Day 25 – Hpa An to Mae Sot Border
Waking early, I grabbed juice, coffee, rice and jam filled toasties, encouraging a shy young German girl on her first travels.
Stomach full to bursting, amazed and appalled at how much toast and jam a hungry cyclist can consume in one sitting, I towed bike and gear outside, dropping my key with the unfriendly receptionist.
Outside the hostel sat two gleeful folk beside a power hose. Offering its services without charge, a young chap leapt to assist, flipping all manner of switches. A low growl. A quick test fire. And pzzzzzsthhhhh – ultimate power unleashed. Giving my trusted stead a good ol’ hose down, it soon looked as though only subjected to a minor battering. Flinging my right leg over the saddle, excited by what lay ahead, I rolled away from the hostel’s iron gates and toward the unknown.
According to maps.me, there are two possible routes to the border. One down inevitably rough unsurfaced village roads / oxen tracks and one following the highway. I chose the rough route. Big roads, trucks and fumes are not amongst my passions for cycle touring. And a little struggle goes a long way to exemplifying the joys of a small reward, being getting somewhere, or finding an ice cold soda.
Embarking down back alleys, around Hpa An lake, briefly onto the highway, then down a rugged track, I felt good about the day ahead, riding amongst spectacular limestone formations, bursting from dusty plains.
However, the ‘road’ soon began to run rougher and rougher, until my most determined efforts produced the traction of 2 year old’s tricycle.
These hi-tech days are of course of little resemblance to the cycle touring of yesteryear (unless of course we choose to abandon its promises). With mobile mounted atop stem cradle, kilometres counted down to the next turning; a sign of hope, of optimism, that perhaps things would become just a little more ridable. After all, most tricky situations turn out right in the end. In such times, when equipped with suitable provisions, mere perseverance is all it takes. Or, so I thought.
The worn and rutted unsurfaced track soon turned to dust. A desert-like sandpit waiting to swallow whatever lay upon it.
I deflated both tyres beyond recommended limits, set my lowest gear (28 on the front, 34 on the back) and pedalled tactfully in search of grip; any grip. There was none.
Pushing around the corner, a car (the first I’d seen since turning from the main road almost an hour ago) slid from left to right as if driven by a 15 year old thrill seeker grasping and releasing the handbrake. Sand littered the skies and to be near it was to be embellished in its grit deep into the lungs.
The car, however, did not get far. Less than 1 click down the track the ‘road’ ended and the roadworks work began. As in much of Myanmar, it is the women here who were doing the heavy lifting, carting stone in hand pans from point to point. Repeat; for hours under the burning sun. Men manning machines. Still, they smiled, laughed and waved as I pushed past in hope of a happier horizon.
As fate would have it, my so far reliable philosophy of ‘everything’s fine; it’s just a blip’ was to be proven somewhat less effective than usual. Two kms passed, works midway, no viable path yet alone tracks in sight. Passed one hamlet, then, 300m of deeply riven cattle track. The scenery still stunning, I had a further 80km of impossible terrain to navigate. I pressed on, passing a makeshift tarpaulin camp, naked folk washing afront a spectacular limestone formation.
Another village, with yet more red signs signalling me to stop.
Approaching a friendly looking shop owner for water, I was surprised to receive a reply in English, broken, but coherent. Handing me two bottles without charge, he seemed more than a touch surprised to see me, explaining my intention to reach the border by bicycle would be impossible.
Bugger. Over two hours ride into the day and there was no sensible option but to turn back. Doing so meant returning to the junction some miles ago, taking a left to rejoin the main highway just a handful of kms from where I left off.
Trotting the walk of shame back past the curious workers, through the sand laden trail, then onto single track paths through farmer’s fields, I rode past traditional lives, tools and farming techniques barely changed by our modern times.
At last, hitting the main highway, I was headed firmly for the border. The highway here is as rugged as Chuck Norris’ undergarments. Dust mask (and potentially full biohazard gear) required! Often, when cycling, I set myself minimum and maximum goals before a break. The minimum being a half way point or a point at which miles justify minutes off the bike. The maximum, the point at which it would be somewhat foolish not to take on additional water or calories.
Some 50km down the track, I pulled up for my first dose of Thai food, perfectly located halfway between my min and max goals.
Pulling up, I parked alongside a hefty chromed motorbike and walked in with a smiling face, eager to engage. As is sometimes the way in Thai culture, particularly in more rural aclimbs, the owners seemed keen to save face by simply ignoring me. Why enter an awkward conversation if ya don’t have to?!! In this case, it was quite amusing. I sat at a table, my 6ft 2 presence quite obvious as I bumbled through the door. The owner and her daughter stared toward a sitcom displayed on a gigantic screen crammed into a space befitting something a touch more graceful.
