Until now, I feel like I’ve done a pretty bad job of telling tales of travel and adventure in the Republic of Armenia.
This feels counterintuitive, as Armenia is one of the countries in which I’ve spent the most time on the road, to where I have returned most often (those who’ve seen or read Janapar will know why), and thus about which I have the most to share.
Indeed, I was myself one of the estimated 100,000-strong crowd in Republic Square on Monday, when Serzh Sargsyan announced his resignation in the biggest political upheaval since the 1991 independence. ‘Electrifying’ doesn’t even begin to do the atmosphere justice.
The provocation that started it all? Spending the maximum 10 year term as President before rewriting the constitution and moving seamlessly into the new role of Prime Minister. He lasted all of six days. Doubtless Serzh had thought this a particularly clever manoeuvre in the face of mounting unpopularity, but it was a step too far for a newly empowered generation of Armenians – and he now looks set to bring down the entire establishment with him.
But this is not just a loud minority in Yerevan. It’s a truly national movement; one of those all-too-rare unifying forces that seems to have encompassed all. And while it would be fascinating to stay and experience how things play out in the capital, it’ll be equally fascinating to see how the rest of the country feels about it all – and I’ll be doing so from the seat of a bicycle.
I know, I know, it’s a tiny little country, smaller than Belgium and with a population comparable to Birmingham. But I think of Armenia’s diminutive size as an advantage. Rather than spreading myself thinly across a vast area, I can instead go deep, really getting under the skin of the place and satisfying lots of other travel clichés. As with my escapades in neighbouring Iran, speaking the language is bound to help with this.
The journey starts right now. Like, today. It’s going to be a bloody interesting ride – I don’t know why I haven’t done this before!
Tales from the road will appear here on TomsBikeTrip.com every week, as has become customary. I’ll share daily images and snippets on Twitter and Instagram (which will also go through to my least favourite social media platform). There might even be the occasional video, too.
With the kind and generous support of the Awesome Foundation’s Yerevan chapter, I’ll be sharing the best of the routes I ride, as well as writing up a spread of background information on cycling in Armenia on a dedicated new website, on which more details soon.
Rather than this being just another ‘look at me’ exercise, then, the legacy should be a collection of road-tested routes all over Armenia – routes that you can incorporate into your own rides if (when?) you finally make it over here…
Because you are planning a bike trip to the new and revolutionary Republic of Armenia, aren’t you?
This is #2 in an occasional series about cycle touring in each of the 50+ countries I’ve had the pleasure to ride through. I’m working my way through the list chronologically (and wishing I’d started earlier!). Read about the background to the series here.
The first country I went on a big bike trip in was Scotland. But I went with friends. The first time I tried it alone was in my home country: England.
I forget the precise date. I have neither photos nor diaries to reference. But it was some time in late 2006. My destination was Abergavenny, Wales, where an old university friend lived. He was about to embark on a big round-the-world backpacking trip, and for whatever reason (probably lack of money) I had decided to cycle there from the East Midlands, where I was living with my parents.
Given that I was in the early stages of planning a round-the-world mountain biking expedition called ‘Ride Earth’, I figured that a couple of days’ pedalling across Middle England would be good practice.
Turned out it wasn’t. It was too easy. Because England, I discovered, had these things called cycle routes.
The National Cycle Network: A touring cyclist’s best friend
In fact, it had a whole National Cycle Network, a concept to which I later discovered most of the world had yet to think of. Today it’s more extensive than ever, with 14,700 miles (23,700 km) of routes meeting official standards, including ten long-distance National Routes.
(This is thanks in large part to the work of the charity Sustrans, to whom I’ve been donating £10 a month for a very long time).
But even back in 2006, the National Cycle Network had me riding merrily across Northamptonshire, Leicestershire and Warwickshire without a sniff of a dual carriageway or busy main road.
In a country so densely populated and with so many cars on the roads, this was a Very Good Thing.
(A few years later, on returning from a world in which the idea of designated bicycle routes was just hilarious, I was moved to write an open letter to Sustrans in its praise.)
I remember – upon seeing the county boundary sign in the afternoon on the first day – being filled with such glee that my bicycle could so effortlessly have carried me so far away from the places I knew, purely as a result of picking a direction and pedalling for a few hours. That thrill – that freedom – was a precursor to many things.
That evening I attempted my first solo wild camp. With nothing to go on but my time as an officer cadet in the British Army, I had packed a bivvy bag and a poncho with the intention of throwing up a basha in the woods somewhere, just like I had on exercise. Alone at dusk, exposed and vulnerable, I bottled it. Citing mild drizzle in combination with inadequacies of my military-issue equipment, I hurried to the nearest village pub, paid for a room by credit card, and ate an utterly fantastic lamb and mint pie with chips and peas for dinner, washed down with a pint of ale.
It was a total failure.
But in failing, I discovered one of the best things about cycle touring in England.
English Pubs: The touring cyclist’s other best friend
In each country there are certain institutions around which cycle tourists can build practical aspects of life on the road. In England it has got to be the pub. The inn. The tavern. The alehouse. The local. The public house. Don’t you just love that phrase? A designated house in each settlement that’s open to the public? That’s a stroke of purest genius!
And many pubs, particularly in villages, particularly when there is only one pub in the village, really do feel like home.
Partly it’s the olde worlde appearance and decor which imparts a sense of timelessness, as if the space inside is somehow immune to the changing winds of global politics; a stoic refuge from things that matter.
But it’s also because of an oh-so-subtle transformation that happens once you cross the threshold: when you enter a pub you inhabit it. Only secondarily are you a customer. You may do more or less as you want, stay as long as you like, play darts, bring your dog, be social, be antisocial, order nothing more than a pint of orange squash and a packet of crisps.
There is none of the formal etiquette of the restaurant, none of the production-line queueing of the bakery or takeaway, none of the time-sensitiveness of the cafe or coffee shop where staff begin to silently bristle if you do not vacate your table the moment your cup is drained.
In short, they exemplify in bricks and mortar that strange, reserved form of public life that is typical of England.
Aside from that, pubs serve the very practical functions of serving food (including lunch) and ale (which has recently been renamed ‘craft beer’ for some reason), having bathrooms, refilling your water bottles, and sometimes also offering bed & breakfast accommodation, which can be handy in rural areas. British pub food has come a long way as the country has woken up to its past culinary reputation and set about rectifying it. Meals are hearty and portions are definitely on the cyclist-sized end of the spectrum: there’s a reason so many weekend warriors in the UK base their rides around the ‘pub lunch’, and if you stay the night, you’ll usually get a hearty fry-up to send you off in the morning.
