If your jokes were to start coming true, how many more crazy adventures would you take?
For Andy Benfield and his partner Emilie, this was what spurred a seven-week motorcycling trip from India to Myanmar, tracing a scenic route through Nepal, Bhutan, and Sikkim, among other places. Having lived in Burma for a few months, travelling around by buses, jeeps, and trains, the two of them longed for their own wheels – but the only “motorbikes” available in the local market were little Chinese scooters.
“Jokingly, I suggested we go to Delhi, pick up my bike that was stored from when I used to live there, and ride it over. The idea was born,” Andy says. “We had a feeling it might be a bit of a crazy idea, and indeed, on further investigation, that turned out to be the case.”
For starters, the border between India and Myanmar is normally closed to foreigners, which meant arriving at Immigration and hoping for the best. (Thankfully, the pair persuaded their way through). The chosen route involved travelling through Manipur and Nagaland — two of India’s most restive northeast states. Moreover, there were the unpredictable, challenging road conditions of the Himalayas, and innumerable amounts of red tape involved with transporting a motorbike across five international borders to consider. Oh, and it’s also illegal to ride a motorcycle through Yangon.
“So, why try? Well, the lure of adventure was strong!” Andy says. “And we felt it could offer an interesting perspective on Myanmar’s past, present, and future regional connections.
“It would mean travelling along old trade routes that will soon become the new high roads of Asia as India and China develop, and as Myanmar, a crucial link between the two, opens.”
Andy’s bike – a Royal Bullet Enfield – proved an obvious choice for the journey; not only for its robust build and guarantee that everyone from India to Bhutan would know how to fix it, but also nostalgic appeal.
“Years ago when I first saw it, I was hooked: it looked like something Steve McQueen would ride to jump over fences. But the utter fear I felt when I hit the road and stalled this growling beast in the middle of a hectic Delhi intersection is something I’ll never forget,” Andy says. “Over the next few weeks, my second-hand Bullet gradually turned from a fearsome and unwanted pet into one of my most treasured possessions.”
“When I left India, two years and several long adventures later, I could not bring myself to sell my Enfield. A dear Italian friend kindly agreed to look after it, and I promised myself that, one day, I’d be back to ride again.”
Saddled up with their 40-litre backpacks – containing a few changes of clothes, pocketknife, tool kit (that they had no idea how to use), and little else – and Google maps on their phones for navigation, Andy and Emilie hit the road for what was supposed to be only a five-week trip. “The ride took seven weeks, so this took some explaining to the boss,” Andy says. “Doing it again, we would have allowed far more time for breakdowns, sickness, rest days, and diversions.”
Conditions of the roads proved to be one of the toughest challenges of the ride. Aside from all the potholes, water, mud, rocks, drop-offs, and landslides – particularly perilous between Pokhara and Kathmandu, a route featured on the BBC’s World’s Most Dangerous Roads – advice on how long it would take to get from A to B was often “woefully inadequate”.
“We’d be told a road was in good condition, only to discover that the reality was a rocky track snaking between the hills. Estimated time to get to the next town varied between three and ten hours, depending on whom you asked,” Andy says. “There was also the ‘unconventional’ driving style of other road users. And yes, it has to be said: we had a few near misses, and a couple of minor crashes.
“Never drive in Nepal at night is what your embassy and Lonely Planet will tell you. We’d like to heartily agree.”
But, more than hazardous driving conditions, the issue of security was the couple’s main fear. Having been ambushed and robbed on a mountain pass in Nepal years back, Andy couldn’t shake the idea this might happen again.
“Coming through the badlands of Uttar Pradesh to the Nepali border, we were aware we were in something of a hotbed of banditry and general lawlessness,” Andy explains. “In the Terai region of southern Nepal – a heady mix of rebel movements, corrupt politicians, and dodgy businessmen – we had to negotiate frequent army roadblocks.”
“Generally, they were so surprised to see two foreigners on a bike that they forgot to actually stop us.”
Northeast India in particular “took things to another level”. With uprisings flaring across the region as ethnic groups struggle for autonomy from Delhi, some areas seemed like they were under occupation. “As we crossed into Nagaland, it was immediately clear we were entering a different world,” Andy says. “Things were made eerie by the confused, hard stares of the few people we passed, seemingly shocked to see outsiders, and the fact that a lot of the men had locally-made rifles slung over their shoulders.
“We were sipping tea outside a dusty workshop with the Head of the Naga Chiefs [the capital’s Enfield club]. I’d anxiously been asking him about the next stage of the route; the one I’d been dreading most since we first pulled out the map to plan our trip.
He replied, ‘Hopefully no problem – the road is more or less safe now.’”
Said route – reaching the border crossing into Burma through Moreh – involved going through Manipur: the most troubled of India’s restive states. To get to Imphal (Manipur’s capital), Andy and Emilie faced driving down the notorious Highway 39 – sometimes known as the “Highway of Sorrows”.
“Our nerves were on edge when, the night before we planned to set out, two buses were stoned and robbed while travelling the route,” Andy says. “As we came into the outskirts of town, the razor wire, army foot patrols, and armoured personnel carriers gave us the distinct feeling of entering a war zone.”
Amazingly, such a terrifying scenario quickly turned charming. Ignoring the advice of bolting themselves in their hotel room, Andy and Emilie took to the streets and discovered they’d arrived in Imphal on the night of Diwali, the Hindu festival of light.
“Anyone who’s been in India for this wonderful event knows it’s no longer just small clay lamps symbolising the triumph of good over evil,” Andy says. “Instead, the streets and skies were filled with a deafening cacophony of not-so-safe homemade firecrackers.”
“While these explosions did little to lessen the war zone feel, we nevertheless found a vibrant city, and were even warmly welcomed at the annual food festival and plied with delicious local fare and underground rice beer – though I’ve never seen so many AK-47s at a culinary event in my life.”
The highlights of the pair’s motorbike journey continued with the stunning scenery – from the dusty plains of Uttar Pradesh to the jungles of southern Nepal, the Himalayas and the remote hills of northeast India – and the unbeatable cultural experiences. “You end up a quasi-expert on everything, from development schemes in Uttar Pradesh, tiger populations in southern Nepal, the history of the Ghurkhas, Tibetan Buddhism in Sikkim, cultivation of tea in Darjeeling, Bhutanese belief in the yeti, and the independence struggles of Nagaland and Manipur,” Andy explains.
“Every day brought new knowledge and people. We claim to be ‘independent travellers’, but we never would have completed the trip had it not been for the amazing kindness and generosity of complete strangers. From giving directions to helping when we broke down, to offering food and beds for the night, we were overwhelmed by the number of helping hands received throughout the trip.”
Andy and Emilie took five hours to fly from Yangon to Delhi, and seven weeks to ride back again. Despite the perilous driving and political revolts, they connected the two cities, mile-by-mile and town-by-town.
For anyone contemplating a similar motorcycle journey, Andy urges you to – you guessed it – just go for it. “Yes, you need a bit of planning, but if you try and plan everything, you’ll never complete the task,” he says. “Allow lots of time. Take the smaller roads. Talk to people. Have faith in the fact that, whatever happens, there will pretty much always be someone who’ll come and lend you a hand.”
“It’s better to die than to be a coward, according to the Ghurkhas – this was apparently also adhered to by the night bus and truck drivers of Nepal. As for us, we’re all for staying alive with just occasional small doses of bravery.”
Andy Benfield is a 38 year-old Brit working in development. He’s previously lived in India, Nepal, Ethiopia, Namibia, Madagascar, Indonesia, and even Belgium, but currently calls Myanmar home. People can read more about his motorcycle trip at Riding to Rangoon.