Of all the bikeable places I’ve been to, the relationship between people and bikes has never seemed so intimate as it is here in Mae Sot, Thailand. Although it’s not going to be in the ‘Top Ten Cyclist’s Destinations’ anytime soon, cycling in Mae Sot is at the very heart of the town’s rhythm and soul. It’s a relationship so intricately woven into the fabric of daily life that’s it’s almost easy to miss it, so I am incredibly grateful to the brilliant Bikeable Jo for inspiring me to take a closer look.
My discoveries can be summarised by the realisation that to be bikeable is a culturally unique experience, shaped by the social and environmental landscapes of wherever in the world you happen to be. In Mae Sot, to be bikeable is to be practical, to be intimate and to be free, an experience uniquely linked to beauty and sufferings of the people on the bikes.
To be bikeable is to be practical. A bicycle is a treasure to be cherished and protected. But it is also a beast to be tamed and a creature to be domesticated. In Mae Sot, a bike must be put to good work, be that transportation of people, pets or goods. For many, the relationship between master and bike can seem purely functional, but the mutual interdependence between them cultivates a mixture of pride and respect that is evident in every cyclist.
To be bikeable is to be intimate. A bicycle is a tool for self-discovery, a means by which you can experience your body in so many unique ways. To bike is to welcome the rhythm of the pedals in your feet, to acknowledge the sting in your thighs and the sweat on your back. It is also a means by which we become more intimately connected to our earth, whatever surface we happen to be riding. To bike is to become acquainted with each fracture in the tarmac, to count each puddle and to consider each rock carefully. In Mae Sot, to be bikeable is also an opportunity to be intimate with the friends and family with whom you share your ride: to register the weight of your child in your lap, to know the warmth of your mother’s waist and to learn to trust the judgement of your schoolmate steering.
To be bikeable is to be free. As a frequent wanderer, I have come to take my freedom of movement somewhat for granted, whether that’s movement across a city or across a continent. In Mae Sot, a significant proportion of the population are illegal immigrants from Burma, where many were forced to move out of their homes and into the restrictions of a refugee camp. So for them, to be bikeable is to experience that freedom of movement, on a small but significant scale. It is to know the joy of discovery, the power of autonomy and convenience of connectivity that has for so long been denied. Watching their gratitude for something that has always seemed just a helpful but disposable possession, I have been humbled and inspired to make the most of the freedom of my two wheels once I am home.
Of all the things I expected to discover on my travels, the beauty of a being bikeable was not one of them. But I’ve learned more from my bicycle than from any conversation or internet search I’ve made. People say that to journey is to experience, to progress, to grow, and cycling has been at the heart of each of those processes for me. I caught the travel bug years ago, but now at long last the bikeable bug has caught up with me too. My experience of my bike, my city and my travels will never be the same again.