Morning dawned over the sleepy little town of Kyaikhto, chilly and hazy.
It was too early to be properly awake, but Meenakshi Aravind was up, along with filmmaker Neerav Ghosh and 13 other roadtrippers from India. They had already eaten breakfast and the cars were loaded.
There was a slight nip in the early morning air, but the air of excitement was far more palpable, tinged with a mounting anticipation that was quite infectious.
Today was the day they would make history.
On January 23rd of this year, a crew of 15 and the team from Byond Travel set out on a historic expedition. Their mission: to drive from India all the way to Thailand.
The journey so far had been thrillingly adventurous. Over the past week, they had made their way from green Imphal into pagoda-studded Myanmar, driven across narrow WWII wood and iron bridges, down a 16-lane super expressway, and quiet little villages, and caused a stir along the way – local men, women and children all smiles and waving as the convoy of cars passed by.
And over and over again, pictures from their social media accounts were filled with pictures of them exploring markets, making mischief at Golden Rock, eating crocodile burgers and fried crickets, jokes and laughter everywhere.
But today was extra special.
This leg of the journey would take them from Myanmar, across the land border into Thailand: the much-awaited-for finale. Today, January 30th, it was Bangkok or bust.
It all started with a hankering for Thai food – which may seem a little strange – until you realize that with the (then recent) opening of the India-Myanmar-Thailand superhighway, a plate of Pad Thai was just a drive away . . . technically.
Fuelled by food (not Thai) and sudden inspiration, lunch suddenly turned into a planning meeting for the ultimate road trip.
Most travel sites in India only organize staid Thailand itineraries; cheap flights to Bangkok, cookie-cutter itineraries that usually feature typical cross-off-the-checklist sightseeing tours.
But at Byond Travel, we were used to putting together vacations that were authentic, immersive and unforgettable. The opening of the superhighway gave us an opportunity to combine the signature elements of a Byond experience with the thrill of the open road. We wanted to give travellers the chance to do something fresh, fun, a little crazy, but so much more memorable.
And so, the idea of a roadtrip from India to Bangkok via Myaynmar was formed.
Although similar in sentiment to the great expeditions of old (if you ignore the little things like convenient bathrooms or ATM’s around the corner if things got difficult), this self-drive adventure was a different beast. Running across three countries, it would be epic in the truest sense.
The participants would drive 2500 kms of some of the most challenging terrain they had ever faced in their lives, and along the way, it was a guarantee that they would have genuine interactions with local people, and experience everything from the weird to the unbelievable.
But since no one had ever organized a group expedition like the Road To Bangkok before, every detail of the trip all had to be worked out by the Byond team in partnership with Adventures Overland months beforehand. Each leg of the journey had to be custom-designed by a specialist, the hotels had to be handpicked, and the company also had to arrange for special insider experiences by working with local experts. Byond also had to organize assistance through immigration, all meals, a crew vehicle as well as local guidance and support — and everything in between.
This included organizing the following:
A Toyota Fortuner – for the roadtrippers to drive from Imphal to Bangkok (4 people sharing one car). Refined yet muscular, powerful yet agile, rugged yet comfortable, the Fortuner gives travellers the capability to conquer the most demanding off-road conditions.
A local guide – required to escort the group in Myanmar. The guide needs to be hired from a travel company approved by Ministry of Myanmar Tourism.
A lead car – to head the convoy of cars is required as per the Ministry of Myanmar Tourism.
A special overland permits and permissions, including a temporary import of the vehicles permit to be obtained through a local agent at least one month in advance.
A temporary driving license to drive in Myanmar (as an international driving license is not accepted).
A tourist visa for Myanmar
The Carnet de Passage – the most important document required for this road trip. This customs document acts as a passport for the vehicle and is a mandatory requirement in order to exit and re-enter India. It can be obtained from the Automobile Association of India, upon providing 200% of the market value of the vehicle.
An International Driving License – essential documentation required to identify the roadtrippers as legally-licensed drivers.
Third party travel insurance royalty fee to the Ministry of Tourism
Third party motor insurance in Thailand
A tourist visa for Thailand
STAGE 2: ‘The fabulous 15’
There were 15 roadtrippers.
