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.
Let me tell you what happened.
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.
My favourite collection of such tales in recent times comes from Josiah Skeats, who last year documented his one-month journey across the country purely in terms of where he slept, mostly illegally, each night. It makes for pretty entertaining reading, though it doesn’t exactly sound like fun. Not type 1 fun, anyway.
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.