The ‘Secret War’ in Laos was a covert proxy war, fought in the shadows of the Vietnam War and was fuelled by the belligerent global Cold War superpowers. The war was fought between the Communist Pathet Lao which was effectively organised, equipped and led by the Army of North Vietnam under the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (which emerged under the Marxist/Leninist model of communism) and the Royal Lao Government backed (secretly) by the U.S. who wanted to quell communist strength across South-East Asia.
The wars in Laos and Vietnam were so intertwined that the CIA trained a guerrilla militia force of about 30,000 Laos tribesmen to disrupt operations along the Hồ Chí Minh trail, that was feeding communist forces in Southern Vietnam, without having any accountable direct military involvement.
From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. indiscriminately dropped over 2 million tons of ordnance over Laos in 580,000 bombing missions; the equivalent of one planeload every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years. Many bombs were haphazardly dropped, killing thousands of innocent people, simply to get rid of them following cancelled missions over Vietnam.
Due to the U.S.’s relentless bombardment of Laos, the Pathet Lao were forced to operate from an extensive network of caves at Viengxay in the Houaphanh Province in the northeast. Four hundred and eighty caves were used in total during the 9-year period housing a hospital, a school, offices, bakeries, shops, printing presses and even a theatre.
The secret location was home to 23,000 people: locals say that farmers had to farm at night to avoid bombing raids!
The Pathet Lao leaders lived and directed the war from the caves. In 1973 when the U.S’s aerial onslaught finished the leadership built houses outside their various caves from where they commanded their troops in the concluding stages of the war against the Royalist Hmong forces.
For many years the Laos government denied any existence of the cave network; however, since 2009 some of the caves have been opened to the public and have become a valuable tourist attraction in the province. Most of the caves are named after the Pathet Lao leaders who lived there. To visit them you must take a knowledgeable guide from the Viengxay Caves Visitor Centre.
Our sobering tour visited 5 of the major caves starting with the large cave of Kaysone Phomvihane, leader of the Lao Communist movement from its formation in 1955, he remained unchallenged as head of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic from its inception in 1975 until his death in 1992.
Phomvihane’s cave has multiple exits, an office, meeting rooms and sleeping quarters. Each cave also featured a re-enforced concrete emergency chamber, behind a hefty metal submarine-style door, in case of direct bombing and chemical-weapons attacks. The chambers still housed the working Soviet oxygen filters.
The cave of the Red Prince Souphanouvong was one of the most fascinating. Our audio tour informed us that the prince was allegedly the first person to gain contacts, and ultimately aid and help, the Viet Minh Communist forces in Vietnam. His wife was Vietnamese and he started working in Vietnam after he graduated from a French university.
The house outside the Prince’s cave was somewhat more stylish and well designed than any of the other houses. His taste may well have been influenced by his time spent in France.
The other cave of great interest is Xanglot Cave (AKA The Theatre Cave), a massive natural cave in the karst limestone rock which housed a stage and hall where political rallies, meetings and even weddings were held. Festivals, theatre performances and music & dance performances by visiting artists from China, Russia and Vietnam also took place here. The cave housed more than 2,000 soldiers in a huge army barracks and was the headquarters of the Pathet Lao military effort.
The Laotion Civil War, as it is officially known, like most other wars, was a complex melee of politics. Unlike the Vietnam War, it wasn’t fought under the gaze of the world’s media which resulted in a near futile, senseless and often unheeded outcome. As a consequence Laos remains, per capita, the most heavily bombed country on earth, a fact I was ignorantly unaware of before visiting. Decades later, unexploded ordinance (UXO) literally litters the entire country and has killed more than 20,000 people since the war ended in 1975! Today over 80 million live cluster bomblets still scatter the country.
Cleaning up the unexploded ordnance is agonizingly slow, thankfully organisations like MAG do incredible work in clearing UXO’s and helping the Laos population to reclaim their land.
In 2014 The U.S. Congress approved a $12 million grant for UXO clearance and related aid in Laos, bringing the total up to $82 million. To put that into context the U.S. spent a relative $18 million a day, for nine years, bombing the country; that’s approximately $60 billion.
Considering the current population of Laos is just under 7 million, the U.S. could have paid the entire population approximately $9,000 each not to be communists! Unfortunately war doesn’t work like that!
Sadly the daily lives of millions are still affected by the senseless bombing. Long-term development of the country has also been disturbed; farmers can’t work the land and construction of schools, hospitals and factories are constantly delayed.
Our visit to Laos was eye opening and often heart wrenching, unfortunately history proves that we don’t learn from our mistakes. Considering the phenomenal amount of money the U.S. spent pointlessly destroying a country, most have never heard of, they (politicians and the war machine in the “developed” world) continue to invest ridiculous amounts of money developing new technologies to eradicate people in fields on the other side of the world, with sickening effect.
When we first set out in 2012 Burmese land borders were well and truly closed, so back then our option was shipping from India to SE Asia. In 2014, with a shift in political power, land borders opened up to foreigners. For once our delayed itinerary had gone in our favour and allowed us more country-crossing options.
To drive across Myanmar in your own vehicle requires being escorted by a government-approved guide plus numerous permissions, documentation, fees and taxes. Apparently it is possible to arrange the paperwork and permissions yourself but that would involve flying into the country in advance, costly and definitely stress-inducing. The simplest way is to travel with an agent-organised tour; the more people in your group, the cheaper it works out per person. The agent needs a month to organise your documents so you need to plan way in advance. Being flexible with dates also increases your chance of finding fellow travellers to join your group and reduce costs. We eventually went for a 14 day tour which, once we had joined a French family of four, was not much more expensive than an exhausting 5 day dash or shipping.
