Bagan – The Jewel in the crown of Myanmar is the reason why most people visit this land of Pagodas, which has 4,446 Pagodas spread out all over the town. After our first night at Kale, we started driving south towards Bagan negotiating the hilly terrains and village roads. The drive through the country roads of Myanmar had been warm, soothing, refreshing and stress free. Covered 70% by forest areas, it is not easy to find your way through Myanmar without having a local person to guide you. Thankfully, we had Aung, our trusted friend and guide who was leading us in the escort vehicle as we made our way towards Bagan. A few stops on the way for bio breaks, lunch, fueling or simply a pit stop to take pictures at a scenic spot is how the convoy continued rolling. We may be on a mission to reach London, but going on a 16000 km road trip with 27 people and 13 cars , spending over 7 weeks together, can only be done comfortably when every single person in the group is comfortable…simple logic, right?
By evening, we reached Bagan and all of us couldn’t stop admiring the beautiful Pagodas spread out in all directions. It was my 4th visit to Bagan but there are some places in the world where no matter how many times you go, you keep going back again and again. Fond memories of previous visits to Bagan came back to mind particularly the time when Sanjay and I had visited Bagan in 2013 as part of our round the world expedition. Being on a shoestring budget, we had stayed in a modest hotel but craving for an ice cream took us to an absolutely gorgeous hotel where we had paid the same amount for our ice creams as the room cost of the hotel where we were staying.
“Someday, we will come and stay in this resort Tin Uncle,” we told our coordinator in Myanmar as we admired the gorgeous resort where we were enjoying our ice creams. As our convoy rolled into the resort the following year, we realized that Tin Uncle hadn’t forgotten our wish and had booked us to stay at the same resort during our Road to Bangkok Expedition and also now, during Road to London 2017.
“Till you boys don’t get bored of this place, I will always book this resort for you and your group” he smiled and told us as we hugged him on reaching Bagan this time.
A full day of sightseeing followed the next day and everyone got to experience the beauty, the architecture, the history, the culture and the charm of the gorgeous Pagodas of Bagan. Wearing our tourist hats, we explored the city till evening and went to a local restaurant for dinner which was a popular spot to enjoy the local Puppet Show, a beautiful art that is unique to Myanmar.
There were many things special about this evening. We had decided to ditch the cars and hired a bus to take us to the restaurant and on the bus as Aung was briefing us on the loudspeaker, someone had the brilliant idea to invite Priyanka, one of our participants from Bangalore doing the journey with her husband Nishith, to sing for everyone. She is as beautiful a person as she is a singer. Her voice is not only good for the soul and but also, good for the heart. When she sings, every word makes sense, every melody strikes a chord and with the sound of her voice, she can easily transport anyone into their own happy place. Priyanka started singing on the bus and all of us loved it so much that a 15 min drive to the restaurant turned into a 1 hour drive because we told the driver to keep driving the bus in circles till Priyanka doesn’t stop singing!
Though we had gone to see the Puppet Show, but it turned out that the highlight of the evening wasn’t the Puppet Show after all. It was a love story. It was the love story of Arvind and Smriti, the elegant couple from Hubli driving in Car Number 4. They didn’t know anyone on the trip including us and took some time to get comfortable with everyone around them. This evening was the perfect ice breaker and everyone huddled around them as Arvind narrated his story of wooing and falling in love with Smriti 20 years ago! It was a perfect evening full of laughs and conversations… standing at the back of the room, I couldn’t help smile and think…
“No journey feels longer in good company” Road to London is going to be one such journey.
The evening ended with smiles but the morning began with tears. Some people decided to wake up early to witness the beautiful sunrise over the Pagodas and one of our dear friends Dilpreet who had done Road to Bangkok last year, decided to guide everyone to the sunrise spot. The “sunrise group” took a few cars and started driving towards the sunrise spot. For Dilpreet, who’s an early riser, this particular morning was going to be one that he will not forget, or shall I say, not be made to forget easily. While driving towards the Pagoda with 2 ladies, Wendy and Rina, both from the UK, Dilpreet managed to hit and kill a dog on the street. It was an unfortunate incident, but for the ladies, it was a horrifying experience. They returned to the hotel crying and feeling very upset over what had happened. As for Dilpreet, he hadn’t killed the dog by choice, but by chance and all he could do now was apologize to them for what had happened. The atmosphere got a bit tense and Dilpreet did his best to pacify them and even decided to become a vegetarian for a few days which I guess was his way to show his respect for their emotions. Eventually, the incident was forgotten and Dilpreet was forgiven, but now every time Dilpreet sees a dog on the street, he makes sure he is extra careful!
