An unfamiliar motorbike with a foreign number plate always raises interest from the locals of countries left out of the trodden path of mainstream tourism. Often, it’s the youth that quickly spot unusual vehicles and riders from beyond their nation’s borders and the attention that comes from being recognised as an alien can prove to be a bit of a challenge for the unsuspecting traveller.
The scrutiny and interest from the locals, although friendly and well intended, can be overwhelming. People congregate around you at any road side stop with smiles or inquisitive frowns. Some offer hospitality, food, water, coffee, tea and inevitably ask the same questions, endlessly time and time again: “Where are you from? Where are you going? Why are you here? How old are you? Are you married? Can I take a selfie?”. You are treated like like a fish out of water, like someone who has somehow gone incredibly astray and needs assistance.
Sometimes however, interest can also come from those in a position of authority: the police, zealous border officials, traffic cops and of course the military, who to me are the most unpredictable of all uniformed officials.
From the eastern borders of Europe all the way to Thailand, soldiers play a bigger role in society than we are used to in the West. Soldiers can be found at borders between neighbouring districts, counties or municipalities and towns. There are soldiers in areas of political tension or affected by terrorism. There are soldiers in places of strategic interest such as mountain passes (even the remotest in the Himalayas), sea ports, railway stations, banks not to mention airports and govermnet buildings of various description. Men in green or kaki coloured fatigues are never too far away in southern Asia to the point that it’s not unusual to find yourself escorted by the same for sections of your itinerary, just like a minor dignitary might be (in Pakistan and Iran most of all).
Clearly, the biggest worry for any traveller is the risk of being harassed by gun bearing conscripts feeling bored at a road side check point in the middle of nowhere. Truth is, this kind of thing hardly ever happens, at least not in South Asia. I found the soldiery in this part of the world to be professional and respectful. However, that’s not to say that dealing with the guys in green is always straight forward.
There are two types of soldiers: subordinates and superiors. Dealing with superiors (the ones in charge) is generally less time consuming than the subordinates. Nevertheless, I discovered that there are plenty of assholes in both of the above categories, the sort of guys you occasionally come across who love to throw their weight around and make your life harder for longer than necessary, just for a laugh.
The motorbike is a strategic asset that always helps when dealing with road side check points and soldiers most of all. Every young or youngish fella has an interest in cars, bikes, pick up trucks so an “exotic” motorcycle from far away is something of a welcome distraction from the routine of flagging down scooters or Chinese made lorries for inspection. Stop at a military block on anything bigger than a 150cc bike and smart phones appear, poses are struck and selfies are taken by soldiers to send to girlfriends, wives and pals. The way I see it is that I’d rather soldiers take pictures of themselves sitting on or standing around my bike than deal with the inconvenience of being ordered to open my bags for a rummage of their contents. A little empathy goes a long way and generally helps to engage with the individuals wearing the uniforms rather than trigger they authority that the uniforms represent.
So, whenever flagged down by the army guys I found it best to literally prop the bike up on centre stand, take the keys from the ignition, bury them in a pocket and watch the picture taking routine unfold. Smile, be courteous, answer questions, perhaps use some local language, enquireabout where to find good local food, water, fuel, women (always a good one) or a place to spend the night. I found that more often than not a sergent or a coporal would take control, answer my queries, sometimes even offer me tea or coffee and then dispatch me on my way whilst the rest of the crew were still checking out the pictures on their smart phones.
Only once, close to the Russian border did I come across a man in green who demanded I let him ride my bike. In cases like this an outright refusal is the only possible way to safeguard trip and motorbike. Make sure the keys are away from the ignition. Humour always helps and I found that comparing my motorcycle to a girlfriend or a wife, something no man would want to share with another, was enough to brake the impasse with laughter and send me back on my route without further adoo.
A huge thank you to the military and border guards of Iran and Pakistan who escorted me on my ride through the troubled areas of Baluchistan close to the border with Afghanistan. Their professionl attitude and timely organisation left me in awe of their good will and abilities. Thank You once again!
Travellingstranger, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.
Top boxes, tank bags, extra lights and similar all have their special place in the adventure motorcycling scene and serve their purpose well. There are hundreds of online reviews about riding gear, luggage, cushioned seats and the latest tyre technology, all claiming to make our lives easier on the road. Of course we’re free to pick and choose and spend our cash as we like. However, there are some simple, very affordable extras (some self made) that can make a huge difference to the comfort and quality of our rides especially on longer tours. A few may be obvious to some bikers, others perhaps not so much. Here are five I’ve learned to appreciate.
