Grand Total: £6,102.31
Gift Aid: £949.86
Total: £5,152.45
153

Gears We Never Use

"Life is like a ten-speed bicycle,
we all have gears we never use"

— Charles M. Schulz

29,803km

In February 2015 Gary Taylor, from Ipswich, set off to cycle around the world for charity. Keep up to date via this website and through the channels below!

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Land of Golden Pagodas

Country: Myanmar, {Burma}

With the exception of a fairly stressful (and frankly hilarious) border crossing, sure enough, crossing into Myanmar felt like entering a new world. It was an emotional arrival after the mounting stress of India culminated in a horrible final few rides to the border. Some of my motivation was restored almost insantly as I rode out of the immigration office. After the noise, irritation and grief of India it was immediately obvious that the pace of life was very different here and of all the countries I have visited, both before and during this trip, Myanmar quickly became my favourite. I'd tried to resist staying in the hotel I was directed to by my motorcycle escort from the border, but in the end I a actually decided I'd stay for an extra night as well. Partly because I met a Ukrainian hitch-hiker in the hotel. Mainly because it was raining and I was feeling lazy. I headed down to the reception desk in the morning to complete the standard formality of extending my stay.

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The receptionist, who spoke perfectly acceptable English and must have dealt with guests extending their stay in the past, was very confused and flustered by me asking to pay for another night. He pretended not to understand. I showed him my key and the cash for another night, and wondered what else I could possibly be asking of a hotelier. He insisted this questionable business decision went through some more senior members of staff, both he and I had to talk on the phone with his boss before the transaction could be completed. Everybody was very uncomfortable that I would keep changing my mind about things.

The hitch-hiker, Andres, was yet another traveller who had fallen victim to the land border permit. He didn't have one, and the incorruptible official at the gate had refused him passage. He'd mentioned his predicament to some dude in a café who seemed convinced he could assist him getting over the border. There followed some shady meetings in cafés and hotel rooms to try to negotiate a price and method for this illegal border crossing. I was pretty convinced that the guy had absolutely no understanding of how to cross borders legitimately, let alone illegally. Eventually, the whole thing was (sensibly) scrapped. Looking back, I have my suspicions that he might have been some form of undercover officer, trying to test us to see how much respect we had for the law.

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When I did finally get moving I found that infrastructure in Myanmar would add additional challenges, the rainy season had ended when I arrived, but the damage to the roads was quite bad. I had been disbelieving of mystery phonecalls about broken bridges but they were in fact true. Four large bridges on the highway had been completely destroyed by the floods and there was indeed no alternative route. Fortunately, local villagers had flocked to the opportunity. Teams of men pushing shoddily crafted bamboo and barrel rafts waded up to their chins across fast-flowing, muddy water, all the time cracking jokes, singing and laughing. It amused me to see people so happy at the chance to do such a horrible and dangerous job. Money making opportunities were few and far between in these villages, and, as the only people able to offer a solution to transportation along this major route until motorised boats would start arriving from further south, they commanded the toll with their makeshift vehicles.

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At the final crossing, I noticed some people were braving the walk across to avoid having to pay the “ferries”. They were following each other carefully, in snaking lines like ants, along what was obviously the most shallow trail. As the water was only up to their waists, and most of their hairlines only up to my chin, I figured I'd give it a go too. I wandered down to the bank, mentally cataloguing which items needed keeping above the water and which bags they were in, but before I could start shouldering my valuables, a couple of guys started trying to grab at my bike. They were insisting on ferrying my bike across, I laughed and told them I wasn't going to pay them to do something I could probably (barely) manage alone. “No money meesser” was the answer, “you guest”. Four of them picked the fully loaded bike up completely clear of the water and waded the 100 metres to the other bank. I traipsed behind empty handed, looking like a right slacker.

