driving. I yearn for the days when cars are banished from city centres, when public transport and bike lanes and pavements reign supreme.

The adverts that come via flat screen TVs on the sky train are a good window into the lusts and likes of the Bangkok natives – they are either for cosmetics or some new technology, and looking around every heavily painted Thai woman and girl were face down in their Iphones.

The Thai greeting, known as the wai – a slight bow with hands palm to palm in prayer-like fashion, clicks perfectly with the polite, pleasant air of the people, though it’s origins are less convivial. One theory goes that the wai developed because it was a way of demonstrating that the people meeting weren’t carrying weapons. Its not just a greeting of course, but a farewell too, an apology, a sign of gratitude, even a piece of marketing – posters of a half dozen Manchester United players, hands palm to palm, adorned the wall of one restaurant I visited, and outside MacDonald’s a man-sized plastic Ronald MacDonald is mid-wai, stripping it completely of its innocence and warmth, a corporate smack-down. The higher the hands and lower the bow, the more respect is shown, as the begging mother in Bangkok who cradled an adult son with just stumps for arms and legs, demonstrated.

In Bangkok I stayed with an Italian girl, Elena, a friend of a friend and we roamed the city, hanging out with the many hipsters here and eating, of course. I applied for my Burmese and Indian VISAs and spent days writing and reading. Oh God, what to see in Bangkok. Overwhelmed by the ‘must see, must do’ lists on every website and every guidebook, I decided instead to simply take a boat down the river, peek briefly at the Khaosan road and then visit a macabre museum. I knew I was entering the orbit of the Khaosan road because the trousers, more accurately, the pantaloons, of fellow travellers were becoming increasingly dramatic. In the end, the famed ‘backpacker zoo’ was not what I had hoped for. An explosion of signs greets you, coming in from the side of every building like the outstretched arms of beggars, or prisoners behind bars. Soon it becomes apparent it’s just a commercial hub of t-shirt vendors selling the same singlets, and heckling tuk tuk drivers. Being footloose and aimless is not a quality to be encouraged on the Khaosan Road and every two minutes I was forced to defend my purposelessness ‘what you want? Where you wanna go?’ Nobody ushered me down a side street and offered to sell me a litre of cobra blood or invited me for a foursome with three lady-boys. So instead I went shopping for second hand books. There’s genuine rapture in the promise of a good book hiding amidst a hundred dull ones. I can spend hours inside. In the past I have stolen from the better book exchanges and then given, without taking, to those less endowed with the pearlers. I liken myself to the Robin Hood of literature.

The museum of forensic pathology probably should be more controversial than it is. Death-porn is the only way to describe it. A line of photos unveils some of the city’s unfortunates – a man decapitated in a train wreck, his severed head plopped inches above his torso on the bed. Then the aftermath of murders by multiple stab wound and by bullet. I learned what a hammer attack might look like, and the bloody consequences of a hand grenade. One sign read ‘throat cut by beer bottle’, another simply ‘suicide’, but how the man managed to cut not just his wrist but his entire hand off requires some contemplation. In another room are still born infants with deformities, in another the mummified remains of a select few of the cities rapists and murderers. There is a parasite room too, centre stage, and the prize exhibit, is the half metre wide scrotum of a man with elephantiasis. The line can be blurred between what’s distasteful voyeurism and what’s the stuff of genuine scientific interest. For me the photos for one go beyond the safe side of that line. For the curators though only a photo depicting a woman who was beaten and stabbed to death by a dildo was deemed overkill (pun intended) and has recently been removed.

Many of the exhibits featured victims that have succumbed in one way or another to city’s heavy traffic, and in retrospect, given that to get to Elena’s house I was reliant on the city’s motorbike taxis, this wasn’t the most choice viewing. As my driver skimmed at light speed through a moving alleyway of metal I now had two things to worry about – the statistics (Thailand having one of the worst rates of road accident in the world) and the images to go with them, etched forever on the inside of my retinas. ‘Lacerated liver’ and ‘tire tread marks’ came back to haunt me.

You would need a lot of Semtex to get through the red tape that surrounds the process of getting an Indian VISA in Bangkok.

This is the protocol, lifted directly from the Indian Embassy website…

  • When filling in your VISA application form please write clearly, in block capitals. Please also write only in the ancient language of Aramaic, using a 15th century Ottoman quill and the fresh blood of an albino.
  • Please print 77 copies of your application form and submit between the minutes of 5.11 am and 5.22 am. The VISA department is open every second Sunday, except on the national holidays of every country in the northern hemisphere and Fiji.
  • Please attach 17 character references, a lock of hair, photos of your parents before the year 1963 and a pencil sketch of the Hindu god Vishnu.
  • Photos must accompany the application. They should be on a magenta background and must include your naval. Additionally the photo subject should feign an expression of ennui, other emotions will render your application invalid. At least one photo should feature a pair of maracas.
  • Business VISA applicants must bring their own fax machine and petrol powered generator to the embassy when submitting their application
  • All signatures should be chiseled into an igneous rock (though basalt is not accepted) and tethered to your application form. Bring your own chisel.
  • Those with blood group B or with degrees in horticulture will be refused VISAs
  • A new biometric test has been adopted by the Indian Embassy in Bangkok. The Indian government will keep your corneas and a sample of your bone marrow – these will be returned to you on departure. For 700 US dollars.
  • You will also be required to give a performance of a Bollywood hit song which will be recorded on video. To prove your identity whilst in India you may be required by officials to replicate this performance.
  • The visa fee is 1425 US dollars per day for your planned stay in India. This fee must be converted and paid in precious gem stones or Zambian Kwacha.
  • Please detail how you plan to arrive in India. Please also note that it is forbidden to arrive by land or air. You may arrive by teleporter, or by sea, though those found to be using a vessel of any kind will be deported to their country of origin.
  • Spelling mistakes are punishable by firing squad
  • Passports are not required

So did I get my Indian VISA? Well yes, but only after parting with almost 100 quid, and then finding out that they have changed the rules and now only issue three month VISAs instead of the coveted six, perhaps because a new administration has come in, or because the albino I chose to venesect was slightly anaemic. The three months you are allowed begins immediately instead of when crossing the border, meaning I have to make short work of north-west Thailand, the whole of Burma and eastern India in order to clock out, as it were, in Nepal. Better get motoring then.

Thank yous – Andrew, Elena, my old mate Emma and Jennifer.