Till I crossed the Friendship Bridge over the Moei River to Myanmar I had been on a knife’s edge, so to say. Despite my best intentions and effort I had not been able to obtain vehicle insurance during the expedition except in Singapore, where it cost me an arm and a leg, and in Myanmar, where it was part of the tour agency’s responsibility. I tried to obtain insurance at the borders of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia. Either the insurance companies refused to insure a foreign registered car or they did not deal with vehicle insurance at all. It is very strange that medical insurance is issued in India for global coverage whereas the same is not done for a vehicle. When I travelled to London from India I was able to obtain vehicle insurance at the borders for Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Russia. Navo Tours, who coordinated the China leg of the journey, took responsibility for the insurance as well. At the Finnish border I got insurance for Schengen States as well as UK, for a princely sum. Thus, I had no anxieties at that time about any untoward involving the car. However, during the South East Asian expedition I was extremely guarded and nervous since the car was not covered by an insurance. Any mishap could have been financially disastrous and morally indefensible.
Thein was a refreshing change from Tun Tun as a guide. It was possible to communicate easily with him and his knowledge made it possible to glean nuggets of valuable and interesting information. Moreover, he had conducted biking trips before and that made up his understanding of what such tourists looked for. The Myawaddy of today is a far cry from what it was just 30 months ago, he said. It was not possible to conduct business normally and tourism was not feasible due to the tense conditions prevailing there then. While the central parts of Myanmar were firmly under the control of the central administration the northern and southern states were yet to come within complete control. Local armies and certain lumpen elements still held sway. Local taxes and tolls were levied by the people of the place that were not within the ambit of legal administration. He said that even for my drive special permissions had to be taken, he did not elaborate, and people in high places had to be informed.
The roads were incredibly awful then, and even bikers walked rather than rode from Myawaddy through the Daw Na Tuang. The poor condition of the road that we experienced today, he said, was a thousand times better than what was a couple of years ago. Thailand had invested on the roads leading up to its border on the Myanmar side with purely commercial interests governing the altruistic deed. Myanmar is almost totally dependent on China and Thailand for its consumption and trading needs. Building a good road network was deemed by Thailand as a sine qua non to foster and develop trade relations with its developing neighbour. The road from Myawaddy almost up to the approach of Daw Na Tuang has been done up very well. I was told that an alternate road from Kaw Ke Rek to Myawaddy was getting ready to be operationalised by July this year; this will considerably cut down travel time and obviate the need to regulate uphill and downhill traffic to alternate days. Logistics costs will reduce substantially.
Goods brought in from Thailand are pooled in Mandalay and distributed all over the country. With such long leads the importance of better road conditions from the Thai border to Mandalay cannot be over emphasised. Myawaddy is prone to floods since there had been wanton afforestation in the area in the past few years. Therefore, the trading post and warehouses that exchanged goods with Thailand was located on a hill to avoid damages in case of floods.
Foregoing breakfast at the hotel we started for Bago from Myawaddy just after 6 am. My hunch had been right. Traffic had not yet picked up, even though we had many freight carriers to pass on the way. Road repair works were about to start when we exited the base of the mountain pass. In slightly over two hours we had completed the most difficult part of the day’s journey and my decision to start early was vindicated. Just as the tough portion of the drive was over hunger pangs surfaced. Thein located a decent tea house in Kaw Ke Rek and we stopped for breakfast. I was not inclined to have fried rice or paratta. Instead I asked for ijackwey, a sweet bread, which is normally dipped in tea and had as a snack. The tea house owner spoke to me in Hindi when he was told by Thein that I come from India. He said he had many friends from India and loved Bollywood movies, which explained his decent knowledge of Hindi. He gave me a bowl of boiled chick peas with onions and oil to have with the ijackwey. It was quite tasty and I asked for another bowl of the peas. In the meanwhile he brought crispy nans and asked me to try one. The hot and dry nan was excellent with the peas. The milk tea was very sweet because they use condensed milk.
Once the bumpy road was over the drive was quite enjoyable. Thein kept on explaining various facets of life in Myanmar and his penchant for Amartya Sen, Three Idiots and Glass Palace surfaced regularly. Of particular interest was the ‘Kayin Fault’ between the states of Mon and Bago separated by the Satting River. On the Mon side it is mountainous and the soil is laterite. Rubber plantation is the main agricultural occupation; rubber produced here is considered to be the best in the country. Besides, Mon produces the best Myanmarese Durian, jackfruit and mangosteen. Across the river the landscape dramatically; it is absolutely flat with sandy soil. Therefore, peas, beans and other vegetables are the main agricultural produce.
When we left Kaw Ke Rek at 8.45 am Thein had said that we would stop for lunch at 12.30 pm at a restaurant that was popular with Myanmarese and foreign tourists. My driving fitted Thein’s calculation perfectly and we reached the eatery on schedule, but found it very busy. Thein said that the restaurant served Myanmarese style food and hence, the crowd. Moreover, they did not serve pork and beef; many Buddhists avoid eating four legged animals – I remembered Tun Tun telling me about it. I ordered steamed rice and fish curry, while the others went in for standard meals. The curry was quite good but the fish seemed to have been caught only because it was too heavy to move! Once the fat was removed there was little else to have with the rice.
As I was getting ready for the final stretch of 75 km to Bago after lunch I observed an elderly British couple evincing interest in the details of the expedition mentioned on the car. They were accompanied by an Indian-looking lady. After I had explained the expeditions he told me that he had travelled from London to India in 1973 via Afghanistan and Pakistan! It was a humbling experience. Meeting such people help keep your feet firmly planted on the ground.
We reached the Shwewartun Hotel at 3 pm. The property on which the hotel is located is very large, but it looked as if it had seen better times. The room was quite large but the air conditioning was dysfunctional. I requested for a change of room and got it. The main problem in Myanmar is poor internet connectivity. I was unable to connect to the net even once till 6 pm. I went down to the reception and they claimed that the signal strength was okay. Knowing that I would not be able to get any further I walked down the road of the hotel and came across a small restaurant. I went in and asked for a chilled bottle of Myanmar Beer. Half the bottle went down as quickly as it was in the beer mug; it was extremely hot and humid. I stayed on for another. The restaurant was doing brisk business with the owner himself attending to most customers. He wore a t-shirt that had the message “Work For Successful Living”. It not only exemplified the hard work he was putting at the restaurant, but stood for the amazing entrepreneurship in all the South East Asian countries I visited during the expedition. He had a couple of young women moving around the tables serving beer and liquor; the latter was not that popular. Many small boys and girls helped out in the restaurant taking orders, bring orders from the kitchen, handing over receipts and collecting money. They went about their tasks in a well trained manner. Three young girls constantly hovered around me, smiling disarmingly and serving me peanuts with the beer. I asked myself if this was a connection from another life!
Thein took me to the Hathwaddy restaurant for dinner. Though a bit pricey the first floor sitting of the restaurant offered fantastic view of the illuminated pagoda which is considered the tallest in Myanmar. The Shwemawdaw pagoda is reputed to have been built 1000 years ago by two merchants who also enshrined a few relics of the Buddha. The pagoda that was affected by few earthquakes was gradually raised from 23 metres to its present 114 metres over a period of many centuries.