The penultimate leg of the Great Overland Adventure takes our Mercs through South East Asia...
SIX CONTINENTS, 40-ODD thousand kilometres, one year on the road – the Great Overland Adventure has been one hell of an… err… adventure. We’ve taken in some of the most spectacular sights on the planet, piled miles over the most incredible roads, met truly inspirational people, poked around museums, squealed tyres at iconic race tracks, cooked, surfed, drifted, got tackled by football players – it has been a truly epic road trip. Well, that’s what you see in our stories and films, but behind the cameras the bigger adventure has been processing all the paperwork and completing formalities required for the gazillion border crossings.
It starts, of course, with getting the paperwork sorted out right here at home, so that the made-in-India GLA and GL can be driven in 30 foreign countries on the same Indian number plates. For a (refundable) deposit of approximately double the value of the car, the WIAA issues a passport-like document for the car called CPD (Carnet De Passages En Douane) that allows us to import and export the cars across countries and makes customs easier. For countries that don’t fall under the CPD, it’s a bit more complicated. Some allow you to temporarily import and export the car as long as you’re transiting through the country. But all these procedures are quite long and take at least 10-15 days every time the cars land on foreign shores.
A year ago, our journey kicked off with the cars being shipped to Turkey where pulling them out of customs was probably the most painless experience of the whole adventure – it took just half a day. A month later, while crossing in to Africa we missed our scheduled ferry, and the ensuing paperwork delays ate up almost an entire day. At the end of the leg, the cars were packed up for shipping to the USA but because they hadn’t physically left the country, Ouseph and I were stopped from boarding the return flight to India. How the fixer got us on the plane still remains a mystery, what I can tell you is that we had a moment reminiscent of the scene from the movie Argo when the plane took off from Casablanca.
Leg three: pulling the cars out of customs in the USA took three additional days, which were spent taking in New York City (hardly a hardship, I admit). But the real nightmares were soon to begin. We didn’t have the right paperwork for South America, our shooting permits lapsed (which we couldn’t get again) and the logistics crew went mad. Eventually we drove from Arizona down to Mexico and in to Central America.
The seven countries we crossed on the Central America leg, on average, took 12 hours at each border crossing. Except for Honduras, which took 27 hours. Costa Rica took 28 hours and then they refused to let the cars be driven on the road courtesy a new law enforced the day before, banning right-hand drive vehicles. And that meant the great Panama crossing never happened. 27 hours later, at the customs office in David, Panama, the cars were summarily dispatched to the port and onward to Australia.
The paperwork required for Australia took over a month to process, delaying the drive Down Under by nearly two months. And then the paperwork required to comply with new laws in Thailand that came in to effect a few days before we were to hit the Thai border (supposedly to prevent stolen vehicles being imported illegally into the country) drove us to breaking point. The ship carrying our cars was berthed in Singapore and we pulled all the strings we could to have the cars offloaded there (and paid a fine!), called everybody we knew to get the new Thai permits in place, used NDTV’s good offices with our embassies (they were very helpful) and two weeks later drove like mad men from Singapore through Malaysia and Singapore is where our adventure now begins.
Clean as a whistle
The overarching impression about Singapore revolves around the steadfast resolve of the government, as well as its people, to preserve their city-state by being absolutely stubborn about keeping their surroundings completely spotless.
Our first order of duty when we landed in this impeccably manicured city was to collect our cars from the local Mercedes dealership, which was interestingly named ‘Cycle & Carriage’ – named thus because they’ve been in the business of selling cars for decades and were founded as a trading company late in the 19th century. The real shock, however, came when we inspected the cars and noticed how thoroughly they’d been cleaned inside and out. In fact, it must have been a heck of a job to remove the dust of the outback from our two machines. Moreover, we were almost apologetic on collecting the keys since we knew just how dirty our cars would soon be on their final voyage back to their home country – no, not Germany, but India (Chakan, outside Pune, is where these cars rolled off the assembly line after all)!