1. Tank cargo net.
A normal cargo net (sold in most biker stores), stretched over the tank area just in front of the seat is good for storing gloves, sun glasses, small cameras, maps, pens, hats, bit’s of paper, selfie sticks, any official document needed for upcoming border crossings, ferry tickets and so on. A cargo net on the tank area secures most stuff you generally want to keep handy both on the go and on a break at a standstill. A cargo net literally turns the tank space into a sort of dashboard and in many cases is just as good if not better than a bulky tank bag. A cargo net is cheap, practical and only needs three anchoring points on either side of the bike to be stretched into place in a few seconds. Easily removed as well.
2. Colour coded stuff bags
Ever had to rummage through your panniers for what seems like an eternity to find that extra layer of clothing or those paracetamols you need? Worse still, have you had to ask someone else to do it for you?
We all have a method for organising kit on our bikes and most will agree that finding the ideal set up is a constant work in progress with adjustments, great and small, constantly being tried out. Colour coded stuff bags are a great way organising our kit inside panniers. Stuff bags are reasonably tough, lightweight and cheap when bough in a set. They come in different sizes and fortunately in different colours too. Think of them as separate files each distinguished by their own colour. To each colour corresponds different contents so, say… red for first aid and medication, grey for clean clothing, green for laundry, blue for chargers, cables, memory cards, batteries and so on. It all helps, especially when looking for stuff in the dark with just the tired beam of a flash light as an aid.
3. Salame tool kit bag
There are toolkit bags galore to choose from on the internet, some of which are specially designed for adventure biking. There are zip bags, roll bags, fold bags with velcro, straps and plastic buckles. However, in most cases once filled with tools these designs end up being overly bulky and difficult to carry. The question is pretty obvious: do you really need padded packaging, pickles and zips fasteners for your spanners? No, probably not.
A cheap storing solution for sockets, drivers and wrenches is the salame tool kit bag, made out of a recycled piece of inner tube (car tyre) around 40cm in length. It’ll pretty much hold everything you need for the road: sockets, spanner’s, allen keys, ratchet wrench, all of it. The ends of the tube can be sealed by rolling, folding and then wrapping the lips with bands of extra tyre tube or strong elastic bands. The salami bag compacts the size of stored tools to a minimum, holds them securely and prevents them from rattling around. It’s light, tough, water resistant (almost water proof), cheap and easily replaceable. What more could you ask for?
4. Extra power socket.
Really a no brainier in todays gadget obsessed world. Smartphones, iPads, and other devices need to be charged to keep in touch with loved ones, picture taking and for those essential apps that aid us on our tours.Most bikes these days come from the manufacturer with at least one cigarette lighter style power socket available, but these 12V outlets are often only powered up when the ignition is engaged. It’s good to have a plug that is permanently live and accessible say, under your seat for example. Some simple wiring from the bike battery with a fuse will do the trick.Of course a USB adapter is also essential.
5. Large side stand foot print.
Another important, often overlooked improvement that can make a real difference to a motorbike trip is the size of the side stand foot or ground pad. A bigger pad on the kick stand will prevent the same from digging into soft ground, and stop a bike from toppling over with luggage, accessories and perhaps an unsuspecting pillion as well. Mud, sand, ice, even asphalt on a hot day need side stands with big foot prints in order to keep a heavy machine propped up. A bigger foot print makes parking a bike an easy, safe, care free ordeal and all it takes is a piece of hard plastic or piece of metal and some good fastening to make the difference. There are even ready-made kits available for certain bike models known to have poor side stand designs. Do not underestimate the advantages of a decent foot print.
Travellingstranger, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.
Getting into Myanmar on a motorcycle is no easy feat. Current laws in Burma make it a bit of an obstacle for overlanders who intend to cross on their vehicles regardless of whether these be fully equipped 4 x 4 trucks or simple pushbikes, it makes no difference. Myanmar requires careful planning and thought but that’s not to say that it can’t be done. To cross the country legally as of 2016, requires engaging the services of a certified Burmese tour operator. For a fee an operator will provide the paperwork for an “approved route”, an English speaking guide and a government official to lead a travelling party from entry border to exit. Guest houses, hotel bookings and guided tours to attractions are usually included in the package.
For any long distance biker this situation sounds like bliss as the normal inconveniences of looking for budget accommodation, camping spots, figuring out an itinerary and deciding what to visit or not are taken away and landed squarely on the tour operator’s lap. Suddenly, once you’re in the hands of a guide, you’re looked after, pampered and fed which for a short while feels great. All that needs to be done is ride, enjoy the road and the scenery of what until not so many years ago was one of the most reclusive countries in the world.
