12 days, 3,800 kilometres and three countries, Shivank tags along with Mahindra Adventure’s first ever India-Myanmar-Thailand drive expedition to get an overland experience of a lifetime.
How old are you?
Well… I’m 27.
What a lucky fellow!
Everybody goes to America and Europe, but not many would come here in their lifetime. And that’s a shame, because what a country this is! Go back and thank your boss for sending you on this ‘work’ assignment.
Had these words been uttered by someone else, I may have taken them with a pinch of salt. But, nope, this is the conversation that I had with a former auto-journo and globetrotter, Bijoy Kumar – or the Chief, as he’s popularly known among Mahindra Adventure aficionados these days (Bijoy heads Mahindra Adventure). The thing that got us talking was the holiest site in Myanmar – the Shwedagon Pagoda. And while I was still marvelling at the sun-kissed, gold-plated architecture, I realised that he’s absolutely right. I’ve been almost too fortunate to have been a part of this epic adventure, which began in the heart of Thailand and traversed through the length of fascinating Myanmar, before concluding in my homeland. The experience of a lifetime indeed!
It all began a couple of months ago when the good folks at Mahindra Adventure called us to see if we’d be interested in being a part of the second leg of its first-ever India-Myanmar-Thailand (IMT) drive expedition. The first leg participants drove 20 vehicles, including XUV500s and Scorpios, from Guwahati to Bangkok, which meant that the second lot was essentially going to bring the convoy back to India. Thankfully, all paperwork and accommodation were taken care of by ex-rally driver Hari Singh and his Drivetech team, which meant that I didn’t have to move a limb to get my visa and travel permissions for Thailand or Myanmar. All I had to do was to show up in Bangkok on the 9th of December, 2017.
I landed in Thailand a day before the drive started, so as to get a taste of the party capital of South East Asia. Of course, when you tell people that you’re exploring Bangkok, their imagination runs wild. However, I had limited time, so all I could do was to stroll through the streets of the city centre. Still, it was a good experience – but not without a bit of a cultural shock.
After my local expedition, I headed back to the hotel for a quick briefing session and to meet my fellow participants. The next day we were to embark on a cracking overland adventure.
Day 1 was an early start – which was to become a norm in the coming days. I got the keys to my car, a Scorpio. After the customary flag-off ceremony, the convoy hit the road in Bangkok for Sukhothai – our first destination.
Although the distance between the two cities is around 425-kilometres, it only took us around 5 hours thanks to the excellent road network. Sukhothai, which translates to ‘dawn of happiness,’ is the complete opposite of Bangkok. Its main highlight is the Sukhothai Historical Park, which houses the ruins of the capital city of the ancient Sukhothai Kingdom. With 193 ruins spread across 70 square kilometres, Buddha definitely takes centre stage. The air here is laden with a sense of spirituality, which is quite surprising. I mean, Thailand is the last place that comes to mind when you think about a spiritual awakening!
Our second halt – Chiang Mai – was 300 kilometres north of Sukhothai in the mountainous region of Thailand. And what a delightful drive it was! The winding roads between the two cities are mostly four- and six-lane highways that allowed us an average of 100km/h. Plus, the clean surroundings, overly courteous motorists and breath-taking scenery only added to the whole experience. After Chiang Mai, the next day we headed further up towards the border town of Mae Sot / Myawaddy.
Thailand and Myanmar have four border crossings, but Myawaddy is the most frequented because of better connectivity. Crossing the border was a breeze, and it only took us less than an hour to clear the paperwork and reach the hotel. I hadn’t even spent a day in Myanmar yet, but the country had already made a lasting impression on me.
First up, you drive on the right side of the road here. Nothing wrong with that, many countries do that, right? Well, yes, but in other countries, it’s backed by logic – whereas in Myanmar nobody knows why this is the case. You see, like all British colonies, Myanmar, too, had a left-side driving rule. But, one fine day, in 1970, the then ruler of the country, General Ne Win, woke up and decided that they should drive on the right. His whim became a decree and everyone obliged. There’s no definitive answer as to why he did that, but one theory suggests that it was recommended by his wife’s astrologer. Another theory says that he had a bad dream, so he changed the law. What’s amusing, though, is that virtually every car in Myanmar is right-hand drive – mainly because they’re second-hand imports from RHD markets like Japan and Thailand. So, you get the picture – it mostly consists of people driving right-hand-drive cars on the right side of mostly single carriageways. How they manage not to have head-on collisions every 5 minutes is beyond me.
Although the law is a bit skewed, the Burmese are, thankfully, a really well-behaved lot when it comes to driving. Not only are they courteous, they also know what side of the road to stick to – even if it happens to be the wrong side. They are at least consistent and predictable, unlike us Indians.
The Burmese are also very affectionate, or at least they appear to be. Everyone you meet is always wearing a smile, which is followed by the greeting – Ming-gah-lah-bahr (Hello). Another distinctive feature of their culture is Thanaka – a yellowish white skin cream. The only debatable aspect is the food. Burmese like to eat rice a lot – sticky rice at that. And, for some reason, no one has bothered to discover curry from their immediate neighbours. Which means they eat it with a watery soup all the time.
