Georgia Graham takes us on a bicycle ride across the Thai border and into Myanmar. Crossing borders is never easy.
“You’ll never get past the immigration office,” said the young Burmese man in Ranong, the border town in Thailand that sits across the estuary from Myanmar. As we skirted the gulf coast of Thailand on our bicycles, everyone told us we would never make it across the border. This was gutting, as Jesse, my boyfriend and partner in cycling crime of the last three months, and I, had just paid what felt like a small fortune on a single entry visa from the Embassy in Bangkok.
We had planned to cycle the one road north from Kawthaung to Yangon, which our map had lead us to believe followed the Andaman coast. We envisaged sleeping on beaches and fishing for our dinner on route. The last three months had seen us touring by bike through Europe, but as winter approached, and we began to wake with ice on our water bottles, we decided to follow the sun and flew with our bicycles to Bangkok. We believed we were tough enough to take on anything.
We were told that the border we wanted to cross was just a stamping post for foreigners on a ‘visa run’ from Thailand. Conflicting views on internet forums said otherwise. We had read that four major crossings had been opened to tourists coming into Myanmar since August 2013 and that parties had been thrown all over the country in celebration. It was now November, and seeing as we were nearing the border we thought we’d risk it. .
Early that morning we lugged our bicycles, loaded with panniers and camping equipment, onto a long tail boat and headed for Kawthaung. When we landed, a man at the immigration office took one glance at us, stamped our passports and waved on the next person. Jesse and I looked at each other, not sure if he understood. I began to explain that we planned to cycle the 800-kilometre road from Kawthaung to Yangon. The man looked bemused and beckoned over a young boy to translate. They exchanged words and the boy looked at me and said, “’He does not care what you do.” Okay then. With no one taking much notice of us, we mounted our bikes and cycled on the only road out of town, waiting for someone to stop us.
After twenty minutes it was clear that it was unusual, to the point of terrifying, for locals to witness us peddling along on our shiny bicycles. Children looked on in horror, as if two ghosts were floating past them. Twenty kilometres later, the tarmac road disappeared. It became much harder to cycle, even with our chunky tyres made for any terrain. Civilisation petered out and then, nothing. No houses, no people, no places to eat or shops to stock up. Our provisions were enough to get us through the day but in the heat we needed constant drinking water. The scenery along the sides of the roads was also less than picturesque. Endless palm oil plantations were interrupted only by deforested scrubland waiting to become new plantations.
After a couple of hours of gruelling cycling we decided to stop somewhere and camp for the night and eat the rice, biscuits and fruit we were carrying. The only place that looked remotely hospitable for pitching our tent was the cleared ground under the biggest palm oil trees. We cycled deep into one of the plantations so no one would be able to view us from the road (not that there was any passing traffic!). We set up camp, boiled water for cooking and fell asleep exhausted at the experience of the day.
Waking up at the crack of dawn to avoid detection, we set off north on the hunt for some breakfast. We eventually found a small shop amidst a cluster of bamboo huts by the side of the road. We went in and asked if there was any food and it was clear the two shocked ladies and an army official inside spoke absolutely no English. Eventually, the internationally recognised sign language for eating struck a chord and the two women kindly obliged to cook us some noodles. Children appeared at the windows, intrigued and confused, and the army man showed us off as if we were his guests.
After eating, we stocked up on water and snacks, thanked our chefs, and cycled off into the sun along the dirt road. After a while it dawned on us just how isolated we were. There was not that liberated feeling we had experienced when cycling in Thailand or Europe. I felt trapped by the lack of available provisions and the hostile environment. Our mood sank as the kilometres went by and there was little to see apart from cleared forest. That night, with our spirits and drinking water running low, we found a different kind of plantation to set up camp, a rubber plantation.
We woke in the middle of the night to see lights all around us. We didn’t dare turn on our torches for fear of being seen. Jesse slowly unzipped the door of the tent to see a number of lights in the distance. Terrified of being found in a prohibited place, we kept quiet. Eventually the lights moved away and we realised we were safe. We found out later that workers tapped the rubber trees at night therefore it was not the best of camping grounds.
The next morning we got up early once again. The last two days had been crippling and we weren’t sure whether to keep going on this dismal road, or turn back. To go back the way we came would be cruel on both mind and body. We decided to press on in the hope the road might improve or a town appear. Everything our map had led us to believe was wrong.
