Exiting India was not a lesser hassle than entering but after having filled in forms and books with our information and after a few hours wait the bureaucrats were done and we were free to go, free to cross the “friendship bridge”, change from left to right side driving and enter Myanmar, the next leg on our journey.
It promised to be a different leg for many reasons. First and foremost it meant to say goodbye from individual travelling. Myanmar might have opened up in the last few years and since about 2013 it is also possible to enter the country with your own car but this comes with certain limitations; tons of paperwork are required to obtain overland travelling permissions from different sections of the police and ministries all of which is of course in Burmese and thus requires the help of a local travel agency familiar with the process;
the government also requires you to travel with a “liaison officer” (we never found out what he really does other than sitting in the car but it seems he has to make sure that you stick to the pre-approved route) and a tourist guide. Add the tour guide from the travel agency and you need 3 people and a car for the whole journey which of course does not come for free. To split the cost we choose to visit and cross Myanmar in a group as a small convoy. Needless to say that group travel was never our preferred way of travelling and that travelling with a group of individualists can be very challenging for all people involved, especially for the tour guide. Myanmar also promised to be an exiting leg of our journey, in many ways an exotic country just opening up to the outside world and only slowly recovering from decades of military rule (and sanctions) but full of history, culture and beautiful landscapes. Our tour guide Bargyi had prepared the immigration officers on the Myanmar side of the border so that the processing of our 10 passports and 5 carnet de passages only took less than an hour and we were ready to let our small convoy, consisting of two motorbikes, one Landrover, one VW T3 and our Rouletout, roll.
The border area is sparsely populated and after India it came as a refreshing change to see nicely cleaned up villages, almost no rubbish and smiling and waving people at most corners. Of course everybody was curious (especially the kids) to see the white faces when we stopped for lunch or a break but with much more distance than in India.
Some of the villages were so cleaned up that we had the impression to drive through a garden. Traffic is almost non-existent (ok, there are countless small motorbikes in and near the cities and most of them have no idea about traffic rules or don’t even care to look what is happening around them) and the road south to Kalemyo (mostly built by Indians) was surprisingly good. Kalemyo is off limits without special permission but due to our guides we didn’t feel any of that. Our camp for the night was at the bus station and we had enough time to celebrate Berna’s birthday and play with the local kids.
Our guide Bargyi made it clear that the next day will be different, a long stretch of very bad road towards Monywa and he urged us to be ready for an early start - thing that proved to be difficult for our group throughout the whole time in Myanmar for various reasons. We left Kalemyo but somehow managed to loose our two motorbikes resulting in long waits and back and forths until we finally found them again. We enjoyed a typical Myanmar breakfast - some sort of spicy noodles and fish soup - in Kalewa and then we hit the road. Or better, the road hit us as the next 100km or so were really hard to drive. A dirt road covered by centimetres of finest dust, huge potholes and ruts deep enough to even make driving with Rouletout difficult. We crossed a hilly countryside, mostly gentle but at times very steep and stopped quite often to take a break from the rattling and shaking. Closer to Monywa the road got better and after a few discussions our guides agreed to change the planned night stop from the bus terminal to the shores of the river. First Jo managed to get stuck in the sand but after a while we were sitting all together around a nice fire fueled by old engine oil, smoking Shisha and drinking way to much whiskey and beer.
While Bargyi was attempting to get fresh supplies he also managed to dig himself into the sand but Rouletout pulled him out just in time to congratulate him for his birthday at midnight. No need to mention that the next day was tough for everyone - we visited the giant Sambuddhe Ceti pagoda and the huge Buddhas near Monywa and then headed to Shwe Bo. We crossed the Irrawaddy river, visited some local villages and headed for Mandalay where we had planned to stay on a rice field just outside of the city. However, just after having set up camp police decided that it is too risky and banned us into the city where we had to stay on the parking of a hotel for the next two nights. We visited temples, rode through the city on rented bicycles and took a boat up the river to Mingun before we visited more pagodas and the famous U-bein bridge, the longest teak wood bridge in the world. Temperatures reached 39°C and we were happy to reach our shady and nice camp site at an abandoned hotel in Bagan. More than once on our way we saw processions of beautifully dressed families carrying kids on sedans or nicely decorated carts on their way to Shin Pyu (or novitation) ceremony; This is when kids enter the status of monk for the first time and counts as a major event in their life and a duty for almost everyone.