They came from all over India.
A few were industrialists and entrepreneurs, others were filmmakers and racers.
They had diverse interests and , tastes in music. Some swore by ACDC, others preferred Bollywood tunes, while a few stuck by old country songs.
The one thing they did have in common was the love of travelling by road, and the sense of endless possibility that makes it so much fun, coupled with a drive to leave their mark on history.
Each knew the thrill of following a road through a vast unknown wilderness; of watching the landscape change at every twist and turn, from grey concrete jungles to the rich dark green of sholas; the exhilaration of crossing international borders by car; of stopping on impulse in the shadow of a mountain or at a tiny chai stall in a tiny town, feeling exhilarated, humbled and thankful in turns.
Here are the ‘Fabulous 15’, the first-ever Indians to travel from India-Thailand as part of an organized group trip:
stage 3: the adventure begins
It was about 7:00 AM when the convoy of cars and one Harley Davidson set out from Imphal. Shifting gears, clenching the steering wheel (and one handlebar), the 15 roadtrippers stared at the road ahead – The Road To Bangkok – and began the drive towards Moreh-Tamu, the first border crossing of the journey, to enter Myanmar.
“There’s nothing like the pure thrill of driving across an international border” repeated Tushar Agarwal to Sanjay Madan.
The two travel enthusiasts had driven extensively through Europe and South America. They had created driving records in India – western to eastern most part in the smallest amount of time, and done a Trans-Himalayan challenge as well. “No matter how many times you’ve done it before, it’s still a big high.”
There were similar conversations in the other cars. Borders seem to mark the edge between the security of the known and familiar and the jarring thrill of venturing into an unknown world.
As soon as the convoy rounded the corner and the crossing came into view, the trip leaders got out to deal with processing paperwork for immigration, customs and border regulations. Many travellers have reached Moreh only to be turned away by border officials. But thanks to Byond’s careful preparation, papers were cleared, passports were stamped, and we were through.
It was the first of many triumphs.
The next leg of the drive was slower, but equally thrilling.
The road, often not more than a dirt track was punctuated by over 60 bridges built during World War II all in under 100 kms; some made of iron, others of wood yellow with age, several that were well-maintained while a few seemed held together by duct tape and prayers and looked as if they could collapse at any given time.
As soon as the convoy crossed over one everyone sighed with relief, that is, until the next one appeared ahead!
The next morning, Meenakshi was at the wheel as the roadtrippers headed towards Bagan. They had 12-14 hours of driving ahead of them.
“The terrain changed rapidly after we got off the hills thick with teak trees to a dusty, chalky road, dotted by fields full of sunflower and cotton, and languorous villages. People waved happily and the convoy stopped at places to get pictures. Biobreaks (breaks for nature calls) were plentiful too”, she recalls with a smile.
En route, lunch.
Fuelled up, we carried on.
“Stopping at a rail cross turned us all into children. Everyone jumped out of their cars hurriedly to take pictures of the train.
We waited with bated breath like kids for the train to pass and frantically took photos. The railway crossing had a woman manning it.
The simplicity of the whole thing was quite shocking and amusing.
Back home in India we sometimes wait for quite a while and then a guard does his routine accompanied by signals, sirens, huge gates opening and closing holding up traffic and make such a hoo ha over it.
The woman manning the railway cross disappeared as quickly as the train .Before we knew it she was gone.”
“Bagan was like something out of an Asterix comic” Neerav Ghosh thought to himself as he looked out of the window of his Fortuner as the convoy made its way through Bagan.
Everywhere he looked, thousands of pagodas dotting the plains as far as the eye could see and stupas poking out of treetops; some were ornate, gilded in shimmering gold, while others were made of red brick, simple but stunning nonetheless. Each unique, but seen as a whole, it was one of the most fantastic and at points downright trippy sights on earth.
“It was completely surreal, like we had been transported to an otherworldly fantasy landscape found in comics.”
As the evening approached, the crew clambered atop one of the largest pagodas, armed with cameras, to watch the sun set.
