INDIA-ASEAN CAR RALLY 2004

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INDIA TO INDONESIA BY ROAD !!

The First INDIA-ASEAN CAR RALLY 2004 is the result of the suggestion made by former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee at the ASEAN Conference held in Bali, Indonesia, last year. It must be said in all fairness, that the present Government must be given credit for seeing it through.

As a preamble to the First India ASEAN Car Rally 2004, it was decided to hold a rally inside India.  Teams started from Shimla, Gandhinagar, Panjim and Kanyakumari on Nov 13 and 14 and converged in Guwahati a week later. This was called “CHALO ASEAN” and was sponsored by Tata Motors, the Hindustan Petroleum Corp Ltd and Bharat Petroleum Corp Ltd. Tata Motors supplied the vehicles free. Only Tata vehicles could be driven on this sector.  It was not necessary that the participants of Chalo ASEAN will have to travel in the First India ASEAN Car Rally too. One could be a leg-entrant only for the India leg. Similarly, while the rally progresses through other countries. An entrant from any country, can opt to drive through one or more sectors/regions/countries only (and not the entire rally route), it being termed leg-segments. Chalo Asean was a goodwill rally and not a competitive affair. It included people of diverse backgrounds like entrepreneurs, industrialists, bureaucrats and journalists.

I did not do the Chalo ASEAN leg, but I had the honor of being one of the privileged few who were chosen to drive on the First India-ASEAN Car Rally 2004, from India to Indonesia. I drove a Tata Safari (Rally Car No. 27). The total distance driven was 8000 km. plus, from Guwahati, India through Myanmar, Lao Peoples Democratic Republic (PDR), Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand (twice), Malaysia, Singapore and ending in Indonesia. All types of roads from dust tracks, boulder roads, sand tracks, crossings by ferry, unpaved dirt tracks, driving across swollen rivers, major highways and world class elevated expressways were traversed. The terrain included roads at sea level up to high mountains. The route went through major towns, small towns and villages; densely forested mountains; large distances with no habitation; roads that were seeing vehicles for the first time in over 50 years (in Myanmar); across1000 years old bridges (in Cambodia); tunnels through mountain ranges opened for the rally vehicles ahead of its inauguration (in Vietnam); roads in mountains that are inaccessible to anyone in the world (Shan Mountains in northern Myanmar); ultra modern 6 lane elevated expressways (in Thailand and Malaysia); and roads still with land mines on the sides (Cambodia). The total driving time was 21 days including a 2 nights and 1 day stop over at Siem Reap, Cambodia (Angkor Wat). The maximum duration for a single day’s drive was 20 hours and the shortest 6 hours. The single longest one-day-drive was 890 km. and the shortest 90 km. (Longest/ shortest duration of drive per day has no bearing with longest/shortest distance traveled for the day.) Re-fuelling was arranged at designated fuel stations en-route, and where there was no fueling facility, jerry cans of fuel carried by each vehicle were used for spot filling. At some places, mobile fuel dispensers (fuel dispensing pumps fixed on trucks) with tank trucks of fuel beside it, were at hand for re-fuelling.

The route survey for the rally was done some months before the rally, with specialists from the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India (FMSCI) who were the technical advisors to the rally. How this exciting route survey was done is a story by itself! The route survey planned everything from the roads, fuel stations, breakfast/lunch/tea/dinner stops, overnight stays, timings, speeds, hospitals, military and police protection in each section/district/division/country, fixing locations using Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and every little nitty-gritty that goes to conduct a rally of this gigantic proportion.

The India-ASEAN Car Rally 2004 was a friendship rally to promote friendship, co-operation, understanding, business and commerce between all ASEAN countries. There were no prizes or competition involved. All rally cars that finished were given a citation and mementos. The rally was sponsored by The CII, Ministry of External Affairs Government of India, and a large group of sponsors like Tata Motors, Mahindras, Spartamax, JK Tyres, Indianoil, Indian Brand Equity Foundation, Indian Airlines and many others. Overnight stays were at hotels with 5 star rating and above at places where available, down to dormitory accommodation with common toilets in some places.

Well known participants included Vicky Chandok (President FMSCI), Hari Singh (Pan Asia Car Rally winner), Saraswathi Nag Choudhary (national ladies car rally champion), Jagat Nanjappa, Anita Nanjappa,  (the husband and wife duo who are national two wheeler & car rally champions), Tutu Dhawan (India’s top notch automobile engineer, automobile columnnist and test driver), a member of the Brunei Royal family (who requests anonymity!), and rally champions from other ASEAN countries.

The rally moved in 2 convoy formations one behind the other, each rally car numbered serially. Each car carried 2 participants, 1 driver and 1 co-driver. Each convoy had an ambulance and a recovery vehicle. Specific vehicles were fitted with wireless for radio contact among the rally cars. All vehicles were provided with Global Positioning Systems (GPS), which could detect the vehicle on a monitor, anywhere on the face of the earth to an unbelievable error limit of 5cm. The recovery vehicles were driven by two of India’s best motor sport and automobile experts. This recovery team could remove and re-fix a vehicle’s engine in 3 hours time! The recovery vehicles also carried mechanics, engineers, vehicle rescue experts and was equipped for most types of vehicle repairs along with sophisticated tools / spares and a winch that can lift even a large truck. The ambulances carried a host of specialists from trauma surgeons, cardiologist, orthopedic surgeons, anesthetist, general surgeons, and general physicians. One ambulance was a completely modern operation theatre and could be used for a full-scale surgery of any magnitude. The other ambulance was a hospital & pharmacy with lying in facility for 4 persons. A Direct to Satellite News Gathering (DSNG) van was equipped with nearly 2 tons of the best equipment for global positioning, tracking and transmission of feeds to satellites from any place on the rally route. One satellite telephone was available with the rally chairman for communication to any part of the world. Air lift in case of emergencies were provided by each country with facilities for treatment at the best hospital in each part of the country the rally was passing through.

