Epic road trip in Southeast Asia: Regional drift

A road trip in Southeast Asia can be challenging, especially at a few of the border checkposts. But, it is definitely worth it

boat on lake in myanmar Canal systems are popular in South East Asia for commerce and commute

While planning a road trip in Southeast Asia, you have to keep in mind the weather, particularly in Myanmar, and the volatile political scenarios in some of the countries. The second half of May to August is best avoided because of the possibility of landslides and poor road conditions following the monsoon.

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monks on a bridge in burma Old and rickety teak wood bridges still span waterways in Myanmar

MYANMAR: Tamu —Kalay — Monywa — Mandalay—Yangon — Myawaddy

7 days 1,825 km

Myanmar government rules stipulate that one of its officials, a guide and a representative from the tour agency always accompany tourists. It's an expensive arrangement; I had to buy flight tickets, food and accommodation of the accompanying persons, in addition to the temporary licence plate and driving permit. 

Paperwork at the Land Customs Station in Morey, Manipur, was completed by two youngsters and I drove on to the Friendship Bridge, on the right side of the road, as the country follows right-hand traffic. Before we started from the border, the guide ‘educated’ me about the courtesies of motoring in Myanmar. Speed is not a problem but the large number of two-wheelers on the road and kids playing beside it would be a challenge, he said. 

He instructed me to use the horn liberally to warn them. Two wheelers are a way of life in Myanmar. It provides passage for men, material and farm produce. Except for the odd rash youngster, the traffic is incredibly disciplined. Even trucks are disciplined and give way by flashing the left tail light indicating that it was alright to overtake. If they flashed the right tail light it meant that conditions are not safe to overtake.

The Kalay Airport is a no frills airport, meant only for small aircraft and helicopters. The security at the airport was a guy in military uniform, smoking a cheroot and squatting beneath a tree. The guide told me the story of a Japanese reporter who photographed a soldier in 2007. The reporter was shot at point blank range, without a warning, and bayoneted! Apparently, the soldiers with red collars are armed and dangerous. Army personnel have total immunity as they are meant to safeguard the security of the country. I was astounded to hear that Myanmar with a population of 52 million has over one million army personnel and half a million monks; the two major influences in the country!

I had visited Yangon and Mandalay in 2002 as part of a backpacking trip. The changes since then are nothing short of astounding. Road infrastructure has improved considerably and the concrete Mandalay-Yangon expressway is a prime illustration of that. Yangon used to be full of tuk tuks. That is a thing of the past. Two- and three-wheelers are banned in the city, which has given it a sense of order. 

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thailand Fantasmic entertainment at Alcazar, Pattaya, Thailand (Picture: Suresh Joseph)

Thailand: Sukhothai —Pattaya — Hua Hin — Phatthalung

7 days 2,300 km

I was in for surprise at Nong Khai, the Thai border to cross over to Lao PDR. One of the major problems at the borders of these countries is that very few speak even broken English and one has to rely on gestures and facial expressions. Pride and ego must be fastened to your seat belt or else it can get you into problems. They asked me for a document that proved immigration clearance for the car! When I told them that the immigration in Mae Sot (the Thai city bordering Myanmar) had not given one to me, one of the supervisors asked me to return to Mae Sot and fetch one. 

I was sweating from the climate as well as the impossible demand when a guardian angel appeared. The inspector of the investigative sector, Nong Khai Immigration, told me that I had violated a fundamental requirement for importing vehicles into Thailand and that I would have to pay a fine. The fine was to be 8,000 Thai baht. I had no option and I readily agreed. The inspector helped me fill out the forms and pay the fine, which he reduced to 4,000 baht when I told him that I am a retired civil servant from India. 

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kuang xi waterfall in luang prabang The three-tiered Kuang Xi waterfall in Luang Prabang, Lao DPR (Picture: Suresh Joseph)

Lao PDR: Vientiane — Luang Prabang —Paksan — Pakse

8 days 2,400 km 

Luang Prabang, Lao PDR, is a world heritage city and hence, there are very strict laws governing construction and transport. It has made this lovely city largely pollution free. At the Mekong River bank I was mesmerised by the rays of the setting sun dancing on the waters. Orlam, laab and jaebong are the popular local dishes. I took a table facing the river from where I had an amazing view of the sunset. 

On the next table, there were three women, who sounded South American, having dinner and drinking beer. As I was going through the menu, one of them said that she would not eat in that restaurant if she were me. Evidently, she had made a wrong choice. I ordered a Beerlao and a bowl of pork orlam, a soup dish. 

