A slight adjustment – it was now Plan B for Burma. Here I was in the city of Imphal, in the north eastern Indian state of Manipur, bordering Burma. Immigration officials hadn’t allowed me enter, but I was intent on getting into the country somehow. I considered flying, with my bicycle, to Yangon (Rangoon) the country’s capital but Fred, my French cycling buddy from months ago in the Kazakh desert, emailed me, “Non Hugh! Absolutement after cycling all this way, you have to enter Burma by bicycle!” He was right, so the plan was to fly from Kolkata to Bangkok in Thailand, and cycle into Burma from that side. I’d get a cheap flight from Imphal with Indigo (as in ‘India Go’, it took me a while to get it!) – the Ryanair of this part of the world – and another a few days later to Bangkok with the same airline for less than a $100.
At the small provincial airport of Imphal, before handing my precious black Cadillac over, I spent some time parceling it up. That morning I’d cruised the market for some protective material for my bicycle. Not so difficult a task at home where we discard stuff such as cardboard and bubble wrap and a visit to a white goods or electronics store would sort you out. But here everything is recycled. The trick was to find it! Which I eventually did, along with a roll of strong tape. After taking the wheels and pedals off and fastening them to the frame with cable ties, I turned the handlebars flush with the body, taped cardboard around sensitive parts like the levers, derailleur and cassette sprocket before wrapping the whole thing in clear bubble wrap. I’d decided not to put an extra packaging of cardboard around the bike. My thinking was if the baggage handlers could see the delicate machine they’d take more care. And not load something heavy on top of it, or drop it from a forklift! Though the possibilities went through my mind I managed to release it to the baggage people with trust. It was now outside my control, what else could I do?
At Kolkata airport it was with some relief I collected the bike intact and undamaged. I reassembled it and getting my bearings, asked a friendly airport official for a suggestion as for a likely area nearby for cheap hotels. It was late at this stage. He was knocking off after his shift and kindly offered to bring me and the bike in his work SUV to a nearby suburb where I could find a room. Cheap and not so cheerful. But I was used to bare concrete floors, a stale smell and shared toilets. It was handy to the airport for my flight out in a few days. The following morning I locked the bike to the metal bed frame (leaving little space left in the room) and dived into the city, looking forward to experiencing its notorious dynamism and energy.
Jumping onto a bus the few miles across town from one attraction to another, was my first experience. Like in any city, commuters from all walks of life were going about their daily business, crammed onto seats or pressed together standing in the aisles, squeezing past getting on or off, chatting between each other. And some on their own. Daydreams and dramas – pragmatic, meditative, or perhaps impassioned – unrolling behind glazed eyes.
Behaviour between strangers on a bus vary culture to culture. Here there appeared to be a bit more of a ‘look out for yourself’ mindset. When a passenger made a move to get up and disembark a young boy was in the seat like a shot. Below the nose of an elderly man standing next to it. Nobody passed any comment (I had to resist the urge to give him a verbal clip on the ear). The little incident had me pondering the custom of consideration for others in different cultures – is it in big cities we feel less of a connection to others as fellow human beings, as a practical survival mechanism (we can’t possibly empathise with thousands of people as individuals, every day)? Is there perhaps less pressure on how to behave than might be imposed in a smaller community? And then what about the cultural notion of ‘chivalry’, why it had been adopted through the church and the royal courts in feudal Europe, and continued to evolve through the ages?
The colour and atmosphere along with the engine fumes was nearly overpowering. With the sound of grinding gears the bus laboured along slowly through the built up streets of the city. Rotting debris and rubbish collected in drifts. Crossing a trickle of a river the colour of sludge, an overwhelming stench of fresh diarrhoea wafting up caused me to hold my breath. Slow traffic meant I had to eventually, before gasping, very tentatively draw a breath. There appeared to be no reaction from the passengers around me, their sense of smell obviously well hardened. Lean-to’s and shanties of corrugated iron sheeting and cardboard were packed together on the dry part of the river bed. It’s estimated about a third of the population live in the infamous Kolkata slums.
A refuelling pause rivalled a Formula One racetrack for efficiency. A barrel on the roadside was the petrol station. As the bus stopped at the kerbside a small boy leapt on board carrying a fuel hose, cleared a seat of passengers, lifted it up and jammed the hose into the fuel intake under the seat. Outside, his fellow worker energetically pumped the fuel from the barrel by hand. The operation couldn’t have taken more than two minutes before the driver handed over a few notes and the bus lurched back into the traffic.