The other thing that strikes you about Singapore are the food options, which range from finger-licking street food to restaurants that feature some of the most highly acclaimed chefs in the world. Needless to say, the country didn’t disappoint at all in this department. The two meals we enjoyed the most were at a street side Thai joint, as well as the Michelin star awarded ‘Din Tai Fung’ – where the dim sums were absolutely heavenly.
Hitting the road, and, of course, the border!
Having spent a couple of days gallivanting around Singapore’s numerous tourist attractions – including the wonderful Singapore Flyer, as well as a brief spin around the street F1 circuit – it was time for us to hit the road. Siddharth needed to catch a flight from Kuala Lumpur, and since we had to cross over from Singapore and into Malaysia, we started fairly early. But the minute we reached the border check post, it was clear that all was not well. So, our bad luck with borders continued, and while things weren’t as bad as the Turkey-Bulgaria border crossing I had endured last year, we did get delayed by about four hours. However, there was a silver lining – as the delay meant we could catch forty winks and make up for some lost sleep. The Singaporean officers at the border were exceedingly polite though, and that meant the experience wasn’t as bad as it could have been. However, the delay at the border, along with heavy rains – which reduced visibility dramatically, bringing down our average speed – meant that Siddharth missed his original flight and had to catch another one later on. This also meant that we had to make a late night run to the border town of Bukit Kayu Hitam, and reached our hotel only in the wee hours of the morning. Another long day of driving the next day from Malaysia to Bangkok meant that there wasn’t much time to sleep, and we spent a good part of the next day trying to reason with the Customs officer at the Thai border before making a dash for Bangkok. As always, the border delayed us and the 1,000-kilometres of driving on that day meant that we reached Bangkok at about 3am. Thankfully, though, Sirish and Gaurav had already arrived and were well rested for ouronward journey.
Let me say right away that the Thais love their cars. Waiting for our cab at the airport, an Innova – a taxi! – rolls past with a burbly exhaust. Our taxi, a Corolla, has a boomy exhaust and shiny wheels. On the road, we pass shiny Subarus and Evos, Honda Citys with lovely and what I think are factory-fitted sports kits, Jap cars of all hues with big wheels and even bigger end cans, slammed pickups, raised pickups with thousand inch mud tyres, and winches capable of pulling down forests, and more taxis with sports kits. You enter Bangkok and your ears are assaulted by the ubiquitous tuk-tuks that are uniformly driven by maniacal drivers making a rather fine din from their race cans. A 20-year-old Civic passes us, the driver strapped into a four-point harness in his racing seat, the car obviously riding on some sort of race suspension, the bumper almost kissing the ground. In India his car (or he) would be in pieces in 10 kilometres, but the roads in Bangkok – and, as it would transpire, everywhere in Thailand – are fantastically smooth with not a bump or freckle to trouble your vertebrae. If the Thais can make smooth roads all over their country, an elevated expressway leading right in to the heart of Bangkok city, four-lane expressways almost everywhere, why the f*ck can’t Indian road builders do the same? It can’t be rocket science now, can it? (And we do make good rockets, so this analogy probably doesn’t work.)
Anyway, we don’t have permits to shoot in Thailand, all the freaking paperwork and delays meant our cameras will only start rolling once we get to the Myanmar border. So we hustle and head to Mae Sot which is the last big city on the Thai side of the border, over a road that for the last two hours takes us through some lovely mountains in a tropical rain shower that reduces visibility to just five metres. Seems nobody realised we are doing South East Asia in the peak of the monsoons!
It’s quite a busy border, the Thai-Myanmar border, and unbelievably painless too. Half-hour, and we’re done at the Thai side – the friendly lady at the check post even asking me if I’d like to change my visa to a multiple entry one at the office across the street.
“Erm, no thank you.”
And then we are on the 400-metre Friendship bridge across the Moei river where, on the top of the bridge, we cross over from the left side of the road to the right. In Myanmar cars drive on the right, but we will come to that later.
On the Myanmar side, Aung, our guide for the journey has sorted out all our paperwork, a dozen officials descend on the car taking pictures of god knows what, Thai permits are removed from the windscreen and replaced with Myanmar permits, we are handed temporary Myanmar drivers licenses (valid for a year), our passports are stamped, pictures taken and with some more pictures with all the border officials we are waved through.