The rally was open to participants fromall Asean countries. The Rally Committee made the selection of rallyists in consultation with the FMSCI. The final list included 62 vehicles (not counting leg entries) including 2 ambulances, 1 DSNG van, 3 Tatamobile, 4 Maruti Esteem, 1 Tata Indigo, 1 Tata Marino, 1 Chevrolet Travera, 1 Tata Indica, numerous Tata Safari & Mahindra Scorpio, 1 Tata Sumo, 2 Nissan Patrol, 1 GM Forester, 1 Mitsubishi Lancer, 6 Toyota Qualis, 3 Toyota Landcruiser, 2 Malaysian Proton and other cars. The Brunei Team, professional world-class rallyists, brought 3 Toyota Land Cruiser SUVs from Brunei fully upgraded. The Malaysian team brought 2 Proton cars to drive. The teams from Lao PDR, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Indonesia teams were provided with Tata Safari and Mahindra Scorpio SUVs and were free to choose other models if they wanted. Many other cars joined the rally at specific spots on the rally route to drive as leg entries. The combined total number of persons travelling in the rally was 252 (again not counting leg entries). Most were diesel vehicles and a few were petrol vehicles. The vehicles had to be upgraded to international rally specifications.  This included among other things, specification lights and special lamps, under carriage shields, spare jerry cans of fuel and 2 spare tyres securely mounted in approved fashion, and a list of mandatory spares.

Deb Sircar an Indian rallyist from Kolkota, whose left leg was amputated some years ago, drove a Mitsubishi Lancer sponsored by Mitsubishi, was the star of the rally, proof of what grit and determination can achieve for you. The youngest driver was a Kolkata girl aged 22 (daughter of Deb Sircar), and the oldest a gentleman Ramchandran from Bangalore aged 75 years.

The rally was provided with military and police out runners and pilots in the front, middle and end along with an army helicopter all through the route by the countries we were driving through. Even when the cars stopped for re-fuelling or for lunch or tea breaks, the helicopters hovered overhead. A high dignitary of each state/ region/ country accompanied the rally when passing through a specific area, and the dignitary from the next state/region/country took over once we crossed that area. The rally included print and visual media personnel from all leading newspapers and TV networks. Articles and visuals were composed and edited as the rally was on the move and at the last stop every day, was up-linked from the DSNG van direct to the satellites for transmission around the world. The rally had radio communication, GPS, automobile safety experts, documentation and secretarial staff, an official PRO and a host of other officials on board. In sensitive areas in India and other countries the rally was interspersed with armored military vehicles, sometimes with anti-aircraft ammunition and rocket launchers! Every country had an ambulance from their country joining the rally for the drive up to the next country border.

It was an unofficial holiday in all the northeastern states in India and some other countries, on the days the rally passed through. No function of this magnitude had ever been staged in the northeast states of India, and also in countries like Myanmar, Lao PDR and Vietnam till this time. Public interest, ovation and jubilation were evident in Myanmar, Lao PDR, parts of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia, but low key in Malaysia and Singapore.

Every few miles there were ceremonial receptions with gifts being presented to all participants. All designated stops for lunch, tea and overnight halts were transformed into receptions and cultural functions with local food, local music, local dances and local wines. In some places local artisans with handicrafts were on hand, who gave their products as gifts to the rallyists. Amazingly, night driving saw the same enthusiasm and welcome receptions from the people, irrespective of time, place or weather. Even when the rally passed around midnight through the dangerous mountains of Myanmar, the crowds along the roadside were waving flags at near zero temperatures!

It was mandatory that all drivers had to attend daily briefings before the rally started in the mornings as a matter of rule. While it was mandatory for the driver, other participants were welcome to it. This briefing was also to help the press, TV and satellite transmission crews. This briefing would discuss the last day’s drive and instructions for the present day’s drive will be given.

Some cars from Kolkata and other parts of India drove from Kolkata on 17th November to join the rally start at Guwahati, that sector being called the Kolkata-Guwahati leg of Chalo Asean.  Brunei had sent their cars by container to Kolkota port. These cars were sent by road in the containers to Guwahati, where they were off-loaded. All rally participants and cars arrived in Guwahati for briefings and vehicle inspections on the 20th of November. The Chalo Asean Rally cars arrived in Guwahati from different locations on 19th, 20th and 21st of November.

S.K.Munjal, President, Confederation of Indian Industries and Oil India hosted the entire rally team to a dinner at Guwahati, on the lawns of the massive Brahmaputra Ashok Hotel on the evening of 21st Nov. 2004. A team of officials and technicians affixed the approved stickers for all the rally cars and support vehicles. As per international rally rules, there is a strict code for use of promotional and sponsor materials on rally vehicles. Every signage and sticker has an assigned place on the rally vehicles and has to be displayed in the exact position only. Existing unapproved stickers and signage on some vehicles had to be completely removed or over-painted, in order to qualify for participation in the rally. The whole support team did a wonderful job the whole night. Late that night, the Rally Chairman Mr. Rajat Majumder and his very efficient team scrutinized all rally cars for conformity to approved rally specifications. Rally kits which included uniform tee shirts, full length jump suits (overalls, each separately color coded for drivers, emergency staff, medicos and officials), caps, itineraries (somewhat like Tulip charts), instruction booklets, carry bags, and other paraphernalia were distributed to the participants.

