The adventure started eighteen months before the actual ride when Phil Towns, a former firefighter from Durham, England has been working on the Thai/Myanmar border as an English teacher and with an organisation for former Burmese political prisoners, AAPP (Assistance Association for Political Prisoners), for a few months every year since his retirement.
It was in the border town of Mae Sot that he first encountered Kickstart Art, an amazing art program that provides art and art therapy for around 1200 Burmese migrant kids week in week out. Phil felt an immediate affinity for Kickstart Art and have been a supporter of them since 2012, likely because his father was an artist and an art teacher.
Amid other grass-root organisations on the border, Kickstart Art is fighting for survival and with this in mind Phil came up with the idea of doing a charity bike ride of some 2000 kilometres around Myanmar, starting and finishing in my second home, Mae Sot.
The route took Phil over the border to Myawaddy through Kawkareik to Hpa An, from there to Kyaikto and a visit to the Golden Rock then to Bago and onto Yangon. Phil had taught in Yangon in 2015 at a school called Skyage which was founded by his great friend and ‘little brother’ Ko Saw Thet Tun. Then he met up with him and around 20 students and former students and discovered that his Burmese nickname was U Pyone or Uncle Smiles, which give him such a lot of pleasure knowing that’s how they thought of him.
Day six turned out to be a much longer ride than what he planned at Taik Kyi but as Phil wasn’t able to find any accommodation he had to cycle a further 60km to get to Letpadan. He remember feeling totally drained of about 20 km to go and got off his bike under a huge tree, sweating and hoped a pick-up truck might stop and offer him a lift. I did get plenty of waves and honks of encouragement then he had a couple of sachets of energy gel and saddled up again.
Continuing on up along Asian highway, Phil headed up to Bagan with stop-overs in Nattalin, Pyay, Aunglan, Minbu and Yenangyaung by the mighty Irrawaddy river, and stayed at the lovely Lei Thar Gone guesthouse. Throughout his journey it was the little kindnesses that he received from the people who stopped to help when he had a flat tyre to smiles and ‘hello’s’ from people along the way to gifts of fresh fruit and bottles of water.
From Yenangyaung he headed to Bagan, with its thousands of pagodas and temples and the beautiful sight of balloons flying overhead each morning. Here, Phil decided to take an unscheduled ride to Mount Popa, some 50km from Bagan, and saw one of the most spectacular sights he have ever seen with its magnificent Buddhist temple perched on the top of the mountain.
The most testing thing about his journey though was the feeling of loneliness, not being able to just sit and have a chat. Of course the local people were incredibly kind and helpful but not being able to have a good chat for days on end he found very difficult to deal with.
“Thank heavens for social media though and access to facebook and messenger. Everyday I was receiving messages of encouragement and good wishes from so many friends and family, I owe them so much.”
The adventure wasn’t that elementary, Phil blacked out and collapsed in Meiktila probably due to low blood sugar level, but again the kindness came to my rescue by a stranger. It happened at a little restaurant not far from where Phil was staying. The Lady who owned the Hotel Peace Path Palaces’ husband was a doctor, and not only that, his hospital was next door. Dr, Myint explained that Phil should be examined, which he did, also dressing the cut under his chin from the fainting. The most serious incident though was on the home stretch from Mawlamyine to Kawkareik when he was hit by a drunk motorcyclist at 9.05 am while he had stopped at the side of the road checking google maps. A couple of cracked ribs, damaged shoulder and bit of a bashed hip but could have been a lot more serious looking back, says Phil.
Phil explains that he managed to raise around £6700 for Kickstart Art, which is potentially six months worth of funding. He says that all it was an amazing adventure filled with memories and wonderful experiences and despite the couple of not so great moments he wouldn’t change it for the world.
If you want learn more about Kickstart Art, you can find their information here on their webpage https://www.kickstartart.org.