This evening saw the start of the next chapter in the Gogodermo adventure. I took an evening flight from Kolkata Airport and am now happily ensconced in Ali Heron’s apartment in Yangon, capital of Myanmar. Ali is a Facebook friend, a Trocaire project worker and also the aunt of Bella, a little girl who attends the school where I used to teach. After weeks of speaking pidgin English and sleeping in grotty hotels, it’s a real joy to enjoy the hospitality and comfort offered by a fellow Fingalian. After cleaning and packing Karolina, this morning in preparation for the flight, I had a lovely lazy day, chilled in the hostel with my Kiwi friend, Alistair, went for a stroll in the park and accidentally stumbled on the old colonial building which housed The Fairlawn Hotel. The Fairlawn is a little oasis of calm and old world beauty in the chaos of Kolkata. I’d intended to do some sightseeing today but once inside the grand garden restaurant filled with luxuriant plants and memorabilia from the days of the Raj, I knew that this was the only sight I’d be seeing today. I had the privilege of lounging there for a few hours, mingling with the eclectic international guests and even read The Times from cover to cover while enjoying a beer. Both Alistair and myself had flights around the same time so we shared a taxi to the airport. There, it seemed that visa trouble was looming again because when I went to check in Karolina the girl at the desk took a look at my documents and shook her head. She asked for confirmation of my onward flight from Myanmar and when I explained why I didn’t have one she told me that I wouldn’t be allowed to fly without it. Naturally, I wasn’t too happy and tried to plead my case, -unsuccessfully!Then an official looking guy approached and asked what was the matter. He introduced himself as Mr Peace and said he was the Head of Quality Control for airline I was using, Myanmar Airlines. He was assessing the efficiency of the system and was really helpful in resolving the situation by getting me to fill out an indemnity form which protected the Airline from the consequences if I was admitted without full documentation and something went wrong. He also instructed the girl at the check in desk to waive my excess baggage costs and whisked me through security to the top of the queue onto the plane. Once on board, I was treated like royalty, got applauded by the passengers and had a great chat with a saffron robed Buddhist monk who was sitting next to me. Then, when we landed, Karolina and my bags were waiting for me at the baggage reclaim area and Trocaire had a jeep outside the Airport door ready to whisk me away to Ali’s lovely apartment. All such a contrast to the stress I’d experienced a few weeks ago at Delhi Airport, when I had to jettison half of my baggage and Karolina went missing for two hours! Tomorrow, I’ll spend the morning making an application for my Thai visa,- The embassy is just down the road and I am meeting the Trocaire team in the afternoon. There’s also a famous huge Buddhist temple in a park nearby so I’ll definitely get to do some sightseeing also. Something tells me that I’m going to enjoy SE Asia!
Somehow, my stomach managed to escape unscathed from week old borscht in rural Kazakhstan, even the woefully unhygienic street food of Mumbai and Kolkata. Somehow, within 12 hours of arriving in Yangon, I was hit with a dose of Burma Belly as powerful and devastating as a mighty hurricane hitting an island on the Atlantic fringe. At my request, Ali my host brought me to a traditional roadside restaurant for breakfast, where we ate what the Burmans were eating,-a spicy fish stew and marianaded beans.”I’ll be fine,” I assured Ali. “My stomach is made of iron.” So Ali went off to work and I went back to her lovely spacious apartment to prepare the documentation for my Thai visa application. Within an hour, I was feeling queasy and was soon vomiting. Then came the stomach cramps which had me running to the toilet all day. My temperature shot up and I had a severe headache. I think that people like me who very rarely get sick, catch up on the normal folk, with regard to suffering when something as ordinary as a dose of food poisoning strikes. This dose floored me completely. I was so glad, however that it was happening now, where I was resting with a friend in a clean apartment and not in a dingy hotel room or alone in my tent. Despite being really sick I managed to source the necessary documents for my visa,- a straightforward application form and as usual an expensive and totally unnecessary confirmation of flight into Thailand and for accommodation there, along with passport photos and cash – which had to be in perfect new dollar notes. All of this took some time. I went to the Trocaire office to get the docs printed and by the time I had finished, the embassy was closed. I had been really looking forward to going out to dinner with Ali but my appetite had vanished and I spent the rest of the day lounging on the sofa, reading and enjoying the reaction to the hurricane in Ireland while my stomach weathered its own storm. I didn’t sleep a wink, with cramps and ‘runs’ to the toilet and couldn’t face breakfast in the morning but at least the headache was gone and my temperature was back to