Riding to Rangoon
By Andy Benfield
“Driving from India to Burma? Sure it can be done!” Finally after weeks of people telling me it was impossible, it seemed that I might have found someone who actually didn’t think I was completely crazy. My British friend and long-time Burma resident looked at me grinning as he continued, “Yeah, there were some Oxford and Cambridge chaps that did it. In 1955.” The Oxbridge Far Eastern Expedition had indeed broken new ground nearly 60 years ago by driving two Land Rovers from India through Burma on their mammoth London to Singapore run. But the problem was that, since then, Burma seemed to have pretty much sealed its borders to foreigners and no-one appeared to have been allowed to cross independently from India in several decades.
Deciding to park the issue of the border crossing, I turned my attention instead to some of the other challenges presented by the idea I’d had of riding my Royal Enfield motorcycle from Delhi overland to Rangoon. The lack of decent roads was a pretty obvious one, and while those that did exist passed through what must be some absolutely stunning scenery, these nice-to-look-at mountain ranges and jungles would be a different matter to actually drive through. Presuming the roads didn’t stop me, I could start worrying instead about the security situation, as I would be obliged to pass through some of India’s most restive states in the country’s northeast, home to a plethora of rebel groups, bandits and not-always-playing-by-the rules army units. A quick check online revealed that there had been several bombings and highway robberies along the route just in the previous few weeks.
But the idea of taking a couple of months to ride through India, Nepal, Bhutan and Burma, following a route that no-one had managed for decades was simply too enticing to let go. So it was that a few weeks later I found myself heading up to to my bike mechanic’s workshop in the northern reaches of Delhi to get the final checks done. I did by now have a rough route planned out, but whether those lines I planned to follow on the map actually corresponded to navigable roads, especially post-monsoon, was another matter. I had visas for India and Bhutan but none for Nepal. I had no papers permitting me to take my bike out of India and, despite having applied to the Burmese Government, I still hadn’t received permission to cross the border from India into Burma. I was keeping my fingers crossed for a reliable supply of Good Samaritans and roadside mechanics in the event of a breakdown as I confess that, despite a love of old Indian motorcycles, I would be hard pushed to differentiate a bearing from a fairing. I had made no progress on addressing the security issues, apart from further research which reassured me that it really was rather dodgy. Nevertheless, I consoled myself with the thought of the Swiss Army Knife and the hip flask full of single malt that were stashed in my backpack which I felt, in good British amateur adventuring spirit, should see me through the most sticky of situations.
These trains of thought were interrupted by my arrival in Karol Bagh, a colourfully choked Delhi suburb that is home to a plethora of motorcycle dealers and mechanics. I found the humble doorway I was looking for in a small side street that’s all too easy to miss and slithered down a ramp into the basement workshop of Mr Lalli Singh. Lalli had introduced me to the legendary Royal Enfield motorcycle some years back and even taught me how to ride. The Enfield is a bike that is ubiquitous in India, a classic 1940s-style machine that can be seen chugging along the highways and byways across the country, piloted by mustachioed khaki-clad cops, turbaned young Sikhs and anyone else who wants a little piece of Bollywood machismo in their life. Lalli had my bike all oiled and mechanically sound and so there remained just the spiritual well-being to be taken care of. Garlands and offerings had already been prepared and Lalli solemnly invoked the protection of Ganesh for the journey as he wafted incense sticks around the fuel tank and prayed for my safe passage. Sitting down with a cup of sweet milky chai afterwards he confessed that, despite having hosted numerous overlanders, he’d never heard of anyone succeeding in riding from India to Burma, but he’d be most interested to hear if it were possible.
And so I bungeed my bags onto the back of the newly blessed bike, strapped on my helmet and kicked the engine alive. Ahead was 6,500 km of the unknown. The idea that I’d actually ride all the way to Rangoon on this machine seemed, at best, far-fetched. But it was time to stop fretting and give this thing a go.
A brand spanking new and almost empty highway – apparently due to the high toll charges – led me out of Delhi and smoothly down to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. After paying homage to the world’s most famous monument to love, I careered into the real India and the choked roads of Uttar Pradesh. UP as it’s known, is one of the most deprived states of India and also its most populous, a place that some 200 million people call home. If it were a country in its own right it would be the seventh largest in the world. Welcome to the immense scale of all things Indian. Most of those 200 million seemed to have somewhere to go that day and I had to dodge a heady mix of brightly painted trucks, lumbering buses, zippy cars and weaving motorcycles that had little regard for either the laws of physics or the basic principles of road safety. In addition to the vehicular obstacles, there were also dogs, goats, pigs, and even the odd camel to contend with.
I was navigating this eclectic mix on my way towards the India-Nepal border, the first of five international frontiers I’d need to cross in the next weeks. My plan was to take the scenic route, crossing Nepal from west to east before coming back into India and riding through Sikkim and West Bengal. That would take me up to the Bhutanese border. I’d then ride the length of Bhutan before coming out once again into India, this time in the state of Assam. From there I’d ride down through Nagaland and Manipur to reach the Burmese border, hopefully cross, and then pick my way down to Rangoon.
