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The Road to Mandalay

19 January to 8 February 2014

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By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”

So run the first four lines of one of Rudyard Kipling’s most famous poems. Recording the wistful memories of an old soldier, it mirrored our feelings as we looked forward to reacquainting ourselves with the fascinating and beautiful land of Burma, now more properly known as Myanmar.

The Road to Mandalay was the very first competitive classic car rally to be welcomed into Burma/Myanmar, a genuinely pioneering, three-week adventure that offered a chance to drive the country’s ever-improving roads, meet its people and rediscover much that had previously been hidden from the world, including some truly astonishing sights. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore the rich culture of an extraordinary and mysterious land before it changed forever. For where Rally Round led, others will surely follow.

Read the blogs and the press coverage, watch the video and browse our photo gallery, and you will understand why…

“A stupendous rally, really outstanding. Extremely well organised and action packed. An abiding memory will be of the great camaraderie and endless laughter. We cannot think of a single thing that would have made it better”

Adrian and Barbara Shooter (1930 Ford Model A) – The Road to Mandalay Rally 2014

“The best, most exciting rally we have ever done”

Xavier del Marmol & Ines Bodmer (1937 Chevrolet Master DeLuxe) – The Road to Mandalay Rally 2014

RtM14 winners

Jose and Maria Romao de Sousa, winners of the Road to Mandalay rally, pictured here on the day they took the lead at Bagan

Entry List

Class / Car No.DriverCo-DriverCarEngine Size (cc)
Class 1 - Vintage up to 4000cc
1Gerd Buhler (DEU)Birgit Buhler (DEU)1938 BMW 327/21971
2Adrian Shooter (GBR)Barbara Shooter (GBR)1930 Ford Model A3285
3Herman de Jong (NLD)Vera de Jong (NLD)1937 Alvis Speed 253571
Class 2 - Vintage over 4000cc
4Jan Dingemans (NLD)Marleeen Schapendonk (NLD)1928 Bentley Le Mans4398
5Xavier del Marmol (BEL)Ines Bodmer (CHE)1937 Chevrolet Master DeLuxe DHC4000
6Richard Cunningham (GBR)Julian Hanson-Smith (GBR)1933 Lagonda M45 Tourer4500
7Jorge Ruiz (CHE)Agustin Panes (ESP)1944 Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn4558
8Michael Haentjes (DEU)Simone Richart (ITA)1937 Lagonda LG454500
Class 3 - Classic up to 2400cc
9Heidi Winterbourne (GBR)Jackie Quinan (GBR)1969 Ford Cortina Lotus1598
10Ian Besly (AUS)Denise Besly (AUS)1956 MGA Roadster1500
11David Inns (GBR)Pamela Wallis (GBR)1966 Volvo 144S1780
12José Romão de Sousa (PRT)Maria Romão de Sousa (PRT)1968 Volvo 142S1993
14Christian Wilhelm (AUT)Ulrike Breuss, Walter Knunz (LIE)1955 Mercedes-Benz 220a Ponton2199
Class 4 - Classic over 2400cc
15Roger Allen (AUS)Maggie Gray (AUS)1971 BMW 2800CS2788
16Derek Richards (GBR)Rosemary Richards (GBR)1964 Austin-Healey 3000 BJ82912
17Dougie Lawson (GBR)Kate Lawson (GBR)1959 Jaguar XK150 DHC3442
18Peter Gerstrom (GBR)Louise Noon (GBR) / Carolyn Brigg (GBR)1967 Jaguar Mk23442
19Erich Hoop (LIE)Oliver Hoop, Alex Hoop (LIE)1955 Chevrolet Pick-Up3860
20Julian Reddyhough (GCM)Adrian Pope (GCM)1966 Aston Martin DB63995
21Robin Morrison (GBR)Charlotte Morrison (GBR)1970 Aston Martin DB6 MkII4200
22Dean Golding (GBR)Kendal Golding (GBR)1969 Rolls-Royce Corniche6250
23Alastair Caldwell (GBR)Dorothy Caldwell (NZL)1963 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III6230

