“Photo, photo!” exclaimed the policeman manning the checkpoint on the road coming out of the border town of Tamu, waving our proffered documents away. He was apparently well aware of who we were and had no interest in checking our passports or permits, so we instead dutifully posed for a couple of souvenir snaps, shook hands and were wished well on our way.
We were now in pretty much uncharted territory, on an empty but perfectly surfaced road (the Indian Border Roads Organisation had once again reached across frontiers), meandering through fields and rice paddies and crossing an interminable number of wooden and iron bridges that ranged from the benign to the terrifying.
After crossing the Tropic of Cancer, we arrived in the bustling town of Kale where we were soon picked up by the local police who, in a friendly but rather persistent manner, insisted on escorting us to a hotel and then stationing themselves in the lobby. Whether for protection or observation purposes we weren’t quite sure. In any case we decided this was a little more attention than we needed and so managed to sneak out undetected, jump back on the bike and hit the road again. An hour or so later we reached the small river-side town of Kalewa and, with our levels of adventurous spirit now reaching new and unreasonable highs, attempted to get the bike on a cargo boat to head down river. We were again intercepted by the local constabulary however who insisted that this was not going to be possible. They instead took us to what was undoubtedly the grottiest “guest house” of the trip where we spent a fairly sleepless night being entertained by the sound and smell of the diesel generator right outside our window.
The next day, we found ourselves beyond the reach of the Indian Border Roads Organisation’s tarmacking abilities and on a 10-hour rocky, muddy haul down towards Monywa. Bumping through rice paddies and across pristine valleys, we were greeted by friendly waves from the fields, and most memorably treated to free tea at the roadside after an inspection of our bike and an enquiry as to our route led to the conclusion that “You – hero!”. A special mention should also go to the barefooted farmer who, seeing us pulled up before a particularly nasty looking waterlogged quagmire, gave us a knowing look and then plunged through himself to test the depth before turning to give us a thumbs up and continuing on his way.
After a restful and generator-free night in Monywa, we cruised along easy roads down to Bagan, Myanmar’s top tourist attraction where pagoda after pagoda dot the scrubland along the banks of the Irrawaddy. Like our arrival in Pokhara back in Nepal, there was the sudden jolt from traveller to tourist as we were thrust back into a world of chartered coaches, souvenir sellers and pizza joints.
The next stop was Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar’s surreal and semi-deserted official capital. The “city” was a little busier than usual though with the South East Asian Games about to kick off and preparations in full swing for what would be the country’s sporting coming out party after decades of isolation – Myanmar last hosted the Games in 1969.
Having taken the new highway for the last 100km or so to Nay Pyi Taw, we had discovered that the allure of multiple lanes, minimal traffic and no obstacles or potholes wears off rather quickly. So, as we continued towards Yangon, we decided to switch onto the old road. It’s much slower, but also much livelier and we were soon happily swerving around ox carts and bicycles again, back in our element. The anticipation steadily mounted as we got closer to Yangon, but the light unfortunately didn’t and soon enough we found ourselves once again trying to ride through the night, blinded by oncoming headlights and a mass of flying insects. Finally another motorcycle crashing right in front of us provided as clear a sign as we needed that we should give it up for the night.
And so it was that at sunrise the next day we pushed through the last 50km and crossed the city limits. A heady mix of exhilaration, excitement, disbelief, and relief swept over us. Delhi seemed a world away and yet we’d somehow just connected it with Yangon, mile by mile, town by town. We had taken five hours to fly from Yangon to Delhi and seven weeks to ride back. We’d driven some 8,000km, passed through four amazing countries, negotiated five international border crossings, survived innumerable breakdowns and one of us had even managed to get a year older.
But we’d made it. We rumbled past the glimmering Shwedagon Pagoda and the sparkling Kandawgyi Lake, passed orderly lines of monks off on their morning alms rounds, rounded a last corner and finally swept back into our home.
We’d ridden to Rangoon!