The soup had lots of eggplant, cucumber, spicy wood, mushroom, lemon grass and lots of meat. It was extremely healthy in that it contained neither oil nor spice. It just had natural herbs, boiled vegetables and lightly cooked meat.

traditional women in vietnam Bamboo trees represent resilience, indomitability and bravery of the Vietnamese people

Vietnam: Tay Trang

1 day 

As soon as I drove to Vietnam's Tay Trang border post, a young immigration officer walked out to meet me. He examined the visa and said it was in order but he was not so sure if the car could be permitted through with the documents I had. He asked me to confirm that with customs. The ordeal began then. It took me a long time to explain to the officials the importance of the carnet and how countries from Myanmar to Lao PDR had permitted the temporary import and export of the car. The officer was very helpful. But the customs guys stuck to their guns after debating and checking on the internet for about 90 minutes. They wanted me to go to Hanoi and bring the correct documents to take the car through. 

lady officer in malaysia Faizah, the Guardian Angel in Kelantan, Malaysia (Picture: Suresh Joseph)

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Malaysia: Rantau Panjang — Tok Bali — Gambang — Johor Bahru

5 days 1,100km

When I drove over the bridge to the Malaysian side in Rantau Panjang, I was not sure how to handle the immigration and customs because not a single instruction was in English. I saw a line of cars driving through a lane and getting passports stamped. I too joined the queue and was pleasantly surprised when my passport was accepted, visa examined and entry stamped in less than five minutes, while I was seated in the car. I drove through the Green Channel of the customs. At the exit of the immigration, customs, quarantine and security complex, I approached the customs station to stamp the carnet. That is when I met Faizah.

She was one of the customs officials manning the inward gate. I handed over the carnet to her. She offered me a chair and went in search of the concerned authority. She returned in a short while. I asked if she could help me obtain insurance for the car and exchange currency. I told her about the expedition and she said, “You are a brave man, I respect.” 

She took me in her car to a few insurers, but they said that foreign cars could not be insured in Malaysia. Then she took me to the duty free shop, where she thought she could get currency exchanged for me. That also proved futile, but she would not give up. She requested one of the guys in the shop to take me on his bike to a money changer. 

After that was done, I asked Faizah to lunch. She was friendly and forthcoming; I was certain that I have journeyed with this soul in the past. She seemed to be quite popular in the place and kept telling people that her uncle had come to visit her from India! When I asked her why she was doing all this for me, she said it is not often that Kelantan gets foreign tourists; she wanted me to know that they are a friendly people in a beautiful land. Yes, people make the land and Faizah exemplified it. Goodwill, certainly, knows no boundaries.

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angkor wat Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia is the largest religious structure in the world by area

Cambodia: Siem Reap 

3 days 700 km

As I was driving into Siem Reap, Cambodia, I was waved down by what looked like the police and the military. The young man in military uniform checked the carnet and was convinced that I was in the country with the car legally. He wanted to know what work I was engaged in back home, the purpose of my visit to Cambodia and why I was travelling alone. He was convinced about my responses to the first two and he himself supplied an answer to the third, “Lady, yah?” He also said, “Don’t waste your time here, friend. They are not good!”

The acceptance of the US dollar is a major advantage in Cambodia as one does not suffer losses in changing to the local currency. Everything is quoted everywhere in US dollars from massages to tuk tuk rides. “It’s only one dolla, saa,” is something you hear from the market vendors, smiling from ear-to-ear, as you walk past them. It made me wonder how acceptance of the US dollars gets accounted for in the system. That the city is totally dependent on tourism is brought home by the larger prevalence of English; even street vendors respond when you address them in English.

budhist children in cambodia The overarching influence of Buddhism is visible almost everywhere in South East Asia

I had made a checklist of items to be attended to while servicing the car in Siem Riep. The young mechanic and his younger assistant did a decent enough job, completely draining out the oil, cleaning the air filter and the rest of the jobs in under an hour. The manager stunned me with a bill of $5; it was April Fool’s Day, too. He smilingly accepted the ‘wage’. I could not believe what I was experiencing, service for $5 and plenty of smiles to go with it!

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singapore landmark Merlion, the national symbol of Singapore, is depicted  with the head of a lion and body of a fish


2 days 

Sreekanth, a Facebook friend, had done a lot of legwork with the Automobile Association of Singapore for the insurance and international circulation permit (ICP). Thanks to his efforts, it was done within an hour. The insurance policy for seven days was a steep 289 Singapore dollars and for the ICP it was 53.50 Singapore dollars. The expense of over 300 Singapore dollars was for driving less than 100km, and the car would be parked for the best part of a week! Then it was off to the Land Transport Authority office to secure the autopass. At the Singapore immigration booth, I scanned the autopass to ‘register’ the entry of the car into the country. 

singapore old lady Saroja Ratnam, the 90-year-old 'gem' — a connect from another life? (Picture: Suresh Joseph)

Saroja Rathnam, a 90-year-old gem, was my host in Singapore. As I parked my car in the garage and walked into her living room, she cupped her hand over her eyes and said, “Son, I have seen you somewhere before.” I wondered if they were memories of another life. I believe that all my travels are to connect with souls that are companions in my journey through time and space. 


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