normal. It was imperative that I lodge my visa application so I dragged myself and Karolina down the 5 flights of stairs onto the busy street where it was raining heavily. Fortunately, the Thai embassy was easy to find and only a kilometre from Ali’s apartment. Although I was early, there was a big queue. However there was a good system in place and the applicants were treated most respectfully, – a total contrast to what happens at the Chinese Embassy in Astana! My documents were eventually accepted but there was a tiny fold on one of my 20 dollar notes and I was requested to go and get some perfect ones. Fortunately Ali had loaned me a hundred dollar bill and that was deemed acceptable. Relieved and exhausted, I struggled to cycle the kilometre back to the apartment where I spent the rest of the day trying to get some sleep and making my way through Ali’s books. I knew hardly anything about Myanmar and in my two days of illness I’ve read so much about it’s history and culture that I’m beginning to understand the complexity of life in the developing world. Ali’s knowledge of Myanmar is impressive and has been another source of information. For reasons which will become apparent, I’m not yet going to comment on the present political and humanitarian situation here. I can only say that I have to admire the patience and resilience of the Burmese people as well as the dedication of the many young westerners and locals, working for a variety of organisations who are trying desperately to untangle a massive web of problems in very difficult circumstances. Last night, I felt my energy and appetite returning and I was invited out to dinner by two Facebook friends, Ronan Smith and Chrissy Kiernan. They are Rushians, like myself and have been working for separate NGOs here for the past few months. The restaurant they chose is called Skarkys and it was an enlightened choice as far as I was concerned. With a stomach still not in perfect working condition, I really appreciated the joys of roast chicken, spuds and even apple tart for dessert, accompanied by some truly wonderful Burmese beer. Yes! I’m back on the mend for sure!
I’ve spent two really restful days here in Yangon, formerly Rangoon. Ali my wonderful hostess has multi tasked with the roles of tour guide, nurse and agony aunt as well as dedicating herself to the crucial work being done here by Irish aid agency, Trocaire. On Wednesday morning, I woke up feeling much better but cleary not firing on all cylinders and with no appetite for breakfast. I spent the morning cleaning Karolina and then headed off to the amazing Shwedagon Pagoda, the holiest and most venerated shrine in the Buddhist world, -the equivalent of St. Peter’s Square to Catholics or Mecca to Muslims. It’s a truly impressive, enormously golden temple located in the city’s main park and visited by millions of pilgrims every year. Fortunately, this is not peak pilgrim season so I didn’t have long to queue. At the entrance I had to take off my shoes and was almost refused entry as I was wearing my cycling shorts and there was a requirement that that knees must be covered. I was able to fashion my camping towel, which happened to be in my pannier bag, into a longyi, the traditional sarong type dress worn by the majority of men here. Getting to the centre of the temple complex entailed a long climb up many flights of stairs where curiously, trinkets, flowers and souvenirs were being touted. However, once inside the temple proper there was an air of dignified silence and respect. Many of the pilgrims were praying fervently and there was much insincere burning, bell ringing and tuneful chanting, all of which I was invited to participate in, despite the fact that I wasn’t a pilgrim in a literal sense. It was another humbling and deeply enlightening spiritual experience. Later, it was back to reality when I made my way back to the Thai embassy, where there was a long queue again but I was thrilled to be able to collect my visa after an hour or so. Great. I was on my way again! Before leaving Yangon I had promised to make a presentation at the Trocaire Head Office in Yangon and this was arranged for 4.00pm. I felt really sorry for the project workers and visiting trainers, who were invited to attend after a days work but was also pleasantly surprised to find their boardroom full to capacity with both Irish, international and local Trocaire personnel present. I promised to speak for only 15 minutes and take questions afterwards but I know the session went on longer than that and I was really pleased with the reception I was given. I’m hoping that this presentation will really kickstart the online ‘just giving ‘ element’ of this project. -Watch this space! I celebrated when I got home to the apartment with a beer as I finished another of Ali’s Burmese books. I’m learning so much about the history and culture of this amazing country and am so much looking forward to beginning my journey across it tomorrow. Ali and I went out for a beautiful meal in Sharkys, one of the few reasonably priced restaurants where you can get a good bottle of wine here. It was truly delicious. Later we enjoyed a nightcap of Ali’s excellent Irish whiskey and chatted about Ireland and the problems of the world…..Tomorrow’s another day.
