A year ago I turned 23 in Turkey. I’d spent the night camping in petrol station owned by a lovely Kurdish family who invited me to dinner and gave me a sheltered pitch from the rain.
On the 31st I woke up on my 24th birthday and started my day just as I start most days – packing my bags and hopping on my bike in search of an adventure.
Mother Nature had a special treat for me: an almost rain free day which was much appreciated after a few very wet days.
Nobody knew it was my birthday and yet it I still had presents to come, the first of which was a pile of mangoes from a local farmer who stopped to say hello when I took a mid-morning break.
It’s mango season in southern Myanmar. Huge trees hang over the villages dangling the fruit high above the road. I’ve never seen mango trees like that, they reminded me of the decorative eggs I saw hung from trees over Easter in East Germany last year. If you can reach one, it’ll be ripe and ready to eat but if you’re a shorty like me you can buy one from any stall outside a village home for about 5p a piece.
Later in the day I met a guy who spoke incredibly good English. He’d been living in Thailand the last few years working in a touristy restaurant/bar but was now back to start a family at home. He invited me round to his place for a break. It was a typically multi-purpose Myanmar home: living space, shop, restaurant/cafe, petrol station and betel nut wrap vendor all-in-one.
I couldn’t possibly write about my time in Myanmar without some words on the betel but habit – when I think back on my time in the country, chomping jaw lines and blood red smiles will be one of the first returning memories. My new pal could finally walk me through the wrapping process:
Smearing slaked-lime paste on a vine leaf and filling the parcel with ingredients like tobacco, cloves, cumin, aniseed, cardamom along with the chopped up betel nut. You can choose your preferred ingredients from the vendor and a wrap costs a few pence.
I was given a couple of parcels to try (another unofficial birthday present) and set off to stain some more patches of Myanmar’s roads.
I was starting to get nervous about the ride south. Dawei was my last chance to head east and over the mountains into Thailand. That would be the route of certainty – the border was open and the ‘easy life’ awaiting me across the border. But instead, I had chosen to ride south through the restricted areas with optimism instead of certainty.
As he wrapped my nuts I asked if he knew anything about the road down to Kawthoung. The news wasn’t good – he told me that there was still fighting down in that part of the country on a daily basis. That wasn’t what I wanted to hear at all.
As light began to fade I spotted a golden stupa poking out of the jungle lining the road. I followed a small road into the forest and found a small temple where two ancient monks lived. They were happy to have me stay the night, just as everyone is around here.
The day’s rain had finally arrived but they gave me a place to sleep inside the monastery. They fed me with more mangoes from the giant tree outside and filled me up with tea. We sat outside as night fell talking through the mutual language of smiles. They were clearly surprised at having a foreigner on a bicycle rock up, but made me feel right at home with their granddad chuckles. They laughed at me when I couldn’t work out how to cut open the mangoes (they’d given me a machete for the job – not the easiest kitchen utensil) and I laughed at them when they couldn’t work out how to get anything out of my bottle of mosquito repellent.
I wanted to go a look for a beer, but figured it wasn’t the occasion. I’ve not had a sober birthday in years, but I couldn’t have asked for anything more on this one. Once again, I felt blessed and humbled to feel so welcome on the other side of the world. No one knew it was birthday and yet I’d had plenty of gifts.
But actually, it was a day like any around here. Every outing in this country is a pretty magical one.
The rains were a pain, but I could handle the wet. Unfortunately the rains had bought an unwelcome guest along, or rather – a million unwanted guests. Mosquitoes. Mosquitoes absolutely everywhere. It seems the mozzies here didn’t get the biological memo about being nocturnal creatures – here the blood sucking cretins are out and about all day long.
Everywhere I stop, they come out to visit me in great numbers. Often I’d pause for a break by the side of the road but find myself pedaling again within a couple minutes just because I couldn’t handle the cloud of mosquitoes congregated around my head. As a result I ended up cycling some huge days in Myanmar.
