We went to Grandfather Beach, one of the most isolated stretches of beach in Southeast Asia. From the surface, it looked great. But put a mask on and dive in, and where are the fish? Here, the fishermen use fine gill nets. With these nets, they catch everything. I watched them pull in their nets, and I saw that they keep everything also. They had buckets of fingerling fish no more than 3 inches long. And it showed in the water. In an hour of snorkeling over the rocks and coral, I did not see any fish longer than 8 inches.
Perhaps more serious was how much algae was in the water. Visibility was low. The algae is growing because of agricultural and human waste runoff. These nutrients fertilize algae blooms, which block sunlight and kill coral. I have seen the same in Thailand and Vietnam. Coral reefs worldwide are going going gone.
My travel buddy Jeff and I are staying right on the beach. The room is mediocre, but the location and view are just great. Then we meet a cast of characters: two young Belgian physicians taking their first bicycle tour together and deciding to get married, an established Argentine actress who is 1.5 years into her world tour and improvising as she goes, two other pairs of German cyclists, and Kristna, a Chilean émigré to Belgian who is now a travel magazine photographer and serious gemologist.
When you travel internationally, very interesting groups of people get together for several days and have intense friendships over hiking, adventuring, and dining and partying afterward. Complete mixes of different nationalities, ages of men and women just having a great time. For a few days, we just had wonderful fun.
But finally, it is time to go. The first thing Jeff and I had to do was climb up a 8%, 525 meter high mountain pass. For me, this meant Granny gear, 1:1 on my dérailleurs. I made it to the top with one brief stop. I could not have done that at the beginning of this trip.
But we had been warned about the next 125 kms of this trip thru the mountains to the Thai border. Yes, there was a dirt road and a trail thru it, under construction. A few guides told us it could not be done. They said that the Myanmar customs would not let us pass. But we had heard of one bicyclist who had made it. So Jeff decided in Dawei, Myanmar, to take the bus the whole 125 kms thru the mountains to the border. But I wanted to try bicycling it. So after Jeff left on the bus, I began pedaling.
The first 40 kilometers was beautiful riding, up a gradually ascending river valley. Wonderful greenery, with none of the garbage along the roadside that plagues so much of Myanmar. But then the 30 mph headwinds set in. The winds were so strong that I had to pedal on the few downhills I encountered. Then I had a 2000 foot climb out of a valley at a 10% climb. I made it about half way up before my legs gave out. I just was not strong enough to pedal into this headwind. So I hopped off my bike and pushed my bike up the remainder of the mountain for the next one and a half hours. It might not be bicycling, but it sure as hell was exercise. I was exhausted by the time I got to the top.
I still had a series of saw tooth up-and-downs to pedal thru before I got to Myitta, the only town on the route. Other locals had told me that there was a guest house where I could rest.
I pulled into Myitta near sunset. It was a dusty, isolated mountain village. When I asked for a room to rent, the locals surprisingly laughed and shook their heads.
“NO HOTEL,” someone shouted. I did not feel welcome.
It was getting dark. I tried to find the police station, but no luck. So I had to make up my mind. Time to bivouac—sleep on the ground in a field. I found a cow trail coming off the road and began pushing my bike up it. But a motorcyclist saw me doing it. He pulled over and began shouting something to me in Burmese. Fuck, now someone knew where I was, and it was too dark to find another place. I had no idea what the guy was saying to me. I just motioned silence with my index finger to my lips. Then I hid myself from the road as best as I could.
I had bivouacked hundreds of times before. But this time, I had no tent, pad, or sleeping bag. Not good. First, I put on ALL of my clothes. I emptied my backpack and stuck my legs in it for warmth. Then I wrapped myself in a sheet and looked at the stars above. Orion was directly overhead. Some things never change.