‘Spoke, Rim, Saddle, Chain……’ Tonight I’m staying in ‘Tube’! No, there’s no underground Metro system in Myanmar. These are the names of the rooms in the bicycle themed ‘Bike World Explorers Guest House’, where I’m staying tonight . And how far have I travelled from Downtown Yangon? -A mere 4 km! After a lovely breakfast with Ali, I started cycling at 9 o’clock and was looking forward to covering at least 160 k in order to reach the town of Kyaikto before dark. It was really warm in the morning and I knew that heavy showers were expected all day, but I was prepared for the rain and full of confidence as I travelled through the busy morning traffic. I’d called into several small bike shops yesterday looking for spare parts and they’d all advised the same thing- ‘go to Bike World’, they said. ‘Bike World’ was on my route towards Thailand so I decided to call in on my way today. This was definitely an important and possibly life-saving decision for me. The shop was actually closed when I reached it at about 10 o’clock and I waited outside until one of the young mechanics called Georgie opened it at about 10.30. I asked for specific items, -Presta tubes, Schwalbe tyres and a few other sundries, all of which were available. Before leaving, I asked Georgie to adjust the front brake lever and rear gear shifter, both of which had been giving me trouble when I was in India. He ended up having to replace the gear and brake cables which had been badly frayed by wear and tear. Then, before he finished and with the look of serious concern on his face, he pointed out a more ominous problem. The fork, which had been seriously damaged on the flight to Delhi had not been properly repaired. I suspect that this damage was accentuated after my cart- wheeling exploits near Aroungabad in India. Now, there where big cracks in the places where the fork had been straightened and according to the mechanic the whole structure was in danger of collapsing very soon. If this happened on a steep descent or in heavy traffic, it would be ‘game over’ for the Gogodermo project! – I had no choice other than to replace the fork if I was going to continue . But first, I had to ensure that this wasn’t breaking the rules. The Guinness rules for a cycle circumnavigation state that you must finish with the same bike that you started on. You can replace components but you can’t replace the frame. I was unsure as to whether the fork would be considered as part of the frame or as a component. After a bit of online toing and froing, I was assured that it was okay to go ahead and replace. Although Bike World was well-stocked, there was no suitable fork in stock today. However, I had to admire the inventiveness of the mechanics as they sourced another secondhand fork from a selection of old bicycles. Of course this new fork didn’t fit perfectly so they spent most of the afternoon machining, drilling and sanding, until it fitted perfectly. I spent most of the afternoon in the teashop opposite Bike World, sipping coffee reading my book and waiting for the repairs to be done. Things began to look up at mid afternoon when Jeff Parry, the Australian, charismatic bike world manager appeared and met me for coffee. He assured me that the repairs would be carried out today and told me about another of his enterprises, Bike World Explorers Guest House, which was only a kilometre away. So for a mere $20, I now have the luxury of my own small but very clean, bicycle themed, private room and better still,- the company of like-minded adventure cyclists. There is one thing we all agree on. -Although it’s meant a days delay in travelling, the decision to stop at Bike World was a real blessing!