Itinerary

DayDateDestinationDistance (km)Highlights
119-JanArrive Yangon0Reunited with cars
220-JanYangon0Sightseeing tour of Yangon
321-JanYangon to Taungoo307Cars blessed
422-JanTaungoo to Naypyidaw116New capital city
523-JanNaypyidaw to Kalaw260Colonial hillstation
624-JanKalaw to Inle Lake80Breathtaking scenery, lake cruise and craft shops
725-JanInle Lake – Rest day0Lake cruise and floating market
826-JanInle Lake to Pindaya90A thousand Buddhas
927-JanPindaya to Mandalay194Last seat of the Kings of Burma
1028-JanMandalay – Rest day0Sightseeing tour of Mandalay
1129-JanMandalay to Maymyo70Botanical gardens
1230-JanMaymyo – Rest day0Train journey
1331-JanMaymyo to Monywa220Temples
1401-FebMonywa – Rest day0Caves
1502-FebMonywa to Bagan195Bagan Temple Zone
1603-FebBagan – Rest day0Balloon ride, river cruise and BBQ
1704-FebBagan to Mt Popa – Bagan100Stunning temples, dinner under the stars
1805-FebBagan to Pyay340Historic trading crossroads
1906-FebPyay – Rest day60Sunset on the Irrawaddy
2007-FebPyay to Yangon280Finish, gala dinner and prizegiving
2108-FebYangon0Departure
   2312 km (total)
 

Route Recce

Day 1 & 2 – Yangon

To recce a pioneering rally route in a country that very few people have even visited is a great adventure. There was certainly a sense of excitement and anticipation as we arrived in Yangon on the morning flight from Bangkok. We were also pleased that a speedy passage through immigration and customs had been arranged for us by the Myanmar team!

Arriving at the Kandawgyi Palace Hotel, it was great to find that it had a genuine Burmese feel to it, unlike many of the anonymous modern hotels we had passed on the way from the airport. Nevertheless we got straight down to business with Win from the Myanmar team, discussing in detail the work had already been done and what we wanted to achieve on the recce.

The first priority was to fit a tripmeter to our hire car. As we did not yet have Myanmar driving licences we had to employ a driver, Kwai Gyi (pronounced Georgie). Although unusual for a recce, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. We predict that within 10 years he’ll be running the country!

We soon got our first taste of Yangon traffic – and to describe it as slow would be an understatement. For the rally the police will either escort out of the city or switch all the traffic lights to green, but on this occasion we had no such privileges. It took an hour to cover 10 miles, where we found a ‘garage’ willing to fit the trip. I use the word loosely, as it was just one business in a warren of little stalls, each specialising in a different item – dampers, wing mirrors, tyres and so on.

Trip fitted, our next task was to tulip the short route between the hotel and the port where the rally cars will be unloaded. As it is almost a straight line, it was very easy indeed!

Day two offered the opportunity to explore Yangon, wandering around the old colonial area. The buildings here have a shabby grandeur as the heat and humidity quickly dilapidate them. Many were previously used by the government but have stood empty since the capital was moved to Naypyidaw in 2005.

We also took in our first temple, the impressive Shwe Dagon Pagoda. This is the most important pagoda in Myanmar, said to incorporate a hair of the Buddha in the very heart of its structure.


Day 3 – Yangon to Taungoo

On the open road at last, we headed out of Yangon towards Bago, the lunch stop for the rally and yet another city that was formerly the nation’s capital.

As expected the road was busy, although the nature of the traffic changed as we got farther out of Yangon. Even with a quick detour to a giant pagoda and a reconstructed palace we made good progress and had time for a delicious curry at the restaurant we will be using on the rally.

Moving on, the Myanmar team had found a little village that was happy to offer the rally a glimpse into rural life. We chose not to venture over one of the tree-trunk bridges that crossed the stream running through the village, pretending that we didn’t want to risk our cameras, and so we reached our stop for the night with dry feet and plenty of time to enjoy the well-appointed Royal Kaytumadi Hotel, a modern, five-star establishment whose architecture reflects the traditions of the 16th century Taungoo dynasty.


Day 4 – Taungoo to Naypyidaw

Myanmar doesn’t have the road infrastructure we are acustomed to. Although we were keen to explore minor roads, there were none to be found at this stage of the recce so we simply relaxed and followed the Asian Highway One to Naypyidaw, arriving before midday. This is certainly the most unusual capital city we have ever visited, a vast modernist fantasy with a network of motorways linking designated areas for housing, hotels, official ministries and so on.