Some 10 minutes passed and after several attempts to draw attention, I grabbed a cold drink from the fridge, planting myself next to the owner.
She continued to ignore me. I sat back down, not knowing quite what to do.
Another 5 minutes passed and as I started to grow concerned for time, I gave it one last shot. Pointing to a picture on my phone of a pad Thai, it was clear I wasn’t simply going to go away – I was one hungry boy, still excited by the prospect of Thai food.
A stern face and strong no followed, but accompanied by a sit down gesture. Remarkably, a menu in Burmese language soon appeared, accompanied by pictures; none of which I recognised. Pointing at what looked like a fish stew, a rather unappetising plate of Congi Eel arrived minutes later.
Leaving unfulfilled after what was one of the least enjoyable meals, if mildly amusing meals, to date, I continued down the dirty truck-laden road, for the remains of what felt like an end befitting the mild chaos of this wonderful country, but neither the beauty of its wilderness, or the charm of its people.
A moment of joy lay in waiting. Just 5km later, I passed, then stopped, turned and re-visited an especially appealing fruit stall aside the highway.
Pineapple carving here is done with real pride and is not for the impatient. The family running the stall were beyond charming and whilst language was an obvious barrier, we exchanged plenty of happy smiles and gestures. Five minutes later, I was presented with the juiciest, most impressive pineapple I’d ever laid eyes on. What’s more, two limes were duly chopped, squeezed and the whole thing covered in flavoursome spices. The result, delicious!
Question to self – exactly how wrong is it to devour an entire pineapple?
Pulling into the town of Kawkareik (nout to write home about), I had heard the impending stretch of road onward to Myawaddy and Mae Sot was, at best, full of trucks and, at worst, closed to cyclists. Either way, given the type 2 fun and extra mileage of the day thus far, I decided to avoid any further consumption of truck diesel by hopping on a bus to the border.
Easier said than done.
Reaching a border checkpoint at the outer edge of Kawkreik, half tempted to ride on, border police donning handsome olive uniform and black berets signalled me to pull to one side.
They turned out to be wonderful chaps. I refilled my water bottles, we drank sugar cane juice and chatted. Asking whether there were any busses due, I had one eye firmly on the clock – the Myanmar / Thailand border closes at 8pm (Myanmar) and 8.30pm (Thailand). The time was 4.30pm, some 43km to go. ‘But that’s 3.5 hours – just wait for a bus, travel 43km and cross a border’ I hear you say. Perhaps the most pleasant way of putting it is that ‘time flies’ here in Myanmar.
Whilst a steady stream of cars, trucks and busses pass from Thailand into Myanmar, very few, by way of comparison, are bound for Thailand. However, as luck would have it, one of the border guards was also planning to take a bus that would reach Myawaddy in time for a border crossing. One and a half hours passed, the company pleasant. And at last the bus arrived, full with local passengers, with room for a bicycle aboard.
Heading up the new highway toward the border, the hill is nothing scary in terms of gradient or elevation, however, is anything but pleasant to ride. Before long, we were stood still in bumper to bumper, wall to wall traffic, the result of a quite horrific crash involving a car and truck. Getting passed was chaotic at best, with vehicles continually blasting all manner of horns (some are equipped with multiple horns, ranked according to friendly, stern and downright profanity).
As we pulled past the crumpled vehicles, torrential rain started to thunder down, promising a rather wet start to my Thailand festivities.
Arriving some 4km from the border, rain still pouring down, it was 7.15pm. Bike thankfully intact, I rode the flat stretch in no time, pulling over to experience my first Asian land border by bicycle.
The process was almost too easy. In fact, the guards were quite happy to wave me through without getting my passport stamped. Insisting, I located the small office, waited less than 2 minutes and the deed was done with 30 minutes to spare.
Finding a stack of Myanmar Kyat as I stowed my passport in my soaking Camelbak, I asked whether I could grab some food before crossing into Thailand. ‘No problem’.
Turning back to find a small restaurant, I grabbed a chicken stir fry cooked up in minutes and paid for 2 Myanmar beers with the remaining notes.
Time to enter Thailand.
Approaching the counter, rain still pounding down, locals jostled for position, thrusting the toll fee into gaps between border staff and barrier. Some 5 minutes later, the longer task of checking my own arrival card was complete. I had officially left Burma and arrived into Thailand for the next exciting leg of my adventure.
The ride from border to motel was c.10km, the cultural change immediate and profound. Badly riven roads transformed into pristine highways. Makeshift vehicles transformed into sparkling SUVs and small ramshackle stores into giant shopping malls