In case you’re wondering, I made it as far as Hereford before jumping on the train for the last leg to Abergavenny, as I’d run out of time.
Incidentally, something else happened that day. And though not specifically related to cycle touring in England, I include this anecdote to illustrate the valuable change in perspective that comes with cycle touring even in one’s own backyard.
So, my girlfriend of a couple of years had very recently dumped me. It was still raw, and I had been festering over it for a while. And somehow, the long hours of riding prised my brain open long enough for a realisation to burst forth. She had not dumped me because I had decided to cycle round the world without her. She had dumped me because I had been a total dick.
And with that realisation came a rush of remorse and regret – and then, surprisingly, a kind of desperate sympathy for the poor girl, such that all I wanted to do was call up and apologise for, well, myself. It was a new and inspiring feeling. So I slammed on the brakes, got out my phone and did just that.
When she responded not with gentle forgiveness but by confirming that, yes, I had indeed been a total dick, I got all defensive and cocked it up again. Clearly I had a long way to go! But it was at least the start of the process of waking up to who and what I was, facilitated and mediated by a bike trip of all things. Cycle-therapy, perhaps you could call it! Cyclo-therapy… no, this pun’s going nowhere. But you get the point.
Anyway. So much for pubs and break-ups.
England’s Green & Pleasant Lands
The next time I found myself cycle touring in England was the following summer when I was trying to get as far the hell away as possible. At the time it felt like going to war with a life I’d grown to loathe. And I would win that war by leaving it all behind – the country of my birth, the ex-girlfriend, the job offers, even my poor parents who must have wondered what exactly they’d done to cause me to flee the island forever at the age of 23. I hated it all (not my parents, of course, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to live in a time-warp of a village in the East Midlands for the rest of my life).
And so I was leaving it all behind in the most literal sense possible, destination: the port of Harwich.
My two riding buddies and I set off through the country lanes to catch the ferry to Holland. It was midsummer and the combine harvesters were out in force. The air was full of a particular type of pollen that made the mucous membranes of my eyeballs itch and swell up and inflame to the point that I could barely see. We rode through Stilton and discovered that this quaint little village was merely where the famous cheese was sold, rather than where it was made (mostly in the Vale of Belvoir in north-east Leicestershire, which I knew because I’d recently programmed a new website for Long Clawson Dairy while saving up for the trip).
Several observations struck me as I rode for the coast on a mission to depart this wicked land.
The first was how nice the English countryside was in summertime. This annoyed me because I’d already decided England was shit and I wanted out. But it was undeniable: warm but not too warm, just enough rain to keep things green and fresh, no mosquitoes… and so quiet! With all of England at work 9 to 5 Monday to Friday, the roads were ours – narrow, winding, scenic roads made of good asphalt over low hills and through picturesque villages of limestone and sandstone with neatly-tended gardens in full bloom and trickling brooks with little bridges over them and benches to sit on and ancient churches and pubs. Pubs were great. (See above.)
The second observation was how nice the English people were.
Helpful and polite to a man, surprisingly inquisitive as to the intentions of three skinheads on heavily-loaded bicycles – and hospitable? Not at all a word I would have considered applying to the English. But of the nights we spent on the road to Harwich, fully three-quarters were spent camping in strangers’ back gardens at their invitation AND being fed by them.
These are statistics I usually trot out for the Middle East!
I mean, yes, we were cycling through the lands of the white middle classes and gentlemen farmers. It was hardly a representative picture of the country. But people don’t come to England in the summer and follow cycle routes and back roads around the countryside and expect a representative view. We’re travellers, not sociologists or anthropologists (though some of us may pretend we are). Our experiences are the very definition of subjective.
And in those short few days I was confronted with subjective evidence that my almost fervent loathing of life in England was borne of an equally subjective kind of storytelling – stories composed of second-hand news, other people’s opinions, and gross generalisations, as chosen and told by my own dissatisfied inner voice. The subjective truth, right here, right now, was that England and the English were actually pretty nice.
(Of course I ignored all of this and got on the ferry anyway: it would take a few years to reconcile my tendency towards wanton oversimplification, and in any case I had committed to Riding Earth – lucky for you, dear reader, otherwise this blog series would end right here.)
The English Sense Of Humour
I found precisely the same thing a few years later, when I really was dependent on the niceness of the English to ride across their country, because I was doing so without a penny to my name.
I met scores of friendly strangers who would hear out my madcap scheme and play happily along with the ironic pointlessness of choosing to be destitute, never taking my silly mission too seriously and thus helping me to do likewise.
England is, of course, a so-called ‘rich country’, whose government can afford to support its poorer citizens and in which credit culture is deeply embedded. So perhaps it was that complacency around the availability of money that endeared folk to the FreeLEJOG project. (Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the concept working were this not to be the case.)
Wild Camping in England
That ride also helped hone my approach to wild camping in England.
For such a densely-populated island I found sleeping rough in the British countryside remarkably easy, thanks mainly to the ubiquity of hedgerows.
These lines of closely-spaced shrubs and trees have been used for centuries to enclose and subdivide land, particularly farmland, creating in the process the esoteric art of hedgelaying – in fact, hedges are so much a part of England’s heritage that cutting one down is now a criminal offence!
They also act as windbreaks, wildlife corridors, barriers to livestock… and easily-accessible hiding places for touring cyclists.
England’s canals: perfect for cycling (& camping)
Other good wild-camping spots in England can be found alongside navigable rivers and canals, of which there are over 3,500km in Britain as a whole. Many canals also double up as traffic-free cycling routes with the original towpaths now repurposed for leisure users, including cyclists as long as they ride considerately (tip: this is also a great way to pedal across London, Birmingham and other cities of the industrial north).
Also, boat people and bike people tend to share a common understanding of the romance of itinerancy and nomadism; few narrowboat-dwellers on public moorings will mind you pitching up nearby for the night.
Making the most of England’s national heritage
I wound up working for food for a few days at a National Trust campsite in the Lake District where my money-free project intersected with two of the UK’s most precious institutions: the National Parks and the National Trust.
England’s 10 National Parks (instigated in 1932 by the ‘most successful direct action in British history’) offer in my opinion some of the best riding in the country and a rare chance to see what the island might have looked like before the encroachment of humankind. (I have a soft spot for the Lake District, having spent a very happy year living there.)
And the National Trust does an enormous amount to look after what nature and wildlife does remain, as well as giving visitors the means to engage with it. Anyone planning a tour of England incorporating more than a few of the charity’s stunning properties would do well consider the benefits of joining.