Our group comprised of us, the Pleau family (two adventurous French motor-homers and their two young sons) plus a ‘pilot car’ with driver, tour guide and officially appointed government guide. We still don’t know the purpose of our government guy; friendly enough but barely interacted with us other than to take the occasional video and photo reconnaissance records. He certainly had a nice holiday out of us!
Logistically, the Myanmar route is simultaneously relaxing and restricting. It was the first time we have ever had a guide which was wonderful; escorted through borders, explanations of menu items, ordering food, a constant enthusiastic source of local information and a mind of historical and cultural facts. Plus, a genuinely lovely bloke that we can now call our friend. Hotels are all pre-booked so the daily mystery of where to pitch that night is removed, itineraries meticulously scheduled so there’s no scouring the guide book for sights and activities and you follow the pilot car so no maps or GPS required. I have to admit that after the full-on experience of 4.5 months overlanding in India this was a lavish travel hug. It’s like cotton-wool-wrapped touring, 14 consecutive nights of the kind of luxuries we normally only treat ourselves to once a month; A/C, showers, clean linen, Wifi and breakfast buffets. So this is how normal people travel! No wonder other tourists always look and smell better than us.
But your cotton wool is wrapped tight and you lose the flexibility and freedom to stay longer, deviate, take a new route suggested by locals or stop to join in with a spontaneous celebration. Diverting, pausing and ‘getting lost’ is after all a huge part of the overlanding experience. Luxury without liberty. The cost was also eye-watering to us and as much as we enjoyed 2 weeks of increased comfort, we could normally travel for 3 months on what it cost us for 14 days (ouch).
We were certainly not disappointed by Burma as a destination- it is truly an incredible country. From the giant Buddha’s in Monywa, ancient temple plains of Bagan and Royal splendour in Mandalay to Buddhist devotion in the caves of Pindaya, floating culture and traditions of Inle Lake and the city splendour of Yangon with breath-taking Shwedagon Pagoda.
For me, what is seriously missing in this ‘exploration’ of a country is an opportunity to get out into the wilderness and experience the wildlife and natural habitats of Myanmar. The chance to sit by a river for a couple of days and watch birds in the trees and lizards on the rocks. With the countryside often a blur as you dash from town to town this is one area of visiting a new land that is a huge sacrifice through this arrangement.
In addition, there is a moral and ethical quandary of travelling in a country where human rights abuses are very real and being carried out at the hands of the peoples own ‘democratically elected’ government. In Myanmar particularly, where a large part of our travel budget goes directly into the hands of that same government in the form of fees, permits, visa and guides. Without the ability to choose your own hotels, you also risk financially supporting establishments owned by government officials and their families. The only way we could offset this in some way whilst travelling in the country was to eat at smaller restaurants and buy goods from small, independent shops. Travelling in a culturally-conscious way in a country so recently opened up to the potential negative influence of the ‘West’ is also important, with cultural and environmental damage a significant threat in Myanmar (no one, especially the Burmese, want to see arse cheeks hanging out of skimpy shorts rolling across the border from less-conservative neighbouring Thailand).
Quandaries and logistical changes aside, Myanmar is a stunning destination and an extended transit far more enjoyable than the alternative option of shipping. With opening land borders a step in the right direction for overlanders, hopefully one day the country will stabilise and the remaining militant rule diminish, allowing peace for the people and real adventure for travellers.
On the 6th November 2006, the administrative capital of Myanmar (aka Burma) was moved, with minimal explanation by the military government, to an empty-ish plot of land (now named Naypyidaw) 200 miles north of Yangon (aka Rangoon), the previous capital.
Naypyidaw is an eerily desolate modern-day ghost town, not one that has been deserted but one that has never been inhabited. The city has one high school offering basic education, very few shops and virtually no public transport network with the exception of one taxi company which is operated by the military!
This lack of infrastructure makes the city less than desirable. The current population consists mainly of government employees and administrative officials who were forced to move there. Due to the lack of facilities in the city many families were split up when the government forced it’s employees to move.
As utilisation of the vast new city is very low the consequences of such an immense project have been criticised by the outside world. With an estimated cost of $3–4 billion the national economic impact of such a huge construction effort, over a relatively short period, in such a poor country must have been considerable.
Due to the location of the new capital the cost of doing business with government has increased, this is due to the excessive journey time from Yangon, where most business offices are based.
It seems crazy that such money was, and still is, being spent on a huge city that no one wants or uses!
The rationale for moving the city is debateable, some theorists believe that the capital was moved because Than Shwe, the previous head of state, wanted a ‘vanity project’ to compete with those of other authoritarian leaders, especially in Central Asia, who may be seeking to amplify their own personality cults.
It is more likely though that the move was tactical and initiated to secure the capital and relocate it centrally away from the country’s borders: Yangon is a coastal city and vulnerable to a nautical attack. The new central location lends itself to the city becoming a transportation hub adjacent to the volatile states of Shan, Kayah and Kayin. It was felt by governmental and military leaders that a stronger military and governmental presence nearby might provide stability to those chronically turbulent regions.
Sadly the most logical reason for moving the capital is much less interesting; Yangon had simply become too congested with little room for future expansion.
In stark contrast to Istanbul, Tehran or Delhi driving is easy on the empty streets. The massive vacant 20-lane highways were designed to future proof the city for expansion but are also rumoured to be able to accommodate military aircraft landing.
We stopped outside the Parliamentary complex and presidential palace at the site where the Top Gear team had played football on the motorway and drag raced! The architecturally Stalinist buildings are gargantuan and gaudy, the only thing that roots them in local culture are the faux Burmese roofs.
