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Just like a Celebrity

Just like a Celebrity

In India

“Hey man, I’ve been following you for the past three blocks” said the lad riding an aging Honda 125 as he pulled up next to me in the dark.
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.
“Cool, 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. Also, riding an “exotic” machine with  weathered riding gear just added to my alien carisma and helped boost my standing pretty much to celebrity status. There were countless times by the side of the road in which  I was approached by locals 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.

Crowd gathers around in Pakistan Just a few moments stop and I’m the centre of attention on my way to Sultan, Pakistan.

The attention however, 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. But, it soon became apparent that dealing with the interest and attention 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 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 too.

In Checnya

It all began as 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 their  faces.
“….welcome to Chechnya, thank you for visiting…..selfie!” and before I knew it, half a dozen smartphones were at work.

First stop in Iran and immediately I have someone that wants to know about my trip and my bike. First stop in Iran and a young family comes along to enquire about my trip. 

In Iran

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 passegers inside cars, either filming or taking a sneaky pic with waving hands 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 and sipping at a hot drink the youngsters gathered around me and one by one politely asked questions. What was the reason for my trip? What I had 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?”

Students surround me when I stop for a sip of water in rural Pakistan Students surround me when I stop for a sip of water in rural Pakistan

In Pakistan

In Pakistan it continued. An overnight stop in the village of Dalbandin on my way to Quetta, attracted a few locals to the guest house I was staying at. I was a foreigner and an opportunity for students to practice their 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 occasionally massive with maybe thirty to forty  people crowding around me I can’t say that I ever really felt under threat, far from it.

Always someone that would come and enquire about my well being in Pakistan There was always someone that would come and enquire about my well being in Pakistan

Counter Measures

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 myself  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 in before. The cashier spotted me immediately:

“Ohhh, Pakistani style today. Very good. Nice colour. ….You American Sir?” he asked, as him 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.)

Kamez and Salawar for camouflage    Kamez and Salawar for camouflage

Travellingstranger, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.

The Fairy Tail Homes of Sumatra

The Fairy Tail Homes of Sumatra

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 (women of the household most of all).

It can be said that design of these dwellings gives the impression that the buildings are somehow partly suspended in air, via invisible threads of some kind. It’s easy to keep gazing admiringly , transfixed in awe, trying to figure out exactly what’s going on with the roofs of these constructions (I certainly did anyway).

Solok is close to Padang on the centra western coast of Sumatra, map. 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 in age. Big hoses, small houses, shops, school, few buildings here fail to incorporate the features of traditional design.  Some are plain with no adornment and 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 feature in smaller individual homes not to mention government buildings too.

Minang Long House Minang Long House

Minang Long House Another!

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 there 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 conger and ask 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” 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.

Minang house interior I was amazed to be invited inside…

Kids rushed towards me from the kitchen to great with smiles and surprise. Another elderly laydy at the kitchen 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 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.

Beautiful Minang House on the outskirts to Solok

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 restore.  Some have 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!

Beautiful Minang grand house, Solok Minang grand house in Solok

Travellingstranger, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.

The Golden Bolder of Burma.

The Golden Bolder of Burma.

Getting into Myanmar on a motorcycle is no easy feat. Current laws in Burma make the country a bit of an obstacle for all overlanders and their vehicles be these fully equipped 4 x 4 off road trucks or lightweight  pushbikes, it makes no difference . Myanmar is a hurdle, one that requires some planning and thought but that’s not to say that it can’t be done.  Crossing the border into this nation on your own vehicle  (as of 2016) can be accomplished by engaging a local tour operator that for a fee, will provide  authorisations, an “approved route”, an English speaking guide and a government official to lead a travelling party from entry border to  exit, be these either with India or Thailand. Guest houses and hotel bookings as well as tours of attractions on route are included in the package.

For any long distance biker this situation is bliss as the normal inconveniences of looking for budget accommodation, camping spots, figuring out an itinerary and deciding what attractions to visit or miss are suddenly taken away and handed squarely to the tour guide in charge. Suddenly you’re being looked after, taken care of which nobody can deny is a great feeling. All that needs to be done is simply ride, enjoy the road and the scenery through what until not so many years ago was considered one of the most reclusive countries in the world.