I drew up at Banbasa, the crossing point from India into Nepal after three days riding from Delhi. This turned out not to be the main frontier between India and Nepal and was reached by a track rather than a road. Sheltered in a small grove of trees sat a crumbling immigration office. Two gentlemen in tracksuits glanced up from their morning newspapers, took a sip of chai, and beckoned me over. A couple of forms were filled in with passport and visa details but the motorcycle was pretty much ignored and I was dispatched with a slow smile and a half-hearted hand gesture that presumably indicated the general direction of Nepal. Having crossed no-man’s land, I almost missed the Nepali immigration post which had to be reached by scrambling down a bank and across a small field.
The wonderfully quiet Mahendra Highway led me away from the frontier and into the flat, green farming belt that characterises this part of Nepal, a sharp contrast with its mountainous north. It’s an area that has seen its fair share of unrest in recent years and I found myself weaving round my first police and army roadblocks as the road led deeper into the country.
After a couple of days of traversing the paddy fields and forests of the lowlands, the land started to undulate as I was drawn into the Himalayan foothills. I turned off the main east-west highway and onto a broken road that carved its way north along the side of a steep river gorge and through dense jungle and bucolic villages. At sunset I drew up in the medieval town of Tansen and was treated to my first view of the mighty Himalayas, their snowy peaks thrusting up through a layer of low cloud.
The next morning I continued northwards towards Pokhara. I’d not seen another foreigner since leaving Delhi, so arriving at this backpacker haven was a bit of a shock with its chocolate lassis, dreadlocked foreigners and 100-rupee T-shirts. The tourist circus contrasted sharply though with the vocal street marches I had to navigate on the outskirts of town. This delayed me enough to cause one of the scariest experiences of the trip – driving at night on the Pokhara to Kathmandu highway, Nepal’s most dangerous road. Buses and trucks hurtled downhill, airhorns blaring and either blinding me with full-beam headlights or coming out of nowhere with none at all as they threw up choking clouds of dust. Invisible, man-size potholes threatened to throw me off the bike or jolt me off the side of the road and down the unsecured drop to the raging river far below.
Filthy and exhausted, I arrived in Kathmandu only to promptly succumb to a bout of food poisoning that put me out of action for the next three days. Once vertical again, it was the bike’s turn to feel poorly and as I bumped my way across dirt tracks towards Nepal’s eastern border with the Indian state of West Bengal, every day seemed to bring a new mechanical problem. The suspension snapped, the clutch burnt out, the battery died. And finally in apparent desperation the exhaust fell off. Limping over the Indian border, I headed straight to the nearest mechanic’s workshop.
After some thorough patching up, I headed up to the old British hill station of Darjeeling. It was a beautifully clear morning as I picked my way up through an ancient forest before emerging out onto a hillside blanketed with tea plantations and dotted with stooped, slow-moving women working the fields with their picking baskets strapped to their backs. The train track actually comes onto the road heading into the town which resulted in some adrenaline-filled moments as I tried to outrun a furiously whistling engine that was coming up fast behind me. Arriving into town, charming Darjeeling with its old colonial houses and backdrop of tea plantations and Himalayan peaks turned out to be a lovely place to put my feet up for a couple of days and rest my, by now rather sore, behind.
After a couple of days of being pounded by incessant rain thanks to Cyclone Phailin and tackling roads that had been transformed into rivers of mud, I made it to the border with Bhutan. I crossed over through a huge ornate archway, to be greeted by a motorcycling guide and a pick-up truck. This was not by choice but because Bhutan strictly controls tourism and I had spent several months organising to drive my motorcycle through the country. Doing it alone is impossible as all foreigners must be supervised and have their itinerary pre-approved. Across the border other changes were also immediately apparent. The streets were quieter and cleaner, the buildings covered in colourful depictions of Buddhist folklore and in the town square folk ambled and chatted in the morning sun, lazily spinning their hand-held prayer wheels.
The Land of the Thunder Dragon, as Bhutan is known, is truly a place unlike any other. A pint-sized Himalayan kingdom of less than a million people squeezed between China and India, it’s the home of the concept of Gross National Happiness, a place where no tree can be cut down nor any animal killed, where tobacco is banned, and where there’s a national park dedicated to the protection of the yeti.
I spent the next ten days or so bumping my way through this spectacularly beautiful and pristine wonderland through tranquil green valleys, past magnificent fortresses and monasteries, and with an almost constant backdrop of soaring snow-capped peaks. As I eventually twisted and turned out of the mountains and back toward the plains of India, I knew that the most adventurous part of my journey now lay ahead –the little-known hills and jungles of Northeast India.
