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.
The route from New Delhi across Myanmar into Thailand and Laos.
The route from New Delhi across Myanmar into Thailand and Laos. 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 the mountains of Myanmar.
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.
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?
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.
The pagodas of Bagan at sunset.
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.
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.
Dumplings being prepared at Inle Lake.
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.
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.
(This post originally appeared on The Quint.)