Road to Mekong: Piya Bahadur chronicles how four women on bikes ranged deep into South-East Asia
In Road to Mekong, Piya Bahadur chronicles her unique journey through South-East Asia, along with three other women who left their 'regular lives' to travel from Hyderabad, through the East Indian Coast and the North-East of India, past Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam along the river Mekong, and ultimately, to Cambodia.
The call of the open road is often reason enough to put life on hold and set out on an adventure. It’s what happened to Piya Bahadur in February 2018, an experience she encapsulates in her first book, Road to Mekong, published by Pan Macmillan India.
Even as she was coming to terms with the uncertainties of quitting her corporate job, there arrived an opportunity to embark on a sponsored holiday. And this was to be unlike any other — an epic motorcycle ride spanning six countries, adding up to roughly 17,000 kilometres in total.
Though it meant staying away from home and the responsibilities of motherhood, Bahadur was well aware of the thrills that a road trip offered. It had all started out for her as a jaunty kid in the backseat of a Maruti van while driving from Delhi to Jamshedpur. Honeymooning meant driving across the breadth of the United States — a distance of 4,500 kilometres, from Buffalo to Seattle.
The offer to ride alongside three other ladies then sounded irresistible. There was just one catch — the longest distance that Bahadur had endured in the saddle until then was a mere 250 kilometres.
“I think it was more mind over matter. The hardest part was the decision to leave, both mentally and emotionally. We realised that this was to be a long ride on roads which were relatively unknown. It wasn’t your typical ride to Khardung La in Ladakh or from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. For starters, when we went around looking for people who had done it before, we couldn’t find anyone,” Bahadur says.
“When I told a few people that I was going to Vietnam on a motorcycle, they were like, 'Huh? Is it even connected by land?' It was as bad as that!” she adds.
With self doubts playing on her mind, the initial plan was to avoid going the long haul and instead, bank on the comfort of turning back when things got outside her comfort zone. All that was put into perspective one fine day by her teenage daughter.
“Are you afraid you can’t do it?” she asked.
And just like that, there was no looking back, as Bahadur geared up for the twists and turns that she would encounter, starting from her hometown of Hyderabad.
“It seemed like a harebrained scheme. But I think keeping faith was really important. And after talking about it for 8-9 months, to finally be on the road was a big thing to look forward to,” she says.
Before dealing with the strains of the ride, there were a number of logistics to be figured out and tedious paperwork to be tackled. The backing of Telangana Tourism came as a welcome relief, freeing them of a number of headaches associated with a trip such as this one. For starters, the team had easy access to contacts in the government’s tourism department, which in turn helped them to a generous round of funding and the luxuries that come with it.
While most motorcycle tours are about being self-reliant, Bahadur and her fellow-riders had little to worry about besides actually crunching miles each day. For one, there was the reassurance of being tailed by a bus that carried all their gear and an eight-member crew, certain that there would always be help on hand in case of any emergency. Local agents simplified matters at a few border crossings. Then, they had the luxury of riding spanking new 400 cc Bajaj Dominator motorcycles, sponsored and delivered at their doorsteps.
“We had no mechanical failures on the entire ride, not even a puncture. There was peace of mind in knowing that a bus was following us, but it was usually far behind and would catch up during lunch or by evening. During the ride, we were responsible for everything,” Bahadur says.
There were, however, other challenges that had to be dealt with during all those days spent away from home, especially in places where women riding motorcycles was often an anomaly. But along the way, they hoped to shatter the stereotypical image of burly, bearded biker boys and their mean machines that is usually associated with motorcycling.
“A few would subtly pop the question on what our families had to say. There was a sense of 'Oh, how did your husband allow you to do this?' I hope that our presence made a difference in some way,” she says.
But, their planning went astray from the onset, forcing them to abandon the idea of riding through Bangladesh and instead, take on an additional 600 kilometres to enter Myanmar at the Moreh-Tamu border in Manipur. Those early riding days exposed them to the horrors of the road, — or the lack of it — often slowing the entourage down to snail’s pace on some of the bumpy stretches in the North-East of India. It was a rude awakening for the team, what with Bahadur even crashing into an oncoming vehicle en route Imphal. At the same time, it readied them for every other challenge that they were likely to encounter over the next few weeks.
The early jitters soon made way for the excitement of hopping across borders, soaking in the unseen, and relishing splendid vistas that unfolded around every bend. The uncertainty of what was finding its way to their dinner plate was doused by the comfort of chutney podis and pickles that they had carried from home. While entering new territories, they often had to familiarise themselves with riding on the opposite side of the road, or deal with the painstaking processes that came at the border check posts, threatening to leave them stranded. For instance, at the Tachileik-Mae Sai border while entering Thailand, they had to abandon their bus and hop onto another one after a prolonged wait that involved some extreme number crunching and gritty decision-making to tackle the situation.
But these inconveniences were soon put to rest, as they rode past quaint villages, embraced by the local populace with smiles and signs during the many interactions. Language often proved to be a barrier in these lands, but then again, it hardly hindered their communication with those they met during the many pitstops.
“There were two young girls who had travelled a couple of hours to come see us and take photos on our motorcycles. In many towns, we would be joined by riders who had been following our progress on social media and had stepped out to meet us. Most times, there were no conversations, — what I realised was that they loved being on the road, just like we did,” she says.
By the time they approached Indian territory yet again, having ridden through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, there was this sinking feeling that the journey would soon be over. At the same time, there was the anticipation of returning to their loved ones and narrating their experiences. The book turned out to be the perfect opportunity for Bahadur to relive the ride once home.
“It was pretty disconcerting for several days. We were so used to looking into the rear view mirror that it felt quite strange to wake up and not get going one morning,” she says.
The book isn’t your typical travelogue, given that there were certain days when they were riding for close to 12 hours. Neither does it reveal much about the lands that they rode through, besides the sights and sounds from a few tourist spots that they could visit en route. However, Piya Bahadur’s account puts the reader firmly in the midst of the entourage as a fifth member of the ride, living every mile of the enriching journey through each page of the book.
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