Myanmar, here we come!
Left, right, what the hell
Turns out the Burmese are really superstitious. In 1962, the military dictator Ne Win decided that cars should drive on the right side of the road. There are two versions to this story – one that he was advised to do so by his astrologer, the other that he wanted to banish all memories of Burma’s colonial past. In all events, traffic moved to the right but they continued to import right-hand drive cars.
The thing is, this entire region: India on the left, the ASEAN nations below and to the right, and then Japan, are all RHD markets and in the absence of any car manufacturing industry the roads are full of RHD Jap cars and pickups. Even the Chinese pickups I saw were right-hand drive. It’s only in the main cities that I saw a few LHD cars (a black G 55 AMG and a blue GL 63 AMG – I kid you not!) and on the highways quite a few Tata Xenons used by the military (India exports left-hand drive pickups to Myanmar). So, in Myanmar, you drive on the right side of the road in right-hand drive cars. Imagine trying to overtake! You have to rely on your passenger to check for oncoming traffic and then make a pass. It’s really quite mad.
The Burmese do make life easier though by being incredibly polite and courteous. They use their indicators like we do, indicating left to pass from the left, indicating right to stay in your lane. And so we start our drive through Myanmar, on a lovely dual carriageway that snakes through the mountains and cuts across vast swathes of paddy fields. It’s a road that falls under the Great Driving Roads category, except our joy is short lived and in 60-kilometres we hit a narrow, bumpy, single carriageway that will stay with us for the next few days.
In places the road is so bumpy and broken that we average just 40km/h for the next few hours and reach Mawlamyine late in the evening – a city where Rudyard Kipling wrote his famous poem The Road To Mandalay, in 1889.
‘By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she think o’me;’
I’m sure a lot of you have sampled the Burmese Khow Suey you get in South East Asian restaurants in India. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any as it’s a dish found in the Northern provinces. A typical highway dhaba lunch is a buffet: you sit down and your table is piled up with bowls of veggies, the meat you want (always cold, don’t know why), soup (always, with every meal) and rice (lots of rice!). Go to a nicer restaurant and you get fried rice with chicken, pork or beef and that’s what the crew survived on for the week, served with a rather lovely chilly-vinegar-garlic accompaniment. There’s also Burmese prawn and chicken curry with potatoes that turned out not to have much curry in it and was never ordered again.
Since I eat everything apart from raw tomatoes, travelling for me means sampling local cuisine (Snakes? Crickets? Duck web? Bring it on!), but there’s only that much fried rice you can eat and very soon we started hunting for restaurants serving Thai food – which turned out to be much, much better. My favourite, Tom Yum prawn soup, ended up giving me a horrible allergy that made my face unrecognisable by the end of the journey, even requiring a sack of tablets and a syringe stuck into my backside. I wasn’t laughing at the vegetarians for the rest of the trip…
The price of war
My granddad’s first posting was in Yagon, or Rangoon as it was then called. He had just completed his radio engineer’s course from Karachi and was sent to Rangoon (that itself must have been an epic trip; shame there were no car, or rail, magazines back then documenting such stuff) to report on a merchant ship. The first ship he boarded was torpedoed and they were evacuated back to port. The second ship got bombed and they rowed lifeboats back to port. Tapping out the SOS Morse code must have come naturally to him when the third ship also went down. He spent a month in Rangoon, at the height of WWII, in a country that would soon be run over by the Japanese in the bloodiest battles of the great war, watching a Waheeda Rehman movie – the same one – every single night. The unimaginable human cost of the great wars are memorialised in the Taukkyan war cemetery, where a gut-wrenching number of grave stones are marked ‘Known Unto God’. The memorial itself is made up of pillars on which are inscribed the names of the sailors, soldiers and airmen who laid down their lives so that we may now live in peaceful times. I must reproduce the inscription in the rotunda:
‘Here are recorded the names of twenty-seven thousand soldiers of many races, united in service to the British crown, who gave their lives in Burma and Assam but to whom the fortune of war denied the customary rites accorded to their comrades in death.’
