On the 3rd of March 2013, it was exactly a year since I wrote something titled “Syria, International Politics and an Indian’s nightmare in Bangalore.” While President Bashar al-Assad gave hints of reform in Syria, I sat on a balmy night in Bangalore, helping out a fellow travel addict from yonder Deutschland (by the name of Lutz) trace out a route from Bangalore to Niederelvenich, Germany – by road and with his newly wedded Indian bride.
Syria was boiling over and, in all its misery, giving a nightmare to a guy sitting in India. I was, at the end of it, able to chart a route for Lutz over Damascus and into the Turkish border, just before the gates closed. And Lutz, after over two months on the road, sent me an email from the comforts of his home in Niederelvenich – “All is well!”
That welcome infection
Until I met Lutz, in a fashion, and helped him over the vast plains of middle earth (quite literally here), I often bragged as being a proverbial vagabond, having travelled long and far myself. His trans Asian-European trip humbled me. I had to take off! Craft my own little silk-route, hippie trail, forbidden path. The Niederelvenich effect still holding strong, I again find myself with the familiar map, customs websites and old contact books, planning the perfect road trip.
Picking the destinations: On cheroots, Wayne Rooney and floating markets
‘This is Burma, it is quite unlike any place you know about’ is what Rudyard Kipling had written.
It is a place where gold Buddhas are still bathed along the shores of the spectacular Bagan, where horse-drawn carts still cart travellers across dusty paths. In Burma, Wayne Rooney is a star and English Premiere League is followed like a religion, and with so much gusto that the toothless cheroot stained gums of old men put the pale skinned “bugger” lobbing English brats to shame. Kipling, when he linked Burma to sultry but exotic heat, over four thousand gleaming stupas and tragedy of love, unwittingly bought me a ticket that I now cannot refuse. But my destination is beyond.
Bangkok is Thailand’s brave new face, something I always describe as a crazy confusion made up of screaming traffic, shiny new multiplexes, and cosmopolitan colours mixed with devout Buddhism. Not too far away, in the context of things, is Krabi the beach haven; and just about one hour north of Krabi is Koh Hong or “Room Island” with its towering limestone facades in the sea. The dream is to walk on the white sands of Pelay Beach. Also in the list are the rows of wooden boats carrying fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers and gliding along the inland canals – the Bang Khu Wiang Floating Market of Bangkok. While I am essentially not a stranger to these, they are destinations of this perfect roadtrip.
Since the Trilateral International Highway between India, Myanmar and Thailand is not set to start off before at least 2016, the easy way (if you call over 4 thousand kilometers one-way easy) is out.
Hence, my work started. Numerous phone calls, endless forum discussions, pulling of strings, calls to the High Commissions of four different countries and customs officials.
Here’s the entire picture:
I. The Part in India
This is pretty straight forward. The journey being more important than the destination, the route naturally does not go through the scale measured “straightest” or “shortest”. Starting off at Bangalore, we take straight to the ocean but avoid the clutter of Chennai. The first shores will be the costal township of Kavali due west, while carting over the fields of Kolar while it is still dark.
If you were thinking that being off the radar would give you the first glimpses of solitude, suffice to know that this is not the place. A quick start before dawn should see us covering the seven hour odd journey while it is till the first hours of day. Not lingering here, we’ll need to quickly move on. Due north through Ongole, to Vijaywada over the water of the Krishna river, to hit our first patch of reserved greens, the Alluri Sitaramaraju Forest Area.
There’s this tiny little hamlet of Annavaram right beside the Pampa reservoir that we will driving through. Moving upwards we will come Behrampur and, after skirting the Chilika Lake, to Bhubaneshwar and Cuttak. Enter Balasore. If we make it this far, we will have crossed the first crawl of our trip and will finally be ready to actually start the roadtrip. Uptill now, it should have taken us a little over 30 hours of actual driving time to cover just over 2000 kms. Given approximately ten hours of driving each day (give or take), the journey to the first gates is going to be for three days and three nights.
The next leg is going to be slow but fascinating, we are entering a part of India that is unlike any other place in the country. Best take this sprint in two halves of 6 to 7 hours each. We’ll have to start before dawn and will probably reach the pit-stop late into the night. Straight off Balasore, a few hours’ drive will see us into Kharagpur. Here, it might be a good idea to take a short walk into the Indian Institute of Technology. I have been to many educational institutes but there is something in the air of this place that just implores us to open our minds, learn, do something more than just live out our lives. A sharp right due east from here comes Kolkata.
I have always been captivated by this city. In retrospect, it might be a good idea to camp here. Kolkata will be the last place we will find quality automobile care and logistics support for a long time to come. I have written almost endlessly about the city. If anyone reading this is wondering what to do while catching one’s breath, read: Kolkata Divinities (Or How to Spend the Best Time in Kolkata).
It’s difficult to not linger here, but by now the bug of being on the move will have bitten hard. A couple of days’ rest, a good servicing of the car, refill of portions, and we are on. A short drive of about 7 hours should see us in Siliguri. Depending on the type of vehicle we take, we might be forced for a stop here or move on straight to Guwahati.
Enter the captivating North Eastern States. The drive onwards is nothing like anything any of us would have experienced elsewhere. There is a magical charm in the discipline, but the death-dive cliffs are major killers. From Guwahati to Shillong, my motherland, is a mere 100 kilometers; but the drive is slow, taking 3 to 4 hours. The road twists and turns every few meters and is a constant climb. We will be climbing from 170 feet altitude of Guwahati to 4,990 feet of Shillong in a matter of a few hours!
