A reflection on my journey across Thailand, Nepal, Bhutan, and India with my bicycle ‘Mowgli’
During my 20-month volunteering stint at a reforestation community in Auroville, I met thousands of travelers from around the world who’d stopped by on their journey to volunteer at the project. Living in that global village opened up my mind to perspectives ranging far and wide, beyond my usual field of thought. Sometimes, in the span of a two-hour cooking shift, I’d have heard anecdotes from the Japanese countryside, the music from the Sahara, recipes of Kimchi from South Korea, the merits of the education system in Scandinavia, of Ayahuasca ceremonies deep in the Amazon, of the highs and low of military conscription in Israel, of the forestry policy of Canada…It is one thing to look at all these countries on a map, or in a documentary film. But meeting a person from another country and sharing stories with them intently, has an intimate charm of its own.
As amusing this manner of vicarious globe-trotting was, I longed for the joy of travelling to these faraway lands and experiencing them first hand. I wondered if I could manage a tour to nearby country within my limited means.
Once I shared my desire to travel with my friends Mike, Jamey, and Sean (my volunteer buddies at the forest), they unanimously endorsed the idea of travelling on a bicycle. Since all of them had plenty of bicycle touring experience, I felt that I could use their expertise and embark on a bicycle tour.
But at that time, I didn’t have a bicycle and investing in a new one was beyond my means. However, within a day of announcing to the community that I wished to travel on a bicycle, I had a bicycle, pannier bags, water bottles, a hammock, a multi-tool, and a bunch of other supplies from within the community. I felt an abiding sense of wholeness from being amid such a generous and encouraging family. At that moment, I heard a resounding call for the roads unknown, in the lands that lay far and beyond. It felt genuine and opportune. Within two weeks, with my Thai visa in place, I left on an open-ended bicycle tour from Auroville.
Most of us subconsciously assume that whenever we go out on a bicycle, eventually we will take a U-turn and head back towards home. But on the first day of my bike trip, once I realised that I didn’t have to take a U-turn anymore, I experienced a vivifying rush of adrenalin. Every spectacle I would witness now would be fresh as dewdrops. Navigating through this neverland of novelty, I reached Chennai in two days. From there, I got my bicycle disassembled, packed it in a bicycle box, loaded that as cargo, and boarded a flight to Bangkok, Thailand.
Once I assembled my bicycle back to a functioning state outside Bangkok airport, I attached the pannier bags to the bike, tightened the brakes, inflated the tires, and kept checking if I’d really managed to put the bike together. Once I was sure of its health, I looked around and asked myself,
‘Is this really happening?’
That question, that simple joy, brought a smile on my face that loyally accompanied me throughout the trip. The experience of bicycling through Thailand, witnessing the sheer beauty of every mile traversed, the warmth in every person that I met on the road, I felt like a new born child being welcomed into a world full of wonder. Each sensory stimulus felt fresh and exciting. Speaking merely of the sense of taste, within the first week of being in Thailand, I had tasted exotic fruits like Rose Apple, Rambutan, Dragon Fruit, Mangosteen, Tangerines and the peculiar flavours of familiar fruits like Thai Mangos, watermelons, pineapples and baby bananas. A sensory delight by itself, each fruit ushered me into the wider family of fascinating flavours.
The beauty of bicycle touring is in the experience of traversing every mile that separates two places, at a pace that’s slow enough to imbibe the spirit of each place that you bicycle through. Beyond the city hopping nature of usual touristic travel, bike touring helps you see a country the way it really is, with a vision unmisted by bias or prejudice. I would travel through rural parts of Thailand for the most part of my travel and feel the beauty of the places and people in the hinterland first-hand. There wasn’t a common language to communicate in with the locals, but that never came in the way of making friends. And once you have friends, what could go wrong!
But on the road things do go wrong, and just like the happy moments, they come as a superb surprise. I come to think of my first day in Thailand when within a span of four hours, on my ride from the airport to the hostel across the city, my bicycle got four punctures. It turned out to be a preparatory crash course for fixing a flat tire, and after that much practice, I learned that skill well enough be confident about fixing any problems with the bike.
Speaking of things going wrong, I have been untraceable for friends and family on two occasions – once while bicycling to Ladakh and on another occasion while trekking to a glacial lake on the Tibet border in Nepal. Thankfully, their prayers worked when mobile reception didn’t, and I am safe and healthy after those two instances of unintended disappearances from the radar.
But those are the challenges that stood out most in the journey. I faced many smaller challenges that I got used to over time. Imagine, I had no idea where I would sleep at night at the beginning of most days on the tour. However, I always found a place to rest safely – in Buddhist monasteries, temples, Gurdwaras, hostels, with couch surfing hosts and generous friends, under the open sky in nature within my little blue tent, and on one occasion, inside a police station in Lampang, Thailand!
While the idea of travelling on a bicycle surprised many of my friends, I got used to the experience within a matter of days. Bicycling a 100 kilometres a day became normal within the first few weeks. And touring like this, while pushing the idea of what is considered as normal, within the first 100 days of being on the tour, I bicycled to the highest all-weather motorable road in the world (at that time) – the mighty Khardung La pass in Ladakh – on 21st June 2018. What seemed inconceivable at the outset gradually became the natural and obvious thing to do over the course of my journey.
With a minimum of 8 hours of riding every day, my body was primed perfectly for most physical adventures. So when my friends suggested that I should board a train and come to Pune to run a half-marathon, I agreed without a second thought. After, a refreshing run in Pune, I bicycled all the way to my ancestral hometown in Kerala on the breath-taking Konkan coast.
For someone who’d just started riding a bicycle without an itinerary, I’d traversed an astonishing amount of ground. I’d bicycled across Thailand during my 52 day travel there, from Delhi to Leh, from Kolkata to the Bhutan border, from Pune to Thrissur, Kerala, interspersed with a few sojourns in Nepal and the Kingdom of Bhutan.
I bicycled to the extent that it was legal and topographically tenable, while gladly turning a few shades darker in the process.
When you journey with a bicycle, you live each moment of the day. You feel alive. You have to set out with an open heart and an open mind. And in the process you will learn immensely, most significantly about who you truly are. You will become an improviser, who’s ready to tackle any challenge with calm judgement and good old jugaad. You will find the gift of solitude, the joy of making new friends, the heart to be vulnerable, the broadening of horizons, and an ever-flowing wellspring of joy deep within.
Having experienced the profundity in the experience of bicycle touring, I wished to share the gifts I received from the universe with you. As a natural consequence, a book of short stories called ‘Pedals and Perspectives’ came into being. I hope that you are able to read the book soon and you find value in the stories shared.
And I hope that you start, in your own capacity, to bicycle on this simple machine and head on a joyride of your own.
It beckons. Listen!