This is the first time that we have travelled in a group since our Bhutan adventure of 2009. The difference was that our 2009 group came together for the specific aim of riding in India and Bhutan and then returning home. Half of the current group have travelled together through China from Kyrgyzstan to Nepal via Lhassa. Others, including us, made their way overland from Europe to India to join up in Imphal. We all like to travel as individuals, or a couple on our case, coming together with others and riding with them for a few days or weeks as long as our respective interests and plans dictate, so it will be interesting travelling in a group for 11 days.
Our group to travel through Myanmar consists of 11 people including ourselves, all with varying degrees of long distance motorcycle experience, but in all cases a lot more than us. Our origins are:
Australia: Dave, Anne and myself
Germany: Rolf and Jochen
Great Britain: Ian and Dan
An early start sees us at the Imphal hotel at 06:45, ready to ride to Myanmar. After 3 days of rain and now seeing the sun peeping through the clouds, it is good to be back on Streak and Storm. With our nine travelling companions for our journey through Myanmar, some of whom we had already crossed trails with in West Bengal and Assam, we travel quickly out of Imphal, weaving in and out of small mopeds and motorcycles as our convoy headed south east. The first 40 kilometres fly by as we have a straight road in good condition. What catches our attention is the number of soldiers stationed along the roadside. In some cases only 100 meters apart on either side of the road. They provide security for this road from the various separatist groups which, from time to time, have undertaken attacks and kidnappings. I know little about it, and am not even sure of the current threat state in the area, but we do know it is a volatile area where attacks do occur.
Then the twisty bits, or ‘curlies’ as someone named them, start. They are wonderful, left and right, we turn, climb and descend, narrow but perfect motorcycling road. We then start to encounter roadblocks, some we can merely wave as we ride pass, the more serious ones we are flagged down and have the passport checks and the obligatory entry of our details into yet another ledger that will be stored for posterity. At sometime in the future, if all these ledgers are ever studied, they will give in tedious detail the comings and goings of 21st Century India. Apart from record keeping, the manual nature of systems here means that no additional knowledge and value can be garnered from the millions of ledgers that must exist around the country.
We are required at one army checkpoint to open our laptops or iPads so they can check our pictures for any we may have taken of sensitive Indian government installations. This is highly impractical as we all have thousands of photos from months of travelling. Another archaic rule that would not apply if we flew in or out of India.
We arrive at the border town of Moreh and while we have our details entered into yet another ledger we find we have overshot the immigration office, which is back in town. Garth volunteers to take all our passports to get the appropriate exit stamp. Garth heads off back to immigration as I play soccer with the local kids. This only lasts five minutes as I run out of puff. I notice that below us on the hill is a second road that bypasses the checkpoint and is busy with local traffic in both directions. An hour passes as we wait, Garth finally returns having spent his time getting the right quality of photocopies of all our passports to the satisfaction of the immigration officer. We will not miss the frustrating bureaucracy and terrible and occasionally senseless driving in India, yet will miss the wonderful individuals we met. At least Anne can continue to stay in touch with our new friends via Facebook, like she has with our friends in Uzbekistan and Iran. We may be back but not on motorcycles – we have survived once, did not enjoy the riding, why would we repeat the experience?
We reach the bridge that separates India and Myanmar which we cross and are welcomed by greetings and smiles. Tin, our cheerful trip organiser is waiting for us. To this point he has been just a name in an email, but now is our tour manager for the next 11 days. We are introduced to our guide who will travel with us for the next 11 days. Tin is efficient and organised, we quickly pass through Myanmar immigration and customs. While we wait, seats are brought out for us to sit on, a nice gesture. A reminder that we drive on the right in Myanmar, which Garth will enjoy as the distance signs are also in miles not kilometres, and we are off for an excellent lunch at a nearby town. We already see the changes from India, cleaner, more courteous drivers and people wave and smile as we pass. We feel straight away that we are going to enjoy Myanmar.
A couple of hours later we arrive at out first overnight destination, Kalay Myo. We are expecting a small guest house given the size of the town, but no, a recently opened hotel awaits us.
This hotel was a surprise, large and well appointed, with staff that listened to your requests and acted on them, such a change from India where you needed to ask for everything three times to maybe get it. With 360 kms to cover the next day, we woke at 5 am for a 7 am departure. We take our bags to the bikes to find they have all been washed. We thought what a great idea, until Rolfe and Joe’s BMW 1200GS motorbikes would not start as they probably had water sprayed in the engines’ air intakes. While the mechanically skilled work to remove water from the bikes’ engines, the slow speeds set off to wait at a bridge some 40km ahead. We follow a vehicle that drives at a pace that does not allow us to leave first gear. I know that we are the “slow speeds” but this was ridiculous. We gesticulate and eventually have to pull alongside to get the driver to go at a reasonable pace.