We were keen to experience the city’s 20-lane highway and were not disappointed by its strange grandeur – there was hardly another car on it! The highway is closed when parliament is sitting, so we must hope that the politicians are on holiday when the rally arrives.


Day 5 – Naypyidaw to Kalaw

Leaving the capital, we at last found some smaller roads heading in the right direction. Driver Georgie was somewhat perplexed, wondering why anyone would prefer a country lane to a main road, but his reluctance was quickly overcome and it wasn’t long before he too was taking photographs. Here rural life has hardly changed in centuries, and the farmers we passed were simply continuing the work of their forefathers.

We stopped at the proposed lunch halt in a roadside cafe before heading to a nearby elephant camp. The cafe was perfectly good but when we were informed that the elephant camp also served food we were keen to discover what it had to offer. The camp is up a small, steep track (parking for the rally cars is being arranged in the village by the road) and is based in a small, tranquil house. The owner, Tauntaun Win, greeted us with tea and samosas so delicious that despite having just eaten we gobbled them all up, the decision about where to have lunch easily made. We talked to Tauntaun Win about the project he runs, caring for old and poorly elephants, before meeting the animals themselves. There are presently seven in residence and you will have the chance to feed them and then, if you wish, help them bathe. As the schedule allowed we grabbed the opportunity, and enjoyed a rewarding time waist deep in the river giving the elephants a good clean!

After leaving the elephant camp we headed up a twisting road with lots of hairpins to Kalaw, our stop for the night. The accommodation here has a unique charm, feeling rather like a 1950s chalet hotel.


Day 5 – Kalaw to Inle

We left Kalaw early for the short run to the lunch halt at a vineyard and winery (one of only two in Myanmar, which uses vines imported from Europe). As it was only 10.30am and we had a full day’s work ahead of us we decided not to indulge in the full wine tasting experience, but did enjoy a sip or two!

Our next night halt was not very far away but the route was peppered with road works, which we expect to be completed before the event. The hotel is set on the shores of the stunning Inle lake and after quickly checking in we set off in a boat from the hotel jetty. Inle is breathtakingly beautiful and it was lovely to sit back and enjoy the scenery.

The rally will enjoy a rest day here so we had a lot to see, stopping off at some artisan craft workshops before heading up river to an archaeological site and checking out the location for a planned bamboo forest lunch, not to mention a spot of boat racing…


Day 7 – Inle to Pindaya

Leaving Inle we headed for Pindaya via a gravel road that twisted and meandered through the countryside. This too was being worked on, so we will check it again before the event. The landscape here is farmland, with rich soils making it incredibly fertile. On the recce it was a patchwork of greens but in January we have been told to expect a riot of different colours.

We arrived at Pindaya in time for lunch at a lakeside restaurant before exploring the local craft workshops and caves full of Buddhas.

The evening hotel was again very charming, a mixture of bamboo huts and chalets with excellent spa and massage facilites. To top everything off, a delicious dinner was crowned with chocolate cake of a quality we was certainly not expecting in the middle of the Myanmar countryside. We have asked for it to be included on the rally menu!


Day 8 – Pindaya to Mandalay

At last, we really are on the road to Mandalay!

This being the wet season, we left Pindaya on roads reminiscent of the muddy lanes of England’s West Country before tackling what the locals call the ‘Ywangan decent’. Hugging the sides of numerous valleys, it is probably the best road on the entire rally.

After several few hours of really great driving we rejoined the main road for the first time since leaving Naypyidaw. This took us into Mandalay, although it is not a very romantic approach, passing through an industrial zone that the government has recently created.

Still, the rally will have a day off in Mandalay, so we investigated a variety of possible excursions, including a workshop where gold leaf is still made by hand – a ridiculously labour-intensive process!


Day 9 – Mandalay to Maymyo

We left Mandalay very early, hoping to catch the train planned as an excursion on the rally’s rest day in Maymyo. The road is the main route to China and is busy with lorries piled high with goods, switchbacking their way up and down the mountain. Yet Maymyo itself is surprisingly tranquil.

