FAR EAST Touring

Pedal Magazine - - Far East Touring - STORY AND PHO­TOS BY AN­DRÉ-JEAN MA­HEU

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.

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