A hush fell over everyone as the sun dipped below the horizon, the last rays flushing the sky a warm shade of orange tinged with pinks, pagodas glittering like jewels in the dusk.
“It was incredible.”
The convoy set off to Yangon at the first blush of day, with a beautiful view of a dozen hot air balloons floating into the sky as if someone had opened their hand releasing the bunch of them all at once.
En route, a stop at a toddy distillation shack. A few of the group were asked to try shots of the brew (With alcohol content of almost 50% and tasting vaguely like a mixture of rum and whiskey, it is a potent drink) ), but even the more ‘serious drinkers’ declined. With over 600 kms to drive, no one even dared touch the stuff.
The drive from Bagan to Naypyidaw was “topsy-turvy in the extreme” says Neerav. “You’re in completely a rural area and then you drive down the road for a couple of hours, turn right . . . and suddenly you’re in the first world.”
Speeding down the 16 lane Yangon Mandalay highway, the contrast between the two cities could not be greater.
Six times the size of New York City, Naypyidaw is a grandiose capital city with more five-star hotels than almost any other city in the world, gleaming new office buildings, mansions galore, megamalls, cineplexes, parks, golf courses and even a zoo with an air-conditioned penguin house.
But as we discovered, even though it has space for up to one million residents, the capital is extremely empty; it’s a relative ghost town.
There were so few people living here that the streets were silent and the highways almost deserted. If we had wanted, we could probably have turned a couple of cartwheels outside the Presidential Palace, or, played a game of football in the middle of the streets.
The super-sized weirdness kept coming.
Lunch was at a restaurant which had an airplane parked cheekily out in front. Apparently, it had been bought by the restaurant owner after it had crashed, and redesigned as a lounge, with couches and coffee tables instead of airline seats. We half expected ‘Ripley’s Believe Or Not’ host Dean Cain to turn up with a camera crew.
Leaving Naypyidaw, we hurriedly hit the road, and cruised down completely alone on the highway at an average of a 100kms . . . only to run into an unexpected challenge outside of Yangon: motorbikes were banned in the city, which left Karl Coelho, the lone biker in the group, in quite a dilemma.
There was nothing else to do but to hire a truck to load the bike onto it, and then drive it into the city… only to discover when the truck eventually arrived, that there was no ramp or any other means of loading the Harley onto it.
Pretty soon a crowd or curious onlookers had formed, and the situation was looking quite grim when a couple of unexpected Good Samaritans wandered by: the local police.
“Would you like to keep the bike overnight at the station?” asked one of the officers.
Never had we been so relieved to hand over a vehicle to the police.
The crew set out at 9:00am. It was a gorgeous, sunny day and everyone was eager to explore the city.
First on the list was the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, and it was like anything we’d seen before.
To begin with, it sits on a small hill, towering (almost 100 metres) over the landscape, so we actually had to climb onto an escalator to get to the entrance.
Second, it was covered in more gold and bling than Bappi Lahiri!
The main central dome alone is plated with nearly 22,000 solid gold bars and encrusted by 7,000 diamonds, rubies, topaz and sapphires. The top of the stupa sparkles with emeralds and 4531 diamonds – there’s even a whopping 72 carat diamond up there.
And since the pagoda contains the relics of Lord Gautama Buddha, it’s also the most revered of all the pagodas in Myanmar. On the day of our visit, we learnt that a holy relic – a bone of the Buddha – from India had been brought to the pagoda for worship, and to strengthen ties between the two countries; a reminder that as a nation, India is still an intriguing blend of smartphones and spirituality.
There was an endless serpentine queue with hundreds of people waiting patiently to pay their respects.
We walked around instead, on warm tiles, stopping to take pictures as we went. Inside, incense and the sound of chanting filled the air, monks clad in burgundy robes and nuns in pink were praying, and devotees were laying offerings of flowers, fruit and miniature silver and gold parasols in front of Buddha statues of all shapes and sizes.
It’s actually too jaw-dropping to describe in words. You really need to see it for yourself.