Up until the 2015 landmark elections, the Parliamentary complex and presidential palace actually held little authority. True power was (and possibly still is) located in one of the cities Crystal Maze-esq named zones; the Commercial Zone, International Zone, Residential Zone, the Ministry Zone and Military Zone.
The top ranking military officers and important government personnel live in the secretive military zone, conveniently located 7 miles away. The whole area is shrouded in mystery, is strictly forbidden and apparently consists of a complex network of tunnels and bunkers.
We obviously stayed in the Hotel Zone, in one of the 12 huge, unfinished, Soviet-esq hotels that loom from the wide, empty streets.
The International Zone caters for foreign embassies, so far only Bangladesh has moved in!
The residential zone is one of the most interesting. The apartments are allotted according to rank and marital status. The identical apartment blocks, of which there are 1,200, have colour-coded roofs; the Ministry of Health employees live in buildings with blue roofs, employees from the Ministry of Agriculture live in buildings with green roofs. High-ranking administrative officials live in mansions.
Like Milton Keynes, where Emma grew up, this new city is a ‘masterpiece’ of town planning. Naypyidaw’s genius, unlike Milton Keynes however is not centred around roundabouts but focused on quashing regime change and nullifying dissent through urban design and cartography. Historically the public square has been the epicentre of democratic expression, most revolutions have started from protests in public squares where statues of dictators have toppled. Naypyidaw has no public squares! The wide streets are harder for prospective rioters to barricade and easier for tanks, helicopters and even planes to manoeuvre. The enormity of the city is designed to dwarf the individual and supress active participation within the metropolis; the scale is intended to intimidate the citizens to feel subservient to the power of the state. The presidential palace even has a moat!
In stark contrast to the rest of Myanmar, with its humble, friendly villages, towns and rural roads, Naypyidaw sticks out like an urban sore thumb. A disparity so evident you feel like you have entered some kind of twilight zone, a hollow existence in a void of a city the previous government tried to force on a population where the majority still live modest, subsistent, family-orientated lifestyles. Hopefully the new, recently elected government, spearheaded by Aung San Suu Kyi will make wiser decisions for the future of the country.
Myanmar maybe a little tricky and expensive to drive your car through but it certainly is worth it. We timed our trip well, making sure we were there for the country’s New Year water festival.
Like most of South-east Asia, Myanmar celebrates it’s New-Year in April with a week long festival of water throwing, hosepipe soaking and beer drinking! During the celebrations it is impossible to walk down the street without someone tipping an icy cold bucket of water over you: great in the +40°C heat, not so great if you have your phone in your pocket!
To remedy this we purchased waterproof zip-lock dry-bags for our phones and armed with our waterproof Go-Pro we headed out onto the street! In under a minute we were drenched!
Thingyan, as it is officially known, originates from the Buddhist version of a Hindu myth. As we learnt in India, Hindu mythology has some pretty ‘interesting’ stories. Long story short… The King of Brahmas lost a bet to the King of Devas, Sakra aka Thagya Min, who then decapitated The King of Brahmas but then a head of an elephant was put onto the Brahma's body who then became Ganesha (The elephant god). The Brahma was so powerful that if the head were thrown into the sea it would dry up immediately. If it were thrown onto land it would be scorched. If it were thrown up into the air the sky would burst into flames. Sakra aka Thagya Min therefore ordained that the Brahma's head be carried by one princess Devi after another taking turns for a year each. The new-year henceforth has come to signify the changing of hands of the Brahma's head.
Thingyan truly arrives on the second day of celebrations when the King of Devas, Sakra aka Thagya Min makes his descent from his celestial abode to earth. At a given signal, a cannon is fired and people come out with pots of water and then pour the water onto the ground with a prayer.
A prophecy for the new-year will have been announced by the brahmins and this is based on what animal Sakra aka Thagya Min will be riding on his way down and what he might carry in his hand. Children will be told that if they have been good Thagya Min will take their names down in a golden book but if they have been naughty their names will go into a book made from dog!
Then the water throwing begins! The water festival is now symbolic of cleansing ones sins for the coming year, or an excuse to get drunk and act like a child! Which suits me just fine!
Truckloads of partygoers cruise around fully armed with a trough of icy water and buckets looking for unsuspected dry pedestrians. No one is spared! Many houses, workplaces and hotels, ours included, get into the spirit of things with huge sound-systems blaring the same two songs over and over. A huge water trough was placed outside and we duly took our turn at soaking anyone and everyone who passed: pedestrian, scooter rider and car!
All this merriment is great for the first two days, after that it all gets a bit tiresome. I must have committed a fair few sins last year for the soaking I received! In +40°C heat and with no air-con in Bee-bee we were forced to drive with the windows wound up in fear of 10L buckets of water being launched into our car as we drove past! With temperatures in the car over +50°C we were literally melting inside! From early morning into the darkness of night drunken partygoers are dancing dangerously on the edge of the road! Small kids, often unsupervised, are also throwing themselves, along with a bucket, into the road to try and soak you as you cautiously drive past. We were lucky, most scooter riders normally take a dangerous drenching regardless of sex, speed, age, whether or not they are carrying a small baby whilst sat sidesaddle or already saturated.
The whole fiasco goes on for 7 days, culminating in a huge party on the eve of the 7th day, which actually was a lot of fun! Most big cities organise huge street parties and stages, fully armed with water cannons where thousands of revellers come to enjoy the free show, get soaked and sink a few beers; slightly more fun than a drunken verse of Auld Lang Syne and watching fireworks on the TV.