Camping was a pain. I only ever had two choices to stealth camp: amongst the rubber trees or palm oil plantations. Both were swarming with mosquitoes. I’d put on all my long sleeve clothes and erect my tent as quick as physically possible. Then I’d dive inside, cook from within, dripping in sweat from the humidity. Dozens of mosquitoes would sit on my inner mesh lining, just waiting for me to open the zip a slither to squeeze out. It was like they knew I’d eventually have to nip out for something. It was the same in the morning – a desperate race to get away with as few bites as possible. Those morning poos were the most stressful of my life.
In Myeik I was reunited with two things: the sea and Marco.
It’s almost a year since I turned my back on the Black Sea in Batumi, Georgia and headed inland. I haven’t seen the sea from my bicycle since then and it was lovely to be back at the ocean. Life seems simpler somehow when you’re by the see – suddenly you only have 180 degrees to choose direction from, rather than 360.
I met Marco last September, as I arrived at a small village in Tajikistan. He and Tiphaine were setting up camp by lake Karakol at about 4,000m altitude. Marco had his arm in a sling – he’d broken his shoulder a couple of weeks prior and they were hitchhiking their way across the Pamirs. A few weeks later we met again – Marco’s arm was still buggered and he’d resorted to flying back home to Italy to let it properly heal over winter.
One man’s misfortune became another man’s gain as I bought all Marco’s winter gear off him (I’d been freezing to death trying to camp up in those mountains with my inadequate gear). So it’s thanks to him that I survived that brutal winter up on the Tibetan Plateau!
Fast forward 7 months and our paths crossed again in this small world. Marco had flown out to South East Asia in spring and was now heading up towards Nepal. You can follow their trip via their brilliant page Cyclolenti.
Marco had messaged me the details of a cheap hotel he’d managed to find but when I arrived I was met by a pretty angry-looking bunch of staff who shooed me away. It turned out that he’d checked in early in the morning but had then been kicked out when the manager had found out there was a foreigner staying – not allowed in this place. (Sounds a lot like what kept happening to me in northern China, doesn’t it?) They’d tried to charge Marco for the night, despite evicting him and they’d had a long argument as a result. That explained why the old man had looked so pissed when another cyclist turned up.
Apparently a year ago tourists had been able to stay anywhere in town, but then the rules had become strict and only the posher places were given licenses to host foreigners. Rules change all the time here for no apparent reason. The cheapest place we could stay wasn’t very cheap at all, but at least for once I could share a room.
It was Marco’s first day in the country as he’d taken a bus up from the border. He’d been explicitly told by the border officials that he wasn’t allowed to cycle north and that he had to take the bus to Myeik. I pretended not to have heard, and celebrated my birthday belatedly with an old friend.
We went out for a few beers by the seafront, discovered with glee that a one bottle of whisky was cheaper than a beer and woke up wishing it hadn’t been so cheap after all. The second bottle probably wasn’t the best idea.
Feeling a little groggy we headed over the harbour and bought tickets to Kadan island. The Myeik archipelago is composed of over 800 islands (a goldmine for tourism) but unfortunately access them all is restricted in ‘bonkers Burma’. We knew it was unlikely that we’d be able to freely explore Kadan so we took our bicycles hoping to make a quick dash out of town when we arrived. When the boat docked on the island we were met by officials who made us leave the bikes on the pier. They asked to see our passports and when Marco could only produce a photocopy it seemed, for a moment, that they wouldn’t even let him step foot on the island.
We had lunch in the rain stuck in the harbour village but it had been worth it for the beautiful boat ride (1000 kyat/60p for an hour long trip).
Now the fun started. It was still a good 400km to Kawthoung. Let’s call this chapter ‘JKB vs The Police’:
I’d had barely any interaction with the authorities so far, which was great as far as I was concerned. But soon after leaving Myeik I was stopped by a plainclothes cop who asked to see my passport. ‘Show me your badge first’. He didn’t have one, but I let him write my details down while I held my passport out. Half an hour later I stopped in a small cafe and two policemen turned up in uniform (they’d clearly been looking for me) to take my passport details again.