The instruction booklets supplied to us contained every conceivable instruction. It told us what to do in case of heart attacks, vehicle accidents, snake bites, food poisoning, allergies, anti-malarial medication, list of medicines being carried, security precautions, down to advice asking us to be “discreet” (whatever that word meant!), “as the rally was passing though some of the highest HIV infected areas in the world”!

A 24 hour control room had been arranged by the CII and Ministry for External Affairs GOI at Hotel Ashok Brahmaputra, Guwahati, with every conceivable communication and secretarial equipment and staff for use by the rally participants, media and every one connected with this rally.

The ceremonies for the ASEAN Rally started on the afternoon of 22nd. Nov. 2004, in the presence of the Chief Minister of Assam and the Minister for External Affairs, with the Chief Ministers of all the North eastern States, ASEAN Secretary General and ASEAN Ministers in attendance. Security was unprecedented and the whole town was at the Nehru Stadium, Guwahati, and all other building terraces and tree tops around the stadium. The function included sky diving, army motor cycle dare devil show with an army band in attendance. A ceremonial flag off of 11 lead cars (cars representing the participating countries) by the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at 4pm, in the presence of External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh, Secretary-General of ASEAN Ong Keng Young, besides diplomats and ministers from ASEAN countries, was broadcast live via satellite. These 11 cars were security screened by the PM’s Special Protection Group before entering the stadium. The drivers and occupants of these cars were given instructions on protocol and security details. One interesting instruction was that the cars should be driven only at an angle away from the Prime Minister and never directly towards him! All the rally cars were then parked overnight for the technical start next morning.

After the ceremonial flag off, the day ended with a dinner hosted by the Chief minister of Assam, Mr. Tarun Gogoi, the theme being “Flavors of the North east”, along with a fashion show, cultural program and presentation on tourism, all focusing on the Northeast States. This dinner program, location and menu attracted as much column space in newspapers and prime time position on TV. Even “The Hindu” had a detailed article “Mouth-watering menu” next morning. The highlight of the evening was Assamese rice beer served in bamboo containers!

The next morning Monday the 23rd November at 6am was the technical start of the rally. The chief minister of Assam was there punctually at 5.45am. The rally convoys moved out of the starting point to an unprecedented welcome by the people of Guwahati on this dark foggy and cold morning. The swelling crowds had gathered right through Guwahati even at this incredibly dark morning. It was a lovely sight to see whole towns along the rally route through Assam, lining both sides of the road. The vehicles were literally stopped by the crowds who wanted nothing more than to give gifts, take pictures and shake hands! The rally passed through some sensitive areas and the Indian army was there in full strength on both sides of the road all along the route through Assam and Nagaland, where Kohima was the first night stop. Army helicopters were flying along with the rally.

In one town in Assam, the whole rally came to a standstill for more than an hour, as a rumor had floated about, that Shah Rukh Khan was one of the drivers! The crowds insisted on peeping into each and every vehicle to see the non-existent SRK! After much scrutiny, (one rallyist adding to the melee, but to the rally’s advantage, announced to them that SRK was following the rally in another car!), the crowd allowed us to move on.

After a drive through the lovely highways in Kaziranga National park and a reception hosted by the Nimulgarh Refinery, a ceremonial welcome in Dimapur, we entered Nagaland and on to Kohima. The grand reception in Kohima was a cultural program and dinner hosted by the Chief Minister of Nagaland Mr. Neiphiu Rio and his wife Mrs. Kaisa Rio in the State Banquet Hall with the mandatory shows and Nagaland cuisine of the most extraordinary variety, making vegetarian rallyists nervous! The Chief Minister of Nagaland flagged off the rally from Kohima at 4.45am next morning, 24th November! (Sunrise is around 4am!)

The rally now moved through Manipur. On this stretch the rally was interspersed with army vehicles with rocket launchers and other ammunition due to the problems in the area. A wonderful state with abundant natural beauty, the reception at Imphal was perhaps the biggest event this small state had ever seen in living memory. The ceremony was in the Imphal stadium, a state of the art stadium with artificial turf and tracks, air conditioned conference halls, entertainment and dining areas including the best resources for sports meets one can see anywhere in India. The Chief Minister of Manipur hosted a lunch with the usual cultural programs and flagged off the rally at 4pm for the drive towards the Myanmar border.

The border area of India and Myanmar is something to be seen to believe. Army personnel with sophisticated weapons every 100 feet on both sides of the road, looking sideways away from the roads; helicopters surveying the roads in advance and helicopters accompanying the rally; army personnel and carriers at every road junction; border road organization staff and families at all BRO stations waving flags; army personnel and families doing the same thing in the army settlements, outposts, camps and barracks; every high point around the hill roads with army look outs; bunkers with rocket launchers every few yards; re-fuelling at the last fuel pump before Myanmar (owned by Assam Oil Company), with a high ranking Assam Oil Official greeting us personally.

The rally crossed the Indian borders at Moreh in Manipur and entered Myanmar at Tamu. All passports with special visas stamped by the Ministry of External Affairs were taken in advance by assigned officials of the Indian High Commission here and at all international borders on the route. The passports were stamped with Carnet (a passport for cars), so that the rally was not delayed at any place. The usual cultural reception followed on the Indian side, whereas the welcome on the Myanmar side was low key, but quite surprising, considering the reclusive nature of the Myanmarese Government and Tamu border being a very sparsely populated area.

The General of the Myanmar Military for Tamu who is also the Divisional Commissioner was at hand to welcome us. A very jolly and cordial person, he interacted with many rallyists and was on first name basis with a few rally officials who had met him earlier during the route survey a few months ago.

