India to Thailand, Through Myanmar, on the Royal Enfield Bullet

An Indian Army officer took a quick look at our stamped papers and motioned for the gate to be lifted. Noel, my Aussie riding buddy, and I had left New Delhi a few days earlier on Asian Highway 1, battling northern India’s freezing winter conditions on a pair of kick-start Royal Enfield Bullet Machismo 500s.

Many travellers have made the journey to the border at Moreh, only to be turned away. If the Indian border officials didn’t think you’d be allowed into Myanmar, they wouldn’t allow you to exit. But things are different now. After months of anxious planning and wondering whether to attempt this trip, we were almost there.

(Photo: Google Maps)

Until a few years ago, crossing Myanmar overland with your own vehicle was prohibited. It took some enterprising individuals to sort out the paperwork and convince their governments to open the border and allow travellers to enter.

Riding through the jungles of western Myanmar where the tar road hasn’t reached yet. (Photo: Jay Kannaiyan)
Riding through the jungles of western Myanmar where the tar road hasn’t reached yet. 

Myanmar is now, technically, a democracy. But it remains military-dominated and paranoid about state security. What do secretive states fear most? Independent travellers roaming the country, interacting with locals and reporting to the outside world. As a compromise, overlanders are now allowed to cross the country to Thailand with one major caveat – they have to be escorted by a government officer and a tour guide, along with a fixed itinerary following a pre-planned route. This isn’t my preferred style, but the opportunity to be one of the first to blaze the trail across this ‘virgin’ country was too tempting.

Crossing the single-lane, iron Indo-Myanmar Friendship Bridge at Moreh was a big moment – a continuation of my round-the-world journey without needing to take a flight.

The enigmatic plains of Bagan with pagodas from a thousand years still standing. (Photo: Jay Kannaiyan)
The enigmatic plains of Bagan with pagodas from a thousand years still standing. 

The western part of Myanmar is quite remote compared to the south and the east. With no tar roads until a few years ago, there were many tales of notorious mud jungle roads that mired vehicles. But the Indian government, in its bid to open trade with Myanmar and counter China’s influence, surfaced a 160 km-long road from the border to Kalay.

However, any chances of making quick time were ruined by more than a hundred narrow wooden and iron bridges. Some were well-maintained, but others resembled those I’d traversed deep in the Amazon with missing planks and exposed nails.

 Crossing over a hundred wooden bridges in remote western Myanmar. How good is your balance? (Photo: Jay Kannaiyan)
Crossing over a hundred wooden bridges in remote western Myanmar. How good is your balance? 

 

We made it to Kalay in a day, then set off for Mandalay. The tar surface disappeared within a few kilometres, revealing baseball-sized rocks jutting from the hard-packed mud.

Our Bullets bounced about and just like in the Amazon, when trucks inevitably came from the opposite direction, the road’s fine clay dust enveloped us, drowning our senses for several seconds and leaving a powdery residue everywhere. But in this primitive landscape, riding through virgin jungles, we were in adventure riding paradise.

Down the Irrawaddy River lay Bagan, Myanmar’s tourist Mecca and a place to marvel at the imperial legacy from the Eleventh Century. Thousands of pagodas dot this plain, many covered in gold leaf. Its grandeur is intense, emotional and deeply personal. As we caught the sunset that evening from atop one of the largest pagodas, spontaneous applause broke from the crowd when the last ray disappeared beyond the horizon.

 (Photo: Jay Kannaiyan)
The temples of Bagan.

The next day we headed east and the road twisted tightly up and over the Shan Hills. Bullets are low on horsepower, but their balanced chassis makes for nimble cornering. Going uphill, sliding our butts off the seats, and leaning into corners is a movement every biker learns to love, even if the Bullet wasn’t designed to be ridden like a sportbike.

Back over the Shan Hills and we entered Nay Pyi Taw, the new capital built 10 years ago. Like most planned capitals, this one feels sterile, filled with wide, multi-lane concrete roads almost entirely devoid of traffic. We were left stunned by a 20-lane road in front of the parliament building. Ten lanes each side, with no cars. A sad demonstration of showmanship – no doubt a venue for military parades intended to signal the government’s disdain for Western sanctions – instead it remains a monolith of Myanmar’s squandered fortunes.

(Photo: Jay Kannaiyan)
Fisherman on Inle Lake.

Bikes are banned from Nay Pyi Taw’s modern four-lane concrete highway to Yangon and they’re not even allowed into the city, so we had to park them at the city’s northern edge from where we caught a van and made it just in time to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda.

Over 325 feet tall, covered in gold leaf, with endless candles lit by chanting devotees around its base, the pagoda possesses an immense spirituality. We said a customary prayer, walked around the base and then headed to 19th Street in Old Town for a night of barbeque meats and cold beer.

(Photo: Jay Kannaiyan)
A typical lunch in Myanmar!

After fetching our bikes the following morning, it was a leisurely ride east to Kyaiktiyo. Here we took the hour-long steep uphill climb in the back of a truck to Golden Rock – a massive boulder impossibly balanced on the edge of a cliff, covered in gold. When the sun came out from behind the clouds and lit up the rock in all its golden radiance, it was almost enough to make me a believer.

On the last day, we crossed the Dawna Range to reach the Thai border. And, just like in the far west where the road is yet to be paved, Noel and I had one last hairy ride. From Hpa’an, the road east is laden with trucks and tourist buses. This deteriorated road gave us a bone-rattling ride, which worsened in the mountains, becoming a gnarly off-road track filled with giant potholes. We charged up along the sides of minibuses, tankers and trucks – not lingering on the cliff edges longer than necessary.

Long boats on Inle lake where the locals have created a thriving economy whilst living on the lake. (Photo: Jay Kannaiyan)
Long boats on Inle lake where the locals have created a thriving economy whilst living on the lake. 