After 20km with no food for breakfast, little water, and blistering heat, the road got worse. In fact there was no road, just a gouge in the landscape. Going up and down the rocky ‘paths’, our back tyres constantly kicked out behind us; patience was wearing thin. We stopped, propped our bikes against a tree and consulted our increasingly useless map. We were exhausted and stressed. Profanities were exchanged, not necessarily at each other but at the situation. We were two days deep into cycling this road of which we had no idea what lay ahead. It could go on like this for weeks before we reached Yangon.
Mid-argument we noticed women and children running towards us from some buildings in the distance. Almost immediately we were surrounded, and our angry moods evaporated to greet them. We tried to ask if there was a bus or truck that went north along the road. After some confusion, and lots of hand gestures, we came to understand that a bus would be coming through at 11pm.
Seeing how hot we were, they lead us through the trees to a nearby stream and beckoned for us to wash. One lady, a particularly vocal character, Maythu, ran back to her house to get two pieces of material, what we now know as longyi. With the longyi each around us, we managed to change out of our sticky cycling shorts and t-shirts in a respectful manner. As we splashed and ducked under the water our audience roared with laughter.
We were then led towards the village for something to eat, followed by skipping children who were beyond delighted at our presence. The village was bigger than any we had come across. There were around thirty houses surrounding a football pitch; some made of wood and others on the periphery made of bamboo.
We were taken to our host’s home, and we sat on the stoop. She sat in her chair, chewing her betel nut ferociously and barking orders to bring us food and water. We were given two huge plates of rice, a small bowl of a long green vegetable, a curried meat dish in a lot of oil, and frogs legs. The frog legs were delicious, though in our state, anything would be. We had an audience in excess of forty people by now, watching us eat. We kept trying to offer them food and make them eat but they sweetly declined.
Some time later a girl came back to the village and hurried in to speak to us. Her name was Ei Shwe Sin, and she could speak a little English. We discovered that she, nor any of her villagers, had ever seen a ‘white foreigner’ before. This would probably explain why our skin was being pinched and prodded so much! I didn’t imagine in this age of globalisation it would be so easy to stumble into an area, not so far from the Thai border, where they had never seen a white person.
Ei Shwe Sin asked us many questions and translated our hosts’ curiosities. They seemed fascinated by money, pointing to things and asking how much they would cost in England. We tried to explain that people in England did have more money but that didn’t always result in more happiness, a hard thing to try and explain in what was clearly an incredibly impoverished corner of the world.
When it neared time for the bus’ arrival, the whole village came and waited with us and many photographs were taken. Our hosts insisted on lighting a fire while we waited, so as to fend off the cold. The idea of being cold was perhaps one of the most bewildering parts of it all!
Eventually lights could be seen in the distance as the bus approached. Our situation was explained to the driver, and all passengers looked out the windows in fascination. We lifted our bicycles to the back door of the bus where luggage was kept, and paid 10,000Ks each and then 5,000Ks extra for the bicycles. After being ushered onto the bus in rather a panic we hardly had time to say goodbye. We waved and shouted out the window, as the bus pulled away, leaving them in a cloud of dust.
We settled into our dilapidated seats, with boxes under our feet, and our knees pushed up to our face. All eyes were on us. The two young boys next to us grinned from ear to ear and offered us a sip of their whisky. They smiled a knowing smile as we drank, as if to say, ‘your gonna need this.’ We took a few swigs and returned the bottle.
As the bus sped up, recklessly driving over tiny wooden bridges and skirting huge ravines, we grabbed the handles above our heads. Rally-car bus driving was the only way to describe how we travelled along those roads. We didn’t know exactly where we were going but we didn’t really care. We felt safer on this bus than we had at any time out on the harsh and lonely roads we’d left behind. Our adventure north towards Yangon still had a long way to go. The bus stopped eighteen hours later and the cycling re-commenced.
Looking back, this experience was one of the most difficult but also one of the best I’d ever endured. We have both pledged to one-day return to this wonderful village, which saved us from our impossible journey, and perhaps each other.
This article was previously published in MYANMORE’s monthly lifestyle magazine, InDepth #8, June 2015