The road border crossing at Tamu in Myanmar was opened for the third time ever in many years. The first time vehicles crossed the road border being when the External Affairs minister in the former BJP government went to open the road from Moreh to Tamu a few years ago. Next was when the rally route survey cars went through last year. And now for the ASEAN rally. In Myanmar vehicles drive on the right side of the road. Myanmar, though being a military state and very secretive went all out to play the perfect host to the best of their ability. Receptions were held in any place from town Halls, schools and army camps to public buildings and parade grounds. Armored vehicles accompanied the rally throughout Myanmar. The Indian Ambassador and his staff joined the convoy for the drive through Myanmar in their vehicles. This was the usual practice in most countries on the route. (The Indian Ambassador of each country traveled along with the rally, sometimes in the rally cars, till we left that particular country, when the Ambassador of India in the next country took over)

Once the rally crossed into another country, the police, pilots, marshals, military personnel and escort vehicles along with the helicopters of the country we had exited turned back, and the entire rally convoy was taken over by the police, pilots, marshals, military personnel and helicopters of the country we had entered.

Night halt at Tamu was in a line of hotels the organizers had booked, all on a single road, as no single hotel can hold the entire rally group. All hotels had small single rooms with common squatting toilet pans! A new experience for many. The dinner at Tamu was arranged at a private restaurant but was void of any official ceremony. Our rallyists took over the dance floor and Hindi and English music boomed out in the small Myanmarese town with the local orchestra’s accompaniment till the early hours of the morning. Surprisingly, the locals were not found anywhere near the venue.

On 25th Nov. the rally starts from Tamu to Mandalay. This is a lovely highway (for only the first150 and last 50 km), the total distance being 320 km. The entire remaining 120 km in the middle is a sand track kicking up a fine red dust. It was nerve wracking driving this bad stretch, which was added on the rally route as a test of driving skill for rallyists. Visibility was nil, since a cloud of red dust kicked up by the car before you, made you stop and/or crawl! To keep up the designated speed was also difficult, as the tyres had no surface traction (grip) since the red sand was as fine as talcum powder and was nearly a foot thick. Therefore even a very normal turn on the curve, dragged the vehicle due to disproportionate centripetal and centrifugal forces acting on the front and rear wheels. This road passed through literally uninhabited areas of Myanmar. We would have hardly seen 2 or 3 vehicles in the entire stretch. The road also crossed two mountain ranges totally devoid of trees, but full of huge rocks.  We thought this was a real test of driving skill, as we did not know about what was lying ahead for us in the Shan Hills!

“Myanmar red-guards” was in attendance along this highway and sand road. It was an experience seeing the “Red Guards”, about whom positive and negative reports have appeared in the world press from time to time. But at every village and town, the Myanmarese were there, out in Sunday best, waving flags and clapping. This with the usual ceremonial receptions along the way was impressive. But, it looked more like a government directive to the public to welcome us than the spontaneity we saw in the North East states of India. The crowds lining the highways were equally spaced, waving similar flags issued by some single authority. The entire route had army personnel with arms and ammunition at perfect intervals.  As expected, the police and military dissuaded us from stopping anywhere except at designated stops. Suddenly this sand road hits the main highway again. And what a relief, but all vehicles suddenly looked a common red color. So did some of the rallyists. Sand from the road! The drive on this road necessitated cleaning of air filters. The cleaning air filters of the vehicles made one realize how much of the sand had choked the air filters.

A breathtaking reception at Monywa a huge town was the lunch stop, before we hit Mandalay. Here the whole town of Monywa was all around the venue, shouting and waving, while two huge buildings in the resort hotel served as the reception areas. On inquiry I found that all educational institutions here had declared a holiday for the rally, and all students in their uniform had been asked to be part of the reception.

The night halt at Mandalay was in the best hotel in town, The Meridian Mandalay Hill Resort. In the hotel, along with dinner, was a press conference and cultural program attended by high-ranking generals from the Myanmar Military, who looked rather uncomfortable meeting with us and answering questions from the media. A particular media person, part of the rally, was summarily dismissed by the military from the hall for asking “difficult” questions! We also found that cell phones were jammed and popular sites on the internet like yahoo and hotmail were blocked! That’s Myanmar security for you!

The next morning 26th Nov. saw the rally cars being flagged off by the local military commander at 5 am. The road goes through a small town called Kalaw. This used to be a popular hill-station with the British and many colonial bungalows still exist. This town has many Shans, Indian Muslims, Bamars and Nepalis (Yes!- Gurkhas retired from British military service).

Just outside Kalaw, the Tata Marino, being driven by a foreign team developed a problem that Tutu Dhawan diagnosed as a torn engine gasket. Since there was no gasket with the spares being carried, it was decided to get the car towed to Loilem, our stop for the night and have one crewmember stay back for repairs. Tatas and the Indian High Commission arranged for a spare gasket to be flown in and the car was repaired and driven to join the rally further down at the Thailand-Laos border town of Nong Khai.

Fairly good roads took us to Loilem on the Shan Hills after a grand lunch cum reception at the Aye Thar Yar Golf Resort in Taunggyi. A world class resort and golf course, this place is the pride of Myanmar, where foreigners fly in to play golf, as it is cheaper than doing the same in their own country. Needless to say the Myanmarese are proud of it, but we learnt that much of the money for these projects comes from drug lords in the neighboring areas of the Golden Triangle and illegal trade of gems and stones. Quite a few Indians (Punjabis and Sikhs) live in Taunggyi. Longhaired smugglers in army fatigues saunter down the streets alongside turbaned Shan people and well groomed Chinese businessmen. I don’t know why, but nearly everyone here is dressed in army fatigues with Mao caps!