……on the road to Mandalay. If you’re a fan of Kipling or even if you’ve ever sung ‘Nelly the Elephant’ these words will be familiar. The road to Mandalay from Yangon in 2017 isn’t anything as romantic as Kipling would have you believe. It’s a 4 lane highway and as it was bucketing down all morning, I couldn’t fully appreciate it’s charms. Jeff, the Bike World owner treated me to a lavish breakfast in the Guest House kitchen, -heaps of delicious fresh fruit including some I’d never had before-dragonfruit? and the traditional eggs with toast. I met some of the other guests too, all of whom had great stories to tell. So, I was a little later than scheduled to head off into the busy morning traffic. After surviving Kolkata, Yangon was a piece of cake and despite the really heavy rain and frequent long delays at traffic lights, I was clear of the city in about an hour. Soon I found myself on the highway to Mandalay which was surprisingly traffic free. The road surface was excellent and I made good progress aqua planing at times in torrential rain. It was however nice and warm and I was in high spirits, delighted to be in the saddle again after my forced rest in Yangon. It’s amazing how much of a difference the full make over that Karolina got there has made. Many of her bits and pieces had become loose in India and she felt like a brand new bicycle today, despite the conditions. After 5 hours and 100k of cycling I stopped for lunch at an enormous highway service station which was packed with a curious mix of travelers,- families, truckers, lots of monks and a scattering of westerners. The rain stopped soon after lunch and I left the highway, heading east and then south to my destination, a fairly big town called Kyaikto which was still 80k away. I knew that I’d have to work really hard to get there before dark but I had no choice as there were no towns with hotels on the road. The regulations regarding accommodation for foreigners are very strict in Myanmar. Camping is explicitly forbidden and foreigners must stay in the government registered hotels- these are scarce and not easy to find. Darkness fell suddenly before 6.00 and I struggled for the final 20k on badly lit roads with many pedestrians and unlit vehicles. It took a while to find the tourist hotels which are all bunched together at the edge of town. I chose the “Happy Hotel ” where I’m a happy guest as opposed to my usual role as happy camper. After a delicious, nourishing feed of fried meat and vegetables I fell into the company of some locals and despite the language barrier, we had some great banter. One guy called Myo was particularly friendly and invited me to meet his family and sample his excellent whiskey. Myo and his wife run a small electrical appliance shop near my hotel and it was a real pleasure to meet the whole family there. I’d read much about Myanmar and spoken to many ex-pats about it but it was quite amazing to get the perspective of a real family. All afternoon today I could see big mountains looming in the distance. Tomorrow I’ll be climbing them! My destination is Hpa-An, pronounced as “Pangan”. The distance is only 130k but with some significant ascent. I’m told that the scenery will be spectacular……
This evening just before 6.00, in a town called Miwaddi, I crossed the border into Thailand. Having cycled the 480 k from Yangon in just three days, I felt really pleased with my progress. I knew it was going to be a tough day with big mountains looming ahead in the east, so I was determined to make an early start. There was a sumptuous buffet breakfast included in the 15 dollar accommodation fee at the hotel so naturally I indulged, delicious fried rice and mounds of succulent fresh fruit. Over breakfast, I spoke with two slightly older Kiwi/Dutch couples who had done lots of adventure cycling tours in Europe and Asia. We traded stories and enjoyed some banter for a while and while this delayed my planned early departure, it was definitely worthwhile, especially as now I’ve so many options on free accommodation in New Zealand. I was still confident that I could make it to Thailand before dark but I hadn’t reckoned on two further major barriers to progress ,-very bad road surfaces and torrential rain. The road surface began to deteriorate immediately after leaving Hpa An and didn’t get any better for nearly 100k. The rain began early in the morning and there were intermittent, heavy downpours all day. The ascent, however wasn’t anything like as challenging as I’d expected on this 100k stretch and I enjoyed cycling over the undulating terrain, through tiny villages and lush green farmland. During a break between the showers, I saw a group of cyclists coming towards me. They were Thai and Burmese, heading to Yangon so we were all happy to chat for a while and find out what was ahead of us. Their leader, called Ni Win, a fairly auspicious name in these parts, told me that the border control office closed at 6.00pm so I’d really have to hurry if I wanted to get into Thailand tonight. I stopped for water at a small street side stall and was invited to join the family for dinner. It was fun to play with the two little boys who ate with us. The last 50k to the Thai border was always going to be difficult. There was a long stretch through dense jungle and I knew by looking at the switchback roads on my map, that the ascent would be really tough. Fortunately, I was now on a brand new road,-the Asia Highway, where the road conditions were perfect and there was even a generous hard shoulder. Nevertheless, I really struggled in the teeming rain with about 1,000m of climbing in 20 long kilometres. The rain had stopped by the time I reached the head of the pass and it was such a joy to let rip on the long descent. I was conscious however of the possibility of crashing, with frequent flashbacks to my last accident. I hope I haven’t lost my nerve for descending! I still had half an hour to spare when I reached Miwaddi, which is just on the border. Traffic there was very heavy and there appeared to be some sort of street carnival in progress. It was a colourful and noisy ride, dodging my way through the decorated floats and dancers. I’m always nervous at border crossings, constantly worrying that I’ll be refused entry for some arbitrary reason. The crossing into Thailand was the most relaxed, hassle free one to date with no baggage search, interview or endless filling out and stamping forms. At 5.55pm I was in my 14th. country and was quite taken aback by the difference between it and where I’d been. In the middle of a big bridge, just after the border, you switch to cycling on the left. The road conditions are perfect and there’s street lighting everywhere. It feels so Western after India and Myanmar. There’s even a huge Tesco Extra supermarket near my really comfortable hotel! Finding an ATM and accommodation was really easy. The town on this side of the border is called Mae Sot, which is bigger and much more cosmopolitan than I’d expected. Tomorrow, I begin the long trek south to Bangkok. The distance is a little more than 500k and I should cover that easily in 4 days. I’ve been told that the road is really good and that the prevailing wind is from the north,- Of course, I’m taking all that with the proverbial pinch of salt,- I was also told that the rainy season would bover by the start of October! When I reach Bangkok, there’s a real treat in store for me. Diarmuid, my eldest son, by a strange and happy coincidence is in SE Asia at the moment and he’s going to whip me off to some exotic location for the weekend. No more bedbugs for me. Yippee!!