However, guides and government reps come at a cost and in 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 amongst a large party. Clearly, the bigger the group the cheaper it becomes for everyone individually.

Fortunately I met a number of bikers on my road trip across Asia, many of whom intended to ride through Myanmar at some point of their travels and  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).

Biker Posse in Moreh, ready to cross the border My Biker gang in Moreh (India), fired up, ready to cross the border into Burma. Lucy , my bike, on the far right (I took the picture).

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 not much time at all to experience Burma’s culture and allure. The few things that I did see were certainly noteworthy, like the Golden Rock for example, in Mon State not far from the Andaman Sea, west of Yangon…

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 tired 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 day, to one of the holiest places of buddhism in  Burma. I think we all tacitly acknowledged it was definitely time for a rest, some peace and quiet away from the dusty roads, fuel stops, road side cafes and motorbikes, even if it was for just few hours.

Mount Kyaiktiyo

Mount Kyaiktiyo is home to the Golden Rock of Myanmar, a unique, 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 looks precariously balanced on the  ridge of a steep escarpment. The main feature is arguably the fact that the rock is coated in a layer of gold leaf that glistens intensely 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 devout worshippers, who queue and paste gold foil stickers on the mass as a sign of homage. But its not the rock that’s worshipped by the faithful of course. 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 attract the religious zeal and faithful to the top of Mount Kyaiktiyo.

Pick up trucks with padded benches Pick up trucks with padded benches on their beds were used as a shuttle service to the top of Mount Kyaiktiyo.

The climb from the base of Mount Kyaiktiyo to it’s holy summit involves a long and unappealing hike on an uneven trail. Tired as we were from our long ride we opted for whatever public transport we could find. In the end, for a small fee we followed the locals, piled into the bed of a truck, and held on for a rollercoaster ride on the single lane road to somewhere close to the top of the mountain.

The views from Kyaiktiyo were stunning. Once more Myanmar revealed how exceptionally green it was with verdant valleys stretching as far as the eye could see. I admired the sight with touch of wonder hoping that what I saw would survive rampant “development” that sooner or later would come Myanmar’s way.

Green Burma The view from the top of the holy mountain of Kyaiktiyo.

The feeling of calm, the pleasant views and the cool mountain air were so 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.

Slowly, we walked ahead on a paved path towards the Rock and it’t 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 from a mantra and took painstakingly short, slow steps towards the shrine ahead of us.

Holy man Most prominent of all were  “holy men” of some kind, priests perhaps or worshipers in prayer.

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 the Golden Rock for reasons unknown even too the locals. Women are relegated to a small prayer area 10m (30ft) away from the golden bolder.

As I got closer to the rock I noticed to my astonishment that it really did lie precariously balanced on its perch without any apparent added anchoring to protect it from the drop below it. Bizarrely there was a sizeable gap underneath the mass that you could see straight through. I couldn’t help but wonder what might happen to Buddha’s sacred relics of hair in the event of eve a minor earthquake tremor.

The Golden Rock with my overland travel buddies  The Golden Rock with my overland travel buddies.

My turn finally came and I stuck my gold leaf sticker respectfully onto the bolder, alongside tens of worshipers doing exactly the same thing. I wished the rock and the contents of its shrine a long and safe existence for the benefit of the many pilgrims and the devout that visited every day.

Was it worth it?

I found the Golden Rock of Mount Kyaiktiyo an interesting experience and certainly worth a visit. Like most of Myanmar it’s still a relatively lesser known draw and 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 becoming harder and harder to find anywhere in the world these days. 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 certainly 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 from everyone. Even Fabian was feeling refreshed. It almost seemed as though there was some healing power in that golden lump of granite we visited the evening before, or maybe it was the  holy relics that did the trick ….who knows…

Meal at the side of the road Meal at the side of the road after leaving the Kelasa hills.

An ominous warning An ominous warning that can be found at the passport office as you enter Burma at Moreh.

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 group by :

Burma Senses Travel and Tours

Tel: +84 4 6273 2655

In particular  Miss Win Aung worked tirelessly to put the members of our group together, help us  out with visas and permits. It all fell into place in the end and although we all opted for a quick crossing of Burma we didn’t miss out on the main attractions including Bagan, Mandalay and Naypyidaw.

Travellingstranger, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.