However, guides and government reps come at a cost and Myanmar’s bill is a hefty one. A seven to ten day road trip through Burma adds up to thousands of US dollars. It therefore makes sense to team up with other travellers and spread the expense of the tour amongst a larger party. Clearly, the bigger the group the cheaper it becomes for everyone involved.
I met a number of bikers on my road trip across Asia, many of whom intended to ride through Myanmar at some point in their itinerary. So, when my turn to leave India arrived I was part of a team of seven keen overland bikers like myself, geared up and ready to meet our Burmese guide just beyond the India Myanmar border in Moreh (Manipur).
One week to cross all of Myanmar on dusty roads and broken tracks, covering an average of around 300km per day was perhaps too fast and left little time to experience Burma’s culture and allure. The few things that I did get a chance to see and appreciate were certainly noteworthy though, like the Golden Rock for example, in Mon State not far from the Andaman Sea, west of Yangon. Bellow is an extract from my travel diary…
In Need of a Rest
We parked our motorbikes in front of the guest house on the outskirts of Kinpun with a sigh of relief. Three days on the uneven roads of Myanmar under the Asian sun had exhausted us and the signs of fatigue were clear. We brushed the dirt off our faces, turned off our engines and shuffled together around Fabian still shaken after his collision with a drunken scooter rider a little earlier in the day. Fabian was limping noticeably, he had a badly bruised foot and was clearly in pain. Luckily, his prized Royal Enfield diesel machine (yes, a diesel motorbike) showed no signs of any damage from the clash.
Perhaps it was just as well we’d made it to the foot of the Kelasa hills that evening, to one of the holiest places of buddhism in Burma. I think we all tacitly acknowledged that it was time for a rest, some peace and quiet away from the roads, fuel stops, road side cafes and riding, even if it was for just few hours.
Mount Kyaiktiyo is home to the Golden Rock of Myanmar, an iconic landmark that attracts hundreds of devout Buddhist pilgrims and tourists every day. Perched at a height of 1,100m (3,600 ft), it consist of a roundish granite bolder perhaps 15m in diameter (50ft), that seems precariously balanced on the ridge of a steep escarpment. The main feature of the rock is the fact that it’s entirely coated in a layer of gold leaf that glistens brightly in the sun. The a gold coating is meticulously maintained (and guarded) by the local monks whilst extra precious metal is added to the rock every day by hundreds of worshippers, who queue and paste gold foil stickers on the mass as a sign of homage.
But of course, it’s not the actual rock that’s worshipped by the faithful. Balanced on top of the the golden bolder lies a 7m (20 ft) tall Stupa (small shrine) that contains relics, locks of hair, that supposedly belonged to none other than the great Buddha himself. It’s these relics that call the faithful to the top of Mount Kyaiktiyo.
We discovered that the climb from the base of Mount Kyaiktiyo to its holy summit was a long and unappealing hike on an uneven trail. Tired as we were from our long ride that day we opted for whatever public transport we could find for our Golden Rock tour. In the end, we followed the locals and did as they did: pile into the back of a truck and then hold on for the rollercoaster ride on a narrow mountain track to the top of the Kyaiktiyo.
The views from Kyaiktiyo were stunning. Once more Myanmar revealed how exceptionally green it was with lush undisturbed valleys stretching far towards the horizon. I admired the sight with touch of wonder hoping that what I saw would survive so called “development” unavoidably on it’s way Myanmar.
The feeling of calm, the pleasant views and the cool mountain air were soothing and relaxing, it was what I had hoped for and needed after the long rides of the previous days. No doubt it had the same effect on my travel buddies whom I noticed were lost in gazes their own.
From the truck stop we strolled on a paved path towards the Rock and its shrine. Around us, there were no other western tourists that day. Most prominent of all were “holy men” of some kind, priests perhaps or worshipers deep in prayer. One elderly monk with a crimson robe and tall hat muttered words of a mantra and took painstakingly short, slow steps towards the shrine ahead.
The Golden Rock
Another turn on the path and the Golden Rock suddenly appeared majestically in the distance, glowing in the sun, bulging from the backdrop of a dark blue cloudless sky. There was a small procession of people, queuing to get within arm’s length of the Rock’s surface and I decided to hurry on to see if I could join the queue myself. First though, being so close to holy relics, I was required to remove all footwear as is the customary in places of buddhist worship. Then, for a couple of dollars, I bought a strip of sticky gold leaf foil from a stall and silently joined the line.
Only men are permitted to within touching distance of the Golden Rock for reasons not even the locals know. Women are relegated to a small prayer area 10m (30ft) away from its surface.