After breakfast, we hit the roads and started driving south towards Kyaikto, a town just a few hours away from the Thai border. But today was not about the destination, it was about the journey. We hit the Mandalay Yangon Expressway, a 16 lane 800 km long super highway that connects Mandalay in the north to Yangon in the South. The convoy was cruising at a speed of 120 km on this super highway and it was a welcome change from the country roads on which we had been driving over the last few days.
We stopped for lunch in NayPyiTaw, the new capital city of Myanmar which was established in 2005 but is still almost deserted. The government decided to move the administration from Yangon to NayPyiTaw but the general population has still not moved here, so the city feels empty and almost like a ghost town. Luxury hotels, convention centers, stadiums, residential complexes…you will find it all except people. For us the most exciting part of visiting NayPyiTaw was to park our convoy horizontally on the 16 lane expressway and make all the 13 cars driving parallel to each other for a few km. Things like these excite us! The journey continued and by evening, we reached the small town of Kyaikto where the parking lot was our makeshift hangout and everyone got together for another evening of drinks and conversations.
Well rested, the next morning the entire group wore the blue Road to London T-shirts and made our way towards the Myawaddy - Mae Sot border crossing. It was a simple idea to have everyone wear the same T-shirts and reach the border as a team. It does have a psychological effect on the custom and immigration officers and only helps in making the border crossing process a bit easier.
Our first stop on way to the border was the gas station where, as the cars started to get fueling done, Mr. Manek, who has joined the convoy from Tanzania with this wife Mrs. Reeta Manek, decided to start some morning exercise at the gas station. More joined in and in a couple of minutes, half the group was doing the “morning laughter therapy” session with Mr. Manek leading it. This is the beauty of a journey, you never know what you will be seeing, experiencing or doing at the next bend.
“A tourist doesn’t know where he has been, a traveler doesn’t know where he is going.”
We reached the border, spent a couple of hours doing the border process, paused and stood still when the Burmese National Anthem played on the loudspeaker at the Myanmar side of the border and after the formalities were done, the convoy rolled on the Myanmar-Thailand friendship bridge. The first half of the bridge was on Myanmar side so we had to drive on the right side of the bridge, and as we reached the top, we had entered Thai territory so we switched sides and started driving on the left side of the bridge. We had reached Thailand. Sanjay and I swiftly got down to business, our Thai team was already waiting to help us complete the formalities, and in a couple of hours we were done! Welcome to Thailand, country number 3 on The Road to London.
We crossed a line and the world changed. The faces, the air, the smells, the leaves, the flowers, the landscape, the sky, the earth, everything looked different on the other side of the border. How does mother nature figures out that we have crossed a man-made line and welcomes us with a box full of new surprises?
Somsak, our local support in Thailand was a Rockstar. Even at 65, he was full of energy and had nothing but goodness and welfare of everyone in his heart. He made the border crossing process very smooth for us and once we were good to go, the engines started and the convoy rolled on the silky tarmac of Thailand. Driving through the curvy bends of Thailand, we made our way to Tak, our first night stop in Thailand where we were welcomed by the Tourism Authority of Thailand who had organized a cultural program for the group and also presented “Amazing Thailand” T-shirts to each member of the convoy. Feeling relieved on crossing the border, Sanjay and I slept very well and were happy that the journey was going as planned.
“When in Thailand, wear the Amazing Thailand T-Shirts!” We got together for a group picture at a famous memorial in Tak along with members of the Tourism Authority of Thailand. The convoy rolled north and we started driving towards the Chiang Mai region for a night halt in a small town called Chiang Khong, which was established on the banks of Mekong river that separates Thailand from Laos. The drive was full of beautiful landscapes and everyone was enjoying the effortless experience of cruising on the “Thaiways” except Mr. Manek. Unfortunately, he suffered from food poisoning and was extremely uncomfortable throughout the day. I had been through this on a previous road trip and could very well understand what a nightmare he must be going through. But Mr. Manek is a brave and a kind man, always thinking about the comfort and convenience of others before himself. He quietly suffered, took some medicines from a doctor in the group and made sure that others didn’t have to stop or slow down too much because of him.
Another welcome party was organized by the Tourism Authority of Thailand at the beautiful river side restaurant of the hotel . The party was followed by an “After party” at the bonnet of one of the vehicles where many of us got together for drinks and mindless conversations. People were still getting to know each other but one thing was certain, that every single person in the group loves life, loves people, knows how lucky and fortunate they are to be on doing this journey, had made sacrifices to be on this journey and is making the most of every moment.
As for us, I think Sanjay and I are the most fortunate people to be able to do this journey with such wonderful people. Anurag, One of the participants in the group rightly said,
“Sanjay and you are getting blessings from each member of the group every single day and its’ these blessings that will always keep you doing whatever you are doing, happily and forever”.