Bagan was the capital of an old kingdom between the 11th and 13th centuries. This was when over 10’000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed in the plains alone, of which the remains of over 2’200 temples and pagodas still survive to the present day. Despite the fact that Bagan is probably the most touristic place in Myanmar the sheer size of the place never makes it a nuisance. We toured the area with bicycles, barbecued our dinner and enjoyed way too many Mojitos (just costing 1$ each). Sunset and especially sunrise above the amazing temples and the arid landscape are breathtaking and made us forget the hangover and the heat during the day.
It was when we were ready to leave Bagan that also Rouletout showed first signs of fatigue. One of the starter batteries lost most of its capacity, probably due to a broken cell, requiring either enough sun on the solar panels or Jo’s help. A help we relied on for a few more times on our journey across Myanmar. It was on the road to Kalaw, shortly after Bagan that a metallic noise under the left side of the cabin appeared from time to time. We had heard it before but on inspection of the suspension and the bearing we couldn’t find anything. We continued our journey, visited Mount Popa - from far a spectacular set of pagodas on a mountain, from close just another set of pagodas and donation boxes - and during a late lunch break we decided to lift the cabin and check if we can find the root cause of the noise. I started pumping the hydraulics and the cabin moved for a few centimetres but then stopped, we looked and wondered, pumped agin, looked and wondered, removed some parts of the front body to better see the mechanism and came to the conclusion that the actual lifting mechanism of the cabin was broken. We recovered some loose parts but without lifting the cabin it was of course impossible to check the impact of the problem. It was a Thursday afternoon in Myanmar and luckily I got hold of my Mercedes repair shop in Germany. After some back and forth they came to the conclusion that it was safe to continue driving, they also promised to send me detailed plans of the mechanism and guidelines on how to lift the cabin without working hydraulics. Half happy we finally had lunch, it was getting late and the way to Kalaw was still far. I jumped in the cabin and the surprise was big - when I wanted to start there was no gas pedal, or better said what was left of it was lying on the floor. When we tried to lift the cabin, the hydraulics drove parts of the broken lifting mechanism through the cabin floor and broke the pedal, full stop for everyone. We dismounted what was left of the pedal, tried to hammer the cabin floor as flat as possible and drilled holes in the 2 parts of the gas pedal to “sew” it with a Dynema rope and glue it.
Thanks to the support of the whole team an hour later we were driving - but slow, the cabin floor was so deformed that I couldn’t push the pedal down far enough for full throttle. Never mind, after a desperate situation we were at least driving, but not before Jo had changed a flat tire on his T3. It was getting dark as we started to slowly climb the last stretch of mountainous road towards Kalaw on 1300m above sea level. Left and right of the road we saw forrest fires, sometimes reaching our road. It was only later that we learned that the government is putting these fires deliberately to burn poppy plantations. After Afghanistan, Myanmar is still the second largest producer of heroin. The next day was a short stretch of route to Inle lake. We first passed at the Pindaya cave - a limestone cave full of thousands of Buddhas and another “money making machine” for the religious elite
before we reached Nyaungshwe at the shores of Inle lake where we set up camp at a nice hotel. The goal of the day was to lift the cabin and check what was really going on so that we could feed that back to Mercedes in Germany before the weekend and take appropriate action. But where do you lift a cabin without hydraulics or a crane? The hotel had a nice and high covered driveway and the main beam of the roof just looked too good to be true for our plans. For obvious reasons Bargyi wanted to get us out of the hotel driveway and tried to find a spot elsewhere. But time was ticking, my remote support at Kestenholz in Lörrach was about to get ready for the weekend and so we transformed the hotel driveway in a major repair shop. The motorbikes were changing tires and preparing one of their frames for welding, the Landrover team was trying to fix a leaking diesel tank and limit the problems due to a broken A-post, Jo was preparing to replace a hydraulic pipe for his engine oil and needed to get his spare tires fixed while I was fixing a rescue belt on the beam across the driveway - not without having a big argument with Bargyi (for the first time I saw an Asian shouting at me but we settled that later on of course).