In an hour, the almost full moon rose, lighting up the field around me. It quickly got cold. Dew settled on and all around me. I was wet. I got up and put my bicycling gloves and hat back on. Anything for warmth. But I was shivering. And the sun would not be rising for 10 more hours. This was not fun. Then I felt them crawling over me. I turned on my headlamp to find that I was laying directly on AN ANT HILL! Oh fuck me. I jumped up and shook all my gear off. Then I moved my sleep site over to some softer ground, without ant hills. In the process, I stepped on my reading glasses and crushed them. You asshole, Dwight.
I do not think that I slept more than an hour while I waited for sunrise. I know that the next 75 kms is all dirt road and trails, without any facilities, over steep mountain trails.
Before dawn, I pack up my bike with wet gear and pedaled back into Myitta. I eat some rice noodles at the only stand open. Everyone is smiling strangely at me. They have clearly not seen my kind here before. I borrow a piece of cardboard from them. On it, in large black letters, I write:
$ THAILAND $
Below it, I have a man write the same in Burmese.
His script looks like a bunch of ornate circles.
So I am going to hitchhike to Thailand, and I am ready to pay money for it. A 70 year old geezer foreigner hitchhiking in some strange place. HAAA! So I walk out on the dirt road at the edge of Myitta and, with my bike at my side, I stick out my thumb. How is my luck on the planet going to be today? But now, I am begging for the kindness of strangers.
Five minutes later, a young man in a new black 4-wheel-drive pickup pulls up. Another man explains that I need a ride to the border. The driver looks at me and my bike. Then he nods. THIS IS MY LUCKY DAY! I offer him a good sum of money. But he shakes his head. He says he will do it for free. I simply cannot believe this. So we load my bike in back, I climb in front, and we take off.
The road is living hell. All rock and gravel, and steeply up and down, cratered with potholes. I hang onto the handles to not bang my head on the roof. Bone-jarring, and murderous on the truck suspension.
We come to the first of what was to be four customs stops. The driver immediately motions me to get out and show them my passport. I do as I am told as the driver talks with the customs agent. The agent is very polite to me and waves us thru. When we take off, the driver slaps the dash in excitement and gives me the thumbs up.
Several miles down the road, he stops at a vehicle repair shop and honks his horn. Several men come out and examine the Isuzu truck. Some finagling goes on before I get that he is selling this truck and taking bids on it. Ohhhh.
We go thru two more customs stops and do the same routine. He explains to customs that he is only taking me to the border. Customs is very polite to me and waves me thru. Then he shows the truck to more eager buyers. We do this horse-and-pony show 3 more times. Then finally, a bidder meets his price. They shake hands and some money is passed. The driver is so happy to have made the sale that he buys everyone big, warm beers, including me. We all clink and drink. But I swallow my beer too fast, and it fizzes up in me. So I belch real loud. I discover that apparently, the Burmese men approve of this, because they laugh real hard. So I guzzle some more and belch again. They laugh even harder. What a clever one-trick pony I am. It is now 9:30 am, Myanmar time.
The driver tells me that Thailand is just 2 kilometers more. Time to get out of the truck. Sure. Thank you very much. I offer him money once again, but he waves it off. We shake hands and hug. And I take off on my bike.
I think about this. Clearly, the driver is making some kind of vehicle sale that is not permitted. Then I get it. He is using ME as an excuse to get him thru customs! So he needed me too. Once he has sold the truck, well, end of trip. It sure worked out fine for me.
But the 2 remaining kms turns out to be 15 kilometers, up and down brutally steep, rough dirt trails that drivers must drive fast to keep momentum up the hill. There is no stopping here. The trail is so steep, and the sand so soft, that I must push my bike up each hill. But it is so rough going downhill that I do not even get the joy of coasting. I must use my brakes hard all the way down to avoid the rocks and potholes. I have to do this for another 6 hills over the next 3 hours. No bicyclist, no matter how strong, could possibly climb up some of these hills. Their wheels would get buried in the sand.
Finally I get to my beloved Thailand. I have really enjoyed my 6 weeks pedaling in Myanmar, but it has been tough. Now I am in the land of good roads with wide, paved shoulders, great food, and stores with everything available. I will now ride 80 kms to my beloved city of Kannchanaburi.
Oh Thailand I have missed you.