Drums beating, cymbals crashing, lamp glowing, makeup shining, eyes glaring, face twitching, mouth gurning, hands undulating, feet stamping, costumes spinning, jewellery glinting, brow sweating, rhythm escalating. Welcome to the world of Kathakali, Keralan ritualised dance-drama with little unchanged over the last 1,500 years. Originally performed in the 16th century in temples, palaces and at religious festivals, the sacred dance-drama tells stories of Hindu mythology and the lives of the Gods.
The venue was Trivandrum’s striking Kanakakunnu Palace, surrounded by lush gardens, with wooden echoing flooring, gold-patterned walls, quaint balconies, luxurious chandeliers and colonial-style ceiling fans.
Always performed at night, Kathakali is enacted in front of a traditional kalivilakku butter lamp. The musicians assembled on stage; first 2 drummers, one with a horizontal drum strung around their waist and one upright. They were joined by two men on vocals and percussion, one with small symbols and one with a wooden rattle-like instrument. A loud narrator introduced the story, the Hindu epic of Ramayana, and the audience fell silent in anticipation.
Rama burst onto stage, luxuriant yellow satin skirt, purple velour top, and a silver-tiered headdress. His face was thick with bright green, lurid paint and his eyes glowed red and glared deeply into the captivated gaze of the audience. Dancers paraded down the audience aisle as the second act began, with 2 additional drummers increasing the volume and rhythm of the musical accompaniment.
The words of the singing vocalists behind are translated into actions by the soundless performers through a series of poses, bodily positions, facial expressions and sign language.
A small man with a big, bushy black beard and moustache leaps on to the stage, furious at Rama breaking Shiva’s bow. The singing paused as he began dancing angrily to frenetic drumming, Clenching his fists, he repeatedly and energetically jumped up and down, eyes and eyebrows twitching frantically whilst waving his red and gold tomahawk-style axe. He repetitively brandished his silver-tipped finger in accusation at Rama, who bows with hands together at every denunciation.
Periods of singing are interspersed with interludes of rapid drumming, with the drummers becoming faster and sweatier. The bearded character (clearly very pissed off about that bow still) is passionately expressive, constantly gesticulating and signing with his hands, eyes staring and intense facial expressions. The movements of his hands and fingers are detailed and intricate, known as ‘mudra’ these movements allow the silent actors to convey the story. The music gains momentum and volume to accompany escalating dancing and foot stamping. Just as you thought it was winding down, again he would begin stomping and spinning around.
Rama takes his, more sedate, turn for dancing, ignored by the bearded man who covers his ears. He responds by raising his axe towards Rama in a frenzy of drumming and hopping round the stage, beating his chest and forehead and preening his impressive moustache forcefully.
After two hours of intense drumming, singing, stomping and staring the performance reached its tinnitus-inducing peak. Rama and the bearded man dance together, passionately building up to a fight. A final tussle over the bow and suddenly Rama is recognised as a reincarnation of Vishnu which has an immediate calming effect on the angry bearded man who turns from violence to worship and embraces Rama.
In the humid, sticky Keralan evening I don’t know how the thick face-paint didn’t melt off but it stayed as still and perfect as the faces of the actors wearing it. Over two hours of one of the most intense and passionate performances I have ever seen left you feeling exhausted and wondering how the audience felt after the traditional all-night-long plays, let alone the actors and musicians with their unwavering stamina and intense concentration. A magical experience and the perfect finale to our enchanting time in the state of Kerala.
Auto rickshaws, tuk-tuks or simply just ‘autos’ are everywhere in India! It’s not known how many there are but in some towns and cities the number is seemingly so disproportionate to the amount of customers that the rickshaw stands are often overflowing with hundreds of empty autos awaiting their next fare.
For many Indians being an auto driver is a good honest job, although with a new auto costing about £1800 we couldn’t fathom how it was a viable career considering the competition for just one 20p fare! We met numerous rickshaw drivers who lived by the meter, offered an amazing service and were truly happy to hear about why we were in India! To encourage meter use we always tipped these guys generously. The story was very different in Delhi and the other tourist hotspots where walking down the street actually becomes a tedious task as countless autos cruise past hawking for trade. As a tourist you are targeted and hounded and after bartering with at least 5 or 6 drivers you will still end up paying about 4 times the meter price (which they will never use).
For some drivers their auto is home from home, you will frequently see drivers asleep across the back seat and eating meals. Most autos are black and yellow or green and yellow, yet despite their uniformity there is still room for personality. Many drivers customise their ‘Tuk-Tuk’ by adding personal modifications, custom paint jobs, chrome accessories, sticker portraits of their favourite Bollywood stars and huge soundsystems.
Riding in one is akin to taking a jaunt on a ghost train, the scare factor is certainly equal! The auto can turn on a dime, you are open to the sights, sounds and smells of the city and you could be hit in the face at anytime by anything! Amongst the sea of green and yellow the autos tussle for space with just inches to spare. Inside space is at a premium and you certainly feel like sardines in a can. Typically an auto can carry 4 people, on one occasion we witnessed 14 people riding on one rickshaw!
India. It’s the ‘marmite’ of overlanders; you love it or hate it. With the exception of a huddle of vehicles in Goa, we saw very few overlanders and the common consensus was to transit fairly quickly between Iran, Pakistan or China and Southeast Asia.
For us, we love India, but at times we also loved to hate this colourful, crazy and chaotic country with cultural differences as wide as the Ganges. It’s a nation with the biggest extremes we’ve ever encountered, a rollercoaster of adventures, sights, smells and sounds. As an overview, we think these are some of the biggest factors, both positive and negative, when considering whether to overland in India.
