FAR EAST Touring
I'm not sure where the impression came from. It may have been the wall of sandbags laid out to protect the border guards against bullets, the razor wire, the machine guns or the Burmese military uniforms rendered so sinister by decades of ruthless dictatorship. I slowly came to a stop, planted my feet in the scorched red dust on either side of my bike and reached for my passport. Feeling the intense sun on the back of my neck, I tried to get a feel for the mood of the guard in front of me and thought: “This is no Disney cruise no more.”
Riding here was not nearly as bad as I had feared. Drivers do commit the most outrageous infractions, but everyone seems to understand that we all need to bend a rule here or there every once in a while if we want to get anywhere, and no one breaks out in a screaming fit or threatens to run you over because of it. I'll take this brand of respectful chaos over road rage any day.
Border crossings always make me uneasy. In this case, we are entering Myanmar from Thailand via the seldom-used outpost of Htee Khee, and I have more on my mind than just getting across the border. The four kilometres of pleasant if eerily quiet cycling through the “no man’s land” between the two countries provide plenty of time to ponder what is coming. Hundreds of kilometres of punishingly steep dirt road through tropical rainforest separate us from the town of Dawei. Since it is still illegal for foreigners to camp in Myanmar and there are no services along this remote stretch of road, we’ll need to find transportation to take us across the mountains, and we are already well into the afternoon. But we’ll worry about that in due time. Right now, we have a border guard to charm. Fortunately we have a secret weapon, two really. And their effectiveness is a force to be reckoned with.
“SABADEEEEEEE!” calls out Alex, our four-year-old, from the seat of his little bike securely attached to the back of mine. He is clearly unfazed by the efforts made by the Burmese government to project the image that its regime means business. I turn around to explain that greetings in Burmese are not the same as in Thai, but the guard beats me to it, visibly amused by the bubbly little boy in front of him. At almost eight years old, his brother, Nicolas, close behind on his own bike, keeps a bit more to himself initially, but as the shower of candies and various other treats comes down on them, he warms up rapidly. Completing our caravan is my wife, Robyn, adding some much-needed beauty, feminine grace and sense of responsibility to our grubby band of boys. Before we know it, we are eating sweet bean-paste sandwiches with sticky-rice treats and drinking ice-cold water. Various military personnel line up to get their picture taken with our boys right next to the sign that specifically forbids taking any photographs. The atmosphere feels more like a country fair than a border crossing. Welcome to Myanmar. The boys have worked their magic once again.
Our trip began in Bangkok two weeks before. The first time Robyn and I were in the Thai capital was 10 years ago after spending a few months in India. Back then, the bustling metropolis felt like an oasis of tranquillity in comparison with turbulent Mumbai. This time around, however, coming in fresh from Vancouver with bicycles and two young boys in tow, the transition is a bit rougher. The idea of guiding the kids on bikes through Bangkok traffic is especially daunting.
At the beginning of each new adventure, it always takes me a few pedal strokes before the wobble of a loaded bike becomes familiar again, let alone with a kid attached to it. Add to this riding on the left side of the road in a city where traffic rules are always taken with a grain of salt or, in this case, a dash of fish sauce, and we were in for some serious white-knuckled family fun.
As we pushed off, I tried hard to look cool and project the image of the experienced traveller who has ridden in way worse conditions. Alex, who clearly picked up on a hint of tension in my voice, took it upon himself to fully convey the dramatic intensity of the moment by singing the “Imperial March” from Star Wars at the top of his lungs. It was the morning of Chinese New Year, so traffic was relatively light. We were guided by two cyclists, friends of our Warmshowers host, who helped us get to the railway station, where we hopped on a train out of the sprawling metropolis to the more manageable city of Ayutthaya to the north.
I was beaming with fatherly pride watching Nicolas expertly manoeuvring through the chaos of cars, trucks, tuk-tuks, mopeds and occasional chickens in perfectly executed sequences of hand signals, shoulder checks, bursts of acceleration and taps on the brakes. Alex, trailing behind me, just kept singing various Star Wars themes and seemed to thoroughly enjoy the ride.