After nearly two hours of very slow progress I’d had enough and got out. Rather than sit in the bus any longer I’d walk across Howrah Bridge over the River Hooghly – one of four million pedestrians that cross that bridge, every day. The traffic was something else. And the constant din of engines revving and horns parping. But then I had a strange experience walking along Nehru Road, a principal avenue, as the lights turned red at a major junction. One by one engines were switched off to conserve fuel. Even the buses. The result – it got eerily quiet with only the fainter sound of car horns in the distance. It was the weirdest feeling in the centre of Kolkota on a busy thoroughfare.
I’d read somewhere that Kolkata is a city of three M’s – Marxism, mishti, and Mother Teresa. Mishti is a sweetened yogurt that Kolkatans love. Just off Jawaharlal Nehru Rd, named after India’s first prime minister – architect of the modern Indian nation-state: a sovereign, socialist, secular, and democratic republic – are the US Consulate and British High Commission. The name of the street? Ho Chi Minh sarani. The state of West Bengal has a history of revolutionary movements associated with Indian independence and until just a couple of years ago it had the world’s longest-serving democratically elected communist government. They changed the street name during the American-Vietnam War.
In its glory, Calcutta had been the British empire’s ‘second city’, after London of course. The regal, colonial buildings bear witness to this. The city was India’s capital, until, due to growing Bengali nationalism and also geographical reasons, in 1911 the seat of government was switched to Delhi. Public monuments never really did anything for me. I’d always felt I was missing something visiting various imposing buildings around Europe – majestic and stately, sometimes even stirring, but I find it difficult to be moved by the experience. The grandeur and scale leave me a little cold. Then I visited the extraordinary Taj Mahal in Agra, many times, each with a similar reaction of awe to Shah Jahan’s exquisite memorial to his wife. After that I understood how a building could be breathtaking in its beauty. And so it was with some anticipation I visited “one of the grandest of all British Indian buildings”, the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, known as the British version of the Taj Mahal. It was a disappointment. For me it was more in the category of massive and impressive imperial structure, impressive certainly but it didn’t move me.
Calcutta’s emergence as a city three hundred years ago came about because of the increasing power the East India Company. At one stage the company accounted for half of Britain’s trade, mainly basic commodities that included silk, cotton, salt, tea… and opium. Calcutta was the centre of their opium trade to China throughout the 18th and 19th century. It’s claimed the company’s forced cultivation of poppies in place of grain was a cause for the severe famines in 18th and 19th century Bengal. The Opium Wars were fought to safeguard its profitable monopoly in the narcotics trade.
Though a private company, its shares owned by wealthy merchants and aristocrats, the East India Company operated as an agent of British imperial policy. Which of course was all about trade. The company was responsible for introducing English as India’s official language and private militias of the East India Company became the armies of British India, its administration the Indian civil service. “The collecting of Mughal taxes was henceforth subcontracted to a powerful multinational corporation – whose revenue-collecting operations were protected by its own private army… Which then transformed itself into an aggressive colonial power”, writes the great travel writer and historian William Dalrymple in his soon to be published ‘The Anarchy: How A Corporation Replaced The Moghul Empire”.
In less than half a century the whole subcontinent from Calcutta across to Delhi and south was ruled by a boardroom in the City of London. And as is the case with private enterprise, then as now, the East India Company was accountable only to its shareholders. It had no responsibility towards the region – just rule, or the welfare of the people, or its long-term wellbeing – and as might be expected the consequence was “straightforward pillage, and the rapid transfer westwards of its wealth.” Dalrymple’s contention is that the company is the ultimate model for many of today’s joint-stock corporations. “The most powerful among them do not need their own armies: they can rely on governments to protect their interests and bail them out. The East India Company remains history’s most terrifying warning about the potential for the abuse of corporate power – and the insidious means by which the interests of shareholders become those of the state. Three hundred and fifteen years after its founding, its story has never been more current.”
Rather than British colonisation being the ‘civilising mission’ that Victorians (and others since) believed, in this case it was all about corporate looting that opened British rule in India. In fact one of the first Indian words to enter the English language is “loot” – Hindi for “plunder”.