We found the train station but had missed the train. The ever-resourceful Georgie suggested we catch it up at a station farther down the line. We rather doubted this possibility but it was fun to try. After an hour’s speedy driving we reached a small rural stop where the station master hadn’t issued a tourist ticket in over three months; the process took a little time, during which we became a source of entertainment for the schoolchildren walking home for lunch along the rail tracks. When it did eventually arrive, the train was more reminiscent of a Disneyland ride than anything else, as it rattled and swayed through the countryside.

Georgie met us at the next stop (likewise, transport will be provided on the rally) and we headed back to Maymyo via the Governor’s Mansion, a potential dinner venue. The house has been meticulously reconstructed from original plans, and to add ‘atmosphere’ some wax figures of the old colonial occupants lounge in the hallway, all slowly turning an interesting shade of green!

We finished our day with a delicious colonial style curry at the hotel in Maymyo.


Day 10 – Maymyo to Monywa

We left Maymyo on the same road and headed via Sagaing, where the rally will have lunch in the monastery district, to Monywa. On arrival it was suggested that we take a small detour; we were initially reluctant but allowed ourselves be persuaded. We were glad we did, as it led us to the most unusual pagoda of the trip. We could only imagine that narcotics might have been dabbled with when this was built in the 1950s. We will say no more as it almost defies description, but it is certainly worth seeing!

After a quick stop for lunch at the hotel, we set off to write the road book for a planned excursion on the Monywa rest day, an interesting trip up a country road (past an open cast mine) to a series of limestone caves, frequented by monkeys and filled with Buddhas and the most beautifully painted murals depicting life in a bygone age.


Day 11 – Monywa to Bagan

We were concerned when Zani of the Myanmar team told us that the road we wanted to take to Bagan had been closed and replaced by a new one. We need not have worried, though, as our favourite quote of the recce made clear: ‘Eight months ago this road was under construction; now it’s under reconstruction!’

On the way we stopped at a local village to investigate the possibility of taking the rally along some of the local side roads. It was soon obvious that this was unfeasible; threading their way between houses on each side the roads were only just wide enough for a car, and there were children and animals running everywhere. We thanked the incredibly helpful village head, who wondered what these crazy tourists were up to, before we rejoined the road to Bagan.

Bagan did not disappoint. After a delicious lunch of river prawns in a restaurant overlooking the Irrawaddy river, we headed off to create a road book on the maze of sandy lanes between the thousands of ancient pagodas in the so-called Temple Zone. For this we enlisted the assistance of a local restaurant owner, and with his help we have come up with a very special regularity!

For the first time since Yangon we were able to spend two nights in the same place, and we could hardly have chosen a better location. The hotel is truly spectacular, set amongst the Bagan pagodas with an infinity pool looking out across the plain.


Day 12 – Bagan

For the rally there will be two rest days in Bagan, with a balloon ride and a barbecue on the sandbanks in the middle of the river. Unfortunately due to a lack of time (for the balloon ride) and sunshine (for the BBQ) we were unable to recce these. But based on our visit we think they will be two of the event’s most memorable highlights.

Instead we headed to Mount Popa, compiling the road book for the planned lunch stop on the mountain. The restaurant has spectacular views across the plain to Popa Table Mountain with its pagodas and shrines to animist ‘nats’ (spirits). The restaurant is the perfect place to relax, take in the views and refresh the mind, and we were very reluctant to leave. On the way back to Bagan we stopped at a small shop making coconut palm sugar, watching the process and tasting the results. The sweets are delicious but the palm sugar liqueur is powerful stuff!


Day 13 – Bagan via Magwe to Pyay

We faced a long drive as we combined two event days into one for the recce journey back to Yangon. On the rally we plan to spend as much time as possible in Bagan, leaving at lunchtime for a fairly short journey to an overnight stop at Magwe.

Having arrived in Pyay we checked the two hotels in the city that are suitable. They are only two-star but are clean and tidy. Numbers oblige us to use both hotels on this particular night, with half the group in one hotel and half in the other.