What Bangkok traffic lacks in organization, it makes up for with civility and respect. Thai drivers lack the sense of entitlement that plagues us at home. Riding here was not nearly as bad as I had feared. Drivers do commit the most outrageous infractions, but everyone seems to understand that we all need to bend a rule here or there every once in a while if we want to get anywhere, and no one breaks out in a screaming fit or threatens to run you over because of it. I’ll take this brand of respectful chaos over road rage any day. The ride felt quite safe, especially since we didn’t have to find our way, thanks to our guides. Before we knew it, we were sitting on a train with our bikes by our side heading to the old capital of the Kingdom of Siam.
Ayutthaya proved to be a great place to get used to cycling under the intense heat. The roads are quiet and flat, making the bicycle the ideal way to visit the many fascinating ruins. The road out of Ayutthaya, however, was nothing
like the brochure. It was a long stretch of dusty, busy, shadeless highway running through utterly charmless industrial rice farms, albeit with some cool new birds to look at. Much of it was under construction too.
We made more than a few rookie mistakes during our first few days. A little concerned about finding food along a highway that seemed to have little to offer, we stocked up on overpriced junk food at a gas station, only to find out that there was a nice little restaurant immediately behind it. We soon realized that in Thailand, there is pretty much always somewhere to eat close by. It also took us some time to figure out our map. We discovered that the colour code and road numbers were not a completely reliable way to predict how big or busy a road was going to be. It was also oddly tricky to figure out where the towns actually were. At the end of our first real day on the road, when we realized that what we thought would be a town ended up being nothing more than an intersection with a freeway, we felt slightly deflated, which was incidentally where Robyn had her first flat tire.
We spotted a small roadside restaurant and walked to it. This is where we met Jae-Pei and our day suddenly turned around. Moments later, we were sitting on her surprisingly (given the location) pleasant patio, cold beer in hand. The kids were having a blast chasing each other around with a handful of local children in a game that no one seemed to fully understand. They would sporadically interrupt their running to go play with sticks on a rickety bamboo footbridge over an alarmingly deep canal and resume running after they caught their breath. No one would guess that they had just spent the entire day cycling under a merciless sun. Jae-Pei gave us permission to camp and fed us a feast. Just like that, the entire day was worth it. Even the flat tire, as we may not have stopped here had we not been forced to. Bicycle-touring involves a certain amount of vulnerability, but with that also comes endless opportunities to experience the kindness of strangers. No need to look up Jae-Pei’s restaurant in a guidebook. It isn’t there. A special place such as this, you have to stumble upon when you need it most, and the backroads of the world are full of them. It was an emotional morning when we had to say goodbye. The boys were especially saddened to leave their new Thai friends.
As we biked farther away from Bangkok, the roads became quieter and prettier. Day after day, treats of all kinds were pushed on our kids. Unfortunately, my boys’ penchant for adventure doesn’t generally extend to mealtime. While it is true that there is always somewhere to eat in Thailand, it doesn’t mean that my kids will want what’s on offer. They quickly figured out that they could skip the spicy steaming bowl of mystery-meat soup at lunch, and count on more than enough tasty roadside treats thrown at them in the afternoon to cover their caloric needs. We can worry about a balanced diet once we get back home. For now, we’ll test how far kids can pedal on a belly full of ice cream, peanuts, pop and chips. We stopped counting the number of times people pulled us aside to have their picture taken with us. And always the warm and sincere smiles, the thumbs up, the words of encouragement and this eagerness to help.
In Kanchanaburi, we packed ourselves into a minibus filled with other
“farangs” and had a blast on the tourist circuit. We rode elephants, swam in idyllic waterfalls, hiked in the jungle and rode on the “Death Railway.” While we thoroughly enjoyed our time away from our bicycles, we couldn’t help but notice how different our interactions with Thai people were. In fact, there was little interaction that wasn’t a transaction. Without our bikes, we were just another family on vacation. It’s not that I think we deserve special treatment more than anyone else, but the world is a different place when you travel by bike. There were far fewer smiles, no thumbs up, no treats. So after a short rest, we were happy to get back on our steeds and make our way to the Burmese border.
Once in Myanmar, we had little trouble securing a ride to Dawei for a reasonable price. But if the price was reasonable, the same could not be said for our driver, who never missed an opportunity to demonstrate his general disregard for the life of whomever happened to be on the road. After approximately five minutes of erratic driving, Alex vomited for the first time of many. We stopped several times to “improve” the tangled mess of ropes that was meant to hold the bikes to the roof rack. I pride myself in my knowledge of knots, but the driver obstinately refused my help, so I continued to cringe as the bikes rattled loudly while we bounced along the rough track. In the end, only the sidewall of my front tire was badly damaged in the ride, Alex was in rough shape, but we all made it safe and sound against all odds. Fortunately, we would discover in the next weeks that our driver’s recklessness was not representative of Burmese driving in general.