It rained most of the day. I ended my ride in a large village where a new monastery was being built. The workers had no problem with me putting my tent under a roof. They asked their boss and he even invited me up into the monastery hall to sleep. As I started unpacking he made a quick phone call and came over to me: ‘passport’. Oh man, I don’t know who you’re calling but if it’s someone who wants my passport details then this won’t end well.
He told me to stop and go with him to the tea house to wait. He didn’t speak any English but it didn’t matter. I knew the police would be on their way to make my life a little bit more complicated than it need to be. I waited and waited and waited. Darkness had arrived a long time ago. I was starting to get pissy with the guy and he was looking stressed about me motioning back at the road. I’d been waiting an hour, I’d cycled all day in the rain and I just wanted to sleep – was that too much to ask for? I didn’t want to loose my temper with this guy, as it clearly wasn’t his call – but I did want to be angry with someone in charge.
It seemed we were waiting for the police to come over from the next town Tanintharyi. Eventually a couple of guys turned up and I was told that they had to take me there themselves. I think one was a policeman but it’s hard to workout when no one speaks English. It was 10 miles (they use imperial here rather than metric on the whole, a strange but slightly welcome change for me. Old road markings are in miles, but new signs are kilometers – it’s nice to see a country as mixed up as England), and I told them ‘it’s too far, it’s too dangerous to ride these roads in the dark and I’m too tired’, but we couldn’t communicate and if I refused to budge I’d only escalate the situation. So with two motorbikes escorting me, we set off into the night.
I was in a toxic mood. I hate cycling in the dark, especially on these crap roads. Just before Tanintharyi we crossed a bridge to reach town. The bridges in this country are a nightmare on a bicycle as the wonky wooden boards are often wide enough for a wheel to slip in. Which is exactly what happened to me now – my wheel fell into a gap and I smacked my knee against my steel bike frame. It hurt. Any pinch of patience I’d had disappeared. I think I can remember my exact shouted words: ‘I told you this was too fucking dangerous.You lot are fucking idiots and you’re taking the piss now’.
I hobbled over to the other end where I was met by a police checkpoint. One of the guys there could speak a little English. ‘Where do you sleep tonight?’ ‘Are you you joking mate? I don’t know where I’m bloody sleeping – you tell me!’. ‘OK – there is a hotel 5 mins away’. ‘How much is it?’ ‘5,000 kyat’. Phew, £3 a night.Thank God there was a cheap place around the corner.
He escorted me there himself. Out of nowhere a fancy hotel popped up at the side of the road. I asked the receptionist how much it cost. ‘50,00 kyat’. I turned back to the cop ‘you said it was 5,000!’. ‘Five Zero’ he replied, realising his mistake. ‘I don’t have that much money, take me somewhere for 5,000’. He made a phone call and we rode into town, stopping at a dirty little guesthouse. ‘Here is 15,000’ he told me. I double checked with him in Burmese and told him ‘let’s do numbers in your language now mate, you can’t speak English properly. You told me 5,000 – I can’t pay 15,000. Let me camp at your police station, I’m not paying that much’.
He made a phone call and disappeared. ‘Wait 10 minutes’. When he returned he was accompanied by an older bloke who flashed me a police badge and told me curtly that I had no choice. I kicked up a fuss about the price again and threatened to leave on my bicycle but they wouldn’t let me. In the end they offered 9,000 and I accepted defeat. When I tried to bring my bicycle inside the old policeman stopped me. ‘Inside you pay 50,000’ motioning back at the hotel. I told him to piss off, dragged my bike inside and stopped upstairs with my bags up the stairs in a sulk. The room was a dive. No way a local would have paid more than a couple quid for it but it was now five hours since I’d initially stopped and I was done caring.