Cycling organisations in England
England is going through a phase of obsessiveness with cycling, due in large part to the high-visibility (sorry, so sorry) success of British riders in the Olympics and the Tour de France in recent years.
It is somehow ironic that the official government body representing cyclists’ interests – Cycling England – was dissolved in 2011, but at least we still have its non-governmental counterpart Cycling UK, whose lineage goes all the way back to 1878.
What cycling’s popularity means for the tourer, among other things, is that there’s plentiful company on the roads – particularly at weekends, when one may have enormous fun drafting plump pelotons of MAMILs on one’s fully-loaded touring bike – and there are well-stocked bike shops everywhere, including several that specialise in cycle touring.
You’ll also find cafés and coffee shops in rural areas with cake portions that seem as if they’ve been measured specifically for cyclists – probably because they have.
Much like the German ‘Bett und Bike’ (bed and bike, duh) initiative, England too has a growing network of specifically bicycle-friendly accommodation along many of the most popular routes.
So there’s a good start.
Cycle tourists exploring Europe tend to overlook this little cluster of rainy islands in the north Atlantic. But I hope I’ve convinced you to consider England for your next bike trip. Once you get used to the accent, you’ll feel right at home.
This is a guest post by Marco Ferrarese. I met Marco on the road last year in Armenia and knew a fellow free spirit when I saw one. Turns out his back catalogue of adventures is fascinating, and he’s a damn fine writer too. So when I heard he was off on his first unplanned bike trip – on a folding bike across Sulawesi – and since we’ve been on the subject of cycle touring in southeast Asia recently, I invited him to tell us about it here.
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“I… can… do… it!!!”
Even my thoughts were exhausted. I was pushing up the umpteenth hill, which had come after yet another mountain, in an interminable series of harsh slopes I had to endure on my short bike tour of central Sulawesi: a very hard place for a biker’s maiden voyage.
The day before, as I started cycling from the small town of Ampana, the landing point for most travellers bound for the Togian Islands, I had seen a huge poster advertising a “Tour De Central Celebes”. The route I’d decided to take was the same chosen to host an international cycling race just a couple weeks before. Days later, a local told me that an American cyclist had puked midway, stopping for the day as the ride was too tough.
It became clear as I pushed on my tiny foldable pedals, inching my way up the umpteenth bend, that this wasn’t the best place for a total cycle touring newbie. Especially a total newbie on a tiny folding bicycle.
Why cycling in Indonesia, of all things?
Let me rewind and tell you a bit about myself. I am Marco Ferrarese, a travel writer, and I’ve spent 10 years living, studying and researching in Asia. “Travel writer” sounds quite pompous and fancy, for sure, but among my modest achievements I do have bylines in the Guardian, CNN Travel, BBC Travel, Nikkei Asian Review, Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia and more airline magazines that I can remember.
I’ve lived in Southeast Asia, on the beautiful and historically rich island of Penang in Malaysia, for a decade. I pour some of that knowledge in a series of guidebooks to Malaysia, Brunei and Thailand, which I co-author for the Rough Guides, one of the world’s leading travel publishers.
My wife, Malaysian-Chinese photographer Kit Yeng Chan, was on another folding bike. Kit and I have travelled together for the best part of the above mentioned decade, before we married last year. Since meeting her in 2008, we have visited more than 30 countries together, overlanding from Asia to Europe twice. We have always travelled by hitchhiking or using trains and public transport.
Cycle touring has been at the back of our minds for years, but for one reason or another – i.e. carrying expensive photography gear on assignment – we never really decided to do it. I, like many others I guess, stumbled upon Tom’s three steps to cycling around the world and totally loved the simplistic attitude. As a former metalpunk guitarist and cockroach Asia Old Hand, it was exactly what I had been doing for a decade, sans the bike.
I was lucky enough to cross paths with Tom last year in Armenia as Kit and I journeyed from Iran to Italy overland to get married. After meeting up, my desire for cycle touring grew stronger and stronger. On the eve of yet another research trip – this time to ride a Phinisi live-aboard boat across the eastern Indonesian islands – we decided to do it.
We bought two 14-speed, 20″-wheel folding bikes… and that was it, because we didn’t even have the time to find helmets, let alone panniers. We got some bungee cords, a sun hat in place of a helmet, a few big plastic bags (that’s waterproofing for the real adventurer), and off we went. We thought that, with a bit of willpower and figuring out things as we went, touring on folding bikes should be totally possible. And besides the bloody Sulawesi mountains, it sure was.
Cycling in remote Sulawesi: some important basics
Think of Indonesia and images of Bali’s trash-cluttered beaches or Java’s horrible traffic and mind-boggling temples may come to mind. Sulawesi is an entirely different kind of beast.
Possibly the oddest-shaped island in the world, as it looks like a letter ‘K’ with a very long upper arm, Sulawesi’s beauty is the fact it’s well off the tourist radar. Its people are the most welcoming blend of Christians – particularly in the northern region of Manado – and Muslims, and you won’t find many English speakers here. The good thing is that basic Bahasa Indonesia is pretty easy to master, and you’ll be able to communicate simply in no time. A little bit of language here goes a very long way, and you’ll have a much better experience.
Sulawesi’s nature and topography are its second perk: mountains spread from the centre all over the island, nestling almost all the way to the coasts – which are endless, pristine, and uncontaminated. Hundreds of kilometres of perfect coves, beaches and offshore islands, palm-fringed and inviting, wait for you round all corners. Throw in some endemic monkeys, such as the Macaca Nigra (remember the monkey selfie? Yes, that one) and plenty of birds, and you get a timeless Southeast Asian experience. Forget the 7/11s, clean bedsheets and Wi-Fi: this is another world.
The part of Sulawesi we cycled, starting in Ampana and proceeding 200km south along the western side of Poso Lake, Indonesia’s third-biggest, has recently recovered from a religious inter-ethnic conflict, which came to an end in 2011. It’s safe again now, but the reputation doesn’t attract many travellers, who usually zoom from famous Tanah Toraja to Ampana and jump on the first boat to the Togian islands. Big mistake, for the Poso region may as well be the hidden gem in Sulawesi’s crown.
One last hint regarding Sulawesi’s food: it’s generally tasty and cheap, but, like eastern Indonesian food in general, it relies heavily on rice and fish. If you are a vegetarian you may have a bit of a hard time finding different options rather than the same tempe (a crunchy soy bean derivate, very delicious) and kailan (local green veggies) every day.