We arrived in Dawei at sunset and immediately experienced one of the challenges for foreign travellers in Myanmar. Since there are few hotels licensed to host foreigners in the country, rooms are scarce and prices are high. It took us several attempts and some stressful riding on unlit streets before we finally found a dramatically overpriced room well after dark. In the morning, a helpful hotel-staff member helped me find a new tire and we made a beeline for the Andaman Sea.
Riding in Myanmar is the closest I’ll ever get to what it must feel like to be in the leading peloton on the Tour de France. As I’m riding up the hill with my lungs and legs burning, motorbikes follow and spin laps around me with passengers snapping pictures. On the side of the road, people bounce up and down and shout with excitement as they see us approaching. Of course, being loaded like a mule under intense tropical heat and towing a child who seems to grow heavier every day, probably because of the endless supply of treats, all of this is happening at six km/h. This is where the Tour analogy somewhat falls apart.
Looking around, I wonder how it is that people who have so little and live in a dirt-poor fishing village that is not even on my map in a country that has been under an oppressive military government for decades smile and laugh more while they are working than I do at home when I go for a ride just for fun
on a bike that costs more than what an average Burmese earns in a year? I don’t know the answer, but if I could wish to learn one thing from my short time in Myanmar, it would be this ability to be happy with less and to keep joy so close to the surface.
Southeast Myanmar was only recently opened to foreigners and so we were blessed with beautiful beaches where local fishermen still far outnumber sunbathers. We spent weeks playing in the warm waves, exploring sleepy fishing villages, drinking from coconuts and eating delicious food. Since our average daily distance as a family was modest and camping poses a problem, we opted to put the bikes on buses several times to skip hundreds of kilometres of rubber and palm plantations and focus on riding in more picturesque areas. We cycled to monasteries where nuns play with resident monkeys. We explored caves and stunning temples set in lush tropical rainforest. On a small island where footpaths meander through bamboo houses, we were invited to a little girl’s birthday party and were served bowl after bowl of ice cream as people stared at us, smiling. We roamed for hours in exotic markets, taking in and sometimes running away in a sensory overload from the sights, sounds and smells.
We returned to Thailand toward the end of our trip reluctantly, using the much busier crossing of Mae Sot, where we were herded across the border much like cattle with masses of other people. We were reminded once again of the great freedom of cycling and its unlimited potential to easily get off the beaten track.
On our return to Canada, a friend told me, “It’s too bad, your kids are so young . . . . They probably won’t remember much.” If unhelpful, I can understand where this common comment is coming from. Travelling as a family is extravagantly expensive and it is normal to want to hold on to some memories. But forgotten as it may become, it doesn’t mean that the trip was a waste. Most of us have forgotten much of our childhood. What is left is a couple handfuls of memories that are likely largely inaccurate. I tend to remember sensations much more vividly than the actual details of events.
No matter how much we forgot, our childhood paved the path for who we are as adults. Each experience becomes a building block forming the foundation of how we see life and how we relate to others as grownups. After several thousands of kilometres biked on five continents, I forgot many of the places I have been to or people I have met along the way. What I remember from these experiences, however, is that the world is overwhelmingly filled with good people despite what the six o’clock news has to say. I remember how it feels to be helped by a stranger, and I want my kids to experience it for themselves too. If I am to raise children who will bring positive changes to the world, they first need to learn that our world is, indeed, astonishingly beautiful, filled with kindness and worth caring deeply about. And I know of no better place for anyone to discover this than on the seat of a bicycle.
Exploring a roadside temple in Kanchanaburi province, Thailand.
Buddhist monastery in the jungle near Ye, southern Myanmar
Traffic stop amidst respectful chaos in Thailand
Exploring the old capital of the Kingdom of Siam, Ayutthaya, Thailand
Fishing harbour in Cha-Am, Gulf of Thailand
Cycling the backroads near Ye, southern Myanmar
Ancient Buddha figure, Ayutthaya, Central Thailand
Demon Guards, Grand Palace, Bangkok
Local children at a small fishing village near Maungmagan in southern Myanmar
Friendly nuns in southern Myanmar
Thaweechi Elephant Camp in Thailand.