The day, or rather night ended in Loilem, the accommodation being in a Government Technical School. But it is interesting to note that such a massive new facility in the hills, incorporating the best of architectural designs and comfort could be built in so desolate a place. This world class facility right in the middle of nowhere, had huge dining halls in each of the 5 floors, handicrafts shop, bar, restaurant, but common toilets for each floor. The bar here supplies all popular brands of liquor along with Myanmarese brands. The most popular snack in the bar being “fried sparrows”, a Shan delicacy. It was way past mid-night when we slept at Loilem in near zero temperature and after re-fueling and dinner. We could see the military standing guard outside the school all through the night. No one was allowed to leave the premises, for reasons you will know soon.

The drive from Loilem to our next halt on 27th Nov. was delayed a bit as the army had information that there was some trouble nearby from some rebels and militant groups. After an all clear was sounded, the rally moved on. This was the most dangerous and thrilling drive in the entire rally.

An interesting feature in Myanmar was the crossing of these Shan Hills in Northern Myanmar. This is an area that the Mynmar Military has no control over. The Shan rebels have declared themselves an autonomous state and for all purposes have their own laws in that region. The hills are heavily wooded and the roads are nothing more than ordinary tracks. The military has never been allowed inside the Shan hills. Their planes do not even over-fly these hills as the average teenage rebel soldier is never without a rocket launcher on his shoulder. But, for the India-Asean Rally, the Myanmar military were offered a 48 hours cease fire by the Shan rebels as a goodwill gesture.

The road across the Shan Hills is a dirt track, at heights up to 8000 feet, most of them only on boulders.  Some tracks pass through fast flowing rivers and under waterfalls cascading over dangerous precipices. In such places the tracks are slippery mud/clay surfaces that are inclined at nearly 60-degree incline, giving moving vehicles no ground traction (grip). One miscalculation in speed, momentum or turning angle and you end up thousands of feet over the hills into the valley below. The roads were lined on one side with the Myanmar military and on the other side with Shan rebels, both groups armed to the teeth. An extraordinary sight indeed! (The Shan rebels and the Myanmar military allowed us to take their pictures with them while still sporting their shoulder-rocket-launchers, smoked our cigarettes and even gave us their tendu leaf Mandalay cheroots!). The details of the truce were so perfect, that in the event of a Myanmarese military soldier and a Shan Rebel soldier both walking together to meet us, they had even agreed upon whom, (the Myanmarese soldier or the Shan rebel) should walk in front and who should follow! Extra helicopters of the Myanmar Army hovered overhead in the hills till the rally passed. Every section of the Shan Hills was passed in stages after the warring factions sounded an all clear. Driving this treacherous stretch alone at an average speed of 20 km/ hour took nearly 20 hours!

The skill of many a driver was tested on this stretch. Especially when the rally cars had to cross a swollen river- drive right across the flowing river! The recovery cars were sent in advance across the river and with winches ready, were available for any emergency. Many drivers revealed their fear of driving through rushing water at this spot!

Lunch stop with the usual cultural do was in a small army facility with a mountain village nearby at Kunhing (altitude 5297 feet). We were surprised to see many Indian families with their children dressed in Indian dresses welcoming us. They told us that there were about 210 Indian families of the third generation in that Shan Village and they were originally from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Not one of them whom we met had ever been to India. They were traders with provision shops they said, and were able to speak Hindi, perhaps keeping the language alive at their homes and among themselves. The American dollar seemed to be standard currency in all these places. We saw more US dollars floating around in these hills than the Myanmar Kyat (pronounced chat). Cigarettes are sold @ 1 US dollar per pack. Ask them how many kyat it would be, and they do not know!

Just on the highway near a bridge we managed to catch a glimpse of large underground bunker entrances by the side of the river. Though we tried our best to photograph them, the military escorts were no too happy. (It must be said to the credit of our participants, that one rallyist managed to click pictures!)

The night halt was at Kengtung, which we reached way past midnight through this dangerous mountain path. An unexpected and unparalleled driving experience. Night driving on these tracks with no side-walls/embankment! Even at freezing temperatures, civilians/military men and women were at every corner/ junction/ hairpin bend with boards painted with an arrow, showing which way the road was turning! Incredible sight. More than the sight, it helped a lot in near zero visibility, as one wrong turn spells doom on these mountain tracks. The local people were all outside their homes at that time, again with flags, clapping and waving us on. Stage-managed?

The town of Kengtung, built around a small lake in perhaps the most strategic location in Myanmar, is a very French looking town. It is filled with large villas built by the drug lords. Heavily fortified houses, but the sign of abundant money is visible everywhere, in a country where poverty is the norm. It is filled with SE Asian and Chinese tourists and has many large new hotels and resorts. Kengtung is equidistant from the borders of China, Lao PDR and Thailand, all a few hours drive away, and is the center of commerce for the drug lords of the Golden Triangle. Few westerners are seen here. The officials and cars of the United Nations Drug Control Project are everywhere, making the local population think that all foreigners are very rich. Kengtung, the most scenic town in Shan State was the night halt for that day.

On 28th November, the rally moved out of Kengtung, (when we see world class highways and modern cars for the first time since start). The wonderful highway that starts here, immediately goes to cross the mountain range. You do not realize the gradient, till some vehicles struggle to climb the highway. A little help, a little push, a little technical advice on how to start in a gradient after a stall, and the stranded vehicles slowly inch their way up. After a ceremonial send off by the accompanying Myanmarese Military General at the border town of Tachilek (Myanmar) we crossed into Thailand at their border town of Mae Sai. (In Thailand cars drive like in India, on the left side of the road.)