Pros of cycling in central Sulawesi
The biggest plus has got to be the friendly people who are genuinely curious about foreigners, and are always ready to help. We cycled for five days and, even having camping equipment, we always ended up staying with locals. Either we slept in their homes or camped in their gardens, they always had some food and drinks to offer. Which doesn’t mean you should come prepared to exploit the people of Sulawesi, rather that you can be more relaxed in terms of carrying provisions, for hospitality here is very genuine.
Again, speaking a bit of the language is helpful to open more of the doors. We found most people of all age groups to be very curious about us, and open to share what they had. Make sure that, whenever you enter a village, you visit the ‘kepala desa’ (village chief) and explain your intentions. Most of the time, you will be automatically invited to pitch your tent or stay in a local home. If you travel as an unmarried couple, I believe it pays to say you are married, especially in those Muslim villages that may shun you if you don’t. Best keep any Western pride at home and respect local sensitivities.
Point one also means that food is available in most villages en route, and you will never cycle for more than 20km without some sign of civilisation.
There are more ‘bengkel’ than food shops. ‘Bengkel’ are motorcycle workshops, and we used them all the time to check and fix the bikes. I had three punctures, and each time, one of these shops fixed it quickly for a mere 5,000 to 10,000 Rupiahs (0.30 to 0.60 USD). Again, people are friendly, and will go out of their way to make sure you and your vehicle are safe and sound.
Cons of cycling in central Sulawesi
It’s very hot. You will have to start as early as possible and stop by midday, or you’ll risk heatstroke. Sunset comes early at around 6 to 6:30 pm, meaning that riding time is limited to a minimum, unless you scoot out of bed at 5 am like most locals.
The roads are quite well maintained, but turn into gravel the more you proceed around the lake itself.
There are no bicycle shops outside of Manado and Makassar, both hundreds of kilometres away.
You will not learn anything about fixing and maintaining your bike, because people will do it for you!
Cycle touring with folding bicycles
Call me a wuss because I only cycled 200km and then put the bike on top of a shared taxi to get to the next stop. In my defence, I’m pushing 40, and although I’m modestly fit, the terrain of Sulawesi is harsh. We never started this trip with the obsession that we had to cycle every inch of the way – we just wanted to have a good time, trying something we never tried before.
But it turned out that, besides having 10kg of luggage strapped with flimsy cords on top of the rear rack, a 20″-wheel folding bike can do the job quite happily. The bikes (Exitway March and Nevada models) felt quite sturdy, were easy enough to tighten up when the joints felt wobbly, and most important, folded in less than 10 seconds. This last part impressed us as much as the locals.
Also, locals had never seen a folding bike before, and this added to our killer surprise effect. The local kids would follow us on their cranky little bikes as far as the remotest limits of their villages. Village headmen would look at our rides with faces so pitiful; the next thing we knew their wives were coming with hot food and drinks. And the coffee is delicious over there. And of course it was very easy to fold the bikes and transport them on the many boats we took prior to reaching Sulawesi.
Because of pure physics, a folding bike usually means fewer gears, and less mileage because of smaller wheels. I am convinced that, if I’d had a regular touring bike, the task of knocking off those mountain passes would have been more merciful.
But the key, as I anticipated earlier, was embracing flexibility more than anything else: we started our trip in Makassar, took a 4‑day ferry ride all the way to West Papua, and from there hopped on the Phinisi back to the Moluccas. There was so much water in between the land we explored that a regular touring bike would have been a pain in the neck to lug around.
We would have been able to continue on the folding bikes much further if we had had more time and preferably better gear – at the very least a pair of proper panniers. Tying the luggage to the rear rack every morning was such a sweaty waste of time. We will test the folders again in peninsular Malaysia, on pretty flat terrain, to see how far they can actually take us on less taxing road conditions.
Until then, my final message is that I vouch for doing whatever we set our minds to, rather than argue over the superiority of regular or folding bikes. I don’t care, to be honest. I feel fortunate enough to have decided to go, and tested first hand that Tom’s suggestion works: just get a bike and go, and figure out the rest later. Sulawesi proved to be a perfect place, because regardless of the steep terrain, the human element was always there to help.
As for myself, I think that by now, I may be able to change an inner tube – but not like an Indonesian mechanic, oh no. They do it without taking the wheel off, and there’s no way a loser writer like myself will ever master that skill.
Scotland was where it all started. Little did I know my first week-long cycle tour – an ill-advised crosscountry jaunt through the West Highlands – was going to have such a profound effect.
It seemed unlikely at the time. For that week in May, Scotland did not hesitate to deliver its traditional punishments of mountains, midges and rain, and my companions and I were, to put it mildly, ill-prepared for any of it. We suffered. We were tested. We were found sorely lacking in almost every department: the arrogance of youth piling headlong into a chasm of inexperience. Fun it was most definitely not.
Yet we made it! And there was something deeply intoxicating in emerging from a dark journey that had taken us so far beyond what we knew, to wild places that made riding happily out of Inverness on Day One seem like a distant memory, that made the prospect of ever returning to civilisation a long-forgotten dream.
More than anything else, what defined this new approach to a bike ride – in which one did not simply end up back where one had started at the end of the day – was that redemption always lay ahead, beyond challenges and experiences unimaginable and undiscovered. Giving up and turning back would achieve nothing.
And the feeling that – were I to continue, day upon day – those challenges and experiences would never stop coming nor delivering the rewards of living through them was, I think, the drug that sucked me in and left me lusting ever more strongly for adventure; an addiction I now can never cure, as here I am, nearly 12 years later, having crossed half the world on a bicycle and still going.
Scotland is where Englishmen have always gone to test their mettle once the nice but overcrowded delights of the Peaks and the Lakes have outlived their appeal. Things assume the form of the land the English wish they hadn’t tamed so completely; the land they remorsefully imagine England might somehow still be like had they not harnessed her and arranged her appearance so heavy-handedly in a frenzy of civilisation, agriculture and industry. Scotland, the northern half of the island of Britain; the wild step-sibling of the prim and proper south, a place where (from an English perspective) the familiar and the foreign both rear their heads to produce complex feelings nowhere else can quite reproduce, simultaneously of homecoming and visitorship; a thing very difficult to articulate.
Crossing the border and weaving among the valleys of Scotland (as I did again in 2014 as part of a long ride north on roads and cycle routes), it felt as if someone had dialled down the volume of the land, leaving a silence imbued with constantly changing qualities. Suddenly it was space and time and the minutiae that dwelt within both that dominated my experience. No longer was I navigating a world so overtly designed and moulded by mankind.
In Scotland – particularly as you press up and out towards her extremities – you will find moor and mountain still confident in itself, where people may have dabbled but seldom overextended their reach, as if the ancient lands could subdue and humble each generation of inhabitants before they exacted their worst excesses.
