The Indian Army officer at Moreh had a quick look at all our stamped papers and motioned for the gate to be lifted. Noel and I had left New Delhi a few days earlier, battling northern India’s freezing winter conditions on a pair of kick-start Royal Enfield Bullet Machismo 500s. We now stood in sight of Myanmar at India’s eastern edge in the state of Manipur.
Many a traveler has journeyed up to Moreh only to be turned away from the border. If the Indian border officials didn't think that you would be allowed entry into Myanmar, then they wouldn't let you exit. But things are different now. After months of anxious planning and pondering whether this would actually work, we were leaving India and riding across Myanmar.
Crossing Myanmar overland in your own vehicle was prohibited until just a few years ago. But some enterprising individuals on the Myanmar and Indian sides sweated the paperwork and convinced their respective governments to open the border and allow travelers to enter. However, there's a heavy price to pay on the Myanmar side.
Myanmar has had elections and is now, technically, a democracy, but it remains military-dominated and paranoid with state security. And what do secretive states fear most? Independent travelers who can roam the country and interact with the locals and report to the outside world. So as a compromise, the Myanmar government allows independent overland travelers to cross their country with one major caveat - we have to be escorted by a government officer, a tour guide and our itinerary has to be fixed according to a pre-planned route. This is not my preferred style of travel, but the opportunity to be one of the first to blaze the trail across Myanmar was too tempting.
Crossing the single-lane, wrought iron Indo-Myanmar Friendship Bridge was a big moment for me. It felt in some way that my round-the-world journey was continuing east. And unlike past overlanders who have had to fly over Myanmar on their way from India to Southeast Asia, we were riding.
Our guide, Michael, a philosophy graduate, was waiting on the other side and quickly showed us up to the immigration house where the officers were very cordial and welcomed us to Myanmar with a gentle stamp in our passports. The atmosphere seemed relaxed as the men wore lungis, marking an immediate change compared to pants-wearing India. Farther down the road were the customs house and our escort. A Toyota Land Cruiser Prado with driver, Mr. Win, and our government escort, Mr. Moon, waited for us to begin our journey south to the first big town of Kalay.
While adventure bikers know that having an escort car can be a pain and that it can detract from the adventure, their intention was to make our trip as smooth as possible. Our escort’s big flashing red light and siren certainly made us feel like VIPs when they would clear traffic in our path, but out on the open road we were free riders. They would let us ride up ahead so long as we waited before entering any populated areas. And there was plenty of open road.
The western part of Myanmar is quite remote compared to Myanmar’s southern and eastern parts. Until a few years ago, there were no tar roads here leading to tales of notorious mud roads that mired vehicles in the jungle. But the Indian government, in its bid to open up trade with Myanmar and counter China's influence, has tarred the 100 miles from the border to Kalay. Making quick time along this road, we were, however, slowed by over a 100 narrow wooden and iron bridge crossings. Some were well-maintained. Others resembled bridges I had found deep in the Amazon with planks missing and nails sticking out of the boards. A sane person would stop and inspect each bridge before crossing over, but as an adventurer it helps to just go, even if you are hoping for the best.
In a day we were in Kalay and set out on the road to Kipling’s Mandalay the next, but the road itself is far from Kipling’s romantic notions. The tar surface disappeared within a few miles revealing baseball-sized rocks jutting from the hard-packed mud. Our Bullets were handling it with aplomb, just bouncing about. Even though this heavy, retro classic isn't designed for off-roading, it can tackle almost any terrain. We were standing on the foot pegs for better control and comfort but had to bow our legs wide around the massive 22 liter tank. And just like in the Amazon when a truck inevitably came the other way, the road’s fine clay dust would envelop you, drowning all senses for several seconds and inevitably leaving a powdery residue in your mouth. But here, in Myanmar’s remote and untouched landscape, riding through virgin jungle, we were in adventure-riding paradise.
By evening of the second day we had reached Mandalay and inspecting the road’s toll on our frames we had some welding to do. The Royal Enfield Bullet is not known for its reliability and there’s a certain charm to that. The rough riding had cracked one of the front fender mounts but our driver quickly found someone to take care of it the next day. Frames intact once again we cruised Mandalay’s sublime, sun-dappled tunnels that lay beneath its canopy of tree-lined avenues. The Bullet is most comfortable when you’re cruising along in 5th gear. The deep, throaty exhaust tone of the torque spoiled single-cylinder seemed to reverberate with my brain waves as the throttle felt connected to my thoughts.
It was out on the road towards Bagan while stopping for a break that we had the chance to sit with a farmer and his family. Sipping on green tea and eating sweet sticky rice, it did not feel like, nor did it seem to be, a pre-arranged government PR stunt. Although the presence of our escort may well have had an influence, the warmth and hospitality from the farmer and his family felt genuine.