As I got closer to the granite mass I noticed to my astonishment that it really was precariously balanced on its perch without any obvious added anchoring to protect it from the drop below. Bizarrely there was a sizeable gap underneath the rock that you could see straight through. I couldn’t help but wonder what might happen to Buddha’s sacred relics in the event of even just a minor earthquake.
My turn finally came and I respectfully stuck my gold leaf sticker alongside tens of worshipers doing exactly the same thing. I wished the rock and the contents of its shrine a long and safe life for the benefit of the many pilgrims that visited the place every day.
Was it worth it?
I found the Golden Rock of Mount Kyaiktiyo an interesting tour and certainly worth a visit. Like most of Myanmar it’s still a relatively unknown attraction to mass tourism and the place holds a lot of authenticity. There are holy men and women, monks and pilgrims on the path to the shrine, some of whom appear lost in thought and prayer. This creates a dose of real mysticism which is harder and harder to find these days anywhere in the world. Of course on the path to the shrine there are also stalls selling food, refreshments and souvenirs for those so inclined but these don’t seem to interfere with the general character of the place. I’m glad I went and would recommend a trip to the Rock to those who intend to visit Burma.
Back on the Road
As we all climbed back onto our motorbikes the following day for the push to the Thai border, there were smiles on everyone’s faces. Even Fabian was feeling refreshed. It almost seemed as though there was some healing power in that golden lump of granite we visited the day before, or maybe it was the holy relics that did the trick, who knows?
For overlanders heading towards Myanmar either from Thailand or India I can say that I was very pleased with the “Motor Customised Tour” arranged for my posse of motorcycle adventurers by :
In particularMiss Win Aung worked tirelessly to put the members of our group together, help usout with visas and permits. It all fell into place in the end and although we all opted for a quick crossing of country we didn’t miss out on the main attractions including Bagan, Mandalay and Naypyidaw. Burma is beautiful and exciting.
Travellingstranger, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.
I finally reached a Kelabit long house after a week long hike in the Sarawak jungle. My guide told me that the plan was to rest and continue the trek the following day.
Looking forward to the luxury of a mattress that night I took off my muddy boots and laid down my rug sack at the entrance of the Kelabit house dwelling whilst an elderly local stood and stared at me with a smile. He approached and spoke while my guide translated his words.
“We’re going out hunting tonight” he said hesitantly. “We’ll leave just after sun set. You can come along if you wish but you should try to make yourself useful”.
I didn’t quite know what he meant as he shuffle to the far end of the long house to pick up what looked like some sort of a spear. “Here’s a blowpipe”, he said as he handed the pole over to me. “I’ll show you how to use it, but you need to practice this afternoon”.
“A trek in the forest after dark, hunting with the locals, using a blowpipe, what could possibly go wrong?” I thought to myself. It sounded too good an experience to miss.
Sarawak forest canopy seen from my flight to the Bario highlands.
The Kelabit are an indigenous people, native to the highlands of Bario, Sarawak (northern Borneo), not far from the border with Brunei. Up until a few decades ago this ethnic group lived in almost total isolation, shielded from the outside world by what used to be thick, impenetrable jungle.
First “real contact” with the Kelabit communities occurred during the second world war when a number able men from their community were trained by the Australians to fight the Japanese occupying forces. Then, during the fifties and sixties it was the turn of the missionaries from the western world who reached the Kelabit communities to converted the, with success, to Christianity. In more recent years, rampant timber and palm oil industries have devoured most (if not all ) the jungle that separated the Bario Highlands from the coastal areas of Borneo and put an end to Kelabit isolation.
Traditionally Kelabit hamlets thrive around the “long house”. These are wooden constructions home to extended family groups of tens of individuals generally dedicated to farming, hunting and fishing. According to a 2012 census the size of the Kelabit community stands currently at around six thousand however, many Kelabits no longer live in their native highland area. A considerable portion of the community have relocated to the urban centres of Miri, Bintulu, Sibu and further still.
Traditional Kelabit heritage calls for striking body adornments. The most notable of these are tattoos on arms and legs (mostly for for the ladies) and heavy pendants, worn by both sexes, that can stretch ear lobes to well below shoulder hight.
I struggled to figure out how to handle the blowpipe I was given that day. Luckily the Kelabit elder I had spoken to earlier gave me a demonstration of what to do.