Roads and Driving
It’s all about the horn. Remember the simple rule that every road user only looks forward, therefore you need to use the horn every time you pass a pedestrian, ‘2 wheeler’, car, truck, tractor, rickshaw, bus, ox cart or pilgrim procession. Apart from cows. Cows take no notice of anything and by default have priority owing to stubbornness and sacredness. The road-worthiness of most vehicles are a hazard; bald tyres, overloaded pickups, entire families wedged on underpowered scooters and trucks painted so elaborately they obscure the drivers peripheral vision. Take your time and assume every person, vehicle and animal may stop, swerve or pull-out without warning. Bus drivers with tight schedules, particularly in Kerala, are notoriously dangerous drivers and will overtake mercilessly, forcing oncoming traffic off the road- give them a wide berth.
Road surface conditions are generally OK, it’s the turmoil of traffic which can cause problems. Most roads are wide enough for 2 lanes of all vehicles but factor in street stalls, parked tuk-tuks, makeshift shelters, kids playing and dogs sleeping and often you’re left with just enough room to squeeze a slim camel through. The main highways crossing the country are excellent, they are monotonous toll roads but worth every rupee if you want to gain some ground quickly. Speed bumps are everywhere but unpainted and unsigned; expect many “Ooooooff’s” as you hit them without warning.
When you do have the luxury of dual carriageway, expect other drivers to use the wrong side of the road- it’s not uncommon to have a scooter or tractor coming towards you in the overtaking lane. It’s an unofficial global overlanding rule that night driving is avoided, but in India this really is essential as very few people use lights, hazards in the road are numerous 24 hours a day and there is hardly any street lighting.
One of the biggest attractions in overlanding is wild camping but unfortunately this is extremely difficult in India owing simply to a huge population, lack of accessible wild places and curiosity (sometimes suspicion) of locals. Other people we met had camped, only to be woken by the police and moved on to a ‘safe’ place (hotel or area near the station). India’s stunning National Parks are off-limits for camping, mostly vehicle access is strictly by park Jeep and when roads do cross these magnificent landscapes the authority-loving rangers are on your tail in minutes if you as much as stop for a sarnie. Park periphery’s are worth checking out- we managed a few stealthy sleeps on the quiet boundaries of reserves.
We did manage to find some wild camp spots, far easier in the less populated states of Gujarat and Rajasthan and in the North-eastern states, but it takes some hunting. Often we would find a spot, go for dinner, then come back and pop the tent when it was dark, leaving early in the morning. This keeps your budget down but is not the most relaxing camping style. Many times we asked guesthouses with gardens if we could camp there, with the benefit of both security and access to an outside toilet/washroom and always for a small or no cost. Truckstops were OK for the end of a long day if travelling on highways, with the bonus of a roadside restaurant and basic facilities. Not the quietest night’s sleep but we had no problems. Occasionally hotels are necessary, we were paying around £6-10 a night which is not super cheap but they had safe parking, Wi-Fi (sometimes working) and all-important showers.
Scamming and Cheating
It’s the tourist destination’s disease, if somewhere is frequented by foreigners in India, the hassle you will get multiplies dramatically. In towns and villages off the ‘trail’ you will pay the rest as everyone else but in areas of unofficial ‘tourist tax’ it can become arduous when faced with deliberate over-charging, made-up fees, service price increases and blatant asking for money.
We found that karma always brought a balance, for all the aggressive Tuk-tuk drivers, light-fingered shopkeepers, change-ignorers and price inventors were so many genuine, wonderful people who wanted nothing more than to chat to visitors to their country. We were invited for meals, cups of tea, people let us camp in their gardens and land, we were guests at weddings, given discounts and gifts for no reason other than people were fascinated by our travels. One petrol station owner in Manipur even filled the car with Diesel as a present and a hotel owner in Gujarat gave us unlimited free food and drink for our entire stay. Deep breaths, roll your eyes at yet another attempted scam and focus on the truly amazing generosity and welcome of the majority of Indian people- we rarely experience hospitality to strangers like that in the west.
Even after a long time on the road, the cultural differences coming to India can hit you like a soggy Paratha to the face so let’s deal briefly with the ones that us foreigners struggle most with.
Personal Space - Stop the car for more than a couple of minutes and people will be staring, hands cupped, through your window, opening doors and crowding around you and your vehicle. Although only simple curiosity, weeks and months of this can become suffocating and exhausting, especially when people are just staring constantly and not engaging. For those people that greet and chat to us, we are the happy ‘thumbs-up-posing-foreigners’ in literally thousands of photos and selfies (some holding reluctant Indian babies). Privacy is rare so al fresco cooking, relaxing, washing and ‘bathroom activities’ become extremely tricky.
Rubbish - There’s no escaping the fact that India is simply one of the dirtiest countries; poor waste collection and management services plus a vast population mean streets everywhere are littered, rivers are polluted, beaches are filthy and wherever you stop you seem to be stepping over debris and refuse of some sort. It’s an enormous problem for visitors and locals and one which is difficult to adjust to.
Bureaucracy - India loves archaic paperwork, reams of it, complete with a multitude of signatures and rubber stamps for everything. Give a man a uniform and a whistle and he will use it with vigour. The endless rules and regulations can become draining, whistles being blown for parking a metre too far to the left to pointing your camera too far to the right. Corruption is rife and dealing with any authority a painful test of patience of Dalai Llama-like levels. Console yourself with the fact you only have to endure with this infuriating bureaucracy temporarily, unlike poor Indian citizens who have to deal with this every day.
We Say Yes!