There is a very funny immigration rule here. A Thai national can get a day long visa to enter Tachilek (Myanmar) for a fee of US$5, but that entry is restricted to a radius of 5km on the Myanmar side. The bridge connecting the 2 countries sees around 3000 Thais cross over every day for purchases and perhaps smuggling on the sly.

We arrived to the welcome of a lavish welcome ceremony attended by the Indian Ambassador to Thailand with lunch and cultural shows, courtesy the Thai Government. Further down the highway, the Tatamobile had a technical snag. Tutu diagnosed it again as a disengaged flywheel check nut. An automobile garage was found near the town of Phayo, and the garage owner was asked to repair the flywheel. The garage owner agreed to have the job done within 2 hours.  The Rally Chairman decided that we take a 2 hours rest at a gas station while the car was being repaired. Exactly 2 hours later the garage owner came with the repaired car and told us through an interpreter, that Tutu’s diagnosis was correct, and wanted to know how the problem was diagnosed by Tutu without even opening the engine! 

It must be said that some of us were flummoxed the way Tutu Dhawan (one of the two rescue and recovery officers of the rally) made a diagnosis. A message would come over the radio from a car that had stalled. On the radio, the driver of the stalled car would explain the problem to Tutu. Even beforeTutu catches up with the stranded car, he would have asked a few questions of the driver and given instructions to do something over the radio. In most cases that turned out to be the correct diagnosis, and the driver himself would have sorted out the problem, without the stranded car even being seen by Tutu. Incredible! No wonder he is considered the “master of automobile mechanics” in India!

From Phayo, we drove south to the Thai town of Phitsanulok on excellent expressways for the overnight stay. As has been the norm, the usual receptions and entertainment followed the arrival at Phitsanulok, attended by high-ranking Thai officials of the area. We were surprised that the hotel we stayed in had arranged for all rally cars to be washed at night. (The unwritten rule in the rally was that the driver and occupants should clean their car whenever necessary.)

The next morning saw us staring at our cars and it took time to realize that the clean cars were the ones we drove!

29th November saw us turn east and go to the border of Thailand and Lao PDR. This drive is through some of the most well protected “natural parks” or forest areas. Thailand lays much emphasis on preserving natural wealth and nearly every large tract of forestland has been declared a national park. The highways were excellent, many a time crossing mountain ranges, beautifully surfaced and banked at corners, making driving a real pleasure and allowing us to keep up very good speed. The overnight stop was in the Thailand border town of Nong Khai in a world class hotel by the Mekong River. The repaired Tata Merino joined us here and the original team took over the car.

The flag off next morning was only at 10am. The driving distance for the day to Lao PDR border and Vientiane was only less than an hour’s drive of 90km, (the shortest drive in the rally). The entire rally gang took it easy and let their hair down at a wonderful discotheque in the hotel, till the wee hours of the morning. I also was found that many rally participants were excellent singers and dancers, and the live-band at the discotheque were too happy to allow all the “ASEAN crooners and dancers” to perform that night!

On 30th November, bleary-eyed drivers at the wheel of rally cars were escorted to the Lao PDR border, by an incredibly large convoy of Thai Harley Davidson Hell’s Angels Group (HD Bikes from the antique to the latest 2004 variety!). The HD Group was no different from the “bikies” you see in the USA or Australia. Same leather jackets, tattooed arms and chests, bulging muscles, beards, and (don’t quote me), grass!. A couple of the rally participants rode the Harley Davidson bikes up to the Lao PDR border much to the consternation of our rally safety officers.

The very wide Mekong River separates Thailand and Lao PDR. No fences are found on the riverbanks. Yet the border officials claim that illegal crossing and crime are absent. The road crosses the Mekong River on the famous Friendship Bridge.  A very colorful reception was given by the Lao PDR Government and by the Indian Ambassador to Laos. A bevy of Laotian ladies, dressed in their national dress, gorgeous silks of various hues, stood all along the checkpoint, for the full length of the parked rally cars. This was a photo-op of a life time for many who used the one hour halt there to click pictures with some of the most beautiful women in Asia adorning perhaps the most colorful costumes you could ever imagine.

The ASEAN Conference was in session in Vientiane. The Indian Prime Minister, who was there along with our External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh and the Prime Ministers of 9 other countries, flagged off the rally (ceremonial flag off of 11 lead cars only). This event was telecast live across the world by the DSNG van.  Lao PDR as a matter of abundant caution for the rallyists and the dignitaries at the ASEAN conference had closed its borders and roads for the duration of the rally. Only the rally cars were allowed into the country at the border and on all roads in Laos.

After the second flag off function, the rally went through a city tour of Vientiane with huge crowds lining the roads. Lao PDR again was holding the very important ASEAN Conference and the ASEAN Rally at the same time, generating a lot of interest among the citizens who are not used to such grand shows. The town was full of crowds waiting to se the rally move on. Even in a country like Lao PDR, it was surprising to note the reach of print and the visual media. Nearly every spectator, young and old, educated or not, was aware of the rally, its route, purpose, and also that the Indian Prime Minister was in their country. As everywhere, huge hoardings, buntings and arches were found all along the route. Vientiane has lovely monuments of Lao architecture. We had the privilege of seeing some of them. The predominant color of the roofs in the monuments- gold! And what a sight it was when seen at dusk with the setting sun. A booming town with a very large tourist industry, Vientiane has mammoth high rise hotels dotting the skyline.

