There I was, riding towards a bridge connecting India to Myanmar. It was more than just a bridge over the river. It is connecting the Indian subcontinent that I have been riding across for the past few weeks to South East Asia. Connecting nations of different religions, different food tastes, different facial expressions. It was even connecting honking-infested roads of India to quieter, calmer paths in Myanmar. And it was with a big, happy smile on my face that I rode my motorcycle over that bridge.
The past few days travelling the remote north eastern part of India were tough. Very challenging road conditions, at times described as “the world’s longest pothole” in the state of Manipur. Landslides in Nagaland that made rushing to the Myanmar border even more challenging. Unlike for most other border crossing that I have made so far, this one had a strict schedule attached to it. As per regulations in Myanmar, foreigners who travel with their own vehicle have to be a part of an organized group accompanied by a Burmese tour guide. There are few companies that organize this service specifically for overlanders and, after much consideration and taking into account the schedule, I’ve picked Myanmar Senses agency. Everyone from the group, and we were a group of 6, had to be at the border on the same day. As we stayed in touch before the crossing we knew we are all near the border already - in fact, most of us met up the day before for a beer in the town 100 kms away from the border. Our group of 6 included 2 bike riders from Switzerland and Spain, each on their own bike. We also had an Indian couple riding 2-up on their bike, a Frenchman traveling in his van - and myself.
We all got a bit caught up on the Indian side of the border, trying to clear our Indian riding companions through the customs. After much back and forth we’ve ultimately crossed that famous bridge and right away had a big group hug. All of us had different experiences in India but we were all equally happy to continue our journeys into a new land. In the immigration post - really a tiny hut by the side of the road - our documents were quickly processed with a smile. Thankfully, everyone in our group remembered to arrange the Myanmar e-visas in advance. As we would find out later, it’s very common for foreigners to assume they don’t need any visa at all - which mostly isn’t the case - and then hit a nasty surprise at the border.
This is also where we’ve met our guide Keow. He was a fairly tall man wearing glasses and always having this kind, relaxed smile on his face. It was definitely a pleasant welcome into Myanmar after a tense, unfriendly send-off from India. As we cleared the customs too and headed into the nearby town of Tamu for some errands we quickly realised just how different that land was. It was quiet. Really quiet. The constant honking was gone. The traffic was still moving in a fairly chaotic way but it wasn’t nearly as busy as in India. People curiously smiled at us and gave us a friendly wave. It was just a nice place to be. As we sorted out getting the local sim cards and a bit of the local currency we realized none of us had anything to eat yet. The local cafe offered a simple selection of various kinds of curries and a compulsory bowl of rice to go with it. Keow helped us to navigate the menu and the communication as no one really spoke any English - which was to be expected. Just before we’ve hit the road we filled up the bikes with fuel, assisted by constantly blushing and rather shy petrol station staff. That was beginning to be my first impression of the Burmese people - they are nice, kind, very gentle and a little shy - at least with us foreigners.
We still had a long way to ride that day - in fact, every day - and the time was already past noon. As we left the town, the road quickly became an empty single carriageway, snaking through lush green tropical forest. We would occasionally come across single-lane wooden bridges where the biggest worry was to ride over a nail or a sharp bolt sticking out of the wood. The small villages we were passing through were not more than local settlements going about their usual business. We were curiously glancing around and the locals were equally curious to look at us. At times we would leave the jungles and ride across rice fields with hot, moist air around - it felt a little like riding through a sauna.
As the sun began to set and we still had at least another hour to go, Marvin, who was perhaps the most experienced rider in our group, took the lead. I generally avoid riding in the dark if I can - the lights on my bike aren’t that great, the numerous local obstacles are almost never illuminated in any way. The visor quickly gets covered with bugs so I could barely see the road - and even less so after a full day of riding when the eyes are tired and the vision degraded already. Nonetheless, we didn’t have much choice and eventually an hour and half later we safely arrived at our first hotel.
The hotels are always included as part of the crossing and those were really nice hotels. Or, most likely, those felt that way after the beaten up budget accommodations all of us experienced in India. The twin-share room even had an unlimited supply of hot water in the shower and a working air conditioner - an unbelievable level of luxury. As we were having dinner and beers in a local restaurant and chatting away I thought perhaps riding as a group isn’t such a bad thing after all - even though normally I prefer to ride alone.
The next day was an early start as always, but it was a relatively short riding day - we were trying to arrive early to Bagan, a spectacular place with hundreds of pagodas dotted around a deserted plain. After we checked into our new - even more luxurious - hotel, we quickly jumped in a car and went to explore the sights. It was essentially our only “sightseeing” opportunity in Myanmar as the rest of the schedule was packed. Looking at all those pagodas lit up by the setting sun was a magical sight to behold. As we had our usual dinner and drinks as a group we were joined by Zawmin, the owner of Myanmar Senses. Just as our guide Keow, Zawmin had this gentle warm smile on his face and he was genuinely curious about our experience so far. He was asking questions, looking for suggestions and doing all he could to make us feel welcome. In the end, he also picked up the bill for the dinner and drinks - which just highlights how well he is treating his guests. I knew at the time that I made a good choice when picking his agency to organize the crossing.
