EDITION 54Featured Story

OE54 FEATURE: Thailand Mountain Terror

Andrea was staying at a Thai Buddhist Monastery when she had an incredible idea to cycle from Thailand, through Myanmar and into India, a 5000km+ ride.

Ten days later having kitted out her full carbon Mountain Bike with pannier racks and narrow tyres, obtained a Myanmar Visa and a rough plan of where to go, she waved goodbye to the Nuns. She was still unable to find out if she could cross the border into India, But she set off anyway. She had 3 days until she needed to be out of the Country.

Surely it would all work out?

In fact, nothing worked out as she’d thought.  At all. It did however make for an adventurous journey!

Andrea Peebles is currently writing a Travel Memoir on her experiences and kindly shared with us, some of her adventures on the road. Her book, Roads less travelled – A woman’s journey of cycling adventures and self discovery in Thailand and Myanmar, and in life, came out in 2018.

Thailand Mountain Terror

I woke at 5am, my legs aching from cycling 100 hilly and arduous kilometres yesterday and then being forced to curl into a tight ball for the whole night to avoid touching the sodden sides of my unwaterproof tent. It was like I was on an island, the outside edges of my Yoga mat having soaked up the furious rain with me in the middle trying to conserve my body heat.  It was the middle of the hot season. It wasn’t meant to rain and I certainly hadn’t prepared for anything but sunshine and 30+ degrees. I frantically rubbed my arms and legs to create much needed heat. It felt too early to get up. I was putting off putting on my wet clothes to begin the hard slog uphill ahead.

Today’s mission was to get through the Mountains to Mae Sot ( Thailand’s border town.) I couldn’t afford to get in trouble with Thai immigration for overstaying. I would do what it would take. Even if it meant pushing my bike through mud and cold rain throughout the night. It was going to happen. I was simply going to treat it as an Adventure Race – a 24hr Adventure Race if it needed to be.

 

I stared out from the wet, miserable tent.

Let’s do this!  I tried to cheer and motivate myself. The bike ain’t going to pedal itself!

I rolled my eyes at my attempt of poor humour.

Don’t think, just do.

 

I passed very poor and unhappy sodden looking villages and I finally came to the end of the sealed road. Red clay littered with small rocks lay the dubious path ahead into the Mountains. I climbed slowly up and down the undulations through beautiful green rain forest. The path was excruciatingly steep and slippery, and my loaded bike made it very challenging. I often had to walk my bike, travelling at 1-2km/hr pace. At this rate I would definitely be walking right through to the next day. I had 54km of this rough terrain to go. That was 27 hours I had ahead of me!!

A few locals on scooters passed me and stared back at me in disbelief as i pushed my bike up the steep track, using my brakes to then haul myself up to my bike.

The downhills were so super steep, rocky, muddy, with holes and ruts to maneuver around; so with a very heavy laden bike I could not go fast. It was still raining relentlessly. I was sodden, I was cold, but I was still smiling.

 

You could probably not blame me if I told you I was swearing, if I was saying in my head how stupid and crazy this was, and how stupid I was; how I sat by the side of the path crying contemplating the 27+ hours ahead of this torturous existence.

But I didn’t.

Those thoughts were simply just thoughts passing through like clouds high in the sky. Holding no substance and having no purpose to helping me; so I simply did not entertain them.

There was no point.

What is the point of an unhelpful thought that would make my current situation even more miserable?

I was literally staying the moment. Focusing on one pedal stroke after the other.

I still had a long way to go.

 

After a few hours and only a handful of people on scooters passing me, I thought to myself that a ride in a pick up truck would be great.

A maximum of ten minutes later I had to jump to the side of the track as an old beat up Pick Up Truck tore past me to make it up the hill, wheels spinning to maintain traction on the slippery track.  I yelped in joy as it pulled over and waved at me to get on. The power of manifestation in action!

He was a handsome young guy in his mid 20’s who didn’t speak to me in a word of English.

“Mae Sot” I told him as he arched his eyebrows in amazement and then nodded his head for me to put my bike in the back.

I decided to jump in the back with my Bike. At over $5000 I wanted to make sure it was going to be ok.

But really, I should’ve been thinking about my own safety first.

He tore off, like it was the start of a race and I yelled out  “Holy shit!”

I was perched up over the wheel and was almost being flung off the track on every bump. My bike had heavy bags attached to it, it was going to be fine, but I wasn’t sure if I was!

I actually couldn’t believe how fast he was going.

Down below us was a steep drop and with the heavy rain the going was slippery so at times the truck would slide out. Also to make it to the top of every steep hill he would have to put the accelerator to the floor, the wheels spinning out of control and the engine screaming in pain.