An interesting industry in Lao PDR, is the cultivation of Agar trees. Agar trees were once found in large tracts of South East Asia including Assam in India. Now nearly wiped out from most of these parts, Lao PDR has embarked on Agar plantations all over the hills in the country. The specialty of the Agar tree is that, once the tree withers and starts dying after a certain age, due to a viral infection that infects the bark, basically two types of funguses, convert the bark into a veritable store house of agar perfume! No two portions of a single tree have the same perfume. The funguses covering the bark and trunk are so thick, making the trunk sink when floated in water! The perfume from this bark, called agar is worth weight for weight, more than gold.

But the modern agar plantations have no time for this natural method of getting agar. These new plantations, grow seedlings nurtured from cuttings in their nurseries, and when they become large trees at an age of around 5 to 7 years, inoculate the tree with the disease causing virus, in order to harvest the agar bark for use in perfume industry. (Is that how agarbathi got its name?)

1st December saw the rally driving from Vientiane across Lao PDR, (Lao PDR drives on the right side of the road), to the border with Vietnam. A wonderful country, Lao PDR has a very small population but good roads. Cattle that cross the highways (warning boards in place) restricted our speed at certain places. Another change of the military, police, escorts, helicopters and 2 receptions one on the Lao PDR side and one on the Vietnam side, the rally moved on to Hue (the old capital of Vietnam) with the Indian Ambassador to Vietnam with us. The night stop was at Hue.

The entry from Lao PDR at Lao Bao border to Vietnam is in a hilly region and it was nighttime when we were passing through. Heavy vehicles with goods and tourist transport vehicles are in abundance on the highways in Vietnam. Entering Vietnam, we are struck by the sudden upsurge in highway traffic. 

Hue is an old town with the original fortified city still intact. A few old bridges across the river were specially lit up for the rally making it ethereal and fairyland like. Overnight stay in Hue was a thrilling experience, the Vietnamese musicians, dancers and food making it a memorable experience. A cyclone had passed through this area 3 days earlier and it was still raining when we were there.

Next morning, 2nd December, we left Hue through a 7km tunnel through the hills, which has never been opened to traffic, cutting a driving distance of about 35-km to 7km. The Vietnam Government opened this most modern tunnel road, (which is still under construction), to traffic for the first time as a goodwill gesture. In Vietnam photography is banned at certain strategic locations including military bases we passed through and the police and military escorts enforce it very strictly. The drive in Vietnam was along the Pacific coast and passed through My Lai. The lunch program and reception that day was on the My Lai road, where the American army used the napalm bomb. Remember the world famous photograph of the naked girl arms stretched out fleeing a napalm bomb drop, which literally tilted the American public’s opinion on the war? This was that road!

The population is very young, the older generation nearly wiped out in the Vietnam War. After perhaps the most scenic drive in the entire rally, the night stop was at Nha Trang a seaside resort town of great antiquity.

Nha Trang is a very French looking seaside town, rated as one of the best beaches in the world. The entire beach drive is filled with hotels of the best quality and most of them new and high rise. There still are many quaint old-world heritage hotels in the city. Nha Trang is built in grids with square and rectangular roads. A tourist paradise that has a seamier side to nite life, it is a very popular destination in Vietnam. Five star hotel rooms here are available for 45 dollars a nite! In the entire rally route, Vietnam can be said to be the most beautiful in natural scenery with modern cities and expressways going up mountains and rivers, though Myanmar can take a higher place if you consider the natural beauty in their hills, but without infrastructure and good roads. The world class highways in Vietnam, (except for some portions where the highways are being done up now), were filled with people from villages and towns who had gathered on roadsides to welcome the rally as in all countries. The official cultural presentations and receptions in every town were always marked by schoolchildren in traditional Vietnamese dresses welcoming us and performing shows. There are no fat people in Vietnam and every man and woman works. Literacy in Vietnam is an astounding 97% now. In certain areas affected by the Vietnam War, all buildings, including small village houses are new, as old buildings were bombed out flat.

By Vietnam law, right hand drive vehicles are not allowed to be driven on Vietnam roads. But a week before the rally, the Parliament in Vietnam convened to pass a special act that allowed the ASEAN rally vehicles that are right hand drive to be driven on Vietnam roads! Incredible hospitality!

Dec 3rd saw us driving from Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh City formerly Saigon.There are many old Cham temples in Vietnam in various states of decay. Chams were from the Kingdom of Champa, who appeared in present day Danang area of Central Vietnam, around the 2nd century. They adopted Hinduism as a religion and Sanskrit as a “sacred language” (must have been the official or court language), and borrowed heavily from Indian art. Through lively commercial (maritime and land) relations with India, and the immigration of Indian literati and priests, Hinduism and Hindu art, religion and architecture had a phenomenal growth. Many Cham temples are scattered all over Vietnam and some in Cambodia. Chams were semipiratic and were involved in fights with Vietnam in the north and Khmers in the south. They ruled till the end of the 17th century. There are still a few Chams left, very few, who follow Hinduism, wear white robes, speak a form of adulterated Sanskrit and do priestly duties in a couple of temples. There is a wonderful Cham Museum in Danang. Between Nha Trang and the Saigon we were able to stop the rally cars at a non-functional Cham Temple Complex for a photo session.

Saigon is a city with more two wheelers than cars! Traffic is so dense, streets downtown so narrow, parking space at a premium, that most people own only 2 wheelers. The highways here are elevated expressways but traffic rules flouting is usual. Since we arrived fairly early in the evening, the rallyists were out shopping, pub hopping and taking in the sights and sounds of Saigon.

