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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 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).

Biker Posse in Moreh, ready to cross the border
My Biker Posse in Moreh, 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 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

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.

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

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.

Green Burma
View of the green valleys from the top of Mount Kyaiktiyo

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.

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 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.

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

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?

Meal at the side of the road
Meal by the side of the road

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 posse of motorcycle adventurers by :

Burma Senses Travel and Tours

www.BurmaSenses.com

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 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.

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Blowpipe Kelabit wannabe.

Blowpipe Kelabit wannabe.

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.

Forest Canopy from the plane

Sarawak forest canopy seen from my flight to the Bario highlands.

The Kelabit

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.

A Kelabit Elder
A Kelabit Elder

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.

Kelabit Lady with traditional pendants
Kelabit Lady with traditional pendants

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.

Target Practice

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.

Blowpipe practice
Blowpipe practice

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.

Another Kelabit gentleman
Another Kelabit gentleman

Everyone sniggered

“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.

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Georgetown, Penang

Georgetown, Penang

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.

Kids on a Bike.
Children a bike, street art in Penang

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.

The Oarsman
Some interesting wall art here with “The Oarsman”.

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.

Boy on a chair
This scene looks so realistic it’s hard not to stop and stare.

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.

Night life, in the George Town area of Penang.
Night life, in the George Town area of Penang.

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.

The Biker
My favourite! Always help a biker in need…

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.

Setia Jaya
At the harbour in Penang waiting to load Lucy (my bike) on the Setia Jaya,

I was separated from my beloved motorbike as it travelled to Indonesia for no less than 5 days. No damage, no mishaps, all good!

Setia Jaya docks in Penang
The Setia Jaya cargo freighter that has been used by hundreds of overland bikers to ferry their machines from Malaysia to Sumatra in Indonesia.
Hair, trees and birds
Hair, trees and birds

Travellingstranger, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.

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