It is striking how Northeast India has more affinity with Myanmar and the rest of Southeast Asia than the Indian subcontinent. It is perhaps understandable given the relatively arbitrary nature of modern political borders, but the real cultural border between India and Southeast Asia lies in Siliguri, the narrow neck that connects mainland India with the Northeast, squeezed between Bangladesh and Nepal. In Myanmar and across much of Southeast Asia, the people are welcoming and strangers are often offered tea and food to eat. Yet, unlike much of Southeast Asia and its mass-tourism, Myanmar remains full of gentle and resilient people. Isolated from the rest of the world by five decades of military rule and civil war, who knows how long this may last. In a few years, Myanmar in turn shall be ‘discovered’, and maybe then the locals will become more wary. Yet if Bagan is anything to go by, hope remains.
Bagan is Myanmar’s tourist mecca and hundreds descend on this site at any one time to marvel at the imperial legacy from the 11th century. Thousands of pagodas dot this plain, many covered in gold leaf. Its grandeur is intense, emotional and deeply personal. Little surprise perhaps that as we watched the sunset that evening from atop one of Bagan’s largest pagodas, applause broke spontaneously from the crowd as the last ray disappeared beyond the horizon.
The next day we headed east and the road twisted tightly up and over the Shan Hills. The Bullets are low on horsepower, but the balanced-chassis makes for a nimble bike in the corners. Going uphill and sliding your butt off the seat, leaning into the corner is a movement every biker learns to love, even if the Bullet wasn't designed to be ridden like a sports bike.
Crossing the saddle of the Shan Hills, we had our first breakdown. Pulling in the clutch to drop to 3rd as I prepared to overtake a truck I felt the clutch cable snap and go loose. A cable replacement is no easy job on the Machismo 500, but since we were less than 10 miles from our destination, we opted to ride on without it. Noel pushed me up to speed with his left leg planted on my luggage carrier and I was able to speed off with a jump into second gear.
Mr Win and Mr Moon cleared traffic ensuring I didn’t come to a standstill again until the hotel (escorts do indeed have their uses!), and once there it was a quick fix. Thanks to the mechanics at Vintage Rides in Delhi, who has prepped us for this possible failure and sent us out with spares for their bikes, I was good to go within an hour.
We swung south by Inlay Lake to check out the indigenous and ingenious floating gardens. Just like Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, locals have developed rafts from lake weeds, but here they have started hydroponics, growing vegetables off the weeds’ nutrients, which they now supply nationally.
Back over the Shan Hills and we entered Nay Pyi Taw, the new capital built ten years ago. Like most planned capitals, Nay Pyi Taw feels sterile, is filled with wide multi-lane concrete roads and is mostly devoid of traffic. We were left stunned by a 20 lane road lain in front of the parliament building. 10 lanes each side, with no cars. A sad demonstration of showmanship as a venue for military parades it was no doubt intended to signal the government’s disdain for Western sanctions, but instead remains a monolith of Myanmar’s squandered fortune.
Relegated to the heavily-trafficked B roads as bikes are banned from Nay Pyi Taw’s modern 4 lane concrete highway to Yangon I was thankful for a properly working clutch, but we had to park our bikes at Yangon’s northern edge. Despite miles of four-wheel vehicular traffic, bikes are not permitted in the city. The reasoning is that in this crowded city of 5 million people the snarls would be worse if bikes, the veritable work horse of all emerging markets, were allowed. The hours it took us to reach downtown would seem to contradict this, but we just had time to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda.
Over 325 ft tall, covered in gold leaf and with endless candles lit by chanting devotees around its base, the pagoda possesses an immense spirituality. We said a customary prayer, walked around the pagoda’s base and then headed to 19th Street in old town for a night of barbeque meets and cold beers.
After fetching our bikes the next morning, we had a leisurely ride east to Kyaiktiyo. Here we took the hour-long steep uphill climb in the back of a truck to Golden Rock - a massive boulder impossibly balanced on the edge of a cliff, covered in gold. When the sun came out from behind the clouds and lit up the rock in all its golden brilliance, it was almost enough to make me a believer.
On the last day of our ride, we crossed the Dawna Range to reach the Thai border. And just like in the far west, where the road is yet to be paved, Noel and I had one last hairy ride. From Hpa’an, the road heading east is laden with trucks and tourist buses. This deteriorated state of the road gave us a bone-rattling ride, which worsened in the mountains, becoming a gnarly off-road track filled with giant potholes. We charged up the sides of minibuses, tankers and trucks and didn’t linger on the cliff edges longer than we had to.
The thrilling ride made for a fitting end through this adventure rider’s paradise. We reached the Thai border and after bidding farewell to our escort team whom we befriended over these past ten days, we exited from Myanmar and entered Thailand. Noel and I high-fived as we realized we were one of the first few riders to cross Myanmar from India to Thailand and that too on Royal Enfields! What a stunning country to experience on a bike and if you would like to do this, get in touch as I’m organizing another ride across in a few months...
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