Using two clamping sets and a hydraulic jack we were able to lift the cabin high enough to get a glimpse on the damage: the bolt linking the hydraulics and the cabin was broken, this was clearly beyond repair for the moment so we removed the moving parts fixed what was still moving but couldn’t be removed and lowered the cabin again - we left it to the team at Kestenholz to propose a repair once we reach Thailand. We hammered down the cabin floor so that “full throttle” was an option again and late we went to bed. Next morning we continued to work on the other cars - accidentally flooded the hotel driveway with a few litres of engine oil - and then left for our boat trip on Inle lake. An exceptionally nice experience if you discount the tourist traps in some of the villages on the lake. We shipped through the floating gardens where locals grow tomatoes, chillies and all other sorts of vegetables, Mutlu decided to go for a swim (how could he know that water hyacinths are floating and not solid ground) and Coco and Oli let their drone fly to give us some spectacular pictures from high above.
A beautiful sunset completed the day and we were ready for new adventures as promised by Bargyi for the next stretch of road through the mountainous region east of Naypyitaw. We had an early start and headed south along lake Inle on small roads through a beautiful scenery - only disrupted by the occasional Chinese financed industrial park under construction - stopped for an early lunch in Pinlaung as the next few hours were going to be without any “civilisation” and then started to enter the hilly region on our west. The roads were small but nice and the countryside was beautiful, from time to time we climbed up to 1300m just to go down into the next valley. On a short stretch of dirt road Oli fell with his motorbike. Luckily he wasn’t hurt but his break lever was broken. Again it took a creative solution so we tinkered a new break lever out of a piece of bamboo and what was left of the original one; after a short while we were driving again.
Late afternoon we reached the main road near Tatkon and made good progress towards Taungoo, our stop for the night. We passed Naypyitaw, since 2005 the new capital of Myanmar. It was built on orders of the military government and is probably a perfect example of failed planning as it is an empty city with 6-lane roads mostly inhabited by military and government officials. The real reasons of why the capital was moved from Yangon lie in the dark. Our next planned stop was Golden Rock, a Buddhist pilgrimage site. It is actually a granite boulder covered with gold leaves and held in place by a strand of Buddha’s hair (so the story goes). Whatever, the drive to Kin Pun Sakhan, at the foot of Golden Rock was unspectacular if we disregard the motorbike that appeared in front of Rouletout in a left turn. We just avoided a frontal crash but the bike with its 2 passengers went down and unfortunately hit Jo. Nobody was hurt but for Jo it meant another flat tire, not talking about the excitement of the situation.
Golden Rock is a shock, in several ways. The small village of Kin Pun Sakhan is a tourist hub. Thousands of Buddhist pilgrims (and very few westerners) come here every day, take one of the dozens (or hundreds?) of trucks that each carry 50 to 80 people up the steep mountain road to Golden Rock at 1100m (the road is lined with stops where you can donate money), walk to the rock/pagoda with thousands of people (again lined with begging monks and huge transparent donation boxes) and a take a truck back down to the village (where of course they have again the opportunity to donate money). For us it was the worst experience in Myanmar and for those that still might have thought that Buddhism is a better religion it definitely proved otherwise - it is also just all about the money. Make the religious elite richer, build more pagodas and bigger Buddha statues with more gold to collect more money from the poor. We just wanted to leave.
Luckily our next stop was all about relaxing, Setse beach at the shores of the Andaman sea. We passed Mawlamyine, stocked up on alcohol and continued to the beach.
We put our cars directly on the huge beach, enjoyed the warm sea, played volley ball, celebrated Jo’s birthday and simply relaxed for 2 days. On the morning of the last day Coco and Oli flew their drone again and we drove back and forth across the beach to take a few nice shots. Our days in Myanmar were drawing to an end. We headed to Hpa An, visited two more cave temples and prepared ourselves for the last stretch of road to Thailand, a road that on one day is open for traffic to Thailand and on the next day open for traffic in the other direction.
The quality of the road is bad and for Myanmar there is a lot of traffic, resulting in several small accidents and corresponding traffic jams. We took it easy, the countryside is nice but only late, at around 17:00, we reached the border town of Myawaddy. The processing of our exit was relatively quick, we said goodbye to our guides and entered Thailand, switched from right to left driving and went separate ways after 16 days as a group.
Thanks to Bargyi and his team from Myanmarexperttours for all his efforts to accommodate all our wishes, thanks to the members of our group for all the technical help, thanks to Kestenholz in Lörrach for the unbureaucratic and timely support and thanks to Myanmar for the nice journey from left to right, sorry, from west to east.