"On every Explore tour I have done, and looking back I have done rather a lot (mostly cycle tours of course), there is always at least one incident that stays in the memory, almost defining the holiday more than the immediate general impressions of the country. I'm not referring to the usual over-the-handlebars and into the water moment, which in my case is invariably enhanced by having the misfortune of having the headcam switched on for maximum embarrassment. I am referring to those special, serendipitous occasions that occur because you're travelling with a group of like-minded people, with an outstanding local tour leader and support team and you are away from the standard tourist trail.
There were several such occasions on my recent Cycle Burma (CBR) tour, although we don’t say Burma anymore; it must be referred to as Myanmar, so I was told. On the second day of the tour we were invited to a wedding taking place in a small village. We had taken our bikes across the Irrawaddy on the early morning busy commuter ferry from Rangoon, although we don’t say Rangoon anymore; it must be referred to as Yangon, to Dala, which apparently is an acceptable name. We pushed and barged our bikes through the heaving mass of locals, selling anything, carrying everything and shouting constantly. Never once did it feel anything but safe and friendly.
Eventually we emerged and set off into the peace and quiet of the countryside. That is until we came across a house in some fields with lots of people dressed in their best traditional costumes and with music playing at an ear splitting 200 decibels. Apparently it is considered good luck to have strangers at a wedding ceremony, so we were ushered in. The happy couple must have been truly blessed to have a group of sweaty Brits and Canadians joining the wedding feast, wearing a mix of lycra, t-shirts, shorts, cycle helmets and cycle gloves.
A vast amount of curry was ladled into bowls for us, which was then complemented with beautifully prepared side dishes. The whole village stood in their finery and watched us intently and clearly in puzzlement as we manfully struggled with the large quantity of food. It was still early in the morning and barely an hour since we had all stuffed ourselves with a huge breakfast. When we felt we had been suitably polite and could eat no more, we each gave a wedding gift of a few dollars, which was recorded in a large book. The young couple then posed for a photo and we staggered to our bikes, eased ourselves and our expanded stomachs onto groaning saddles and continued along the back roads of the Irrawaddy Delta, hoping that lunch wasn’t too soon.
But the incident that stands out in my mind was a very different experience. We were cycling from Myingyang to Mandalay through a remote area where the locals rarely saw foreigners, a common occurrence on this tour and one of the great advantages of being on a bike. We rode through a shallow river past villagers washing their clothes and beating them on the rocks, a herd of cows being driven in the opposite direction and stopping to drink, and the odd moped with the whole family on board plus all their belongings blithely plunging into the water and emerging on the other side still laughing.
We rode out of the river and up the bank and a mile or two further on we passed an open gate in a high wall through which we glimpsed ragged children playing football on a ragged field. It was a monastery school and it was play time. There are many such schools throughout Myanmar, providing education to children aged five to eight from poor families. Some of the children are signed up by their parents as novice monks, ensuring they get fed every day. In this school, about 10% of them were wearing the dark red robes and shaven heads of a monk.
Leaving the bikes outside, we went in to join the game. Weighing up the size of the opposition (mostly around waist height) I decided to go in goal. The ball had punctured long ago but this didn’t bother anyone and in no time there was a crowd of 5, 6, 7 and 8 year olds queuing up to kick the deflated ball as hard as they could at a professional goalkeeper. It was obvious I was a professional: black shorts, lime green t-shirt and goalkeeping gloves. Nothing got past me and my 10 goalkeeping assistants who flocked to join me on that imaginary goal line between the goal posts (a couple of large stones). With every save we cheered and indulged in multiple high fives.
When the time came for lessons to resume, the Explore group decided it was time to go before we were asked to do something taxing on the brain. But our tour leader, Aung Koko Win, who had been voted Explore’s cycle tour leader of the year 2013 – and I can't imagine a more deserving winner – had other ideas. While we had been teaching young Burmese how to cheat on the football pitch, Koko had been finding out about the school. It had 160 children and very little support, relying on the local people for donations. So Koko led us to a shop in the nearest village, extracted 5 dollars from each of us and then bought up the entire stock of pencils and notebooks. The shopkeeper sent out to his brothers in other shops nearby for more supplies and after 30 minutes we had almost 200 notebooks and pencils.
Back at the school all 160 children were sitting cross-legged on a raised concrete stage in the middle of a dusty square in the monastery grounds. The controlled lesson with hushed, perfectly behaved children was turned into chaos in an instant as I recognised my fellow goalkeepers and went over to high five them and even the opposition. Koko spoke to the head monk (I'm not sure Abbot is the correct term a Buddhist monk chief). Realising he was never going to restore order whilst a bunch of aging western degenerates were disrupting proceedings, he gave us permission to hand out the notebooks and pencils.
Stepping through the rows of children and handing out those small but useful gifts to utterly grateful and appreciative children was one of my most rewarding experiences. How many places in the world is the gift of a pencil and notebook regarded as a wonderful gift by a child?
For most of these children, this is the only education they will ever receive. Koko’s prize for winning the Explore cycle tour leader of the year was a £1,000 of which a donation of £500 was made to a charity chosen by Koko. He is donating it to this school in Myo Tha."
Mike travelled on our 14-day Cycle Burma tour