It took just over two days to cross the plains of Assam and arrive at the old iron bridge and rickety military check-post that marks the entrance into Nagaland, India’s final frontier. It’s home to a variety of fiercely independent tribes who only ceased headhunting a few years back. They differ hugely from India’s plains people in terms of language, religion, appearance and dress and Delhi has struggled for decades (largely unsuccessfully) to exert its will over them. Today a number of different rebel groups operate in the territory and there is a large Indian military presence. Crossing the bridge it was immediately apparent that I was entering a different world. There was an instant deterioration of the roads, thatched huts replaced the brick houses of Assam, and military roadblocks and patrols made me feel that I was entering occupied territory. As I bumped and rattled over a jungle track to the town of Mon, the stunning beauty of the lush green hills swathed in mist could only temporarily divert me from an overall feeling of eeriness and unease due to the tales I’d heard of rebels, drug traffickers and rogue Indian army units that were apparently somewhere out there. Things were not made easier by the confused, hard stares of the few people I passed, seemingly shocked to see an outsider, and the fact that a lot of the men had locally-made rifles slung casually over their shoulders.
First impressions can be deceptive though and in fact the next days brought me into contact with some of the most open, hospitable, and good-humoured people I’d met on the journey. I passed two nights with a Naga friend of a friend in Shiyong Village learning about the area’s history and culture. Then, on the day I intended to travel from Shiyong to Kohima, I was treated to the most abysmal “road” of the trip which ended up defeating me. Almost immediately I was taken in by an old couple and their daughter in the tiny hamlet of Tamlu. They dried my clothes around the open fire and insisted on cooking me a hearty meal while urging me to “write a letter to the King of England” once I got home, drawing his attention to the cause of Naga independence.
As I crossed from Nagaland into Manipur, I knew that now I really did have a reason for concern. This is arguably India’s most dangerous state with regular blockades, hold-ups and robberies, carried out seemingly as much by rogue police units as by the rebel or criminal outfits for which it has become notorious. Getting to the Myanmar border meant I had to drive down the notorious Highway 39, or the Highway of Sorrow as the Times of India likes to call it. A couple of buses had been held up on this road the night before but I hoped that, it now being a Sunday afternoon, the bandits might just be napping. This indeed turned out to be the case but as I got closer to the state capital of Imphal, the army presence increased and a couple of times I had to pull over as an armoured car complete with goggled machine gunner gesturing out of the roof came roaring up the other way escorting some senior government official or VIP.
Next morning I set off towards the Indo-Myanmar Border. This frontier has been closed to independent foreign travellers for several decades and even locals are only allowed a day pass to cross that restricts them to the town immediately over the fence. I had however managed to secure special permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Nay Pyi Taw to cross, although it took some effort to convince the Indian army of this and to persuade them to escort me through their encampments to the old iron bridge that joins the two countries.
And so I finally rattled across my last border to find a smiling immigration officer standing waiting for me on the other side, immaculately turned out in an all-white uniform. His stern expression broke into a broad smile as I pulled up and he let out an enthusiastic “Mingalabar!” A very thorough but friendly immigrations and customs session followed before the local police escorted me to my hotel for the night.
The next morning I set off into uncharted territory, on the empty but perfectly surfaced road built by the Indian Border Roads Organisation, meandering through quiet fields and rice paddies and crossing an interminable number of wooden and iron bridges that ranged from the benign to the terrifying. Some time after crossing the Tropic of Cancer, I reached the small river-side town of Kalewa and, with my levels of adventurous spirit now reaching new and unreasonable highs, attempted to get the bike on a cargo boat to head down river. I was intercepted by the local constabulary however who insisted that this was not going to be possible…
Thus the next day I found myself on a 10-hour rocky, muddy haul down towards Monywa. Bumping through rice paddies and across pristine valleys, I was greeted by friendly waves and shouts from the fields. A special mention should go to the barefooted farmer who, seeing me pulled up before a particularly nasty looking waterlogged quagmire, gave a knowing look and then plunged through himself to test the depth before turning to give me a thumbs up and continuing on his way.
After a restful night in Monywa, I cruised along easy roads down to Bagan and, like my arrival in Pokhara back in Nepal, experienced the sudden jolt from traveller to tourist as I was thrust back into a world of chartered coaches and souvenir sellers. The next stop was Nay Pyi Taw which was a little busier than usual with the South East Asian Games about to kick off and preparations in full swing. Having taken the highway for the last 100km or so I had discovered that the allure of multiple lanes, minimal traffic and no obstacles or potholes wears off rather quickly. So, as I continued towards Rangoon, I decided to switch onto the old road. It’s much slower, but also much livelier and I was soon happily swerving around ox carts and bicycles again, back in my element.
And so it was that at sunrise the next day I pushed through the last 50km and crossed Rangoon’s city limits. A heady mix of exhilaration, excitement, disbelief, and relief swept over me. Delhi seemed a world away and yet I’d somehow just connected it with Yangon, mile by mile, town by town. It had taken seven weeks, I’d driven some 8,000km, passed through four amazing countries, negotiated five international border crossings, survived innumerable breakdowns and had even managed to get a year older.
But I’d made it. I rumbled past the glimmering Shwedagon Pagoda and the sparkling Kandawgyi Lake, passed orderly lines of monks off on their morning alms rounds, rounded a last corner and pulled over by a golden roofed temple and silenced the engine – I’d ridden to Rangoon!