I had a few moments in absolute terror wondering if I would survive, thinking how I could jump from the truck if we slid down the bank. I grabbed as many valuables as I could in between hanging on to the truck and stashed it in my shoulder bag.

Just in case.  If I had some money at least I could pay for someone to get me to Hospital.

 

My forearms were tense and tight from clenching on to the side of the truck to keep me inside, and my face screwed up in terror; but then I simply said to myself

‘Let it go. Relax’

I started to smile.

I then started to laugh.

And then I realised that some people would pay a massive amount of money for such a thrill seeking ride and I was getting it for free. So what if I’d die or severely injure myself or ruin my bike, why not just enjoy the crazy ride now?!

I cried out a “yippee!” as we tore around a corner, the back end of the truck going from left to right like the swing of a fish tail. I looked up ahead to a towering hill with thick ruts in the mud where another vehicle had obviously had trouble getting through.

As we almost reached the top of the hill we started to spin out and I looked down below and my terror returned as I envisioned us sliding out of control back down the hill and off the side of the hill. Remarkably the truck hung on although now we were stuck halfway up a hill.

 

Riding high******

 

As I turned off the main road it was like I entered a new country.

I took off my face mask that had already turned brown from the dust and exhaust fumes. I breathed in (slightly less polluted ) fresh air and I started to relax. I could hear the birds singing, feel the warm sun on my skin and I was surrounded by luscious green banana, coconut and papaya trees.  The road was pretty rough but quiet away from the heaving traffic. It was just what I was hoping for as an off the beaten track in Myanmar.

I passed many wooden, basic huts with dark skinned dirty kids running around excited to see me, waving their hands frantically with wide big smiles yelling “bye bye!”

Bye bye?

Not hello?

I yelled back “Mingalaba” the Myanmar word for hello a few times before I succumbed to simply copying them and waving back “Bye Bye”

It was kinda cute.

 

The men and women I saw were just as interested in me too, offering  big beaming smiles, all pointing, waving and highly amused –  after some initial surprise – at seeing me. I suppose it was in the middle of the day. Everyone was keeping out of the harsh sun. Here I was lugging my gear up a huge exposed Mountain.My watch read 36 degrees. I knew it would get hotter. I probably wasn’t a common sight.

 

Riding with one hand on the handlebars, the other one waving at everyone crying ‘Bye bye!” I felt like the Queen riding in on the back her Horse. I arrived at a town called Kawkareik.

 

The traffic was loud and unapologetic. Very old and rustic motor trucks with no bonnets, spurting out black, toxic smoke from its exhaust. Drivers hanging out their windows with a smoke in their dirty hands, wide grins, tossing their plastic drink bottle onto the road below.

There were unkept dogs scavenging on the road side, the ground completely littered with thousands of plastic bags and discarded rubbish. Big black caldron like pots sitting on top of smoky fires full of oil with people stand around waiting for vegetable fritters to crisp and brown. Darting scooters carrying 3 of more people, young kids sandwiched between adults, or clinging on to the waists in front, looking back at me with beaming smiles.

 

There  were two Guesthouses I tried. Both of them took foreigners, ridiculously over priced for the scungy, dark, musty, mice pee smelling rooms with piss smelling, dirty shared bathrooms.

 

A tiny man, his head not higher than my shoulder introduces himself to me. It was hard to hear him amongst the loud boisterous traffic, barking dogs, and the audio system blaring from the Temples, and I’m pretty sure he was speaking mostly English, but sometimes I wasn’t quite sure.

I ask him how old he is expecting to be blown away finding out he’s 80 (like I do in Thailand) and he tells me he’s 60.

Ooh.

Life must be much harder in Myanmar.

My brain hurts from trying to understand what my new friend is saying. He talks a lot about the Government, in what I think is anger but mostly disappointment and sadness. It appears his Brother in law died being shot driving over the same road I rode over today.

“Why was he shot?”

“He was driving a truck.”

Riiiiiiiiight. I feel a little concerned. Like I’m uncovering a dark little secret about Myanmar.

 

Back at the Guesthouse the plastic fan pitifully blows back warm thick air into my face. This sure won’t cool me down. It’s 33 degrees outside. It feels much hotter inside my tiny room and this is the room fan?

Like clockwork at 10pm the building shudders into a thick, stifling darkness. The electricity is off, rationed from 6-10pm. I lay on my single bed, the one I’d found mice droppings on, and I pray for sleep to come and take me quickly.