There are quite simply fewer souls here with whom to share the road. It is far easier to feel that you have gone beyond the bounds of human society and are a narrow track’s width away from the cliché of true communion with nature. And it is a kind of nature – dramatic, prehistoric, simmering with a hint of dormant savagery – with which you will likely form a close relationship during your time there. Especially when, as frequently happens, the heavens open and you discover the true meaning of ‘cold, wet and miserable’.
Two practical aspects of cycle touring in Scotland embody all of this for me. The first is a piece of legislation known as the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, which among other things formalises the right to camp freely, at least temporarily, more or less anywhere you would reasonably consider doing so.
Partly this is just writing down what should be common sense in a sparsely populated place where people come to spend time outdoors. But it also means that you will always know where you stand when it comes to putting up your tent: it is your legal right to do so. North of Hadrian’s Wall, never again shall you stress out about ‘getting caught’. With it comes the moral imperative not to abuse that right, of course. But that rarely seems a problem among cycle tourers.
The second is naturally of more interest to bikepackers and mountain bikers, and it concerns the (until recently) little-known culture of the bothy. Bothies are simple shelters in remote places, privately owned in most cases, maintained by volunteers, and left with the doors unlocked for free public use. It takes real effort to reach most of them, for by their nature they tend to serve regions far from roads or settlements, often having been shepherds’ or hunters’ shelters in a previous incarnation. This serves as some protection from the abuse they would undoubtedly suffer were they easier to get to (the kind of abuse that has seen wild camping rights suspended on the eastern shores of Loch Lomond).
For the intrepid cyclist – perhaps one with fatter, knobblier tyres on their bike and an appetite for rewarding detours – bothies represent an idiosyncratic subculture of mountainous Britain with a practical purpose for the adventuring cyclist.
When I first combined biking and bothying on that maiden voyage in 2006, the only way to find out where they were was to join the Mountain Bothy Association and receive a printed handbook in the post containing grid references, which you would then cross-reference with Ordnance Survey maps to find that the bothy in question was indeed on the map all along yet disguised as something else. Nowadays, especially in the wake of a recent awareness explosion thanks to several populist books, blogs and short films on the phenomenon, it’s somewhat easier.
Indeed, rather than try and stem the tide, the MBA now make the locations of the bothies they maintain public on their website (and would undoubtedly appreciate a charitable donation if you do make use of them).
Though it’s often the land that draws people to Scotland, it would be disingenuous to write about cycle touring in Scotland without mentioning its people. While planning my tour of the UK with Janapar in 2013, I’d put out a call for people to host screenings, several of which ended up being north of the border, with the result that I spent several chilly weeks riding between gigs on a folding bike, being hosted by a broad spectrum of strangers along the way.
And if there’s any gross generalisation worth making based on my experiences in Scotland, it’s an extension of the rule that the further you travel from London, the friendlier people get. While it’s as good as impossible to extract the influence of one’s own expectations from any social interaction, my impression of the Scots has been of an approachable and upfront demeanour that I simply wouldn’t expect further south.
I still have the final leg of the iconic Land’s End to John O’Groats to knock off. And each time I stumble upon pictures from the Hebrides, the Orkneys, or the Shetlands, or see the latest quasi-autobiographical Danny McAskill film pop up on Youtube, I’m reminded that there are nearly a hundred offshore islands of Scotland, more remote still and waiting to be explored.
So while Scotland may have been the theatre of my first romance with cycle touring, I doubt I’ll have seen the last of her.
You know those occasional experiences you have as a traveller which are so unpredictable, so spectacularly and relentlessly off-the-charts random, that you wake up the next morning having difficulty believing what happened, that the story you remember playing out wasn’t just the hallucinogenic outgrowing of a drug someone slipped into your drink, or a particularly feverish dream – you know the kind of thing I mean?
My first 24 hours on a bicycle in Myanmar was one such experience.
Partly it was Thailand’s fault. Thailand had made us soft, complacent. Thailand had been like having a nice long massage, perhaps a sauna and a swim, and a meal in your favourite restaurant. Myanmar, by comparison, was like being a contestant on a Soviet remake of Gladiators.
It didn’t start off too bad, to be fair. I mean, it wasn’t bad at all, really. Just completely and utterly incomprehensible. To this day I have no idea what really happened, let alone why.
We’d hopped across the tidal estuary on a very small wooden boat to whose skipper we’d paid 300 Baht to transport us (that’s me and my wife) and our bikes from Ranong to Kawthaung. A couple of years ago this would have constituted an illegal border crossing, but since the Burmese authorities opened the land borders with Thailand for international travellers (the Kraburi River technically counting as a ‘land border’), the dynamics have changed somewhat. We’d already spotted a couple of weathered-looking European faces conducting visa runs: a quick skirmish with the waterfront street hawkers of Kawthaung in exchange for another month of wallowing in the safe, predictable loveliness of Thailand.
On the road north out of Kawthaung, I found myself ticking off all the things that were suddenly different. Slow travel across international borders encourages you to draw superficial comparisons, partly because it’s such an easy and entertaining game to play. Thailand was like this; look! – Myanmar is like that. Thai people did this, whereas the Burmese are doing that.
The ubiquitous Chang beer logos were replaced with those of Myanmar and Andaman Gold on the drapery festooning roadside refreshment stands. The asphalt beneath my tyres, I noted, was marginally less coarse in texture and with a significantly higher incidence of potholes. Gone was the nice, wide shoulder upon which to ride with at least the illusion of being in a zone of safety. The stores lining the main route out of town were smaller, dustier, wonkier, more ramshackle, and it was even less clear at a glance what it was they actually sold.
People shouted a bit louder; scooter riders even more daring in their U‑turn-pulling, pavement-mounting, unannounced-reversing-into-oncoming-traffic stunts. And I saw more police cars in ten minutes of pedalling than in the previous four weeks.
There was a rawness and a tension in the air I realised had been conspicuously absent in Thailand, and I was hit by a sudden wave of familiarity, flashbacks of times in the Middle East and Africa when I’d got the very same vibe. I felt somehow comforted by this, as if I was back on familiar ground.
After a while you realise how sensitive you must have become to the particular habits and idiosyncrasies of the people and places whose company you’ve left behind, because most of the differences you see are in fact so minor, objectively speaking, that a newcomer would struggle to notice them at all, seeing instead just ‘South East Asia’.
But one big difference was impossible to ignore:
There were no other foreign travellers whatsoever.