Day 14 – Pyay to Yangon

The last day is a rather long one on the increasingly busy roads into Yangon. With breakfasts at the Pyay hotels somewhat scant and nowhere decent to stop for lunch en route, we have decided to supplement the hotel breakfasts with fresh bread and fruit and keep the rally on the road all the way to Yangon, where you will be greeted with Champagne and afternoon tea.


Day 15 & 16 – Yangon

We had one more full day in Yangon, spending much of it with the Myanmar team as we reviewed the recce details and any changes we wanted to make. We then had time to check the availability of flat-bed trucks, scour the market for suitably impressive rally awards and look at a few more tourist sites before flying home, pleased that a lot had been achieved.

Our overriding impression of Myanmar was of the friendliness of its people. If you smile at them they smile back at you twice as widely and although English is not generally spoken they could not be more willing to help. Theirs is a beautiful land and a fascinating culture which is yet to be influenced by large-scale commercial tourism, so this is definitely a good time to visit and experience all the country has to offer. To take part in the very first classic car rally there will be a truly unique privilege!

Breaking new ground in Burma

In the summer of 2013, Simon Hope returned from an initial visit to Myanmar full of excitement and enthusiasm for what he had seen. Here’s his report…

 

I flew to Myanmar (Burma) for two reasons: to see how our rally plans were progressing and to introduce myself to the team on the ground, as I had not been involved in the face to face discussions hitherto. I intended to be in the country for just over three days and I was met by Khaing Zani, the head of our chosen local operators.

This was the rainy season so I planned accordingly – a very good decision as it threw it down most of the time, but I was thwarted by the luggage handlers in Bangkok, who lost my suitcase with all my clothes and presents for my meetings!

Zani took me straight to the hotel we have chosen in Yangon, the Kan Daw Gyi Palace, without doubt the best hotel in Yangon for our purposes. It’s an oasis of calm with spa and massage facilities which I used after the long flight before having a light lunch.

Later that afternoon we flew (it is a five-hour drive by car) to Nay Pyi Taw, the purpose-built Capital city on the main Asian highway from India in the west to Thailand in the east. It is an absolute eye opener! We stayed at the chosen rally hotel Aureum Palace Hotel, which is fabulous.

We were due to meet His Excellency U Htay Aung, the Minister for Tourism and Hotels, the following day. I had no clothes apart from those I had travelled in, so we bought a traditional costume as a sign of respect to him and his country.

His Excellency and his department are totally responsible for issuing the permissions for Myanmar so he has always been central to the success of our plans. He has been a very enthusiastic supporter of our rally from the beginning but his diary is always full and forever changing. The fact he found time to meet me at all showed his intrinsic interest. In the end we talked for about 30 minutes about the country, the rally and how he could help before he had to dash away. It was an excellent meeting during which it was obvious that he had not heard of any other rally companies coming to Myanmar.

Zani and I then spent the day discussing the finer details of the rally – the special things that we are famous for but you will not find out about until you are on the event. Later I went to dinner with His Excellency U Kyaw Thant, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. It was a lovely evening during which we enjoyed simple Thai cuisine and I was able to get a wider perspective on Myanmar and its ambitions.

We flew back to Yangon the following morning to meet the rest of the team and to see the Shwe Dagon (Golden) Pagoda, where we plan to start and finish the rally and for which we need government help. It really is sensational.

I went to bed for my last night in the Kan Daw Gyi Palace tired but at peace with the world and our plans for the very first rally in Myanmar. You’re going to love it!

Q&A

Q: What is the fuel availability?

A: Fuel is available everywhere along the rally route. There are numerous petrol stations.
Approximate prices are:
92 gasoline – 3850 kyats per gallon
Diesel – 4000 kyats per gallon
(1US$ = +/- 938 kyats)

Q: What are the general road conditions like in January and February?

A: Normally there is no rain in January or February and the temperatures are very pleasant, but last year it rained a lot. However, the government is continually improving Myanmar’s transport infrastructure and most of the roads you will follow are in good condition. You will find that some of them are quite narrow and there are some short stretches where conditions require extra care. .

Q: What happens if my car breaks down?

A: Your first resort is our excellent team of mechanics in well-equipped Land Rovers, who will do their utmost to mend your car. Please bear in mind, however, that their role is to effect general repairs rather than conduct major rebuilds at the roadside.