A tortuous climb
If yesterday’s climb into Thailand was tough, then today’s climb heading South towards Bangkok can only be described as tortuous! Somebody commented yesterday that it would be all downhill in Thailand. Today there was 2,000m of really tough ascent in the first 80k. -probably the toughest climb of the trip to date. I had a fairly relaxed morning at the hotel in Mae Sot, where once again the breakfast was outstanding. The hotel manager and his wife joined me and they told me a lot about what I should expect on the road to Bangkok. My target for today was only 130k so I could afford the luxury of a few extra cups of coffee and a late start. The climbing began immediately after I left Mae Sot. I was taken aback by the steepness of the gradient. For some stretches it was as steep as 10per cent and Karolina’s front wheel was constantly lifting off the road. The only relief from the pain was the prolific wildlife in the jungle around me. Some very big monkeys were swinging from the branches above me and the air was full of birdsong. There were several of these really steep climbs followed by many equally steep descents and while the road surface was generally very good, there were several places where road works slowed the descent a lot. At one point there was a delay of an hour or more when explosives were being used to widen the road. The noise was ear splitting and the resulting debris and scree was difficult to negotiate. However I was glad to have an excuse to stop and nurse my sore leg muscles. At a roadside stall I gorged on fresh pineapple, mango and banana. 2 kg of fruit cost only 50 cents and it was truly delicious! Today was the first day in ages when it didn’t rain and the temperature shot up to 40 degrees in the afternoon. It was however much cooler at the head of the final agonising climb when I collapsed in a heap after coming to a complete standstill several times on very steep gradients. My fruity lunch made a dramatic reappearance and I was feeling dizzy so had to sit down on the kerb. A little girl who was selling fried insects at a roadside stall came running over to me with a bottle of water and some biscuits. It was just the gesture I needed to get going again. The town at the bottom of the mountain range was called Tak and although I’d only covered 80k, I decided that I’d reward myself with an early finish and would just freewheel the final 20k into the town. It was a glorious descent on a really good road and I began to recover my nerve, reaching speeds of 40k per hour on the straight. The hotel manager in Mae Sot had recommended a hotel owned by his friend in Tak. I had no problem finding it even though it was hidden away in the jungle, just outside the town. Hotel accommodation in Thailand is far superior to what’s available in India and Myanmar. For a very small price, usually 15 dollars or less, you get a beautiful clean room with AC and all the conveniences you’d expect in a western hotel. And as for the food! -This evening I was treated to a feast of fried chicken and jasmine rice in a sauce so delicately spiced and delicious that it sent the taste buds soaring to the heavens and me demanding second helpings. With such excellent food at such a reasonable price, I have no problem fulfilling the 8,000calories per day requirement which I need to fuel my body and maintain condition. In Eastern Europe, this was a chore. In SE Asia, it’s pure joy.
Down but definitely not out This evening I got a message from my son Diarmuid telling me that he was shipping out on Thursday so that our planned rendezvous wasn’t going to happen.