Kawthaung occupied barely half a page of our guidebook. It mentioned a waterfall a few clicks north. The next entry was Myeik, 500km further up the road. Whatever lay in the England-sized gap between us and the next city, the author hadn’t got off the bus to find out. I pondered that the kilogram of paper we were lugging around would be of more use starting a campfire than telling us anything about where we were going, and that by the same logic we should probably hang onto it. Then I remembered why I’d never before brought a guidebook along before in 11 years of cycle touring: they’re concerned with destinations, not the places in between where all the dramas of bicycle travel play out.
Anyway, it’s somehow more fun not knowing what’s around the next corner. (Yes, that old trope again. But it’s true.)
It was somehow hotter, though all we’d done was cross a river. It was more mountainous here, though – perhaps the micro-climate was different as a result?
We stopped for cold drinks and played that good old game with a food vendor of pointing quizzically at things and receiving something entirely different ten minutes later. We rode. The traffic thinned out, and we found ourselves alone on the solitary road north through Tanintharyi, Burma’s slender southern finger; perhaps the least-visited region of the least-visited nation in South East Asia.
It was nice to feel the thrill of anticipation of an oncoming adventure, because while riding through south-west Thailand had been joyous in many ways, it had not even begun to challenge me. I would struggle to describe it honestly as more than a long, spontaneous cycling holiday. Which was, of course, exactly what Tenny and I had needed at that point in time.
Myanmar, on the other hand, was always going to be a different beast. Thailand had been set up for an easy ride, whilst here was the polar opposite. No tourist infrastructure for hundreds of kilometres at a time. Endemic malaria necessitating prophylactics and other precautions (I’ve had it; trust me, it’s not worth the risk). Roads of unknowable quality but by all accounts problematic. And all the bemusements and weird reactions of a place that’s had the scent of tourism waved beneath its nose but still doesn’t really know what it looks or tastes or feels like.
That we were all fine with. Been there, done that.
What we weren’t fine with – and what had been brewing like a particularly stinky batch of Thai fish sauce ever since the idea of coming here was raised – was the likelihood of having the ‘Where The Fuck Are We Supposed To Sleep In Myanmar’ experience. I shall abbreviate this henceforth as ‘WTF’.
For the uninitiated, WTF is what happens when you realise that every option you would usually rely on as a low-budget bicycle traveller for spending the night on the road (wild camping, staying at a cheap hostel or guesthouse or campsite, or giving someone the opportunity to invite you to stay with them, in varying order of preference) is either several hundred kilometres away or highly illegal.
Because when shaky first attempts to stimulate a tourist industry combine with the deep insecurities of a government that is trying desperately to control everything, the result is utterly unworkable rules such as the one whereby foreign visitors are only allowed to sleep in specifically accredited establishments – which, of course, are only located where there is a reasonable chance of operating a sustainable business. In a country the size and sparsity of Myanmar with the current number of foreign visitors, this is almost nowhere a bicycle traveller is ever going to be when they want to sleep.
This rule is said to be proactively enforced with all the dispassionate zeal the authorities of Myanmar have become known for in other areas of, erm, ‘governance’.
Now, as anyone who’s been around a bit will know, we bicycle travellers are particularly adept at hacking circumstances in order to do our thing. We have to, because the world is not exactly set up to cater for us at the best of times. So has the rule stopped people riding across Myanmar since the borders were opened?
Not likely. The result is that the internet is (relatively) awash with the tales of people who have confronted WTF head-on, biked across Myanmar in defiance of the impossible rules, and lived to tell the tale.
On reading more widely, a pattern emerges: you should get away with it if you’re savvy, but there’s always a risk you’ll get caught, because hiding well is surprisingly hard. The best case scenario is that you talk your way out of being uprooted and driven to a hotel by the police in the middle of the night. The worst case scenario is that your tent is confiscated, you’re forced to cycle to a hotel in the middle of the night, which may be many hours’ ride away, and/or you’re fined for the severe transgression of lying down on the ground and closing your eyes. That really doesn’t happen very often. But you still can’t help wishing you hadn’t read more widely.
As the afternoon wore on and Kawthaung drew ever more distant behind us, the doubts began to nibble and nag. We were still firmly in oil palm plantation country. Villages and farms were frequent and people plentiful. Every time we saw a likely-looking trail into the jungle upon which to disappear, some bloke on a scooter would burst forth from the undergrowth to remind us that our chances of going unnoticed were slim. It was our first night in Myanmar and – sure enough – we were already being confronted with WTF.
Checking the sparse-looking map, we noticed a village about 10km distant that apparently sported a number of temples. Buddhist temples had been mentioned repeatedly as a rare safe haven in which to sleep, seeming to act as exclusion zones to the stupid rules if you didn’t mind hanging out with the monks. After spraying ourselves liberally with 95% DEET, we decided to make for the village. Unless we stumbled upon a very good opportunity to camp in the rainforest in the meantime, we would angle for staying at one of those temples.
It was dusk by the time we arrived, rounding a bend at the top of a hill to see the village bathed in that special light you get just after sunset when the sky turns orange and pink. On our right was an ornate gateway at the entrance to one of the biggest temple complexes we’d come across, with a steep driveway leading up between clusters of large buildings to the foot of a hill, where we could just make out the foot of what must have been a hefty flight of steps to the hilltop shrine and its carvings and golden spires.
But while there were plenty of kids roaming around the complex, we couldn’t see a single adult, and the towering austerity of the whole spectacle made us hesitate to dive on in and start pitching up.
Opposite the temple’s entrance was the village police station.
“Shall we ask in there?” I said to Tenny, pointing at the small bungalow. It seemed like the easiest way to find anyone with authority to help orient us towards an acceptable course of behaviour – plus, by checking in with the local police, we’d effectively have permission to stay wherever they suggested, as we’d read of other cyclists having done.
“OK,” she said, and we hopped off our bikes and ambled over to the unkempt building, inside which we could hear men talking and laughing. A younger chap saw us first and I waved to him, putting on my very best gormless, grinning tourist face as he stepped outside.
“Hotel? Sleep?”. The usual hand gestures. He looked bemused, turned and shouted something, and an older man appeared, struggling to pull on a shirt which identified him as some kind of higher-ranking officer.
“Hotel? Sleep?” I repeated dumbly, maintaining the stupid grin.
“No hotel.” The response was curt and tinged with impatience. “Buddha. Buddha, sleep.” And he pointed right at the temple opposite.
“Buddha? Buddha sleep?” I repeated in an inquisitive tone, also pointing, still grinning.
“Yes, no problem.” Evidently satisfied that his work was done, the older man turned and retreated to the building, followed by my effervescent thanks.
“Well, that’s good enough for me,” I said to Tenny.