 

**Honour your Intuition

 

The village is awake early. It’s 5:15am, the sun is bright and the piercing rattling from the trucks shakes through into your bones. I pull on my bright pink body covering poncho, pull my dress down past my knees (to fit in in conservative Myanmar) and go to wander the morning Market.

 

I almost stumble into my new short friend from last night. He is very excited to see me again. I tell him that I’m going to stay another night here, the words tumble from my mouth. I had been struggling with the idea to stay at the same place twice, feeling like I needed to keep moving. However a deep part of me quietly whispered:

“Stay. This is what you love so much about travel. There’s no rush. If it feels good, then do it.”

I recognised that voice, or more so I recognised that feeling.

From past experiences I knew I needed to honour that feeling. It was what you might refer to as your initiation, your gut, your higher self.

The real you.

It was never the loud voice in your head, but more the deep quiet knowing. I knew if I followed that feeling, it would guide me safely and into the best experiences for me.

 

Travelling as a woman by yourself in a foreign developing country, my intuition is what I take heed on the most. And it would be my number one tip to get in touch with if you want to travel solo.

Some people think it’s risky, careless and sometimes plain stupid for me to travel alone in such developing countries. I think it could be if you didn’t listen and honour your intuition.

I’ve travelled solo through the UK, Europe, Asia, Africa and South America, Australia and NZ. If you want to view the World as dangerous and risky, and focus on that, then that is what you’ll experience. I believe my intuition will keep me safe, that the World is abundant and I go beyond other people’s fears and limitations. The Universe looks after me.

 

 

Big beautiful towering trees are a bloom with red and white sweet smelling flowers, scattering like chocolate sprinkles having fallen onto the red dirt road below. Women holding hands with young children walk with their long beautifully patterned Longi’s to the local Wells to wash. Most homes don’t have running water so the wells are the local washing and cleaning areas. There appears to be different rules for men and women regarding undressing and washing. I sneak looks at the women trying to wash themselves. The longi is like a giant skirt which they hitch up around their chest like a long gown.  I feel confused and sorry for them. Surely it must be so hard to clean yourself whilst maintaining your dignity? How can they really be clean trying to wash themselves covered up so much?

They appear to be happy and in good spirits, but it does make me wonder how women are viewed in Myanmar. I’ve already seen topless Men and boys but I haven’t seen any Women with shorter than below the knee length skirts or dresses. They dress very conservatively here.

But having to wash yourself in public, whilst trying to cover yourself as much as possible, seems to be tough.

 

A girl about 10 cycles past me with another much younger girl on the back. They are both beautiful with glossy hair, big radiant smiles, wearing flowery dresses with sparkly clips in their hair. They cycle next to me as I walk, curious and intrigued.

Mingalabar (Hello) and Jayzutinbardeh (thanks very much)  are the only Myanmar words I know – and even then I’m not quite sure if I’m pronouncing them right.

I tap my shoulder and say “Andrea” and then point towards the girls and ask “name?”

They repeat “Andrea name”

Whoops! It makes me giggle as I realise my mistake, but I smile and nod at them reassuringly. There is no way I can correct them, let alone communicate with them, so best to leave them with a good feeling. They continue to cycle slowly next to me for the next 20mins before they turn down a side road. Our language is smiles,  and we beam at each other.

 

I walk past groups of older men sitting around smoking cigarettes on tiny wooden chairs, women nursing small fires of plastic bags, leaves and other household rubbish, and large humped Cows tied to wooden poles looking at me with their large, brown eyes.

After an hour I walk back towards the main road, the smell of smoke now wafting throughout the village. A tall lean guy wearing a white Muslim cap cycles up alongside me on his rickety bike. He startles me and I look over to smile at him and he has a look of annoyance and anger over his face. He gets off his bike and walks it next to me. He tries to speak to me, what I think is Myanmar, his tone harsh and he throws his hands up at me.

I do a quick body scan. I’m wearing 3/4 big baggy pants and my top is loose and covers my shoulders. I’m not inappropriately dressed.

 

I don’t feel good about this guy.

 

 

*****
Off road unease

 

I cycle past the colourful celebrations where young boys become Monks and get carried on the shoulders of their Fathers and paraded down the street. There’s loud music blaring from a tinny speaker and people dance and wave their hands in the air. I’d love to be joining them but I wave and smile and pull off the main road. It becomes quiet. I hear the buzzing in my ears from being alongside loud boisterous tractors.  I pull my mask off around my face. It’s a little more easier to breathe. The tar seal road is very narrow, only one lane, yet the orange clay of the dirt runs wide along sides both the road. It’s almost like the road has been cut into the land, the small green trees and shrubs tower high and there’s not much to look at. The road starts to climb uphill. I can see the small rise in the distance, so I know it won’t be a strenuous one.