He held the blowpipe in one hand and briskly placed a wooden dart into the hollow with the other. Some 20 to 25 meters away in front of the long house entrance was a a worn cardboard target pinned to a tree. My teacher inhaled deeply, brought the pipe to his lips and squinted as he took aim holding the pipe steady. Then suddenly his cheeks puffed up like two small balloons an with a single burst of the lungs the dart shot out from the end of the pole faster than the eye could see. It hit the target, punctured the bark on the tree behind it and half buried itself in the wood with a dry knock. I could tell that what I had witnessed was a fatal stab delivered with surgical precision.
I was impressed. My tutor knew what he was doing and had made sure I was aware of the standards I needed to match. As he handed the blowpipe back to me I felt perplexed wondering how I could possibly hope to reach mastery in the space of an afternoon.
I spent the following hours on a quest to gain a minimum of blowpipe competence. My initial efforts were pathetic, my darts travelled no further than a few feet from where I stood and then twirled to the ground lamely. They were hardly lethal shots.
I persisted though and gradually improved. My wooden little arrows started to travel further and further although none made it close to the cardboard target on the tree. In the end I had shot several dozen darts into oblivion, gained some sore cheek muscles and risked passing out to hyperventilation. It was not going well, but I put my best efforts into the practice session hoping not to disappoint anyone later in the evening.
The Hunting Posse
As the sun came down that evening a small party of five men gathered in front of the long house ready for the hunt. I joined them with my guide, my weapon in hand and a fist full of darts ready for use.
My hunting pals looked at me bemused.
“What are you doing with that thing?” asked a hunter pointing to my blowpipe. I felt confused, what did he mean?
“ I’ve been practicing all afternoon” I replied.
“You wont need that” he replied.
“That’s just a toy for tourists” said another.
“We use shot guns for hunting” said a third as he revealed a two barrel shooter from under his cape.
I’m sure the ensuing laughter that erupted from my friends could be clearly heard echoing across the Kelabit highlands that evening. The joke was squarely on me and my naivety.
I took it all with a smile, nonchalantly placed the pipe and darts back in the long house and joined the the hunting party again this time armed with nothing more than a flashlight. The chuckling however, continued long after we all disappeared in the bush.
Travellingstranger, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.
It sometimes feels as though there’s a drive, not to mention unspoken competition, between the larger cities of the world to create iconic architecture and flaunt this as a symbol of local pride. Some older historic towns of the world have always had options available for this. Rome for example has the Coliseum, Barcellona has the Sagrada Familia, Paris perhaps the Eiffel Tower and Moscow always shows off St. Basil’s’ Cathedral.
In recent years some extraordinary feats of engineering have been completed in the Middle and Far East and there are currently some very stunning modern icons of architecture to be added to the list above. The Burg Khalifa in Dubai, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the Taipei 101 building in Taiwan and the Shard (a real abomination) in London are just some examples of the latest arrivals. They all seem to add a touch of extra glamour to the cities they belong to, and certainly promote tourism greatly. It remains to be seen though how many will withstand the test of time.
In it’s own small way, colonial Georgetown on the island of Penang in Malaysia has found a clever (and certainly less costly) way to promote itself and attract masses of younger tourists. Steering away from colossal works of architecture, Georgetown has placed itself firmly on the tourist trail by embracing stylish street art as a way of embellishing its narrow alleys and fading building facades. For this it employed several talented street artists from around the globe and encouraged them to use the town as a canvas. The results are fascinating to say the least.
One young artist in particular, Ernest Zacharevic from Lithuania, set the standards very high back in 2012 with some clever and engaging work. Ernest’s “Kids on a Bicycle” and “Boy on a Chair” murals are eye catching, good examples of the artist’s creative style and are favourites with the visiting crowds around town.
The murals in Georgetown have proven to be a huge success. Teams of backpackers fill the town’s many guest houses and spend days roaming the narrow streets seeking out the bigger than life paintings. There are mapped itineraries to follow, with or without a guide, available at every hostel to make sure nothing is missed of what there is to see. A walk around town admiring the murals can take several hours, but it’s definitely worth the effort.
Of course there’s night life in Georgetown as well especially around the Love Lane area. Plenty of bars and clubs here with live bands, music and cheap beer to enjoy.
I liked Georgetown and it’s street art a lot. It has a friendly and relaxed vibe which was exactly what I needed at the time of my visit.
Penang was also my departure point for Sumatra, Indonesia. Lucy (my motorbike) was ferried across the Malacca Strait on two day voyage on board the Setia Jaya, a well known cargo vessel that has ferried the machines of hundreds of overland bikers throughout the years.
I was separated from my beloved motorbike as it travelled to Indonesia for no less than 5 days. No damage, no mishaps, all good!
Travellingstranger, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.