It seemed WTF hadn’t been too hard to overcome on this occasion, though there was still the question of how exactly the negotiation with the monks would play out. We crossed the road and pushed our bikes up the steep drive towards the hilltop shrine. Groups of children stopped in their tracks to watch. Others peeped from doorways of surrounding buildings, alerted as to the presence of a strange new oddity to gawp at. None approached: we were an altogether unfamiliar spectacle. So many children… was this some kind of school, as well as a temple?
By the time we reached the base of the shrine’s staircase we had an audience of maybe 200 with an average age of around eight. Still not an adult to be seen. Tenny was getting nervous. I too felt a not exactly pleasant sense of disorientation, like floundering in an ocean far from any land – a bewilderment and a tension that came from knowing how to swim but having no idea in which direction to go. In such scenarios there’s nothing for it but to strike out at random, and so with Tenny waiting by the bikes I dashed up the steps to the top of the shrine, whereupon the vastness of the surrounding jungle stretched out in the gloom: beautiful, but yet another reminder that we were in the middle of freaking nowhere and slightly out of our depth. By the time I descended, Tenny had made friends with some of the kids (she’s good like that) and spotted the silhouette of a man on the terrace of a big two-storey building nearby, who had obviously heard the commotion. Bingo.
We wheeled our bikes over. It was difficult to make out his face in the darkness, what with the brightly illuminated interior behind him, but he was wearing the unmistakeable golden robes of a Buddhist monk, and carried an aura that was at the same time genteel and authoritative.
“Hello! We are looking for a place to sleep – we have our own tent – we were wondering if there was a piece of land or an empty building we could use to stay the night.”
I may have imagined the monk smiling slightly.
But his tone was pleasant and good-humoured. He indicated to the grand entranceway to the building and moved to go inside. Tenny’s plaintive appeal for help and accompanying hand gestures had at least got us an audience with… someone.
We wheeled our bikes over, slipped off our shoes and climbed the broad wooden steps to the terrace and a wide side-entrance to the second floor of the building, where our interlocutor was on the phone to someone.
“Speak English!” he said, pointing at the handset, and indicated that we sit on the floor. You habitually expect there to be a chair or some other furnishings to help you arrange yourself; here we cast around for a cue but eventually just plonked ourselves awkwardly on the wooden floor in the middle of the room, not quite knowing which direction we were supposed to face or in what position to sit. The hall was easily big enough for a couple of hundred people, with a dazzlingly illuminated statue of the Buddha at one end, adorned with twinkling decorations and offerings. In the dark at the back of the hall were stacks of low chairs and tables, and behind them shelves piled high with plates and other crockery. The opposite side of the hall was also dark, but I could see a number of antechambers between the pillars lined with bookshelves and wall-mounted displays. If it wasn’t a school, it was certainly something similar.
The buzzing of a moped outside interrupted the serenity. Seconds later, an energetic man walked in, greeted us warmly, and bowed deferentially to the monk, who appeared unmoved by the adulation. He introduced himself as Naing Htoo.
“Naing Htoo. You can remember it like Nine-Two. Nine and two makes – ELEVEN!!! Ha-ha-ha!”
Clearly this was not a new routine.
A minute later we too were kneeling deferentially before the monk, who lounged on a bench in a corner expressing a faint curiosity in the performance before him, our new friend Eleven acting as translator.
“This my teacher. This very important man.”
And Eleven related the story of the guy we’d figured was just another of Myanmar’s half-million monks, who it turned out had been travelling in the region many years ago, noticed how many street kids there were, and been inspired to build the orphanage (aha!) in which we now sat and over which he presided. It had been operational for more than a decade and subsisted entirely on donations: food, building materials and other supplies, and funding, much of which came, apparently, from Chinese donors.
Eleven handed us an A4 pamphlet adorned with photos of the monk and his monastery-school-orphanage, which in a strange style of auto-translated exalted English set out this genesis story and the ‘vision mission’ of the organisation. While there was a certain air of personality-cultishness about the whole thing, you had to admit that the guy had provided a home and education to several hundred otherwise parentless kids in a remote border region, and had probably earned the right to be slightly smug about it.
After a long introductory session during which the pecking order was established and tea and coffee and water and sweets offered, we got down to the business of explaining our plight and making our request, which we now understood would be granted at the monk’s discretion. We told of my faintly absurd obsession with cycle touring, the tale of our current journey in South East Asia, and of course how inspired we were by the story of the orphanage and its founder. We mentioned that we’d been told to come here by the local police in the absence of a guesthouse in the town, and that all we needed was a tent-sized patch of land to sleep on and that we would be gone early the following morning. (The usual spiel, basically, with an extra dose of background mythology, since everyone seemed to be in that kind of mood.)
Eleven translated. And in turn, we waited for the translation of the monk’s response. When it came back positive, we both let out what was supposed to be a silent sigh of relief but I am convinced was probably audible to everyone in the nearby buildings too. WTF had been slain: perhaps Myanmar was going to be fun after all!
After discussing a few practicalities, Eleven indicated we get up; we all bowed and made profuse our thanks; and we retreated, leaving the head monk in position on his wooden bench, alone in the corner of the enormous teaching hall. And that was the last time we ever saw him.
Just adjacent to the big building was a smaller wooden structure with stone steps leading up to it. From the outside it looked pretty nondescript, but when one of the monks unlocked the door and swung it open it seemed to be a utility building of some kind, with a big altar-like table against the far wall stacked with Buddhist paraphernalia, and elsewhere stacks of books and soft furnishings and shrink-wrapped parcels of donated food. This, said Eleven, was where we could sleep tonight. As far as makeshift sleeping spots went, it was a superb result: space, privacy, cleanliness; and of course the all-important approval of the ‘landlord’, which above all else would ensure we could sleep easy.
Eleven said he had to go to see to his family, but that he would be back shortly with some food for us. In the meantime, he suggested that we take some time to relax, arrange our sleeping quarters, and perhaps take a shower. My ears pricked up at this suggestion: it had been a particularly long, tiring and sweaty day, and a cooling shower sounded like just about the best imaginable way to end it and celebrate our victory.
We all made our way across the dark courtyard to another illuminated cluster of buildings, which turned out to be the toilet block and the open-air male and female showering enclosures, each of which consisted of four walls with a rectangular trough of water in the middle and a scattering of buckets and bowls with which to scoop the water up and pour it over oneself. Eleven excused himself and we spent the next hour savouring the peace and quiet that had descended upon the compound, putting up our tent in the storage room for bug protection, sorting out our sleeping equipment, and making full use of the washing facilities that had been demonstrated to us in the absence of any other users.
