Towards Thailands border

We left Chiang Mai about a week ago, this time on our bicycles, to start our last week of cycling in Thailand before we enter Myanmar. As always it feels really good to be back in the saddle again, even if the first 100km heading South out of Chiang Mai are on a straight and very busy road. We make one interesting side trip to a museum dedicated to Ganesh, the Hindu god with the elephant head. A somewhat eccentric Thai believer has collected all kinds of statues, masks and other depictions of Ganesh from all over the world and put them on display in a garden.

Ganesha, god of obstacles, study and prosperity
Ganesha, god of obstacles, study and prosperity

After this stretch things quickly get more interesting. From the small town of Hod we turn West, towards Mae Sariang. We climb over a range of hills but the gradients, the road and the traffic are altogether doable. We enjoy a couple of nights of camping and roll into the border town of Mae Sot where we will relax for a couple of days.

Cyclists paradise Prathet Thai

Thailand is, apart from the steep climbs, one of the easiest countries we have cycled around in. Almost too easy, and where’s the challenge in that? We would definitely recommend it as a country for a first time bicycle tourer, as you can experience a different culture while not really missing out on the creature comforts from home. There are great bike shops that stock good components. You can put up your tent just about anywhere, and there are perfect (free) camping spots with cold showers and toilets next to gorgeous waterfalls, maintained by kind park rangers.

Camping life
Camping life

The gold and glittering wats are beautiful. The people are super nice, and many speak English. Shops and restaurants stock food that we know from home. Despite the ubiqitous 7-11 and other Western brands there is a strong Thai cultural identity, and there is much on offer in natural and cultural sights. Most people think of Thailand as super touristy, but it is very easy to get away from the beaten path.

Here are our Thailand pictures

The most beautiful spot we found in the last few days is the Mae Um Long Luang hot spring, just before reaching the town of Mae Sariang. We don’t find much info online apart from that there are two tubs with hot water. We make our way down a small road, then a dirt track, and end up at a rickety bamboo bridge over a river, with a real hot spring paradise on the other side. It is a large garden area built upon the hillside, with outdoor pools, bamboo huts, a cafe with cold beers and pot noodles. A local family runs the place and they make us feel right at home. The old man of the family looks a bit like a wandering monk, with orange elephant trousers, a wispy white beard and a line of dots tattood on his forehead. We can walk our bicycles through the riverbed so we don’t have to take the bouncy bridge across. There is a huge hot tub in a bamboo house just for us and a nice little camping spot overlooking the river. We spend the rest of the afternoon soaking our feet in the outdoor pools with Thai families. Hot springs are our favourite stopovers!

Myanmar in our sights

Before getting to Mae Sot we conquer one more climb, over a range of hills that brings us down to the river that separates Thailand from Myanmar. This last climb is a lot tougher than expected. Some climbs hit 20% gradients which are impossible (for me at least) to pedal up. We hitchhike a short distance after we have climbed more than 1500m and the midday heat is burning us up. But, at the end of the day we sit at the verandah of a simple wooden hut, looking at Myanmar on the other side of the river. Life there looks different from life in Thailand, even from a distance. It is no longer just the women who wear the sarong (htamein in Burmese), the men don similar long skirts. People from the village across wash in the river, which looks like fun until you realize this is probably because they have no running water in their own home.

I am currently reading The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh, a book about the recent history of Myanmar as told through the eyes of different generations of one family. It is hard to comprehend that Myanmar once was the richest and most developed of the South East Asian countries, until the British colonization and subsequent political mess plunged the country into poverty. Myanmar is a construct, an uneasy federation of different tribes who speak different languages and have different cultures and beliefs. They only formed a country to shake of British rule together, with an option to step out of the union ten years after it was formed. This option was conventiently scrapped by the Burmese government who sought to consolidate their power, with or without the consent of the different tribes and their states.

One of the results of this ongoing state of internal conflict is a huge number of displaced Karen people who live along the Burmese border in Thailand. I had read about them before, in the well researched and poignant book The Invisible Ones by the late Dutch author Karel Glastra van Loon. Currently the Rohingya people are in the news because the Burmese army is blatantly harassing them in an effort to rid the (mostly Buddhist) country of this muslim minority. The story of the Karen people is equally sad but not so widely reported in the media.

Teak trees

Back to The Glass Palace book. In the beginning of the book there are some beautiful descriptions of the tough life at teak logging camps some 100 years ago. There are English overseers and elephants and the wood is being transported to Yangon by wild mountain rivers in the wet season. The teak trees are true jungle giants that can rise straight up to 40m or more. It is a tree that loses its leaves in the cool season, and as we are cycling along the huge dry leaves are coming down around us, like big rustling brown paper bags falling out of the sky.

Teak tree leaf. Cyclist for size
Teak tree leaf. Cyclist for size

It is strange to experience this falling of the leaves, which for us is so strongly associated with autumn and cooler weather. Here the leaves are falling but it is still well over 30 degrees.