We only had 5 days and 4 nights to cross Myanmar as we picked the shortest possible crossing for budget purposes. That is the reason the next 2 days turned into non-stop riding from dawn till dusk. As we were leaving Bagan we took one group picture in front of the pagodas and watched hot air balloons flying over the old town - the world famous tourist activity in this area. Our journey that day took us 10 hours to cover around 400 kms and those were the last relatively populated areas of Myanmar. At times the roads were even dual carriageways with perfect tarmac, a preview of the excellent quality roads we will later encounter in Thailand. Just an hour before we reached our stop for the night, as we were navigating a twisty mountain road, I heard a loud bang behind me and in my mirrors could see Biswajit, our Indian companion, sliding on the road under his bike. The road was a little moist and perhaps had a small oil path on it - so Biswajit’s bike had just slided from under him. We quickly assessed the damage which didn’t look too bad and continued the ride - but everyone in the group began to ride that little bit more carefully and slower. This situation was a clear reminder for us that a nasty accident can easily end our adventure in a second.
The following day was our longest and most intense day of riding. We set off so early that we didn’t even have breakfast in the hotel - the staff had packed us some food to eat on our way. As we were heading further east the sun was rising in front of us over the foggy hills - warming up the road and a gentle breeze quickly blew the fog away. An hour into the journey we stopped for the breakfast near one of thousands of golden pagodas one would encounter in Myanmar. It’s called “the Golden Land” for a reason. After passing through a military checkpoint - that area of Myanmar is considered rather unstable so the foreigners need a special permit to pass - we kept riding the twisty roads going up and down the hills. My arms were getting sore from constantly leaning the bike from one sharp turn into the other, my mind struggled to concentrate being tired by a monotonous, long journey. If only I had a choice to break up that day into 2 I would do so - but it wasn’t an option. We have arrived to our final hotel in Myanmar, a monumental building somehow resembling hotels from countries with communist past or present and catering primarily to Chinese tourists.
There were only 150 kms left to the Thai border to ride the next day but we realized we might have a problem. For a long while Thailand has implemented similar rules that Myanmar has - requiring travelers with their own foreign vehicles to have a special permit and a guide. Thailand being Thailand, however, the rule was very loosely enforced - and that particular border we were to cross was known for not enforcing it. Unfortunately, one person that wasn’t even part of our group officially but was merely added at the last moment initially was supposed to go through a crossing that did require a permit - so he had it. And we suspected when the permit was to be flashed around a question will quickly come up why don’t we have one too. With that in mind we have made a plan for that person to be “delayed” a bit and we would go in front to try and cross the border before he arrives with his permit.
The plan looked good in theory until the circumstances threw a spanner in it and it felt miserably. Just 30 kms before the border Marvin had a bad puncture - and as we got delayed with fixing it the guy with the permit caught up with us. Leaving Myanmar felt sad as we have really bonded as a group and we also liked the company of our guide Keow. The actual border (Mae Sai/Tachiliek) was no more than a short, narrow, chaotic bridge where the traffic also had to change lanes - as its right hand side driving in Myanmar, but left hand side in Thailand.
The Thai border presented exactly the problems that we foresaw. As the guy in our group was flashing his permit around, the officials asked us whether we have one too. We tried to talk our way out of it confidently saying that for us the permit is not needed, which was a complete fiction. The situation has quickly turned into a bureaucratic stalemate. On one hand, they knew that permits were required. On the other hand, they didn’t have any procedure yet to deal with situations when foreigners don’t have one. We were already stamped out of Myanmar - and in fact stamped into Thailand. There was simply no place to “hold” us at the border. We could see the officials chatting to one another and glancing at us, seemingly deciding what to do. My rudimentary Thai skills weren’t enough the catch their conversation so I was trying to figure out the outcome from the facial expressions.
Eventually, a polite and friendly chief of customs suggested that the “permit” rules are to apply, but only from the beginning of the next month. And, as such, we were “lucky” and we can enter Thailand today without the permit. It was essentially a way for them to “save face” and resolve the situation - and it perfectly fit our agenda too. We got our temporary importation papers for the bikes and hit the perfect roads of Thailand leaving the fun-filled rush across Myanmar behind. We would later find out that we were the last ever group of overlanders to enter Thailand from Myanmar without permits. A week later the system was in place for dealing with situations like this which resulted in expensive and bothersome headaches for the travelers.
Myanmar, being a closed country for quite a while, got that really special place in all of our hearts - beautiful nature, very friendly and kind locals, tasty food. The only thing we all wished for was to be able to spend way more time there than our crossing allowed.
The founder of Andalus Moto Rentals, Alex is an avid motorcycle traveler. He started with short classic trips around Europe, explored some of Asian countries on rental motorbikes. He eventually embarked on a solo motorcycle journey from Europe to Australia passing through Europe, Middle East, South and South East Asia.