“Hey man, I’ve been following you for the past three blocks” said the lad r as he pulled up next to me in the dark on an ageing Honda 125. I was trying to figure my way around Amritsar (India), after crossing the border from Pakistan, it was getting late, I needed to find a place for the night and I felt startled. “Really?!” I replied feeling a sting of uneasiness. “Yeah, I recognise you. I know who you are” insisted the lad. “Wow, tell me” I stiffened, trying to anticipate what might be coming next. “Come on man, I’m your fan! I saw you on the Discovery Channel…. please, selfie?”
I discovered, on my route across Asia, that as a solo traveller on a motorbike I was in many ways as much of a curiosity to the people I met on my path as they were to me, often even more so. Riding an “exotic” machine with weathered riding gear also added to my alien charisma and helped boost my standing with many locals pretty much to celebrity level. There were countless times by the side of the road in which I was approached by people with smiles, hand shakes, words of appreciation and eager offers of hospitality. I was treated like someone in a position of eminence, of ranking, a star, or at least it felt as though I were.
The attention caught me off guard. It was flattering initially and I felt encouraged to engage with my new found friends and pals. People seemed authentically welcoming, kind and concerned. I was a guest in their country and a flag bearer for the world I had come from. However, it soon became apparent that dealing with the keen interest from the locals was a repetitive routine that gradually turned into a chore. I was often surrounded to the point that I had no space to manoeuvre my machine, people would start to touch and fondle with my bike and equipment and I was asked the same questions time and time again, five, six, ten times a day. It became hard to bare, a bit of an annoyance and in the long run I found it less stressful to avoid any unsolicited attention as much as possible in pretty much the same way I think real celebrities do.
It all began in Chechnya, the rebellious Russian republic just north of the Caucasus. Since the end of the clashes for independence (fifteen years ago or so), this area has seen few tourists and even fewer foreign registered motorbikes venture across it’s borders.
As I idled at a traffic light in Grozny (the capital) admiring the gleaming new town centre I noticed a little commotion reflected in my rear view mirrors. A group of lads hurried to my side from the cars behind.
“Mister, where are you from?” I explained that I had travelled from the UK. “From UK to Grozny with moto?” I nodded and acknowledged the looks of surprise on the young men’s faces. “….welcome to Chechnya, thank you for visiting…..selfie!” and before I knew it, half a dozen smartphones were at work.
In Iran things really took off. I was regularly honked at on the roads by truck drivers and given the thumbs up sign of approval. I noticed smartphones pointed at me from inside cars, either filming or taking a sneaky pic of me and at many road side stops I was regularly approached by curious passers by.
I stopped at a beach side eatery one afternoon, on the Caspian coast. As I pulled up I caught the attention of some youths lounging near by. While I sat at a table sipping at a hot drink the youngsters gathered close and one by one politely asked their questions. What was the reason for my trip? What had I seen so far? What did I think of Iran? There were some particularly telling ones as well:
“Is it true that people in Europe believe that everyone in Iran is a terrorist?” “What’s it like to travel to a foreign country?” “How many countries have you visited?” “Do you have problems with the police?” “Can I take a selfie?”
In Pakistan it continued. An overnight stop in the village of Dalbandin on my way to Quetta (Baluchistan), attracted a few locals to the guest house I was staying at. I was a foreigner and an opportunity for for them to practice some English. So, converse we did.
“Sir, are you married? Sir,why not? Do you have a job, sir? You have children, sir? Sir, will you be travelling to India after Pakistan? Please sir a selfie, yes?”
Further East, through Punjab and beyond to valleys of Gilgit and Baltistan in the Himalayas, every road side stop close to a village drew a small crowd of inquisitive folk .
“Sir, where you from?”
“Sir, you married?”
“You have children Sir?”
I was an eccentric, an oddball, a weirdo on a strange looking machine, someone that clearly needed to be checked out. Although the attention was sometimes massive with maybe thirty to forty people crowding around me I can’t say that I ever really felt under threat, far from it.