I saw a nasty accident the next day. Some guys zooming past me on motorbikes turned to shout hello and wave (as everyone does). As they did so they took their eyes off the road and crashed into each other. I’ve always thought that eventually someone will have an accident from getting over excited seeing me on the road – sometimes I’m just too great a distraction (must by my good looks). There was one guy on the front bike who was unscathed, but the guys on the rear took a real hit. As I caught up I saw that one was bleeding badly from his arm and the other had scraped a couple large chunks of skin from his leg. I tried to offer them some water but they just waved me on. It wasn’t my fault they’d crashed but it was because of me that they had. And now for once the red patches on the road were actual blood and not just betel nut spit.
In one village I met another guy who spoke really good English. Over lunch he told me that he’d worked for an Australian pearl company on a nearby island. He instilled me with some hope about the road south – since the ceasefire had been signed with insurgents there hadn’t been any fighting. I’d have the pleasure of cycling a brand new road tarmac road all the way south. That I had not expected. It had only been sealed the whole way at the start of this year. You’d never have believed that bouncing down the bumpy road, but it now meant that the Myeik-Kawthoung bus was 12 hours rather than a 24 hour trip along a bone-rattling dirt road.
That night I pitched my tent in an abandoned building in a palm oil plantation. I was starting to feel a little unwell and I wanted to be on solid floor where I wouldn’t have to be on animal alert. Ever since I read that Myanmar has some of the deadliest snakes in the world I’ve been incredibly paranoid about stepping foot off the road in sandals and shorts.
At about 9.45pm I was awoken by voices outside. Lying in silence, I followed a torch beam flicker through the adjacent rooms. The footsteps grew nearer and eventually the light flashed across my tent. Brilliant.
I’m scared of the dark. Or rather, I’m scared of the pitch black. Very rarely do you find yourself in total darkness. Even if it’s cloudy and there’s no moon or stars, it’s never completely black sleeping outdoors. Sometimes inside the forest it can get close, but it’s only in a spot like this (inside a tent and inside a dark room) that you find yourself truly engulfed. I don’t like it at all. Especially not when I find my zip, open up my tent and find a bloke leaning over me with a rifle in his arms – which is what happened now.
When I saw he was in military uniform my first thought was ‘phew – no one is going to rob or murder me tonight’. My second fault was ‘crap – I’m in trouble now’. What were the chances? I’ve never ever been found by officials wild camping, why has it happened in the one country where the authorities are most strict about it. How did they find me? Why were they patrolling here? And if they weren’t looking for me, who/what where they looking for? When I stealth camp I’m super stealthy. I was into this building when no one was around and I had my lights off after dark, there’s no way they could have known I was there.
Picture this scene: I’m sat outside my tent in my boxers while this armed military man takes a photo of me and the tent with the bicycle in the background. Truly surreal. He noted down my passport details and told me to go with him on a motorbike. Not a chance. Not this time. I told him I was sick and that I was going back to sleep. To my surprise he replied: ‘OK’ and headed off with his colleague.
I suspected that wouldn’t be the last visit. I wasn’t able to get back to sleep – I really was sick, it was mega humid, there were rats in the building and every noise had me alert. An hour later two policemen returned to study my passport. I’m not sure they understood, but I told them I was ill and that I’d ride to the next town in the morning if they’d go away and leave me alone now – it was late and I needed to sleep.
I’d planned on making a break at dawn but by the time I awoke there were already voices outside. My fever had been brewing overnight and I woke knowing that I’d be sick or suffer another bout of diarrhea any second. I just made it out the back door and pulled my pants down when both happened, simultaneously.
The policeman heard me puking away and walked into my ‘room’ towards the rear door. ‘Hello? Hello?’ ‘Stop, stop! I’m fine, don’t come!’. His footsteps drew nearer and I turned away in shame. I don’t know if he poked his head out the rear door. If he did, he would have seen me trousers down, with a pool of vomit in front and a pool of excrement behind. I don’t want to know.
I crawled back into my tent feeling like death. The cops fled the scene, but returned an hour later to escort me to Bokpyin. They switched with another policeman on the way who was a real diamond. It was obvious I was struggling on the road (the hills weren’t big but the gradients were outrageous) and he’d park his motorbike on the top of each hill and walk down to push me up the last bits.