For someone who has not been to Shillong or is not familiar with this Tolkeinian place, I recommend at least a week’s stop-over. After all, this roadtrip is not about time; it is about the experiences. And this is the first place where one can potentially have life-changing experiences. I must say I am disappointed to say that it is beyond the scope of this post to describe Shillong or to tell you, my constant reader, what to do there. Do read “On Shillong, Meghalaya – a place I Love but Hate writing about” though!
From Shillong, we will be moving on to Cherrapunji or Sohra as we locals call it. It is the rainiest place on earth and the views are going to be absolutely spectacular. From Sohra to Imphal, our next pitstop is just about 10 hours driving time but it will be wise to call it a night in Kohima. As is, the sights, culture and sounds are going to be out this world. Might as well take the time to soak it in.
II Into Burma, through Moreh
//Note: I usually really despise not finishing a blog post at the go. This has to be one of the exceptions. It’s been over a day since I wrote the last words above. This is of course, an attempt of epic proportions!
Time to cross over to newer territories. Moreh, at the moment, is the only point of over-land crossing for non-trade movements between Myanmar and India. As far as I have been able to gather, the crossing is open but it will take a few months to gather all the permits. The main issue, of course, is crossing over with a car. A ‘Carnet’ will be needed, but so will a lot more.
Keeping those aside as being mainly logistics, the route goes straight down till we reach the sleepy town of Kale and take a sharp right to Mandalay – our first major stop since we left India. Even for us fellow Asians, Burma has always remained that secret little cove full of mysteries. You hear old grandfather tales but nothing more. Banking along the sides of the great Irrawaddy River which traces itself like a highway carved right into the heart of the continent, Mandalay holds all the right kinds of promises. The roads are going to be bumper-to-bumper traffic I hear, but not too far off is the spectacular Bagan. Here would be a good place to set camp. The current exchange rate adds some cushion and this would be the place to stock up on some extra fuel.
III The Kale – NayPyiDaw drive
If the endurance and driving skills have not already been put to test, they sure will be as we cross over 45 iron bridges dating back to the Second World War along the route to Kale, and then meander along the spanking new capital of Myanmar, NayPyiDaw.
A slight respite might be the Mandalay-Yangon 8 lane express way. Hopefully, we will be able to make up time by pressing on the pedal here while taking in the country side.
The choice that needs to be made here is whether or not to leave Yangon for the return trip, with a couple of days stop at Bagan with it’s over 2000 Pagodas and temples taking us back to over a thousand years.
IV Into Thailand
Beyond the Myanmar border is a whole different world! I have written endlessly about Thailand and I’ll quote myself – “Thailand is a plethora of exotic temples and ethereal beach-front beauties.” Not to mention, a world very different from the land we will leave behind. I will perhaps devote a separate post about Thailand at a later date. For now, suffice to know that we will come across some lovely highways, a massive variety of food, exotic and indulgent massage parlours and, of course, those turquoise waters.
Here, we might make a call to drive further south to the Krabi Province in Southern Thailand; an archipelago I found to be stunningly elvish (only the pristine speck of land called the Ko Phi Phi Don is actually inhabited out of all the islands).
While I run towards the end of this narrative, I can’t but help wonder how much easier it would have been if the Indo-Bangladesh routes were open. But then again, we would not have had the same experiences, would we!
On the road, the machine and the people:
Overall, we will be covering over 5,700 kms distributed over 90 hours of driving time alone – just one way. On long trips such as these, I follow a few simple rules:
- Drive long, drive gentle, take 3 to 4 days rest between every 30 hours of driving.
- Do not drive overnight, no matter what anyone tells you. You’ll need full 10 hours sleep every night to take you through 10 hours of driving the next day.
- Fluids. You can skip a meal but never run out of fluids.
Considering these and many other constraints that I will not speak of here, the entire one-way trip will take about 21 days give or take.
Unlike what people might recommend, if one has not been on long roadtrips (over 2000 kms one way) before, it will be a mistake to do this in an RV or any other such large vehicle. The dynamics of a caravan-styled vehicle are significantly different from a smaller car or even a spacious SUV.
My vehicle of choice? The small hatchback that has been to every place I have been, a humble looking but star performer Alto K10. Nothing beat’s her peppy engine and “will-go” attitude!
The partner in crime has to be my companion of 12 years and wife for a year now, and our dog Sage. Sage is indeed a sage; hardy, sober and has the endurance of a Tibetan monk.
Every piece of travel writing and every instance of travel owes its inspiration to something. This crazy drive idea had been fostering in my head for a while now, specially after helping out Lutz. However, I needed the right push to do the first level research and jot down the plan for the Perfect Roadtrip. This inspiration came from Indiblogger.in (a lovely community which came as a big surprise to me, to be honest) and the lovely challenge thrown by Ambi Pur India (facebook.com/AmbiPurIndia).
Disclaimer: It is to be noted that this post is an indicative form of writing. The challenge mentioned above spoke of the Perfect Roadtrip Idea. Not all information given here may be entirely accurate as they are based on human conversations and long-distance research. The actual roadtrip will possibly reveal far more details, difficulties and perhaps even deal-breaking obstacles. A map of the proposed route can be found here: View The Perfect Roadtrip: Bangalore to Bangkok, through Myanmar
[PS: For further reading, I recommend the book called "Among Insurgents". American Shelby Tucker and Swedish friend Mats walking across Burma in the 90s. Although the work itself has been sometimes slammed as a "haphazard grab at adventure", the book (also called "Walking through Burma") gives a good account of the journey as they enter the country near Shan and Kachin States from China and exit somewhere into India. Detained by insurgents, caught and jailed in India for a few months, the author of this book give a good idea in what the land was a good few years ago. While the insurgency is subdued if not completely gone and it's no longer illegal to cross borders, the culture has not changed much.]