But the culture is exactly why you should adventure the highways and byways of India! Where else in the world would you be stuck in a traffic jam caused by pilgrims rolling themselves along the road, pass groups of wild Elephants, see cows with more decorations than a Christmas tree and visit multi-coloured, flashing fairy light-covered temples where thousands of rats are worshipped. Food is incredible, inexpensive and diverse (once your stomach has ‘adjusted’) and people and customs change enormously with each distinct state. Temples, palaces, forts, colonial architecture. Wildlife is fantastic and landscape varies from the mighty Himalaya Mountains, dense jungle, pine forest and rolling desert dunes to idyllic palm-fringed beaches, wide rivers, vivid green rice paddies and rolling tea plantation hills.
Despite the challenges, overlanding is a great way to see the real India, to get off the backpacker-beaten track and experience a country and culture like no other on earth. One thing’s for certain, there is never a dull moment and no other country has left us with such beautifully bizarre memories, even after over 4 months in the country we were still witnessing things on a daily basis which made our jaws drop.
India is a spiritually diverse country with 6 separate religions vying for the high percentages: by far though Hinduism has the majority share with 80% of the population being practicing Hindus.
Hinduism is an incredibly complex religion of which I’m not about to try and explain. One aspect that we found fascinating during our time in India was the extent of the religious devotion through acts of offerings, commitment and pilgrimage by Indians and Westerners!
Pilgrimages and festivals are common in India and we were lucky enough to witness several.
Unexpectedly in Kerala, we bumped into a procession of men in a trance like state hanging from meat hooks on moving vehicles! OH! That’ll be the Thaipusam Festival!
Thaipusam is a Hindu festival celebrated mostly by the Tamil community on the full moon in January/February. Devotees prepare for the celebration by cleansing themselves through prayer and fasting for approximately 48 days before Thaipusam. On the day of the festival, devotees undertake a pilgrimage along a set route while engaging in various acts of devotion, notably mortification of the flesh by piercing the skin, tongue or cheeks with skewers. It was pretty horrific. The procession starts with the village youngsters who have up to 40 little bells hanging from their chests and backs from fishing hooks. As the boys approach puberty they have skewers pierced through their cheeks and arms. When they reach manhood they are themselves hanging like Christmas decorations from trucks!
As we headed south through Goa, Karnataka and Kerala we witnessed hundreds of elaborately, kitschy decorated jeeps packed with sweaty pilgrims. After a little investigation we discovered they were all heading for Sabarimala. The Hindu Pilgrimage site is located on a hilltop in a dense forest. It is one of the largest annual pilgrimages in the world, with an estimated 100 million devotees attending every year. Traditionally these pilgrimages would have been made on foot now Hindu devotees spend a lot of money with tour operators to carry them across the country to attend!
Indian festivals, temples and pilgrimages are big business in India. Every temple has a huge notice board (a bit like a takeaway menu) with the price list for offerings and ‘puja’ rituals offered by priests; some larger temples even have a computerised payment system. In a country where the average daily wage is less than £2 it was staggering to see the amount of revenue generated by Shiva and Co. through fire waving and sweet offering!
The Rolling Saint
On the roads in India you can witness anything! So it came as no surprise to see a man rolling down one of the countries motorways. Mohan Das aka Lotan Baba or ‘The Rolling Saint’ is an Indian holy man who is promoting peace by rolling his body along the ground when he travels, sometimes whilst smoking.
With his unique approach to overlanding he’s covered a whooping 30,000km and even tried to cross the notorious India/Pakistan border where he was stopped and told he needed a passport and visa like everybody else!
Admittedly he is a pretty special guy, he once undertook penance for 7 years by standing in one place and eating grass.
Ardh Kumbh Mela
The Kumbh Mela is a mass pilgrimage where Hindus gather to bathe in a sacred river. The Kumbh Mela and the Ardh (half) Kumbh Mela are held periodically on rotation at four sites: Haridwar, Allahabad, Nashik and Ujjain. The festival is held at each site every 12 years, with a half festival every 6 years. Bathing in sacred rivers is considered to cleanse a person of all sins… The estimated attendance over the Kumbh Mela is approximately 120 million people – that’s a lot of sinners!
The main festival site is considered to be in Haridwar on the banks of the river Ganges. We caught the tail end of the Ardh Kumbh Mela in Haridwar and got to experience the full extent of how many people felt they needed their sins cleansed!
Just 20km north of Haridwar lies Rishikesh. In February 1968, the Beatles arrived here in North India, also known as “The Valley of the Saints” at the foothills of the Himalayas to study Transcendental Meditation. Rishikesh is roughly 7000km away from Bangor in North Wales, which is where the Beatles first attended a seminar by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Being a huge music fan I was excited at the prospect of visiting Rishikesh and experiencing the place where the Beatles had one of their most productive times. A huge chunk of “the White Album” was written at the Ashram and whilst there I enjoyed learning about the context in which the songs were written. With fresh ears I listened again and again and read new meanings into many of the songs I had taken for granted.
I knew that the Beatles had shared their class with Donovan, Jane Asher, Marianne Faithfull, Flautist Paul Horn, Mike Love of the Beach Boys and with Mia Farrow along with her sister Prudence. The song Dear Prudence, composed by Lennon using a guitar picking technique taught by Donovan, was intended to lure Prudence Farrow out of her three week intense meditation!
It’s no secret that the Beatles time in India ended in controversy due to allegations of unfair business negotiations, allegations of sexual impropriety and drug use; the latter causing great tension between the Maharishi and the Beatles!
Western Devotees, Spiritualists and Yoga Disciples
The Beatles had travelled 7000km to India on a pilgrimage of sorts to ‘find themselves’, possibly with drugs, possibly with Transcendental Meditation, after the death of their manager Brian Epstein. In 2016 Westerners are still heading east in search of answers, they are easy to spot in Rishikesh despite dressing like the locals!