The roads thus far have been like small Australian country roads, gentle bumps, twists and a few potholes but nothing we were not used to. We have been told that today’s journey of some 360 km, hence the early departure, will include 50km of difficult road, whatever that means, after an initial 140 km.
As we leave the town and start to follow the river, we see the leaves on the road from a certain type of tree ‘dance’ as vehicles go by. Try as we may to capture on photo or video this almost magical effect, we fail and can only give you our written prose on such a beautiful sight A sense that we have not commented on much is that of smell. As we pass some villages a gentle waft of sandalwood smoke fills our sense of smell. It is a glorious smell that will forever give us a memory of clean streets, well maintained gardens, smiling people and green trees. We are able to capture sight and sound, but alas not smell. For this, your will have to rely on my poor descriptive prose. We see our first teak trees, standing tall along the road in places.
All riders soon catch us up at the bridge, the water issue on Joe and Rolfe’s bikes having been resolved. Our first glimpse of mud greets us as we ride off the bridge, then a idyllic valley unfolds before us as we travel south. Jagged hills run parallel to the road on each side of the valley, a river meanders between green fields filled with rice and other crops. Ox carts creak along the road carrying a variety of supplies. The local people wave and smile as we pass. We could have just stopped, setup the tent and stayed a few days had we not been in a group.
Tar finally turns to good dirt and then, for us dirt road riding novices, dirt tracks, broken tar, and potholes. Anne is suffering from a migraine which makes her efforts all the more impressive. We had been told that this is the good section and worse is to follow. This is proving for both of us to be our most challenging riding yet on this trip. Unlike the sections of dirt in Kazakstan which lasted at most 10 km at a stretch, this seems endless and in fact turns out be be 120 km bad section from the bridge. We have put together a short video that we will post separately that shows some of the road conditions we covered. Suffice to say that on the worst sections there was not even time to think about photos and videos. The road surfaces included wet mud, dry mud ruts, gravel, larger jagged rocks, on a twisty and very steep forest trail. The group with us is great and knowing our lack of experience, wait at a muddy crossing to assist us both through, see on the separate video post. Anne and I both have slow speed ‘offs’ (no personal damage done but Anne did have some impressive bruizes and broke her number plate in two) and Anne eventually succumbed to the migraine, heatstroke and exhaustion and had to take a 15km break – swapping places with one of the pilot car drivers. Anne’s first comment on rejoining the group was that she was so annoyed at not having ridden the whole road. She is still disappointed but knows she made the right decision at the time. Many said it was one of the most difficult riding days they’d ever had. All said and done we are glad we did it, but should have been told up front what to expect and plan for. Somehow it helps mentally when you know what to expect, but when the information turns out to be incorrect, it makes a difficult journey even harder.
We finally descend from this tough adventure and with the mountains and bad road behind us start to make better progress but darkness will envelop us long before we reach our planned destination. We press on, but as dusk gives way to darkness, we are still some 150km or three hours short of our destination. Anne and I have always said we will not ride at night and we are reaching a point where further riding will be dangerous as we follow the guide vehicle through the night. A sand patch appears under from under the speeding guide vehicle, my handlebars swing left and right at 90km per hour. Shortly afterwards, as we are both exhausted, Anne and I decide we are stopping for the night. This is purportedly some 100km our destination, or as the guide says just an hour or so. A long a laborious discussion follows, further delaying our riding companions, and only after I speak over the phone to the guides’ manager Tin do we get the ok and the others ride on with the guide vehicle. We are concerned that they are also tired and hope that they will safely reach the hotel. The tent goes up and we have a fine dinner of biscuits and are asleep by 20:30.
We awake to the early morning sounds and the blackness is replaced by a growing band of light that spreads from the east. A red, blue and purple horizon lingers momentarily before the sky fills with light and a new day begins. We have always loved that moment and that is one of the reasons we still enjoy camping, even if the body complains from time to time.
We pack and have been on the road for an hour when we spot the support vehicle coming towards us. They quickly guide us on the last 25 km to the hotel in New Bagan. On the way we see a feast of Buddhist temples set amongst green trees and fields. We are reunited with our travelling companions who arrived safely the night before, but not till 10pm. Their journey took over an hour and a half more than we were told when the guide tried to convince us to go on. We made the right decision to stop last night but the lack of accurate information from our guide increases the risk for all of us. While we are mindful of our travelling companions needs, we will not be coerced into making any unsafe decisions on this trip across Myanmar.