 

 

This thrilling ride made for a fitting end to the journey through this adventure rider’s paradise. We reached the Thai border at Mae Sot and after bidding farewell to our escorts whom we’d befriended over the past ten days, we exited Myanmar.

Noel and I high-fived as we realized we were among the first riders to cross this wonderful country from India to Thailand – and on Royal Enfields!

What a stunning country to experience on a bike. If you would like to do this, get in touch as I’m organising another ride across in a few months.

 Successfully entering Thailand at Mae Sot after crossing the length of Myanmar. (Photo: Jay Kannaiyan)
Successfully entering Thailand at Mae Sot after crossing the length of Myanmar!
 (This post originally appeared on The Quint.)

Transcon: Golden Rock and Batman in Myanmar

Our journey through Myanmar is nearing its end but there’s no dearth in amazing experiences. A short ride from Yangon is Kyaiktiyo from where we had to leave our bikes and jump in the back of a truck for a steep and twisty climb up a mountainside to see the Golden Rock. It’s a geological wonder that this huge boulder stays balanced on the cliff edge and it’s been a holy Buddhist site for over 2,000 years with interesting legends on how the boulder got there. They’ve painted it gold now and devotees, including Noel and I, continue to stick gold leaf stickers on it.

Another short day’s ride and we are in Hpa’an now, our last stop in Myanmar. This is a sleepy little town surrounded with some stunning limestone cliffs. There are lots of caves in those cliffs and lots of images of the Buddha in them but I was more intrigued by the Bat Cave. No, Batman was not there but there was a man who lived in front of the bat cave so I guess he could be Batman 😉 At precisely 5:30 pm, as Batman said, the bats rushed out for their nightly feeding. It’s quite a site to see hundreds of thousands of bats rush out, form emergent bodies in the sky and fly off. Batman, an 80 year old Burmese, was running an operation of extracting all the guano, bat droppings, as the nitrate can be used as fertilizer or gunpowder.

We ended up at a local eatery for a taste of the regional Kayin food. Burmese food is really delicious and it’s balanced with a lot of simple, boiled and salted veggies to deep fried pork and succulent duck. We even had a bowl of lentils as soup. I think I would like to spend more time here and get deeper under the surface of this country that has just recently opened its doors to outsiders.

We head for the border with Thailand today. See you on the other side!

Riding in a truck to Golden Rock
Riding in a truck to Golden Rock

Golden Rock, Myanmar
Golden Rock, Myanmar

Golden Rock
Golden Rock, Myanmar

Batman in Hpa'an
Batman in Hpa’an

Bats in Hpa'an
Bats in Hpa’an

Transcon: Inlay Lake, Nay Pyi Taw and Yangon

We swapped our bikes for boats for a day on Inlay Lake, an impressive sight as we started out in the thick early morning fog. There were fishermen using a leg-rowing technique, farmers who have made the seaweed into floating gardens for vegetable production and weavers using lotus-fiber to create some fine scarfs. Myanmar people seem to be quite resourceful in using what they have to make the most of it. I guess living under self-imposed isolation for decades can engender that.

From there we rode back over the Shan Hills down to the brand new capital city of Nay Pyi Taw, which is covered in concrete, from the roads to the grandiose lotus flower sculptures in the roundabouts. In front of the parliament house is a 20 lane road. Yes, 10 lanes each way. And it was empty. But on the 2 lane roads, traffic was packed 😉

It was a straight shot south to Yangon, or Rangoon as it was known earlier, the biggest city of Myanmar and motorcycles are banned from entering the city. We parked outside the city limits and took a drive to the grandest pagoda of them all, Shwedagon. It is said to have started out in the time of the Buddha, 6th century BC, and has slowly grown over the years to now be 100 m tall. And it’s covered in gold. They say now it probably has about a 100 tons of gold, which has been donated by the people of this country. That says something about their real wealth. We ended the night with some BBQ on Nineteenth Street, a popular eating joint in Chinatown and got a flavor of the old Rangoon.

Leg rowing on Inlay Lake
Leg rowing on Inlay Lake

Lotus-fiber scarf on Inlay Lake
Lotus-fiber scarf on Inlay Lake

Empty concrete roads of Nay Pyi Taw
Empty concrete roads of Nay Pyi Taw

Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon
Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon

19th Street Yangon Chinatown
19th Street Yangon Chinatown

Jammin South to South East Asia – The Start

Now that we’re safely into Myanmar, I can reveal what this ride is about – Welcome to Jammin South to South East Asia! We’re riding a pair of Royal Enfield Bullets from India through Myanmar and Thailand into Laos. Even though we had all our papers, we weren’t sure we could cross the border but that’s all behind us now and we’re off exploring a new country 😀

Epic day of riding from Kalay in the west, up and over the Chin Hills of the Arakan Mountains down into the Irrawaddy river basin and into Mandalay – a name that evokes a sense of a far-off place that is today a bustling city. The Arakan Mountains are covered in dense rain forest and we’ve timed it to be here in the dry season, which also meant lots of dust. The scenery is stunning; huge trees, green carpeted hills, lots of rivers and beautiful little villages with stilt houses.

Our Bullets make their presence known with their loud thumping and people wave and smile and are amused to see us trundling up and over the bumps. The bikes are doing great and Noel and I are gaining strong right legs with the hefty kicking these bikes need to get started. We have a long journey ahead and stay tuned as the adventure unfolds…

Rivers near Kalay
Rivers near Kalay

Wooden bridges of Myanmar
Wooden bridges of Myanmar

Riding the Chin Hills of western Burma
Riding the Chin Hills of western Burma

So much Burmese food!
So much Burmese food!

Beautiful riding in the Arakan Mountains
Beautiful riding in the Arakan Mountains