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On the advice of Andres, who had come from the direction I was now heading, I headed right at a T-Junction he had marked on my map, as he had reported that the other option was unrideable. After 5km on a stretch of rubble interspersed with water-filled potholes that I deemed pretty damn close to unrideable, I decided I'd got his advice backwards and taken the wrong road, so I staggered back to the junction and headed the other way. After only about 500m I met a moped rider coming the other way and decided to check if I could get through to Monywa that way. He told me “You need boat mate”, I thought he was kidding, on account of the fact that it was raining quite hard. But the road really was more reminiscent of a waterway. I didn't bother investigating it far, as actually even most canoeists would have struggled with it, as there was a tight lattice of fallen trees barricading it as well. I went back to the town and got on a boat to Monywa. Boats seemingly being the only vehicle currently unaffected. Women came aboard the boat at each stop, to sell fried duck, this duck was probably the only shit food I ate in Myanmar.

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I like Asian food a lot, but Myanmar really took things to the next level. Especially for an ever-hungry cyclist. After living on rice and dal across India, eating in even Burma's most grimy roadside café-shack was an absolute treat for my gut. I'd choose a meat dish or two from the menu (or by pointing to the contents of saucepans) and wait as the waiters surrounded me with eight to ten dishes of various other delicacies. As soon as I emptied one dish, it was re-filled. Indefinitely. Which was kind of annoying for me, as I like to get rid of the foods I like least first, so I had to reverse my eating patterns to make the most of this. I always waited to be massively overcharged, but never paid more than about three bucks. I can't imagine ever finding a better country in which to feed yourself on a cycle tour.

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On top of the food, scenery and the excitement of trying to use roads, the element that truly made Myanmar stand so high above other countries were the people. They seemed genuinely happy to have me in their country. Oh, sure, everybody in less developed countries is happy to see a white guy turn up with pockets full of US dollars, but the people's apparent resistance to ever rip me off seemed to suggest that it wasn't just about the cash. I've never felt so welcome anywhere, it was crazy riding through a sea of smiles and waves all day. I was so happy it felt like an honour to be there, but to them, the honour was all theirs. I did wonder if they might smile so much simply because, having lived in fear of showing dissatisfaction for so long, that its just become habit. That would be disappointing. I convinced myself it's real though, and the sight of tourists brings them real happiness as a reminder that their borders are finally open again after years of government oppression.

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Of course, police states are always a bit of a ball ache so it wasn't all fun and games. Still an authoritarian country and not yet accustomed to tourist visits, I was subject to police checks and was tailed by poorly disguised officers on motorbikes on a number of occasions. The constant whine of moped of a moped engine at 20kmph, ten metres behind you gets to really grate after an amazingly short timespan. There was also the hassle of accommodation. You're required to stay in registered hotels only. Even small towns would have at least two or three local guesthouses priced at a few dollars a night, but only ever one hotel for foreigners, and these could be over fifty USD. In a similar vein to Uzbekistan, I was warned that locals would report attempts to camp wild or stay in monasteries, not through malice, but simply to avoid any trouble from the authorities themselves.

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In Mandalay I decided to look for an affordable hotel, and to my luck (on what must have been the eighth attempt) I haggled the receptionist down to about ten quid and happily took it. It turned out to be a lucky choice as that evening I was hit pretty hard by a fever that left me trapped in my room for the entire night. My body ached al over so bad that even leaning off the bed to drink was agonising, I felt dizzy and sick. I stayed an extra night and staggered a couple of blocks to the hospital to get a blood test, fearing malaria. I had Dengue fever, which I guess is the lesser of two evils. But still evil. After taking an extra night off to rest in Mandalay, I hit the road the next morning, still feeling shit. And hating mosquitoes more than ever.

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That's when accommodation got to be a real pain in the arse. Monasteries would happily host me and this was a nice experience, but they rarely seemed to be where I needed them to be. I camped a couple of times and was undisturbed, despite hearing stories of cyclists moved on by police after being reported by locals. As I was feeling the effects of Dengue fever for almost a week, I decided to pay the price and stay in hotels as often as possible (a bad habit that I kept up through most of south east Asia!) but it wasn't always easy. The prices of some of the registered 'tourist' hotels were shockingly expensive, and not all towns even HAD an option for a foreigner. It seemed to me that it IS possible to stay anywhere if the local police can/will register you, one grubby $5 guesthouse had a local cop come up to my room to register me. Most of the time, however, I was flatly refused and pointed to either the next hotel, or, worse, the next town.