But surely Hinduism requires a life of dedication, not just a two-week holiday and a pair of white cotton trousers, to begin to understand the complexities of the numerous gods and deities, it is an incredibly tough religion to get your head around after all? An observation proven to us when we spotted a clearly confused western couple in Rishikesh who were taking part in a Hindu ceremony and drinking water from the Ganges who were then later spotted in a shop purchasing Tibetan Buddhist Thangka’s wearing Islamic style headdress’.
Emma: Do you want to go to Auroville?
Me: Sounds like a Lars von Trier movie!
On reflection after visiting Auroville and digging a little deeper it seems my nerdy film director remark was not too far from the truth. The idiosyncrasies of life in the microcosm of Auroville have many parallels with several of Lars von Trier’s movies.
Auroville is an experiment in the making - a “universal township” started in the late 1960’s to realise “human unity” for a population of up to 50,000 people from around the world.
Situated near Pondicherry in south-east India the township is now home to 2,345 people coming from 50 nationalities all working together towards peace, sincerity and truth; creating the ideal society beyond all social, political and religious conviction with an emphasis on education, self sustainability and creativity.
It’s a proposed utopia here on planet earth where the emphasis is less about capitalism and more about socialism. In Auroville money is no longer the “sovereign lord”, material wealth and social standing play no role with the focus being placed on individual worth: what you can offer as a human being.
Auroville, or the ‘City of Dawn’, was founded in 1968 by ‘The Mother’, whose image is unnervingly plastered on nearly every home, building, and public space around Auroville. She was inspired by her relationship with Sri Aurobindo, an Indian philosopher and yoga guru and in 1968 announced her 4-point Charter laying the foundations for her vision of “integral living”.
Now this is all starting to sound a little culty* and not to dissimilar to the synopsis of Lars von Trier’s movie ‘The Idiots’ where a group of perfectly intelligent young people decide to react to society's cult of an aimless, non-creative and non-responsible form of intelligence by living together in an alternative community. The film focuses on a new recruit, a lost soul, who is introduced to their megalomaniac leader. The Auroville website states “One lives in Auroville in order to be free from moral and social conventions”. In ‘The Idiots’ the group’s main activity is going out into the world of "normal" people and pretending to be mentally retarded! The Idiots view themselves with a self-righteous air of confidence that elevates them above “normal” people. They belong to something special and are protective of the group in fear of outside influences.
Auroville has it’s own printing press and in one of the many gift shops that visitors can access you can purchase many books about the Guru’s philosophy along with publications written by the residents. The cities Outreach Media Centre, an Orwellian-esq committee established to monitor press about Auroville, keeps a close eye on what is published about the community by its own press and certainly by outsiders.
A model in the visitors centre demonstrates how the town, designed by architect Roger Anger, will spiral out like a universe from the central Matrimandir, the ‘soul of the city’ through several planned zones with names seemingly inspired by ‘The Crystal Maze’: Industrial Zone, Residential Zone, International Zone, Cultural Zone and Green Belt.
Sadly the current reality doesn’t look much like the model with the exception of its centrepiece! The Matrimandir, a large golden sphere, is situated in a huge open area called 'Peace', from where the township radiates outwards. It’s a place “for trying to find one's consciousness” and not for a frenzied attempt at acquiring gold notes like in the Crystal Maze. The Inner Chamber in the upper hemisphere of the Matrimandir is akin to the set of a sci-fi version of an Indiana Jones movie, completely white, with white marble walls and deep, white carpeting. In the centre sits a pure crystal-glass globe which permeates a ray of electronically guided sunlight that falls on it through an opening at the apex of the sphere. The inner chamber is the heart of the city, but unlike the churches and temples of the past this space is devoid of images, organised meditations, flowers, incense, religion or religious forms. As an Aurovilian this space is about YOU and for YOU… but not your ego!
The gardens surrounding the Matrimandir are manicured and in stark contrast to the rest of India. The garden is divided into 12 parks each named after attributes we should all strive for "Harmony", "Bliss" and “Perfection" to name a few.
Ironically, the immaculate gardens are cared for by lesser-educated Indian workers from outside Auroville, working on a standard salary. They are not the only outside ‘help’; Auroville employs over 5000 villagers as cleaners, watchmen, masons, drivers, waiters and a whole host of other people generally in less-skilled, labour-intensive positions.
This is starting to sound a little neo-colonial now, where’s the Raj?
Well Auroville claims that where possible, when a clerical, supervisory or managerial position cannot be filled by an Aurovilian, it places a well-qualified local person in that position. Local people freely approach Auroville for work and the town does offer good rates of pay, great working conditions, pensions schemes and a whole host of other benefits.
Unfortunately, illiterate or unskilled people can only be employed in jobs they are capable of performing. As far as I could tell there are no programs in place to improve education amongst the employed locals despite Auroville doing practical work to improve the quality of life in the surrounding villages. It is true however that Auroville’s location has indeed brought a huge income to the surrounding area.
For ‘foreigners’ living in Auroville work is not a way to earn a living but a way to express yourself and to develop skills which benefit the community as a whole. Artists and writers are welcomed with open arms, and the arts are accessible to all. Obviously a place like this attracts humans of good will with sincere aspirations, so how do I sign up?
