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Bikepacking Armenia 2019 Personal Updates

#BikepackingArmenia: Why, After 12 Years Of Cycle Touring, I’m Finally Riding For Charity

In 72 hours’ time, I’ll be doing something I’ve never done before: embarking on a charity fundraising cycle challenge.

Yes, I’ll be riding for a cause, raising money by means of a bike trip – in spite of much previously published cynicism.

The challenge? To bikepack the length of Armenia, off-road, by a new and (mostly) untested route.

And the cause? The Transcaucasian Trail, of course – an ambitious and largely voluntary trail-building effort, of which I am one of the original founders. It’s largely because of the last four years of work on the Transcaucasian Trail in Armenia that the route we’re riding has been made possible.

As with so many things, this project began accidentally, starting with a yes/no Facebook poll and quickly snowballing into a full-blown expedition. Now, starting on Sunday, I’ll be leading a group of 8 riders who’ll be joining me from all over the world to ride more than 800km over the mountains of Armenia in just 14 days. As we do so, we’ll collectively aim to raise $10,000 USD for charity – specifically, for the Transcaucasian Trail Association.

This is a major step for me; something entirely new in almost every way.

For years I’d been wondering how to reconcile the TomsBikeTrip.com community with this new project that had always advertised itself as a trail for hikers.

I’m not sure why it took so long to simply invite a few people to come and ride the trail with me and tell the story of how it worked out!

This is the thing. Many readers have asked – and continue to ask – if the Transcaucasian Trail will be suitable for biking. I’ve always wished I could simply say ‘yes’. But the truth is that while I’ve talked about building a bike-friendly route many times with the Transcaucasian Trail team, the work being done on the trail continues to focus on the hikers. I’m aware that bikers and hikers sharing trail space doesn’t always make for a harmonious co-existence. But it seems to me that this is a problem that has been solved many times before.

So. Through this short and sweet expedition (which I have, for the convenience of Instagram and Facebook users, christened #BikepackingArmenia) what I’m really doing is declaring my intentions.

I intend to pro-actively broaden the Transcaucasian Trail vision to accommodate the growing popularity of bikepacking and mountain-biking through the brand we’ve built – while at the same time recognising the differing needs and perspectives of the two-wheeled trail user.

As a starting point, while we’ll be attempting to stick as closely as we can to the route of the proposed hiking trail, we’ll be diverting onto more bike-friendly routes where necessary (much credit to Logan at Bikepacking.com for scouting many of these re-routes and incorporating them into the site’s own trans-Armenia route).

If all goes well, what we’ll end up with is a bikepacking variant of the Transcaucasian Trail route across Armenia – a route we can then refine, develop, expand into Georgia and Azerbaijan, and publish as the ‘official’ mountain-biking counterpart to the long-distance Transcaucasian Trail hiking route.

And that, I believe, will be a big win for everyone, including the hikers – and not just because they won’t have riders careering towards them on narrow downhill trails.

Because the fundraising target attached to this ride – $10,000 USD – has been designed to meet a very specific goal. 

The way I see it, the best way to get the Transcaucasian Trail up and running for bikers is, counterintuitively, to first get it up and running for hikers.

There are a couple of reasons for this. A greater number of visitors to any rural region will spark local interest in finding ways to serve them (which is already happening), and one of the means to this end will be (and already is) developing trails and supporting services. Focusing on hikers first is the easiest way to initiate this process, because hiking is – like it or not – far more popular than biking, and therefore easier to pitch in terms of economic benefits to potential supporters in a developing country like Armenia.

Once the international hiking community has established the Caucasus as the next big thing (again, this is already happening), other industries will line up to diversify the region’s offer. Mountain biking will naturally be one of the first. At that point, those with the clearest vision for what a mountain bike trail network should look like will be best placed to lead the effort to build it.

In other words, the route we’re testing over the next two weeks will likely form the backbone for a much broader biking trail network in the region.

I already have a detailed map of a potential future national trail network for Armenia, featuring dozens of long-distance hiking and biking routes, each with its own theme and focus, each delivering a unique experience while making a human-powered journey through a region of immense depth that needs to be appreciated slowly and gradually.