After a short and scenic drive through the back roads, we reached Kyaikto. Later in the evening, we visited the famous self-balancing Golden Rock / Kyaikto Pagoda. Although the Golden Rock has a great religious significance, I bet that you’d remember this place for only one thing – a 45-minute roller coaster of a truck ride, which is the sole mode of transport to get there.
Into the heart…
As we reached Yangon the next day, we were told that a couple of car enthusiasts would drop in to say hello. And, boy, did they turn up in style. There was a fully souped-up 2006 Subaru Impreza WRX STi along with an equally mad Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VII. The icing on the cake, though, was a tuned-up 700+bhp Nissan GT-R. Good lord, it produced a raucous soundtrack! What’s interesting is that motorsport is banned in Myanmar, which means that there aren’t any racetracks. And, yet, these guys have insanely fast supercars. Amazing stuff, really!
But what impresses you here isn’t the car culture – Yangon in itself is a pretty remarkable place. Since it was conceptualised and built by the British, downtown Yangon has beautiful colonial architecture. However, it’s the cleanliness, infrastructure, traffic management and the overall upkeep of this city that leaves you in awe and makes you wonder if Myanmar really is one of the poorest countries in Asia.
Up next, we were driving on the fast four-lane Yangon-Mandalay highway. Eerily, they call it the Death Road – owing to the high number of road fatalities. Of course, we didn’t find it dangerous – and managed to easily maintain an average speed of 100km/h. It was a bit bumpy, but not life-threatening for sure.
On our way to Mandalay, we took a brief detour to drive through a purpose-built city called Napyidaw. In 2006, Napyidaw became the capital of Myanmar after the Military government decided to move it from Yangon. Again, there was no clear answer to explain this move. However, this time around, they thought it through and did things properly – so much so that they might have overdone it. For instance, the city centre boasts of a 20-lane highway, four golf courses, huge shopping malls and many fancy hotels. The problem is that despite its larger-than-life appearance, Napyidaw lacks character – it’s a bit synthetic and soulless. More importantly, it lacks one thing that makes a place habitable – human beings! Later that night, we reached Mandalay. We had some sightseeing planned for the next morning, starting with a visit to Kuthodaw Pagoda – the world’s largest book, since it houses 730 stupas with 1,460 stone inscriptions.
Our next stop was Bagan – the land of thousands of pagodas. Despite the fact that it’s a small place with an area of just 104 square kilometres, Bagan is home to over 2,230 pagodas. And if that sounds like overkill, you’ll be surprised to know that between the 10th and 14th centuries the place had around 10,000 pagodas. The reason? Well, back in the day, building a pagoda was seen as good karma, so all the kings built as many as they could. And they were so busy building them that they couldn’t see the advances of Mongol invaders, which eventually led to the end of the flourishing establishments of Bagan.
The beauty of this place is simply majestic. Watching the sun rise or set over the Bagan plains is a surreal sight. With all the pagodas dotting the landscape, and fluffy clouds moving along the changing hues in the backdrop, the whole experience simply leaves you spellbound. If you have a list of places to visit in your lifetime, you must include Bagan in your list. And if you’re lucky enough to be here, don’t forget to take a hot-air balloon ride before sunrise. I missed it because I thought, at $250, it wasn’t going to be worth it. I totally regret that decision now.
Once we left Bagan for Kalay – our final halt in Myanmar – I realised that our time in this wonderful country was nearly over. It was time to bid Myanmar adieu. I already had a lump in my throat.
Happy Endings. Not!
On day 10, we entered India via the India-Myanmar Friendship gate at the border town of Moreh, in Manipur. And five milliseconds after crossing the bridge, the road disappeared, autos and motorcycles came scurrying down from nowhere and suddenly there was a lot of humanity around. We were home.
The last three days of the drive saw the convoy cover over 600 kilometres, starting from Imphal, followed by a night halt in Kohima and finally reaching Guwahati. Sure, the North East is beautiful, but the roads in this part are a nightmare to drive on. Actually, there are no roads – you just drive over potholes and boulders.
However bad the roads had been over the last few days, when I parked the Scorpio and left it for the last time in Guwahati, I was a bit teary-eyed. You see, it had been a wonderful journey. In these 12 days, I had driven over 3,800 kilometres, crossed three borders, experienced different cultures, made new friends, gorged on some finger-licking cuisine and learnt any number of new things. Also, while writing about my experience, I may have ignored the people who were a part of this epic adventure – without their energy, banter, and arguments even, this trip wouldn’t have been nearly as special. For the life of me, I can’t recall a single dull moment during the entire trip. And while I’ve tried my best to capture the essence of the journey, I still believe that there are a lot more stories to tell – which I think I’ll keep on sharing throughout my life.
And, yes, thank you, boss!