The Karen of Mae La

The leaves are used to make a traditional roof covering of the bamboo huts we see in villages along the road. The roofs look somewhat flimsy with their cover of brown leaves but they blend in nicely with the hills and tropical foliage. When we get close to Mae Sot we spot a large group of houses with these typical roofs. We stop to take some pictures and notice the houses are grouped very closely together, unlike the houses in the villages we have seen before. There are only narrow winding lanes between the houses and only tiny patches of vegetable gardens, it looks more like a rabbit warren than a village.

Mae La Karen refugee camp
Mae La Karen refugee camp

We notice more as we cycle on. The ‘village’ stretches alongside the road for miles and miles and up onto the hills on our right. Mae La is huge, the biggest place we have seen since Chiang Mai, but built entirely of basic bamboo huts with teak leaf roofs. We notice it is closed off all around, by a simple bamboo fence with barbed wire. Every 500m there is a gate with Thai guards who wave at us and give us the thumbs up as we roll by. We see a sign that says ‘temporary shelter area’ and realize this is one of the Karen refugee camps.

As Glastra Van Loon describes in his book, some of the people here have been here all of their lives, having been born in the camp. It was established in 1984. The Karen people can not go back to Myanmar for fear of prosecution by the government. In Thailand they are not allowed to work or study, so they cannot build a meaningful existence. They can only wait for change, which might not come anytime soon. The gross injustice that allows us to cycle by as we please and keeps them in limbo is unbearable.

Someone asked us the question, but what are we going to do about it? Well, reading and writing about it and raising awareness is one small thing. We are on holiday but we are not closing our eyes for the less than pleasant things in the world around us. There are options to volunteer with the families in the camps here but also back home. I can recommend volunteering with Stichting Vluchtelingenwerk for instance and helping the Amsterdam refugees with language and integration into Dutch society.  There are many small ways to reach out and let them know they are welcome, they are not invisible.

Goodbye for now, Thailand

The seasons are turning and the teak leaves are falling, even in the tropics. We recently booked our tickets to Japan, meaning that the end of the trip is coming closer. In little over a month we’ll land in Fukuoka, in the South of Japan. Another two months of cycling in Japan and we’ll be in Tokyo. We are in a contemplative mood and tentatively making plans for what happens next.

But first, Myanmar. A friend of Cyril has generously offered us his home close to Inle lake, and we are eagerly looking forward to our time there. A home away from home, a place and a little bit of time to stop and think about what comes after this trip.

Not everybody travels because they feel like it

Here’s a thing that has been bugging me for a while now.

Cyril and I have been on some great cycling trips. Over the years we’ve hosted people who are doing the same through warmshowers. We choose to cross borders and live with what we can carry on our bikes. Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes the weather is shit, but overall it’s a most beautiful way to travel. When we are done with traveling we come back to homes, jobs, friends and family. The best part of our travel memories is meeting people from different places and being made to feel welcome everywhere we go.

Refugee crisis

On the other hand there are the refugees crossing the Mediterranean. They have no homes, jobs, friends and family to go back to. They are crossing borders because they are fleeing wars and persecution and poverty. They are not welcomed and only reluctantly taken in.

I am embarrassed by the growing inequality in the world. I’m lucky to be on the right side of the divide, by the sheer accidental chance of having been born in The Netherlands. One of the richest countries in the world. I could have been born in Syria. I could have been involuntarily traveling this summer, risking my life in a boat across.

I’m embarrassed by my government not doing more to help and I feel helpless when I look at the media stories about the refugees. They are portrayed as a ‘swarm’, it’s a ‘crisis’. Overall the refugees are being dehumanised in the stories we read. Even more so in the horrible comments a lot of people post below these articles. People who apparently do not realize it could easily have been their family suffering if they had been born in a different place, at a different time. I know it’s not nice or pretty to look at. It might disturb our nice little lives. But, we cannot stick our heads in the sand and pretend that we don’t hear the people knocking on our door. Asking for our help.

This is a situation that is a given: people cross borders, lots of them. They are looking for a better life for themselves and their children. They are willing to do whatever it takes and that in itself is admirable. Lets help them make their own lives better and give them a place in our society. They might make our lives better too.

In Amsterdam

Today I visited an emergency refugee shelter in Amsterdam. It’s one of the places where people who arrive in Amsterdam can stay until they get somewhat better (temporary) housing where they await the processing of their refugee status application. The shelter was in an old school building close to the ring road around Amsterdam. The first impression was somewhat off-putting; security guards hanging around the entrance, gruffly demanding ‘which organisation?’ and ‘passport!’ from me, before providing me with a visitor pass.

Once I entered I noticed how Amsterdam volunteers make a great effort to make this makeshift home a somewhat more welcoming place. Kids running around, little groups of men and women talking in corners with sofa’s and plants, an overall calm atmosphere, a splash of colour here and there. I didn’t speak to any of the refugees so I can only imagine the many feelings of the people who are here: relief, resignation, despair, impatience, trauma, loneliness, sadness, happiness, anger, hope… I can also only imagine how I would react in a similar situation; probably a whole lot less dignified, knowing my own impatience.

I went to give away an old bicycle, and I hope someone in the shelter will gain a little bit of the freedom and agency, that we take for granted every single day, by riding it around town.

Photo by Ahmad Zamri - refugee bicycle
Photo by Ahmad Zamri