That’s why the goal for this fundraiser is to waymark Armenia’s first national hiking trail, and the first country-wide stage of the international Transcaucasian Trail. It’s the next logical step in a process that began with deep exploration, continued with the curation of a single flagship route, and in the future will grow into a world-class network of trails for hikers, bikers, horseback riders, trail runners – you get the idea.

Lest the cynical among you get the wrong idea, this is not about raising money to pay myself to do this work.

I have had to become very strategic about my role in all of this.

Someone with a bigger ego, for whom personal glory was the driving force and all else mosly rhetoric, might choose to sit indefinitely at the top of the hierarchy to ensure that their name was stamped all over everything that was done. That isn’t my style.

Yes – protecting the fact that I will have been responsible for creating a country’s first long-distance trail is important for my future professional credibility.

But my ultimate goal – as soon as I feel that Armenia is ready to take ownership of its stage of the Transcaucasian Trail – is to step aside and move on to other things.

The funds we’re raising, therefore, will be dedicated to supporting a local team of Armenians to carry out all of the waymarking and maintenance needed to complete this section of the TCT. The people I have in mind are already working here as trail-builders – indeed, many of them began their careers as local trainees through our volunteer trail-building camps. They already have a personal connection to the trail. And they are the ones who will shape its future.

Well! Most charity fundraising bike rides dedicate a paragraph or two at best to the ‘cause’ and why it’s important. I now realise that I’ve written a thousand-word essay about mine. Apologies that I couldn’t make it shorter – but I wanted to explain exactly why I’ve chosen to make fundraising a core part of this ride, and why I’m reaching out to you, my readers and followers, for donations to help us reach our goal.

This is not a crowdfunding campaign. There is no reward or perk, aside from the feeling that you’ve contributed to something good (and, in the very near future, having the ability to bikepack what’s turning into one of the most spectacular long-distance trails on Earth).

The Transcaucasian Trail is a labour of love, being created in good faith, for altruistic reasons, and in a part of the world almost certainly less fortunate than yours which stands to benefit broadly and for a very long time from what your donation will help achieve. Yes – this is a charity appeal. And yes – the cause could not be dearer to my heart.

So if you’re sufficiently inspired to make a donation, please do so now. If not, no problem. Either way, I hope you enjoy following the expedition via the #BikepackingArmenia hashtag. We leave on Sunday – wish us luck!

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Bikepacking Armenia 2019 Personal Updates

#BikepackingArmenia: The First Ever Transcaucasian Trail Fundraising Ride Starts Next Week!

Ever since my vision for the Transcaucasian Trail took shape, I’ve been wondering how to get the adventure cycling community involved in bringing it to life.

Exploring new places on a bicycle is, after all, where I cut my teeth as a traveller. Long-term readers will remember that it was a bicycle that brought me to Georgia and Armenia, way back in 2008. The experience of pedalling across the region created a deep connection that continues to this day.

Well, I think I’ve figured it out!

Next week I’ll be getting back on the bike to ride the length of Armenia off-road, accompanied by 7 riders from the Tom’s Bike Trip community.

This charity fundraising ride, born out of a couple of Facebook posts back in February, will help raise funds to complete the hiking trail, but it will also help me adapt the route for bikepackers and mountain bikers, and publish a parallel version of the trail with these riders in mind – something people are asking for with ever-greater frequency.

It’ll also satisfy a long-standing personal ambition.

I’ve been wanting to do this ride for as long as I’ve had a connection to Armenia. The privilege of leading a fundraising ride in the company of cyclists who’ve been supporting my work since the beginning will make the trip all the more special.

Finally, an expedition-style fundraiser like this – short, ambitious, and with a classic “will they make it?” story baked in – is a sure way to draw attention to a place’s adventure potential. I hope that #BikepackingArmenia will go beyond just raising funds, creating social media content and pioneering a new bikepacking route, and convince more of you to come and ride in Armenia and the Caucasus region as well.

I started this effort by setting up CyclingArmenia.com, and by pestering Cass and Logan from Bikepacking.com to come and ride here (which Cass did in 2017 and Logan and his partner did last year). Now it’s time to shine the spotlight on what a journey along the route looks and feels like. Because this is a place with endless overlooked potential. Armenia deserves to be better known – and hopefully the story of this challenge will help it become so.

Riding for a cause is not something I’ve done before, and I have certainly held some skepticism about the concept in the past.