Well there is a waiting list to become an Aurovilian because of an apparent housing shortage (probably due to a disproportionate amount of yoga instructors to builders). The lengthy two-year application process requires you to prove you are dedicated to ‘the cause’. You must work for free as a contribution to Auroville and, from what I’ve read on the internet, you are not allowed to leave for two years! In the plot to Lars von Trier’s ‘Dogville’ Nicole Kidman’s character is reluctantly accepted into a small Colorado town. In exchange, she agrees to work for them. She finds out that their support has a price and the town's sense of goodness takes a sinister turn, as her freedom becomes a workload and treatment akin to that of a slave… That’s unlikely to happen in Auroville! After your two-year probation period you are asked to stand before a small group that reviews applications and ultimately decides if you can become an Aurovilian.
So is it still possible to live in 2016 using the ideals of hippies from 1968?
Some people move to Auroville to escape while others are clearly looking for answers, for some though I’m pretty sure it has become just something ‘cool’ to do. The town didn’t feel as ‘hippie’ as I was expecting, the gift shops and cafes had an air of wealthy East Dulwich about them and we spotted countless cool-looking 30-somethings eating overpriced organic salads. Sadly, I think moving to Auroville has possibly become the latest ‘thing’ for wealthy trendy ‘hipster’ families from Europe to do. One local woman told us the town is full of rich Europeans who desert Auroville during the hot summer months, which is not really embracing the spirit of the place!
On paper the dream still sounds inviting, but unfortunately, after nearly 50 years it’s clear that the experiment has exposed some flaws in the original philosophy. Auroville is seemingly a utopia with contradictions; this shouldn’t belittle the concept though. For a place that claims to renounce money, material wealth and politics there sure seemed to be a lot of it going on! History has proven that where there are people there are politics, India is a country bursting with bureaucracy (and corruption) to which Auroville is not immune.
For Auroville to exist it has to work closely with the Indian Government who partially fund the experiment. Under the umbrella of the Auroville foundation exist plenty of working parties and councils: Auroville Foundation, Advisory Council, Working Committee, Auroville Board of Commerce, Auroville Council, Residents Assembly, Executive Council and the Village Liaison Group.
Aurovilles income comes from NGO sponsorship, profits from commercial units within Auroville, from a number of 'Auroville International' centres around the world, from guesthouses, donations and from the Aurovilians themselves.
As an Aurovilian you can still access savings from your country of origin. If you don’t have any savings the community meets all your needs, and provides a cash allowance or 'maintenance' (a monthly sum, just enough to meet your basic needs), which you receive from the commercial unit or community service you work for. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor there is no private ownership of land, housing or business in Auroville as you are constantly investing in the collectively owned land, housing and business. Ultimately the land still belongs to India and Auroville could be evicted at any time!
The cities aim was to become self-sufficient, at present Auroville can only produce adequate amounts of milk and some seasonal fruits. It produces only part of its total rice and grain requirements, and less than 50% of its total fruit and vegetable requirements. Maybe the artists need to spend a little more time out in the fields? Ironically most families in rural India are pretty much self-sufficient.
In Lars von Trier’s movie ‘Dancer in the Dark’, the lead character Selma (played by Bjork), an east European girl (of which there are 44 in Auroville) travels to America with her young son, chasing the ‘American Dream’ she expects it to be like a Hollywood musical only for the story to end tragically. So is there ever trouble in paradise?
Having spoken to several Indians living and working on the periphery of Auroville, the utopian vision occasionally turns sour. Conflicts between locals and Aurovilians (baring in mind a large percentage of Aurovilians are Indian) are frequent. The same typical disagreements arise that would happen in any organised society: bad behaviour, disproportionate workloads, non-payment of monies, etc, etc.
One main factor that agitates the surrounding villages is the sense of ‘us and them’. Seemingly, the residents of Auroville don’t want to share their knowledge with the locals. Again this attitude is not really embracing the spirit of Auroville. It’s easy to understand why though. Being an Aurovilian is something special, if all the surrounding villages operate in the same way; using the same water harvesting techniques, waste management, recycling, etc then Auroville is nothing special and all the westerners who want to move there are essentially just living in rural India and thus losing the superiority that comes with being an Aurovilian. This haughtiness in part possibly stems from this quote I found on Auroville’s website relating to evolution “Ultimately the people here believe they are helping humanity move beyond its present limitations”. If that doesn’t bolster your ego and give you an air of superiority then nothing will. Sadly, the Mother’s vision of a utopia based around spirituality where “One can unite with the Divine only by mastering one’s ego” has now possibly been resigned to the history books.
Auroville may not be perfect, but it is important for a place like this to exist. An alternative formula for a new way to live and think, where balance and harmony with each other and the environment are the focus. Obviously a daring experiment this bold faces enormous challenges and leaves itself open to criticism (as demonstrated above – at least I didn’t mention the suspicious death of an American student!) and after visiting the place it is very easy to be cynical, however as our world grows increasingly more consumerist it is still as a refreshing concept now as it was back in 1968. More people than ever still believe in the dream and want to flock to this, the world’s largest (and growing) existing spiritual utopia.
*As an internationally recognised township project, endorsed by UNESCO and supported by the Government of India Auroville is not operating as a cult!
Today is a massive milestone for us as we cross the border to Laos! We set out with a dream nearly 5 years ago to see as much of the world as we could by car. 75,568 miles and 49 countries later we've lost a few pounds (weight and financial) and gained a few scars! Our trip has had it's ups and downs and on a few occasions we've nearly thrown the towel in...
TODAY IS OUR 800th DAY ON THE ROAD and we are incredibly proud of what we've achieved with good old fashioned hard work, grit and determination. Without the support of each other, our friends, family and the encouragement of all our supporters, fans and followers we'd still be sat at home on the sofa dreaming. THANK YOU!
To help celebrate we've selected some of our favourite photographs all featuring the third and arguably the most important member of our team Bee-bee!