In the months cycling in this extraordinary country, and a few days immersed in this “in your face” city – its contrasts of grand statements of colonial architecture and city design with the great park of the Maidan, and grand avenue, the grimy, dilapidated buildings downtown from the early part of the century, and the overcrowding and the hovels crammed along the railway tracks and filthy canals – I couldn’t get away from thoughts of the damage done by imperial rule. That somehow the means of first appropriating and then maintaining power by a dominating and racist colonial master has had consequences centuries on for the national psyche. As a superficial example, in the middle classes why isn’t the Indian dress preferred over the European suit, obviously the most un”suit”able attire for the, at times, unbearable heat. To put it bluntly, is it not ‘aping’ the conquerors? On a more ingrained level, what does generations of colonial rule do for a person’s and a country’s sense of identity? It’s even more damaging I believe than in Ireland, as it is so vastly different a culture than its coloniser’s.
On the day I was leaving India, around the corner from my hotel – flophouse would be more accurate a term – I stepped into a barber for a shave. I knew the standard price was twenty to thirty rupees, and we agreed fifty as I took my seat and the barber started rubbing soap into my face. Just as he’s lining up to start he says the price is 150 rupees. That’s not a lot of money – about €2, it’s all relative – but nobody likes being ripped off. After my protest he relents and agrees to the original fifty. As the shave starts he comes back with a demand for a hundred rupees. If this was done with any humour it would be different, but it wasn’t, and I wasn’t in good form and couldn’t be bothered playing the game. I made to get up mid-shave before once again he relented. And this under a man wielding a cutthroat razor at my exposed neck. Not a very comfortable situation. In my weary state of mind I felt this epitomised a side of India that drains the traveller. I think I was tired. It was time to move on.
The further east I’d travelled on the journey so far, the more the conditions became a little more ‘basic’. After crossing the Himalayas and Karakorums from China into Pakistan, there had been a distinctive shift in levels of infrastructure. Continuing into Nepal and then India, the road surface became rougher, more patchy and less maintained. Driving patterns had changed, ‘flow’ was more the concept to observe than rigid keeping to rules of the road. And the options for eating were more traditional – whether it was my favourite freshly baked chapati and dal on the Karakorum Highway; thin lentil soup and rice – dal baht – served throughout Nepal; in India in the ubiquitous dhaba – a primitive truckstop – offering a range of at least three curries simmering away in pots on mud built ovens with steaming chapatis from the tandoor.
Now, after six months through Central then South Asia, my jaw was hanging open at what I was cycling past the thirty kilometres from the airport into the centre of Bangkok. It was like the outskirts of an American city – immaculate wide roads with a hard shoulder to cycle comfortably along, large billboards advertising electronic goods and the latest car models, furniture retailers, 7/11 convenience stores on nearly every corner with cold drinks, chocolate and ice creams, doughnut outlets. If the urge came upon me for an espresso I wouldn’t have to wait longer than a block or two. It was true to say I had to deal with a bit of culture shock. I had re-entered the ‘First World’.
After a few days in the Asian capital for R&R – one of the first things I treated myself to was a good Thai massage – I set off. My intention was to get to Mae Sot on the Burma border for Christmas day in a few days time. What a pleasure it was to cycle in Thailand. It was just so … easy. The roads were smooth and accommodated a bicycle easily, the traffic was well behaved, the climate perfect, real coffee regularly available, the people so friendly, and there were regular stops for water, snacks and food. And what food! I learned an essential factor that makes Thai food so appealing was the balance in every dish of four s’s – spicy, sweet, sour and salt. Thai cuisine has to be about the tastiest in the world. And cheap and healthy too.
About eighty kilometres from Bangkok, towards the end of a day’s cycle, the town of Ayutthaya was approaching according to my sketchy iPod map. Surprised to see two tourists on bicycles who turned off the main road from town and freewheeled down to an impressive looking wat, or temple, I followed them down with the intention of picking up some information. “Any tips on accommodation guys?” I asked the couple. In the ensuing conversation I learned that I’d stumbled upon one of the most well known and visited sights in Thailand – in the 17th century the seat of the powerful kingdom of Siam, the trading capital of Asia and largest city in the world with over a million inhabitants! Merchants had come to set up shop from Portugal, France, the Netherlands, the Arab world, India, China and Japan. Dutch and French maps at the time describe a city of great opulence with gold-laden palaces, large ceremonies and a huge float of trading vessels from all over the world. It was conquered by the Burmese two hundred and fifty years ago who burnt the city to the ground. Now the city ruins are a Unesco World Heritage Site.
