05-Mar-2015 -- One of the most important lessons I have learnt from travelling is that life is far more interesting if you grab any fun opportunity that goes your way. When I started this trip, I hadn't planned to come to Myanmar and I certainly hadn't planned to visit the 17N 98E confluence. In fact I didn't even know what the Degree Confluence Project was. I was introduced to the concept by Peter Snow Cao and James Whiting, who I met on the back of a truck on the slightly precarious ride down from the Golden Rock Pagoda. As part of their impressively active trip through Myanmar, they were planning to cycle to Hpa-an the following day - where they would rent motorbikes and go in search of the confluence. After an enjoyable evening meal with them, they politely added that if I happened to be in Hpa-An on Friday, I would more than welcome to join them on their confluence trip. I had no plans to go there, but this seemed too interesting an opportunity to miss.
On Thursday morning (the 5th March 2015) we regrouped in Hpa-An, got our rental bikes (Peter having kindly arranged an automatic bike for me, being a novice rider), filled up with petrol from water bottles sold at the side of the road and had some spicy rice for breakfast before getting on the road.
Once we were out of the chaos of the town I found that I really enjoyed driving the motorbike and at our first stop, at a small village where the locals seemed rather surprised to see tourists, we were pleased with the progress which we had made. The scenery along the way varied greatly from green rice fields and mountains, to flat baron land where we were glad of our sunglasses to stop the dust getting into our eyes. There were also a fair number of obstacles to look out for on the road - mainly in the form of stray dogs, goats and cows. At our second stop, we parked outside a house and were quickly invited to sit in the garden with the owners. They seemed intrigued by our trip and were kind enough to give us some cold water. Back on the bikes and I was starting to think that we couldn't have too far left to go, until we went past a sign that said that we were just 17km from Hpa-An. The same Hpa-An that we had left two and a half hours earlier. We pulled over at a small restaurant and had some lunch after Peter had asked some locals for help with our predicament and found one man that was heading that direction and kindly offered for us to follow him. Over lunch, that same man asked whether we had permission to enter the area. We said we had no intention of staying overnight so didn't think permission was necessary and he seemed content with this response. We followed him at high speed for around an hour until, around 15 minutes before the town which we were heading for, he pulled over, gave us directions and said he was going that way but that he would go on his own. We didn't think much of that and stopped to fill up on petrol again before heading down the road that he had directed us down. Before I knew it we were heading down a small track, into a field and I was being handed the GPS. Peter and James had told me about the difficulty that sometimes comes in finding the exact spot. I was relieved to see that our confluence would somewhere in the middle of the flat field in front of of us, but I still felt a great deal of responsibility in having control of the GPS. To my pleasant surprise, finding the spot happened with a lot less stress than I had been imagining and we were lucky enough that GPS continued the show the value which we needed it to show for a few minutes while we struggled to get a clear picture of the screen. After we were sure that, between our many pictures on various phones, we must have one that was clear enough, we took the necessary NSEW shots and a very proud group photo.
Once we had finished the necessary photos, we set off on out bikes again to get some photos of the small village that the confluence lay just outside of. We happened upon a group of child monks and Peter and James joined them in a small game of football. Just as we were getting back on our bikes to start the journey back to Hpa-An we were stopped by a man who said he was immigration and asked to see our passports. He was concerned that we were there and explained that this was a dangerous area, even going as far as to signal firing a machine gun which, while it may have been slightly over the top, was rather disconcerting. We followed his advice and made it out of the area as quickly as we could and back to the safety of Hpa-An without any further difficulty. We all agreed that we had been very lucky not to run into the immigration official before finding the confluence, as that would surely have put an end to the trip.
I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience and thought it was a great way to explore more rural areas of a country than I would usually find myself in. I couldn't be more grateful to have met Peter and James and I am sure that this will not be my last confluence trip.