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One such occasion in a place called Yamethin saw me refused by four small guesthouses on the way to the ONE hotel that could take foreigners. A hotel that wanted $60 for a room. It was a nice looking pace, but $60 is out of my price range, even in Europe. I realised the next town was 70km ahead and the last town a similar distance back so I rode into the police station to see if they would register me manually and just give permission to stay in a local guesthouse instead. The officials there were real nice, they asked a lot of questions, and all seemed to need to see my passport and visa, but this is fairly standard in strict countries, even when it's not relevant at all to the task at hand. They talked a lot in Burmese, and made a lot of phone calls. They were enthusiastic about assisting me, but no alternative was being put forth. After about half an hour with no proposed solutions I started to make my own suggestions. None of which seemed too unreasonable to me.

I asked if they could take me to one of the local guesthouses, and hold on to my passport until the following morning, to make sure I didn't attempt to escape. I requested consent to simply camp in the grounds of the station, under their watchful eye. I suggested they put me in a cell, locked if necessary. I even asked if they would sentence me to a night in jail if I broke the law and attempted to camp in the street. My sequence of suggestions were, in turn, laughed off as implausible. Eventually they seemed to come up with an idea and gestured for me to follow another motorcycle escort back to the expensive hotel, where one of the officers insisted the staff gave me a room, reduced to the $12 I had on me. How this was the most logical solution I will never know, but I got the best hotel room I've ever had for under a tenner.

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The next morning a motorbike was waiting, engine running, outside the gate to follow me for the entire 70km to the state border. A small price to pay I guess.

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Language was sometimes really challenging, it would seem the English didn't work hard enough to civilise the Burmese during our years of occupation. Everybody I needed to communicate with was thankfully so friendly that attempts were generally an enjoyable experience. Some times they were just weird...

One morning after eating breakfast in a café next to my hotel, despite my low tolerance to caffeine, I decided to throw caution to the wind and order a second cup of coffee.

"Could I please have another coffee?"
The waitress gave me a blank expression.
"Another coffee?" I asked again, pointing to my empty cup.
The waitress replaced my box of tissues. I was slightly confused by this point, ordering the first cup was no issue. I'd even had a short chat with both members of staff, which seemed to follow a regular, bilateral pattern.
“coff – ee?, café? Erm, Nescafe?” I enquired, with increasing desperation.
The waitress nervously rearranged all of the items on table into a straight line. (What kind of a dick demands a waitress to re-organise the table?!).
"I won't lie, that pleased me too. But I'd really like a coffee."
The seemingly more senior member of staff, sensing a problem, approached the table
"Ah ha, could I please have another coffee" Pointing to my empty cup
"No problem, mayn" He took my empty cup and spoke in Burmese to the Waitress
A long wait followed, which was strange as my first drink arrived quickly. As you'd expect of a glass of hot water served with a packet of powder and a spoon.
"Erm, is my coffee coming?"
"You wan' 'nother coffee, mayn?"

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I was in the country just before the elections and on my final few days before reaching the Thai border, the build up reached fever pitch. On one highway, for literally the entire thirty kilometres between two towns, I found myself cycling through the biggest and most energetic political rally I've ever seen. Something I'm sure the UK government travel advice website advises against. I was a bit scared that I'd feature on Burmese telly and get a few extra questions at the border when I tried to leave, but I kept my head down and tried to stay out of it. Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy finally took power after years of dodgy preventative measures from the old military-backed party and it would seem that the country is finally making progress towards a real, democratic civilian government after a lot of bloodshed and struggle. Something I guess we should be pretty happy about.

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Somehow, despite this blog post sounding a lot like my usual rambling whining about the hassles of cycle touring, my time in Myanmar was some of the best in my life. I highly recommend this as your next holiday destination. The country has staged one of the biggest turnarounds in history, from embargoed and walled in police state to a country determined to enjoy trade and travel with the outside world. Having watched it's neighbours milk international tourism and benefit so much from it, they'll be sure to follow suit. I can't begrudge them from wanting to progress and as a tourist myself I would be stupid to complain about tourism effecting their way of life. Whether the country experiences a positive or negative turnaround will remain to be seen, but I recommend you get in fast before it's over saturated by hoards of drunk Europeans (like myself).

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