That’s because I’ve seen too many high-profile rides with a charity tacked on as an afterthought; a kind of guilt-induced justification for dropping out and going cycling somewhere, as if such a justification was needed.

The picture is very different when the charity or cause occupies a central role in the rider’s life.

The Transcaucasian Trail now does so with me. Above all else, beyond any of the expeditions I’ve done, blog posts or books I’ve written, or films I’ve made, it will be the thing I look back on and say: “that’s what I spent my time on Earth bringing into existence”.

Though I’m all for giving credit where it’s due, it doesn’t particularly matter whether anyone remembers my involvement. What does matter is bridging the gap between vision and reality – a gap which in four short years has already diminished by an astonishing amount.

If we reach our fundraising goal of $10,000 (a little over £8,000), we’ll be able to close the gap completely, bringing into existence the first fully waymarked border-to-border trail across Armenia by the end of 2020.

As with all charity appeals, the effectiveness of this campaign will be a cumulative one. Though it may sound trite, it really is true that no donation is too small.

So please give what you can – and know that you’re helping make a positive change in the world.

Click here to donate now, or at any time throughout the duration of the ride.

And don’t forget to tune in to the story of the ride by following my Instagram or Facebook feeds, or via the hashtag #BikepackingArmenia. We start next week!

Categories
Armenia 2018 Books

Researching Armenia’s Most Comprehensive Travel Guidebook – By Bicycle

There’s another purpose to my in-depth bicycle tour of Armenia, which is also a nice development for my occasional career as an author:

I’ve been greatly honoured with the task of researching and writing the next edition of the Bradt Travel Guide to Armenia.

This British publication is the only dedicated English-language guidebook to Armenia currently in print. The original book was put together by a husband-and-wife team who first came to Armenia in 2001 and have been revising and updating it for three further editions since. But Bradt needed a new author for the 5th edition, and the commissioning editor just happened to be in the audience for my lecture at the RGS last February.

The current edition of the book is impressively thorough and meticulously researched, particularly on the many historical sites embedded in the mountains of Armenia. My task is to broaden out its appeal to include all that’s new in terms of outdoor & adventure tourism (and that’s a lot of things), while delicately maintaining the book’s heritage.

Given the tight schedule – the book will be on the shelves in December – this will certainly be a challenge! But it’s proving be a fantastic way to continue my mission to showcase Armenia, especially in the wake of the globally reported Velvet Revolution, which yesterday took a second big step forward when the leader of the movement, Nikol Pashinyan, was elected Prime Minister of Armenia by a 59–42 parliamentary majority – an incredible display of the power of direct action, given that most seats belong to the party targeted by the protest movement.

What’s nice about the role of a guidebook author and updater is that it magically opens doors.

A random tourist might not be able to easily secure meetings with the directors of National Parks, town mayors, ecotourism NGO directors, volunteers in far-flung villages, etc; nor might they want to. But all that is now part of the journey, and it’s making the ride all the more interesting – not least because of the industry’s still-embryonic status and the consequent enthusiasm for anything that might help drag it out of obscurity.

So my increasingly weathered copy of the current edition of the Bradt Travel Guide to Armenia* now counts for a good 50% of the weight of my bar-bag; I’ve got a half-decent shirt and a stack of business cards so I can just about make myself look professional; and the stories that come out of these encounters will also form part of the narrative of this increasingly unusual bike trip.

Follow the ride on Instagram (and stay tuned for step three of Armenia’s Velvet Revolution).

Categories
Armenia 2018

Revolutionary Armenia: Travelling By Bicycle Through The New Republic

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.

I’ve written about being a digital nomad in Yerevan, and why you might come cycling here, but travel writing per se? Pretty much nothing.

I’m hoping to remedy this situation today by kicking off a season of Armenia-focused cycling adventures.

You might say it’s an interesting time to do this, politically speaking. Armenia has made headlines these last couple of weeks for becoming the second nation in the Caucasus to peacefully overthrow its despotic Soviet-generation leadership, echoing neighbour Georgia’s Rose Revolution of 2003. (Two down, one to go, some are saying.)

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?

Categories
Thailand 2018

About The Time I Tried To Go Bicycle Touring In Myanmar (Burma)

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.

“No English!!!”

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.

The police.

WTF.

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.