While some of us were trying to figure out the correct way to walk around the pagoda (for the curious, it’s clockwise), Meenakshi had a particular objective in mind.
“I learnt that there are eight particular Buddha statues located around the pagoda that were dedicated to the days of the week with water jars for each of them” she says. “And it’s believed that for good luck and good health for yourself or a loved one, then you must find the Buddha that coincides with the day you were born on, wash the statue and present an offering.”
“I managed to find the Friday Buddha and offer him my prayers. Friday is the day my daughter was born.”
We spent the rest of the day exploring more of the city, which also included a stop at the Bogyoke Market – the largest in Yangon. Some of us bought paintings while others went gem shopping, as Burmese gems are prized for their quality and colour, especially rubies which are sometimes referred to as Pigeon’s blood.
This morning, to Karl’s intense relief, we picked up his bike near the outskirts of Yangon, where it had been kept for the past two days.
And then, we set off to see the Golden Rock Pagoda. Everyone had told us of this gravity-defying boulder, but no one warned us about what we’d have to do in order to get there.
As a whole, the ride can only be described as utter and total chaos.
First, we climbed onto a ‘mountain bus.’ This was nothing but a truck with benches screwed into the floor, wooden planks for seats and completely open at the top! It was sheer absurdity.
But since there was no other way to get to the pagoda, all we could do was jump in with 35 other people (squished like sardines in a can), cross our fingers, and say a prayer to all of our respective gods and goddesses.
The road was filled with sharp inclines, monstrous potholes, and with enough break-neck swerving and subsequent swearing to make a Punjabi truck driver blush. The guys standing in front with their GoPros were thrown off balance immediately. Everyone else clutched their neighbors, holding on with a death grip for dear life.
Scary, but we treated it like rollercoaster and actually an absolute blast!
Seeing the single, huge granite boulder covered in gold and topped by a stupa was worth all the mini-heart attacks.
Legend has it that the rock is kept in place by a meticulously placed strand of the Buddha’s hair. And if definitely did look as though it was going to topple off the edge of Mount Kyaiktiyo if someone so much as sneezed in its general direction.
Jubilant at reaching the summit successfully, we celebrated with lots of group pictures, jokes and laughter. Unfortunately, this earned us a couple of withering glares from nearby monks, hoping to shame us into silence.
On the contrary, we were invigorated.
DAY 7 & 8
At last, we made for the border.
We cruised down the new Myawaddy-Thinggan-Nyenaung-Kawkareik Asian Highway which only became operational last year, feeling as though we’d taken a shot of adrenaline and alcohol.
The speed, the sun, the sound of the wind through the windows, the road as smooth as glass, the drive had never felt so exuberant. And even though we were miles from making history, the drive felt less like an ambition and more like pleasure.
“Nearly there!” we thought.
And before we knew it, there we were at the Myanmar-Thailand border. It was the last hurdle, and everyone was a bit nervous.
The officers at the crossing were not sure they should let us in.
“Why did you not enter Thailand through the airport?” asked a bewildered lady official, looking skeptically at our Indian vehicles.
She looked at our passport for a long time. “Why are you driving all the way?”
We spent the next hour telling her about our adventure by road, and our mission. We’re not sure how much of it she understood, but luckily it was enough. Just enough.
After another hour or so, filling up forms after forms, and one especially tedious one for the carnet, the trip leaders sorted out the process.
We hot-footed it across the border and quickly parked the cars. The only thing left to do now was celebrate! A bottle of champagne would have been perfect, but we made do without high fives, hugs and laughing. It was pure jubilation.
We drove onto Tak, on roads that meandered through pleasant green hills, for the night.
It was the final day.
Only 500 kms to Bangkok.
We tanked up on everything from miso soup and congee to chicken dumplings and durian at breakfast, and set off. There was excitement in the air, but also a tinge of sadness that our adventure was coming to an end. In all the miles we’d driven, in all that wonder and excitement, there wasn’t a moment when we hadn’t felt like this was the roadtrip of a lifetime.
We drove into the city, and it was time for celebration!
This was the first time an organized group had driven all the way to Bangkok from India, and made history. We did it!