If our mechanics are unable to repair your car and it is unable to continue we will help you to hire a car locally. This only takes a matter of hours wherever we are on the route. We will ensure your own car is taken to a safe place to await collection.

Q: What documents are needed for Myanmar?

A: Local driving licences will be applied for by our partners in Myanmar and you will need to provide the following:
Two clear colour photocopies of drivers’ passports
ID photo of drivers in JPEG format
Copy of current driving licences

The following vehicle documents are also required:
Car registration information (in the UK this is the V5 document)
Clear colour photos of the car from both sides, front and back as well as a photo of the number plate.

All these documents should be with the office by 25 August 2013 at the very latest. The application process takes some time as it may need to be approved by the President or Vice President.

You might need to provide additional documents for the shipping of your car, so please ensure you ask for a comprehensive list of documents from your shipper.

Q: What communications are available?

A: Mobile phones from outside Myanmar do not work. We can arrange to hire local sim-cards but they will not fit iPhones so please bring a cheap GSM phone. The cost is 6 US$ per day to hire a local sim-card; you can buy a phone credit card for approximately 10 US$. If you need to purchase a phone we can arrange this before your arrival; simply let the rally office know before 1 January 2014. The Myanmar government is doing its best to improve the telecommunications and it might even be possible to use foreign mobile phones in Myanmar by the time we arrive. However, it is better to be prepared.

Satellite phones are not normally allowed but we are applying for permission for our organisational phones. Please contact the office before 30 September if you have a requirement for a satellite phone. Approval can take several months and is not guaranteed.

WiFi internet is available in all but two of the hotels we are using. Most hotels have a good connection.

Q: How many people will make up the local team?

A: All staff on the event will be easily recognised in their rally uniforms and will be available to you throughout the event, with 24-hour emergency cover. We are extremely pleased with the quality of the local team, who will travel with us for the duration of the event providing a range of support services. The team includes four people organising hospitality to ensure the hotel and catering arrangements are seamless, two English-speaking tourist guides to maximise your enjoyment of Myanmar culture and our spectacular destinations, two drivers and one local mechanic.

We will also be travelling with a four-man police escort. They will accompany the rally from start to finish.

Q: What money do I need?

A: Tips for the guides, hotels, restaurants etc are all included in the rally entrance fee. Credit Cards do not really work in Myanmar – Master and Visa cards have been used in some places since the end of 2012, but are unlikely to be accepted everywhere. Cash is king, so please ensure you have enough to cover your own excursions on days off (over and above what is already catered for) and any drinks in the evening.

We strongly suggest that you travel with US$, and we will help you arrange the exchange. There will be an opportunity to change US$ to kyats at the beginning of the rally and to convert the kyats back to US$ at the end of the rally.

ATMs do not exist. Do not even hope to find one. Travellers Cheque do not work either

Q: How secure are we on the rally?

A: Generally there is no problem with security but of course we advise the normal worldwide precaution of being sensible and diplomatic in your thoughts, words and actions. We do monitor the government travel website and will keep you informed of any changes.

Q: Are we free to drive anywhere or do we have to be in convoy?

A: We will be accompanied by a police escort car throughout the rally. This is a government requirement. To avoid the terrible Yangon traffic we will drive as a convoy between Kan Daw Gyi Palace Hotel and Bo Bo Gyi Nat shrine (Shrine of the Burmese Saint Christopher) out of Yangon.

The rest of the rally will not be travelling in convoy but we ask that people follow the route books at all times. On occasion, if you are in a village, for example, you may go ‘off piste’ for a short way.

Q: Will we meet any of the ministers or officials?

A: We have requested and are very hopeful that the Mayor of Yangon City will flag off the rally and wish it well. The government ministers always reside in Nay Pyi Taw. We have therefore invited HE U Htay Aung, the Minster of Hotels and Tourism, and three high-ranking officers to be our guests at the dinner in Nay Pyi Taw.

We have also invited Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi to the gala dinner and to present the prizes. We will keep you informed about that.

Finally, we are arranging some lovely surprises for you and it would be very helpful if you could let us know of any special requirements, dietary or otherwise, so we can ensure that they are accommodated without fuss.