What an ignorant tourist. If truth be known I was probably suffering a little from destination fatigue – after nine months cycling towards my destination I had been so close to Burma – setting foot in the country at Moreh on the Indian border – that in the unplanned decision to enter through Thailand, I’d paid little attention to the prospect of travelling in Thailand. It was just a backdoor into Burma. I hadn’t given much thought on what to expect, had no particular excitement in anticipation of the cultural delights of a new country, as I normally do, and certainly had done no preparation learning about this country. Unlike my usual practice. I believe it’s so important to know a little about the culture I’m cycling through, just to have a better understanding of where I am, some background and context behind the appearance of things. And here was I cycling through an exotic land, blind. It was time to sit down and do some study.
The two who’d hired bicycles told me of the value in their mid range hotel which sounded pretty good to me. When I arrived there however the young woman on reception quoted me a figure of $25, way beyond my daily accommodation budget. Noting my disappointment she followed me out to my bicycle and confided to me the strategy. “Do you have a smartphone?” Laptop. “Ok, you go to Agoda website. You find good price there and book. Then you come back to me. Ok?” I think I understood. She even gave me the password for the hotel wifi. Ten minutes later I was stretched out on the bed with a smile on my face in a very comfortable ensuite room that cost me $12!
Ayutthaya is on an island at the confluence three rivers. I took a day’s break and cycled around the stone ruins, all that remain of the old city – remnants of temples, palaces and extended monasteries. Everywhere in the extensive area, prang(reliquary towers) rose up through the trees. The evening was spent reading up on my history and culture of Thailand. Feeling a little better equipped I set off north.
A few days later I awoke in the small town of Tak, about 100 kilometres – an average day’s cycle – from the town of Mae Sot on the border with Burma. But over a mountain range. It was Christmas Eve. The Karen Refugee Educational Trust – one of the two local charities supported by the BicycletoBurma journey, the other being the Susie Long Hospice Fund in Kilkenny – had their base in Mae Sot. It’s a community based organisation operating in seven Karen refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border, focusing on refugee camp education. Alas Catherine, the Irish woman based in Mae Sot working with the organisation and with whom I’d been liaising, had just left for a break back to Ireland. But it was my target for Christmas Day. At least there’d be people there who knew Catherine and perhaps I’d get to meet some expats to celebrate Christmas with.
But there was quite a bit of a grind between Tak and Mae Sot, the road winding and climbing quite steeply at times through dramatic rock outcrops jutting out of the green jungle. Of course the pleasure was in the descent, all the more so for the hours struggling uphill. I rolled into the border town with a sense of approaching my journey’s destination. For the previous nine months the routine had been always get up, pack the bike and head east towards Asia and my destination of Burma. Now it was so close, next door in fact.
Mae Sot is home to a sizeable population of displaced Karen refugees from the civil war in Burma – the longest running in the world – who had been accepted by the Thai government. The Karen language is spoken here as much as Thai, shop signs are in Burmese and Thai, and much of the temple architecture is Burmese. As well as a hub for NGOs working with the refugees, the town is also an important jade and gem centre, with much of the trade apparently controlled by Chinese and Muslim immigrants from Burma.
It was Christmas Eve but of course in this buddhist country it was just another day as I cycled through the busy town centre. Treating myself, I booked into a comfortable hostel before strolling up to an expat bar to meet with Ton, a friend of Catherine’s who was told of my arrival. Ton is a Dutchman who’d cycled to Thailand himself fifteen years previously and hadn’t left, working in the refugee camps as a teacher. He had been following my journey on Facebook and I got a great welcome from him. Not only that, but he’d arranged to meet up with a few other folks who were familiar with the journey. For only the second time since setting off on my bicycle nine months previously I got a welcome from supporters, the other occasion in Frankfurt in Germany. After all this time cycling on my own, the reception had such a comforting and heartening effect.
And it got better! The following day I was generously invited to Christmas dinner by Irish expat Niamh and her Karen husband. Jak, who had been a senior figure in the Karen resistance, also happened to be a great cook. We had a feast served to us. What a pleasure to feel in the bosom of this group, with Irish accents adding a sense of familiarity to this Christmas celebration in the tropics. I was so grateful to arrive to this.
Backdoor to Burma
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