Pagodas, pagodas, pagodas
The Burmese are very, very religious. Very courteous too. Everybody, even the toll-booth attendants, hand you money with two hands. And they build pagodas and temples everywhere, most with the spires painted in gold colour. Drive through the countryside and you catch sunlight glinting off the myriad pagodas up in the mountains. Very frequently you pass huge Buddha statues. It makes every drive so beautiful.
The most famous pagoda in Myanmar is the Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon. Story goes that two brothers, merchants, were in India and met Lord Buddha just after attaining enlightenment. They wanted to worship him back home and so Buddha gave them eight strands of his hair, and that’s supposedly buried under the Shwedagon Pagoda. Of course the pagoda was never so high, the first one was just nine feet but kings over time build bigger and bigger Pagodas, never demolishing the original but building over it, and what we now see – the fifth structure – is 99-metres high. And is decorated with gold leaf! It is said that in the day you can’t even look at the pagoda, there’s so much gold on it, and on the top there’s a little golden umbrella that contains gold, jewels and thousands of diamonds (that the Brits didn’t make away with this loot is a mystery to me).
Interesting fact: the Burmese are named after the day they’re born, no surname or anything like that, everything revolves around astrology. Coinciding with the eight planets around earth their week has eight days. So where do they get the eighth day? Wednesday! You have a Wednesday morning and Wednesday afternoon, and being born on the former is said to be particularly lucky. They also have an animal corresponding to each day. Wednesday morning is an elephant with tusks, Wednesday evening is an elephant without tusks, and depending on the day you’re born you go and pray to the shrine built for that day. The temple itself is full of mini temples to Buddha – building a pagoda is considered an offering – but I’m sure they’ve put a stop to it as there’s no place for any more pagodas inside the main complex. That said the entire temple complex gives you a lovely sense of serenity and divinity, helped in huge measure by the surprising lack of crowds that contrast remarkably with the traffic that is an absolute nightmare. Yangon may no longer be the capital of Myanmar but it is the most important city and traffic is impossible. And that’s despite bikes, or to be precise the step-thrus that buzz all over South East Asia, being banned in Yangon (story goes that a bike hit a General’s car and he got pissed off).
No matter how well travelled you might be I guarantee you haven’t seen anything like this. I’ve seen all kinds of cities, all kinds of roads in my journeys, but nothing like Naypyidaw and the 20-lane road.
So it’s said that the Burmese generals (the country has been ruled, rather firmly, by the military junta, and only recently were democratic elections held) wanted to build a capital that would be safer for them than the crowded seaport that is Yangon. Using (what is claimed to be) forced labour they built a new capital inland, half way between Yangon and Mandalay. And what a capital it is!
The Chinese, famously, build infrastructure that can sustain growth for 10-15 years. This capital has space and roads for 50 years. It’s spread over 4,800 square kilometres – that’s six times the size of New York City. The population is claimed to be 1 million but that’s an obvious stretch as we saw barely a car on the road. It’s so vast that the hotel we stayed in was five times the size of the sprawling Jaypee Greens hotel built to accommodate the entire Formula 1 circus when they came to India. And that’s one of over a dozen equally expansive hotels, spread over the 20 square kilometre hotel zone that included a Kempinski. Apart from eight Russians and 80 staff, we were the only guests in the hotel!
We went to the main mall, admittedly at 11am on Sunday, and there was nobody in there apart from a sizeable staff. When we left an hour later there was one car parked outside. There’s so much space in the city that between the main temple (a replica of the Shwedagon Pagoda) and the city centre are hectares of rice and banana plantations. The roads around our hotel were two lanes, which widened to four and then six lanes as we got to the heart of the city that has some grand (in size only) buildings housing the central bank, a museum, the mint, archives and some ministries spread out over miles. You completely forget that you’re in one of South Asia’s poorest countries (maybe that’s the idea?). The roundabouts have neatly pruned flowerbeds and a giant lotus in the centre. It’s all immaculately maintained, for god knows who.
And then you stumble upon the most astonishing sight you’re ever likely to see.