When Eleven returned, he had with him the young man we’d met at the police station.
“This man will join us for dinner,” he said. “Don’t worry, there’s no problem, he just needs to take your details.”
We all wandered over to the teaching hall, where the monk had retired for the evening, and another young lad had plonked a low table in the middle of the floor and was busy setting it for a meal. Several dishes of food appeared – variations on the theme of meat or vegetables in spicy, fatty sauce, with a big container of rice to the side, and Eleven ushered us to sit. For some arcane biomechanical reason I have never been able to sit cross-legged nor in any other comfortable position on the floor without using my arms to hold my legs in place, which has resulted in many an uncomfortable and writhing Middle Eastern mealtime, and on more than one occasion being brought a chair to sit awkwardly upon while everyone else ate on the floor. At least I could just about stretch my legs out under this table and hold my upper body upright against its weight.
While the policeman checked our passports, we chatted away to Eleven, who seemed to be a genuinely selfless individual with the utmost concern for our safety and comfort, telling us of the many other travellers who had stayed in the village over the years and who he had helped in this way. He snapped a quick photo of us – the only picture I have from the occasion – and then wrote down his phone number and name on a slip of paper (as well as a couple of handy Burmese phrases), emphasising that if we needed any help while we were in Myanmar – any help at all – we should not hesitate to call him.
With that, the meal was over. The monastery complex was dark and quiet. Naing Htoo and the policeman wished us well and departed. We walked back to our storage room, grateful beyond reckoning for the warm-hearted kindness with which we’d been received at this orphanage. There would apparently be a 4am wakeup call for the monks and the orphans to carry out their morning prayers, to which we’d been invited as observers. But the day had been long, hot and disorientating, and as we clambered into our mosquito-proof tent and lay down to rest, we joked that as interesting as it would be to get up and watch the ritual, we would really rather sleep through until dawn.
It was around 1:30am when they came for us.
Flashlights danced across the canvas. Men were talking outside. I heard an engine idling. Lying on my back in the tent, I denied it for as long as I could. But it really was happening.
“What’s going on?!” whispered Tenny, scared and confused.
There are two techniques for getting your own way with officials that I have never been any good at. One is grovelling pitifully and appealing to their sympathy, making them feel powerful and important. My anti-establishment streak is way too strong for that. The second is offering bribes. I find that game impossible too, because the whole idea of paying for something wrong to be made right or the vice versa rubs too hard against my sense of justice. In retrospect, either or both of these ruses were probably my way out of this situation. Instead, however, I stood in the doorway in my boxers, half asleep and frustrated, stubbornly repeating to a group of uniformed police officers that their colleagues had told us to come and sleep here, while they stubbornly repeated in broken English that our electronic visas did not give us the right to stay at monasteries. They wouldn’t budge. Indeed, there was a strange air of routine about the whole thing.
Then I spotted two things. First, in the shadows at the back of the group was the very policeman who 4 hours earlier had been photographing our passports while we ate. He glanced hurriedly at the ground as I made eye contact. Second, the back seats were already folded down in one of the two cars that were parked outside, in preparation to receive two bicycles.
That’s when it hit me.
They’d done this all before.
I turned to Tenny.
“Sorry, my dear”, I said. “I’ve tried my best, but it seems we’ve got to go.”
Back in Kawthaung, the receptionist of the Penguin Hotel seemed curiously unperturbed when two police cars arrived at 3am containing two bicycles and two cyclists. We paid for the room, retrieved our passports, and made an extra special effort neither to speak to nor make eye contact with the officer in charge of the operation before marching upstairs to our beds, whereupon we collapsed into sleep with neither reflection not remorse, frankly too tired to give a fuck about anything.
Now, I’ve done my fair share of police-dodging in the past – in Egypt, Yemen, and Iran, to name three of my most highly recommended destinations for such a pastime. Sometimes it’s an unavoidable element of a journey; sometimes it can even be fun. Today, it had been neither. Nothing obliged us to try again and hide better tomorrow. And while I’m not particularly bothered when things go harmlessly wrong – what will be will be, and all that – Tenny was in no hurry to play the game again. This was, after all, supposed to be our fun little getaway together, not some dogged, high-stakes expedition.
So it was that – over the hotel breakfast of cheap toast and fried eggs – we made the decision to skip ahead by bus to Myeik. And as it turned out, we liked the bustling little city so much that we stayed for several days, watching the Chinese New Year celebrations outside a big new shopping mall, treating ourselves to sushi on St. Valentine’s Day (incidentally also the 10th anniversary of our first meeting), and generally hanging out in one of the farthest-flung frontiers of Southeast Asia, at least as far as tourists were concerned. Then we skipped back to Thailand for a final few days of riding before our flights out of Bangkok, which we savoured all the more for the comparison to the experiences available across the border in Myanmar.
But I found the incident replaying itself in my mind over the following weeks. I’m a storyteller and I like things to make sense; this simply didn’t. Why would the local police have told us to sleep in the monastery if they knew it was forbidden all along? Did they intentionally report our misdemeanour, or had it been someone upstairs in Kawthaung, having received photos of our passports on his phone, who made that late-night call? The village and the monastery had been a perfect half-day’s ride from the port – how many other cyclists had this happened to? More to the point, how many had stayed there undisturbed? Had the type of visa we had made a difference? Did the police have some kind of an arrangement with the hotel? Or did the monk, so often on his phone, have something to do with it? How about our friend Naing Htoo? Had he duped us and been in on it all along?
My instinct told me he hadn’t, and I felt guilty for even considering the possibility. There hadn’t been a shred of malice in him. The local cop, on the other hand, had conspicuously put himself at arm’s length from the get-go. While drafting this article, I decided to contact Naing using the details he’d given us over dinner that day, in search of answers. But he hadn’t signed into his Viber account for weeks. I couldn’t find him on WhatsApp or Facebook. And his number was unreachable. Naing Htoo had disappeared.
Don’t get me wrong: I am fully aware that our experience was unusual. We got the rougher end of the WTF experience in a very short time frame. We were unlucky. And there may have been some basic errors of judgement on our part – visiting the police station, for example, might simply have alerted the authorities to something that would otherwise have gone unnoticed.
Beyond all that, however, I could feel the place beckoning my more intrepid side to return, perhaps with a mountain bike and an equally intrepid riding partner, to explore deeper and for longer. It’s a tired old cliché to say things like ‘go before it gets too popular’, but there is something special about encounters with people who have no expectations of you as a foreigner in their land. Judging by my short time here, I suspect it’ll be a long time before that happens in many parts of Myanmar.