John H., this post’s author, went on Partners Asia’s donor biking trip in January and February 2013. Once a Seattleite, John has lived and worked in Thailand for the past several years. You can also check out John’s other posts about this trip here and here.
What you want in a mountain bike adventure is just enough smooth to balance the rough, a bit of wide to appreciate the narrow, and some unexpected now and then to keep the known from becoming too predictable.
We took such an adventure upstream from Hpa-an. The plan, to the degree we had one, was to parallel the Salween River as far as we could follow a track. None of us had ever traveled this route.
It rained right away. After cycling fewer than ten minutes we had wide stripes of gravel up our backs. Some people called to us from a house on stilts. We joined them until the downpour stopped. Under the house hung a few hammocks. Everybody smiled. We didn’t talk much, just listened to the rain. On the wall upstairs were pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi and her dad. When we got ready to go, a grandma came out from the back of the house to wave goodbye.
A paved section of the road appeared, then ended as quickly as it had come. We stopped at a small shop overlooking the river. A sign above the entrance read, “2010.” Most of the stuff for sale came from Thailand. Everybody smiled.
In our padded shorts, fingerless gloves, and plastic helmets, we became a curiosity. Few villagers in Myanmar had probably seen the likes of us. Coming out from the comfort and protection of their shady homes to watch us ride past, the people waved the way Americans wave to pageant kings and queens on top of parade floats. From the children we heard “bye-bye!” (meaning, delightfully, “hello!”), while adults of all shapes, costumes, and ages greeted us with the Burmese good morning/afternoon/evening: “Mingalaba!”
Later the road became a path. The river flowed swiftly below us. We passed caves and steep cliffs on our left. The villages were behind us now. It seemed the trail might stop any time.
Unexpectedly, a temple gate framed our route. Sparkling decorations and colorful murals seemed out of place. On nearly every hilltop we had just passed sat a plain white stupa, presumably bribing some spirit who had called that place home for centuries. The rhythm of the landscape suggested that we had left the Buddha behind. Yet clearly here was a temple, a school, a sports field—even a motorcycle bearing a fellow who sported a familiar symbol on his shirtfront.
“Hello,” he grinned in English, “I am the local representative of the International Red Cross.” It seemed that a well-respected monk from a village further along had recently passed away. His body would be carried downriver along the track we had been cycling.
Without the Red Cross man, communication might have been difficult. The lingua franca in this village didn’t match any of the languages our group had brought along — English, Burmese, French, Thai, Spanish, Hebrew. It seemed to be another country. Which is perhaps another thing you want in a mountain bike adventure.
Tags: donor relations