Go around another lotus-embellished roundabout and the road divider disappears. For a moment you’re completely disoriented, WTF is the only thing that comes to a blank mind. There’s just a yellow line separating the two sides, and after many attempts you realise there are a total of 20 lanes. And there’s nothing, absolutely no traffic, on the road. We positioned our tripods in the centre of each lane and did passing shots of the cars and not once did we come in the way of any traffic. The Top Gear television show did a drag race on this road, and played football, and I can tell you they didn’t need to close the road as there’s nothing that will come in your way. Except, maybe, a 737 landing to evacuate Parliament. Well, that’s the rumour – that the generals built this road so that, in an emergency, a plane could land on this road and have the entire administration airlifted.
Of course, they also had to build roads connecting Yangon to Naypyidaw and onwards to Mandalay. So military engineers using (again, claimed) forced labour threw down an expressway connecting these cities, except the Burmese don’t know how to make roads. We complain about our roads being bumpy, but this expressway is mad bumpy. It is two lanes each side, but two surprisingly narrow and tight lanes. At night, it’s pitch dark but the odd broken down or parked car or bus doesn’t pull off the road so you’re guaranteed to have a heart attack. And there’s no concept of banked corners – all of the corners come up at you suddenly, and are so sharp that at 80km/h you’re squealing tyres. It has obviously led to many accidents, but calling it the ‘death highway’ is probably a bit of an exaggeration. Drive sensibly, stick the GL in Comfort mode, and you make very good time.
The expressway is also very uncomfortably deserted. There’s only one rest and fuel stop on the 325-kilometre expressway stretch between Yangon and Naypyidaw. Called ‘Feel Express’!
One lakh forty thousand bucks
That’s what I spent on a doctor in Mandalay. 1,40,000 Burmese Kyat, that’s the equivalent of 125 US dollars. The Burmese currency is heavily devalued, almost nowhere are credit cards accepted, and we were roaming around with wads of bank notes stuffed in our pockets and bags. Expressway toll? 5,000 bucks. Dinner bill? 4,50,000 Kyat. It gave us minor heart attacks, but truth of the matter is that Myanmar is actually very inexpensive. Hotel rooms are under 50 US Dollars, and that’s nice resorts. Each meal was the equivalent of 300 Indian rupees. You really must go before they realise what things are worth elsewhere!
The most spectacular place you haven’t heard of
Have you heard of Bagan? I hadn’t until I reached Myanmar and was handed the schedule. And that’s ridiculous since this is one of the (unofficial) wonders of the world, right on par with Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu. Spread over a 40-square-kilometre plain are 2,230 temples and pagodas – and unlike the Naypyidaw population count, generous mathematical liberties haven’t been taken here. The Burmese kings considered the act of building a temple a means to earn merit and over a period of 200 years, starting from the 10th century, they built over 4,450 of these architectural marvels. The vagaries of time, weather, earthquakes and raiders like Kublai Khan have left half that number standing, but it still makes for a sight that will stay with you forever.
Half-hour to sunrise. We climb massive stairs to the top most level of one of the taller pagodas. There’s a layer of mist shrouding the valley, you can barely make out the tips of the hundreds of pagodas around you. As the skies brighten the spires pick up the light, the 170-foot high, gold-tipped pagoda of the Ananda temple glints magnificently. The mist still hangs to the ground and the spires seem to be floating on clouds. And then as the sun rises, the mist lifts and the temples are bathed in the soft morning light – temples of all sizes; of different architectural styles, some Indian, some Chinese; the odd gold-tipped spire; intensely beautiful brick and stone edifices built by pious, devout and what surely must have been peace-loving kings. To the North, the mighty Irawaddy sighs across a lazy bend while outrageously fluffy clouds frame a brilliantly blue sky. There’s not a sound. We have only a Hungarian duo for company; they’ve been cycling around the world for the past 3 years, living on 5 US dollars a day. Even if you’re not a religious person, you pray.
Border crossings were designed by the devil. But in the valley of temples, you find god. And that makes everything worthwhile.
Next month, the GLA Adventure finally returns to India - over the Friendship bridge at Moreh.