If this had happened in India when I was at a low point, I’d be devastated but there’s nothing that Diarmuid or anyone else for that matter can do about it, so I’m afraid it will be a quiet weekend in Bangkok for me. I had a much more relaxed days cycling today. Once again departure was delayed by a beautiful breakfast in the jungle restaurant. Once again the manager wanted to join me and have selfies taken. When I was packing Karolina, I noticed that she was covered by an army of huge red ants. They had even got into my food bag and lots of stuff was destroyed. There was a fairly strong headwind blowing against me as I set off but I was in very high spirits and made good progress. The road was thankfully flat and as I’m now cycling in the broad flood plain of a big river valley, it looks like it’s going to be flat all the way to Bangkok. My target was to cover 130k which would leave me with two more relatively short days this week but the late start, headwind and some mechanical issues meant that I only made 100k to a town called Klong Klung, or maybe it’s Klung Klong! Place names in Thailand make me laugh. Today I passed through Ban Dog Poo before I reached Klong Klung. Early in the afternoon after lunch, as I was struggling against the wind, I heard the dreaded ping! followed closely by another louder ping!-and realised that Karolina had broken some spokes. Fortunately they were on the front wheel where replacement is much easier. Replacing the spokes isn’t actually a difficult task. It’s ‘truing’ the wheel afterwards that takes some skill and patience. When spokes break there’s usually a wobble in the wheel and truing is the process of correcting that. In the comfort of your home it’s not too difficult but on the side of a road with sweat pumping and ants biting, it can be a challenge, -and it’s all too easy to make a total balls of the job and end up with a bigger problem than you started with. After an hour of sweating and cursing in the afternoon heat, I was satisfied with the wheel and got moving again. The 130k target was impossible now as the sun was setting and it would be dark within an hour. Fortunately the wind had dropped as it does most evenings here and I made it to town and a lovely little resort where I have my own little chalet, this time for only 10 dollars! I’ve got my work cut out for me now after two short days to cover the 320k still remaining for Bangkok in two days but with no joyful family reunion happening, I’m not under so much pressure. Down but not out!
The King is dead, Long live the King! When I arrived in Thailand a few days ago, I noticed that there were blue white and red Thai flags flying everywhere and that many were at half mast. Also there were photos and posters in every shop, restaurant and house of a strange looking man wearing glasses. Many hotels and public buildings had altars dedicated to him. The man in question is King Bhumibol. He had been the King of Thailand for the past 70 years and died in October last year. His body has being lying in state since then and today a lavish 5 day long cremation ceremony begins in Bangkok. It will be all happening when I get there on Friday. Respect and loyalty to the royal family here is quite awesome, -it’s much more deeply rooted and widespread than the loyalty of British people to their royals. In any case, I really don’t quite know what to expect in Bangkok but somehow I doubt that it’s going to be a quiet weekend as I suggested earlier. My own loyalty to the Lady Karolina began to waver somewhat today. I made a fairly early start, hoping to put in a 160k day. But Karolina was having none of it! After only 20k another spoke broke on the front wheel . I replaced it quickly but very soon afterwards another one went and this pattern continued all day. I had soon used up all my spare spokes and really needed to get to a big town where the wheel could be repaired professionally or possibly replaced. Unfortunately the only big town which had a bicycle shop was Nakhan Sawan, which was 40k away from the point where I’d used my last spoke. So Karolina wobbled slowly along the highway. I was really scared that the wheel would collapse so I took it very easy indeed. In the bicycle shop there were no decent wheels available but the mechanic was confident that he could repair the one I had and he set to work. It took three guys and more than an hour of truing to get it sorted. They refused payment and gave me plenty of spare spokes which I hope I won’t be needing for a while. While I was waiting I saw several large groups of cyclists whizzing past on racing bikes,-the first I’ve seen in Thailand. Maybe I’ll have some company on the road for the rest of the journey to Bangkok tomorrow. By the time the mechanics had finished it was 5.00 pm. Everyone was watching preparations for the big cremation ceremony on tv and many of the rural hotels were closing, so I decided not to go much further. I found a cheap resort type hotel, with a menagerie of exotic pets and where the staff are really friendly. Once again I have my own little chalet but the manager is too engrossed in the cremation to talk to me, which is actually a relief at this point. It’s still about 200k to Bangkok and the traffic is going to be really heavy tomorrow so I’m not going to attempt to get there in one day and will stay in the suburbs on Thursday night. I’m really looking forward to getting to a hostel on Friday and meeting some other interesting travellers there.