He dropped me off at a real dive by the bus station in town. I would have paid such good money for a night in a hotel feeling like this, but instead I had a dirty little box hanging over the sewage with plenty of gaps in the wooden floor for the mosquitoes to visit me from. Some workers were banging planks together to build a hut next door (it looked like they were just hitting nails in random places, hoping the building would stick together), which was the last thing my throbbing head needed.
Unable to sleep, I wandered out to buy some painkillers. The fresh air did me good and I had enough energy to stroll up to the hilltop pagoda. The sun was setting over the Andaman Sea – it was stunning. The paracetamol was kicking in and the imodium pills had blocked me up completely. I looked down at the hustle bustle below and had a rare moment of clarity. Sometimes I really wonder why I am putting myself through all this, but up there under the rainbow sky I was reminded that my problems are pretty small in the grand scale of things. I’m just a little speck cycling around a planet, which itself is just a little rock orbiting in space.
I should have stayed to rest properly, but the next morning I set off. Getting back to Thailand for the first England match of the Euros was more important to me. I was escorted the last few days to Kawthoung. The road was boring and tough – miles and miles of palm oil plantations over horribly steep hills. At least the policemen offered a source of entertainment:
They’d switch at regional province borders and whilst some would stick to me like glue, others would treat the escort like some kind of covert spy operation. They’d overtake me once every half hour and then sit waiting up the road smoking a cheroot cigar or looking at their phone. If I stopped somewhere for a break they’d ride back to check where I was and sit waiting around the corner. I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d seen one sat ‘reading’ a newspaper with cutouts for eyes, like in those old spy cartoons. I’d recognise their clothes but never actually see their face. Very strange. It reminded me of that movie ‘Duel’.
My second last escort was one of these and at 6pm he overtook me. It would be dark within half an hour. I tried to get his attention and ask where he wanted me to sleep but he’d gone off ahead. Now what? I didn’t want to cycle blind into the night and I also fancied putting a subtle middle finger up at him. So I slipped into the jungle and pitched my tent between the palms.
Turns out there was a pagoda 3km up the road. How was I to know? Why didn’t they just attempt to open a dialogue with me? The police caught up with me and I pretended not to understand the ‘where you sleep?’ questions. We stopped at a police station where an English speaking officer told me he’d been looking for me all night. For a moment I almost felt bad, but then remembered that I’d never asked anyone to escort me. ‘Well, if you’re colleague had just communicated with me instead of playing James Bond all day, we’d all be on the same wave length. Instead I was forced to sleep with the mosquitoes because he ditched me just before dark’.
The last policeman escorted me all the way to the border. He rode his motorbike beside me the whole day and saw me onto the boat to Thailand. I couldn’t wait to leave…
It may sound like I didn’t enjoy cycling Myanmar, but despite all the drama – I absolutely loved it. Was it worth the hassle? Yep, worth every second of it. The people in this country treated me wonderfully everywhere I passed through.
Even the police were nice, I just didn’t like having them around. The novelty wears off pretty quick and I can think of things I’d rather do than cycle for days accompanied by a motorbike. Some of them would give me thumbs up on the hills, even push me or buy me lunch. I don’t know why they didn’t just stick me on a bus, but I’m very grateful they didn’t. The one reason I didn’t want to cycle here is because I thought it would spoil my ‘pedal every meter’ achievement.
Myanmar was one of the most enjoyable countries I’ve cycled in for a long time. In many ways it reminded me of Central Asia. Everywhere I was met with beautiful smiles and welcomed warmly. Villages would erupt when I passed through. People seemed genuinely interested in meeting me and making me feel safe. It probably helps that you’ve only been able to get these places very recently.
Thank you to the wonderful people I met riding the road south – you made me excited about cycling in a way I hadn’t been for a long time. It was tough at times, but the best countries are the ones you have to work the hardest for – I know that by now.
I wonder if it’s an innately British thing to fancy oneself an intrepid explorer. Myanmar had satisfied my thirst for adventure but right now all I could think about was a cheese toastie from 7-Eleven…