What I did in Myanmar... it was crazy. You may say stupid, and perhaps you'd be right. Foreigners must stay in a hotel every night, and it must be specially licenced to accept foreigners, i.e. very expensive. That is the law. But I didn't want to stay in expensive hotels; On my cheap budget it is avoiding hotels and guesthouses (less than 10 in 15 months of travelling) that has enabled me to travel for so long.
I would ignore the law and camp illegally, I decided. And so began the most uncomfortable month of the trip, slipping from the road at dusk to avoid detection, laying awake paralysed by the drone of nearby voices, and showering less frequently than is necessary when cycling 8 hours a day in 37 degrees heat. When I say it was uncomfortable, that isn't to say it was always miserable (although sometimes it was). I relished the challenge and adventure of camping where I wasn't supposed to, and it became a game to avoid getting spotted, one I seemed to be winning.
When most people go on a trip they research where the hotels are to decide where to stay. I also looked at where the hotels were, but to decide where not to stay. My theory was simple – On this first night I was 65km from the closest hotel. If the police found me, I hoped they wouldn't make me cycle 65km in the middle of the night (although this is not unheard of), and they would either let me remain where I was, or find me somewhere else to stay such as a monastery or police station.
No police came, the only disturbance being a herd of cows wandering through at 3am. I was ecstatic to have managed to camp undetected in Myanmar and saved ~$20, but overwhelmed by the thought of repeating the ordeal every night for the next 4 weeks!
I was sleeping on the ground and not setting my tent up. Less comfortable, but also less likely to be spotted, and that was most important. I had also heard stories of police confiscating tents to prevent further camping, and I wanted to avoid that!
The furious bark of dogs had started in the distance, but they suddenly seemed almost upon me. I lay motionless, willing the dogs to leave me alone. They didn't. The dark sillhouette of a dog broached the horizon of my elevated sleeping spot, less than 10 metres away, and with a bark somehow angrier than before. The silhouette of a second dog surrounded me. Then a third.
I sat up, first trying to calm the dogs with hushed whispers and gentle tones, and then trying to scare the dogs away, unsure which approach would work better. Neither, it emerged, and the barking soon caught the attention of two men who investigated with torches that probed the darkness until they rested on me. 'Tourist' one man called to the other. They hesitated, the torchlight still burning into my eyes, and then that they turned and left, clutching the dogs by the scruff of their necks and dragging then away too.
Were they friendly? Were they scared? Were they angry? Did I need to move? Were they going to call the police? I had no answers to the avalanche of questions in my head. Half laziness and half unjustified optimism, I stayed where I was, but it was a restless night knowing police could arrive any moment.
'Thankfully, there haven't been any mosquitoes so far. That would have made this camping very unpleasant.'.I wrote in my diary that evening. Naturally this was the night I first met mosquitoes which would plague the remainder of my time in Myanmar.
I had managed nearly a full week of sleeping wild in Myanmar, probably saving almost $120 in the process. I was very happy and felt braver, finally daring to set the tent up, which felt like a real luxury!
Nights 7 – 10
Keith from Singapore had invited me to stay with him through 'Warmshowers', an online cycling community, which I readily accepted. It was a great chance to stay in the comfort of a house, regather some energy, and most excitingly have some company - with English hardly spoken in Myanmar, I had spent most of my time alone.
Finding somewhere to camp became harder as I headed further south; Bago state especially felt like one elongated village for 400km, with farmland and houses extending from both sides of the road all the while. In desperation I asked at a monastery, who thankfully allowed me to make my bed beside the shrine to Buddha.
I enjoyed the company of these two cheeky monks a lot. I left a donation in the hopes that the monks will also rescue any future cyclists from their desperation and allow them to stay there.
At exactly 9:30pm two people stepped from their house nearly 500 metres from where I slept, and scanned the field with their torches, the giant cone of light sweeping the hedgerow until it came to rest on me. How did they know I was there?! There was no point pretending I hadn't been spotted, so I stood up and waved with as much friendliness as I could muster. But, they both retreated back to their house. I felt sure if I stayed they would call the police. Or maybe they had already...
I gathered my things and cycled through darkness darting down the first track I saw. I was disorientated; in the blackness the nearest house could have been only metres away. The road was close and the blinding lights from passing cars danced through the bushes, scattering on my sleeping bag. I was certain I would be found, I would have bet money on it, but I was too tired to stay awake worrying and soon fell asleep.
To my own shock, it was dawn, and the golden shafts of sweet morning sunlight that roused me from my sleep, and not the stern grip of a burly Burmese policeman on my shoulder.
There really was nowhere to sleep to the side of the road so when the road was clear I darted under the road itself, and slept in a dry drainage ditch, lulled to sleep by the occasional oxcart trundling 8 foot above me.
In total in Myanmar I stayed;
2 nights in a guesthouse,
4 nights with Keith from Warmshowers,
1 night with Lady Soe from Couchsurfing,
1 night with a local family who invited me to stay with them.
2 nights in monasteries
14 nights camping (3 with a tent and 11 on the bare ground)
Crossing Myanmar on my own terms was necessitated by my financial situation, but willingly accepted by my sense of adventure and challenge – Like the entire cycling journey itself, there is something intoxicating and addictive about exploring where your limits are, and taking on a task where the outcome is uncertain. When I came to cross to Thailand (illegal and a challenge also), I was weary. Broken.
But after a shower (my first in 14 days), a belly full of Thai food, and a bed, in a house, I was already reminiscing and romanticising the nights I'd slept in the wilds of Myanmar. Listening to the chirp of crickets and the din of cicadas, almost as loud as the drum of my beating heart, or counting the shooting stars, flitting across the sky,- each of those nights had become a memory, another story to share, and Myanmar another closed chapter in my journey from England to Australia.
Would I recommend this to others? No. Would I do it again? Probably!