Eventually I had enough of the attention I seemed to attract everywhere I went and decided to blend in with the locals as much as possible. Camouflage seemed like a good idea so in Islamabad I procured a Salwar (trousers) and a Kameez (shirt) as is customary for a man to wear in Pakistan.
Confident that I could now mingle and not stand out too much from the crowd I put on my new outfit and walked into a small restaurant not far from my guest house. I had never been there before. The cashier spotted me immediately:
“Ohhh, Pakistani style today. Very good. Nice colour. ….You American Sir?” he asked, as he pick up his smartphone ….”Selfie?”
Discovery Channel or not, there was nowhere to hide.
(I have never knowingly been featured on the Discovery Channel either.)
Travellingstranger, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.
I doubt anyone could travel through Sumatra and not be totally taken by the beauty of the spired roof houses (the “Rumah Bagonjong”) typical of Minangkabau culture. These iconic looking long house homes have become a well known symbol of Indonesian heritage to the point that they are often mimicked in style by the architecture of Indonesian embassies around the globe.
Minang home decor is like no other. The constructions, with their prominently upswept gables, are mainly made of wood, ooze a sense of tradition and are forged by the capable hands of experienced carpenters. Some stand out more than others with brightly coloured carvings painstakingly maintained by their proud owners (the women of the household most of all).
It can be said that style of these dwellings give the impression that the buildings are somehow suspended in air, via invisible threads of some kind. It’s easy to keep gazing at them admiringly, trying to figure out exactly what’s going on with the designs almost as if there were riddle to them somehow (I certainly felt that way anyway).
Solok is close to Padang on the central western coast of Sumatra ( licensed, Creative Commons )
The village of Solok, not far from the port town of Padang (west coast of Sumatra), is well known for its abundance in Minang style structures, some of which here are over sixty years old. Big houses, small houses, shops, schools, not many buildings in Solok fail to include the traditional features of Minang design. Some are plain with little adornment and are perhaps in need of a little attention but others are definitely well maintained.
Traditionally Minang houses are intended for large extended family groups just like the Long Houses found in other parts of South East Asia (Borneo in particular). However, in more recent times, elegant spire designs also feature in smaller homes not to mention government buildings too.
Riding past these homes on my motorbike I couldn’t help feeling as though I had been plunged into some sort of a fairy tale. “Hansel and Gretel must have happened in this part of the world” I remember thinking to myself “…and no doubt the evil witch in the story lived around here, too”.
My curiosity got the better of me at one point, I simply had to find out what these homes looked like inside. I pulled over and parked in front of a larger Minang home where a lady sat on the porch just in front of the entrance. I used the politest half broken Bahasa I could come up with and asked if I might peer inside her home. To my astonishment, I was given kind nod and made welcome to take look.
Creecking floor boards, and dim lighting accompanied me through the entrance of the old home. As I lifted my gaze inside I found a beautifully kept “log cabin” style home with leather armchairs, pictures, hanging on walls, mats and rugs. A kitchen at one end of the open plan space and individual sleeping compartments behind the living area. Everything seemed meticulously taken care of and gleaming with pride.
Kids rushed towards me from the kitchen to great with smiles and surprise. Another elderly laydy at the stove also smiled and watched me as I strolled around. It felt homely, warm and cosy. It was beautiful, certainly a place I would have eagerly spent a night at.
Local society in western Sumatra is matriarchal meaning that it’s a mother’s name (blood line) that is passed to the children of a family. This has implications on inheritance laws, too. Minang houses are in fact passed from mother to daughter, from one generation to the next, almost like a dowry.
The costs involved in building a Rumah Bagonjong have increased over the years along with the price and availability of quality timber. Today a new Minang style home is no longer affordable for many locals in a rapidly developing Sumatra and Indonesian nation but there are still many old style homes to admire and perhaps even restore. Some have even been transformed into guest houses that offer lodging for the occasional tourist.
Of course I absolutely recommend a trip to Solok if you’re ever travelling through Sumatra. You will not be disappointed, it really is like being in a fairy tale.
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.