The South East Asian Odyssey was planned in three months and executed over 77 days, covering 21635 kms. The odyssey took me through 9 countries, of which 8 were by car. The countries covered were India (8268 km – 17 days), Myanmar (3369 km – 11 days), Thailand (4744 km – 15 days), Lao DPR (2395 km – 9 days), Cambodia (688 kms – 3 days), Malaysia (2112 kms – 10 days), Singapore (59 kms – 4 days), Vietnam (0 km – 5 days), Indonesia (0km – 3 days). The Ford Endeavour, KL 29C 2131, consumed 2400 litres of diesel oil, with an average price of Rs. 51.50 across countries with mileage of 9 kms to a litre. 340 kms were covered per day, on an average, if the 64 driving days alone are factored in. Else, over the 77 days 280 kms were covered per day, on an average. 27 border crossings were done during the onward and return journeys, of which 25 were with the car. While the average cost of accommodation was Rs. 2000 per night, food and beverages cost Rs. 500 per day.
Cambodia was the only foreign country where USD didn’t have to be changed to local currency because of its wide acceptance from fruit juice vendors to hotels. Vietnam was a heart break because Customs officials did not accept the Carnet and insisted on ‘proper documents’ from the Ministry of Road Transport. The Ministry, in turn, wanted the application routed through an approved local tour operator and 5 to 10 working days to process the application, would have thrown my schedule completely off balance. Hence, the drive in Vietnam ended in their territory at the Tay Trang border post. The Ro-Ro ferry to Batam had been discontinued many years before and hence, my driving experience did not extend to Indonesia. Thailand is the only country that requires ‘Immigration Clearance’ for the car by way of ‘Information on Conveyance’ that has to be filled out and stamped at the importation border and submitted at the exportation border. Not knowing this cost me time, effort and money at Nong Khai, the Thai border with Lao DPR. While an immigration official wanted me to go back to the importation border and secure the relevant papers I managed to wriggle out of the tricky situation by paying a fine of THB 4000. Insurance for the car in Myanmar was secured by the tour agency while the Automobile Association of Singapore charged USD 200 for 6 days. I was unable to obtain car insurance for the rest of the countries despite my best efforts at the borders and in neighbouring towns. Some countries are even legally barred from insuring foreign registered vehicles.
The major hurdle for travelling by motorised transport from India to foreign countries is the need to obtain the Carnet de Passages en Douane (CPD or Carnet, in short), which identifies the driver’s motor vehicle. It is accepted by over 85 countries the world over as an alternative to paying duty deposits for temporary importation and exportation of the vehicle. European and Central Asian countries on the Kochi-London route did not require the Carnet. All countries on the South East Asian countries, except Vietnam, accepted the Carnet. The agency in India tasked with issuing the Carnet is the Automobile Association. The major hassle is making necessary Bank Guarantee for obtaining the Carnet. There is no standard practice either, which makes it discretionary. While the Western Indian AA accepts 200 per cent of the depreciated value of the vehicle as BG, the Southern Indian chapter takes 350 per cent of the original value of the vehicle. The difference between the chapters is not correct especially because the Carnet papers for customers in Chennai are sourced from Mumbai. Another major problem is the physical presentation and verification of the vehicle in the premises of the AA. While I had to take the car to Chennai to get the Carnet done, and later to get the BG released, involving huge costs, I am told that Western Indian AA requires only photographs of the car, the chassis and engine numbers. I wonder why there should be such major differences in the issuance of the Carnet within the country.
With the doors of Pakistan being virtually closed to tourists from India due to diplomatic and safety reasons the route options to Europe is via Nepal and China or from Iran after shipping the vehicle from Mumbai to Bandar Abbas. Nepal is grappling with the aftermath of one of the worst earthquakes in human history. Under the circumstances the India tourist will detour via Myanmar to China and thereon to Europe. Both Myanmar and China have financially crippling regulations unless the trip is in a group where the overheads can be spread over a larger group of tourists. I had to provide transport, accommodation and food for three persons during the Myanmar leg of the SEA Odyssey. The Rs. 3.5 lakhs for transiting Myanmar was more than one third of the overall cost if the trip.
The successful completion of the South East Asian Odyssey was possible only due the contribution of a large network of friends, family and professional organisations. It would be wrong not to mention them and a major faux pas if I missed out on even one of them. Weighing the options, therefore, I choose to acknowledge their contribution en bloc. I enjoyed their assistance, hospitality, friendship, suggestion, advice, encouragement and constructive criticism all through the odyssey. I made friends with amazing people who shared their wonderful experiences with me. I was always treated as family by people with who I stayed with and accepted unreservedly as a friend by those who I came to know on the journey. Help came from unexpected sources and the ‘invisible hand’ was visible all the time. Prayers of near and dear saw me through challenges that even threatened life. I am certain that I will never be able to repay even a fraction of the kindness and assistance I have received, but I remain indebted to all, may be even across lives. Because, I believe that one of the purposes of my travels is to meet fellow souls who travel with me through time and space.