 

The odd truck rumbles past, and many scooters, honking and waving at me with big smiles. I wave back. 
I pass a few very basic looking wooden and concrete houses with tin roofs, some look abandoned. It’s quite quiet and feels airy.

The tar seal stops and the road becomes smooth red dirt. I’m aware I’m close to a restricted zone for Tourists. I wish I’d actually found out more. Myanmar had recently been opened for Tourists to travel independently through after being under Military rule for 50 years. It causes unease in me.

 

I come to a rough looking road block, however it’s unmanned. It even looks like it’s abandoned. There is a sign with a scull and crossbone and Myanmar writing and pictures that indicate there maybe landmines, explosives, or at least danger up ahead.

I stop, staring at the sign wondering what to do. I don’t want to turn back. My turn off is near here. No one seems to be around to ask so I assume if it was really out of bounds it would be blocked off and manned. So I weave through the barrier and cycle slowly and hesitantly. I’m freaking myself out thinking about the explosive picture, I look around for signs of people, and it feels like the dry Wild West when the baddy rides into town and the locals flee. I feel really exposed. Is everyone watching me? I feel like they’re watching me. 
The crunching of the gravel beneath my tyres is deafening. The landscape is dry open fields with very little trees. Very bare and exposed. I’m riding about 10km/hr now, my heart is racing and I’m frantically staring around wanting to see someone.

I spot about 4 young half naked children jumping around waving and yelling at me. Are they telling me to get off the road?
A person on a motorcycle rides past me and I feel my body relax – just a little. It’s sign I won’t be blown up just riding along here, although they don’t acknowledge me so my unease rises again.

I don’t want to be here.

I try and tell myself that it’s ok and if it wasn’t then people would yell at me or the barrier would’ve been closed properly. I’m trying to think positively but all I can see is that sign with the bombs and explosive and the cartoon people with their scared faces. 
I stop and take out my phone. 
It looks as though I’ve cycled about 2km past the turn off. I laugh out loud to myself and the negative thoughts bombarding my mind floods out 
“Oh you idiot! “You’re so stupid!” “Now you have to go all the way back” “Why didn’t you look at your phone sooner?” 
Whilst this sort of self talk is damaging, negative, and just plain unhelpful; my nervous laughter feels like a relief.

I cycle back past the young children, this time a lot faster now. I feel much better moving away from the unease. It felt wrong. The dark, negative energy was stifling. 
I find the turn off and there are two dirt roads to choose from. The roads are full of pot hots with green fields and vibrant green rainforest on either side. I feel a pressure to get away from the open exposed intersection where people can see me, and quickly.

 

 

**********

Mawlamyine madness

 

I head out exploring. The sun is ripping through the streets with ferocity. Clackity rusty bicycle rickshaws carry brightly clothed Women hovering under umbrellas. Small trucks overloaded with cardboard and homemade wooden boxes, and full sacks of goods, precariously perched, piled high, held on by brown rope. It’s an impressive dance between the skill of Tetris and the art of optimism. Although it appears it’s common practice here to make the most of any opportunity, space is limited and most things can be crammed, including people. People hang out of  small beat up pick up trucks, the backs of others protruding through the metal side bars. Huge noisy trucks overflowing with goods carry people sitting high on top. I wonder if they feel like they’re in the fairytale the Princess and the Pea.

People sit tightly packed in the shade of small shops selling everything from garlic, to toothbrushes, to bottled soda, to rotting fish paste, to live ducks in obvious distress in the sweltering heat. Fire engine red chilies bask drying in the sun. Fresh vegetables wilt. I see crumbling colonial mansions and beat up old Churches. It is a bustling trading city.

 

I spot crammed coffee shops with young mischievous boys working the tables. A few are dressed in Longis whilst others in westernised dress with long jean shorts and fake branded t-shirts. There’s rubbish all over the betel nut and diesel oil stained concrete floor. A few scrawny dogs try to pick through to find discarded food. The nearby open drain pipe gives off a stench. I’m pretty sure I saw a Man pissing into it.
As I walk around a  woman catches my eye at a very haggard looking stall made of make shift pieces of wood boarded up to create a bench. I do the hesitation to and fro dance, and out of pity I order a Sugarcane juice off her. I sit down and I immediately regret it. The area smells of dog shit. I look at her dirty finger nails and the rough, raggedness of the stall. I cringe. As she places the icy cold glass in my hands I consider not drinking it. But it’s only a faint consideration as the beverage in my clammy hands is like giving a present to a 3 year old and telling them not to open it. It tastes sweet and refreshing.

This will be a test for the gut, I think to myself.

 

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