That night there was a sit-down dinner for all the rallyists with champagne corks popping, hosted by the Vietnam Government. The exquisite dances of Vietnam and their traditional music with very rare musical instruments were the highlights of the night. Ho Chi Minh is not a “city” per se. It is the collective name for many divisions in that area, the downtown area being the Saigon Division. It is like saying that Chennai is the “George Town” area, but the different areas around it constitute “Madras”. 

After starting from Saigon on 4th Dec. a modern expressway takes you to Moc Bai 58 km away, the border town in Vietnam to enter Bavet the border town in Cambodia. After the usual formalities, the rally entered Cambodia another wonderful but war ravaged country. The drivers were warned never to turn off any road, or to stop anywhere or walk to the side of the road, as every bit of the ground in the country is still filled with land mines. Innumerable boards will warn you of land mines still live, wherever you went. The rally cars were put on a ferry to add novelty to the whole exercise. The ferry docked further up the highway and we drove to the capital Pnom Penh for the overnight stay.

A very big French town, it was full of maimed persons all over the place. Persons who had been maimed in the war against Pol Pot or who had stepped on to land mines. The population there is very young, but like in Vietnam, much of the older population was exterminated by Pol Pot in the late 60s. Almost every citizen has lost most of his family members. Poverty stares at you in the face. Roads are bad. Pnom Penh is a favored destination for many around the world. There is an amazing net work of underground tunnels carved by the Pol Pot regime extending to an incredible 700-km. There is a genocide museum, which show cases the brutality of the Pol Pot regime. The Indian ambassador was with us all the time from the border with his staff.

5th of December we left Pnom Penh for Siem Reap. This road is still not properly laid, as the land mines here have not been cleared. The police for fear of land mines did not allow us to stop anywhere. But the rallyists being wily foxes managed to stop the cars for a photo session at a temple, unique in that the Buddha is portrayed like Shiva doing the cosmic dance and with all Shiva’s adornment and paraphernalia. There is even a Shiva linga in front of the Buddha! A couple of us stopped our cars to walk up to a “Beware - Land Mine” sign to take photographs! Foolhardy perhaps?

In Cambodia during the Pol Pot regime food was scarce. All living things in the wild and in forests have been killed and eaten. There is absolutely no wild life worth mentioning in Cambodia. In addition the locals eat anything from ants, water beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, frogs, bees, bugs. A couple of daring-do participants including me, ate them much to the surprise and discomfort of other normal people.

The Tarantula spider is one the deadliest and venomous spiders, which is huge and grows as big as an adult human palm. One bite from this spider and you are dead. There is no known anti-toxin to tarantula venom. These spiders are caught and eaten after frying. Once they are fried, the alkaloids in the venom break down. The leader of the Cambodian rally team, Icci Harrington, had arranged for his girl friend to buy these fried spiders and to be bought to our mid-day stop. While no one else in the rally (including the daring-do ones) was willing to try them, I ate them and found them tasty. (I have some samples at home for any of you daring-do guys!) The taste comes from the eggs and excrement inside the spider, which is eaten whole. The Rally Media Chief had this act of mine telecast live from the DSNG van. Within a few minutes after broadcast, a whole lot of mobile phone of the rallyists was ringing. Calls from their family members, who were watching the TV program, asking who this spider eating mad man was! It made matters worse when they were told that the mad man was an Indian driver!

On this route, the rally passed an ancient stone bridge in a Cambodian village. This 1,000-year-old bridge is the Kampong Kdei Bridge in Doeumpor village, 254 km from capital Phnom Penh, en route to the ancient ruins of Angkor Vat. This bridge was the biggest among several built in the late 12th century by King Jayavarman VII. The 80-metre long, 14-metre wide structure has stone emblems of the raised serpent head signifying Lord Vishnu, the deity of the country's old Hindu kings, on both sides. Village children carrying flags of ASEAN countries and the rally crowded around the bridge as the cars crawled on before zooming off. There are more such bridges in Cambodia, but this, according to Icci Harrington was the biggest and best preserved.

As usual the day ended with a huge reception at one of the hotels we were staying in.

The next day, 6th December, being a rest day, the rally cars were serviced and minor repairs were done. We went to Angkor Wat Archeological Area in buses arranged by the hosts. The Angkor Wat area is about 400 sq.km. and houses hundreds of temples built by Kings of Indian descendancy like Shailendra, Jayavaraman VII, Suryavarman and others. It was only in 1856 that a Frenchman discovered the area. While the biggest Temple Angkor Wat has been nearly fully restored, Indian archeologists are restoring the Bayon temple.  The Ta Prohm temple built by Jayavarman VII in the early 13th century has been cleaned but has been left with the giant trees and roots uprooting the solid stone structures as a reminder of how Angkor Wat looked when discovered in 1860. The Indian Ambassador to Cambodia, Mr. Pradeep Kumar Kapoor came with us along with his family. A versatile and knowledgeable diplomat, he acted as our “tour guide” explaining the Angkor Wat Area Archeological sites.

That evening, a mammoth cultural program and dinner was held inside the Bayon temple as a very special gesture to the participants of the ASEAN rally. As per Cambodian and international law, the Angkor ruins being world heritage sites should not be used for any public performance. The last time a public performance was held there must have been more than a 995 years ago when the kings ruled from Bayon. But the Cambodian government opened the Bayon temple with a sound and light show, cultural activities including Mohory, the music of the Khmers, Cambodian shadow play called Shek, and a Cambodian dinner for the rally participants.  The chief guests included The Dy.Prime Minister of Cambodia Mr. Tea Banh, The Minister of Tourism Mr. Lay Prohas and Mr. Kapoor, the Indian Ambassador.

On Dec. 7th morning, after a well-deserved rest for the participants and the vehicles, the flag off was by the Cambodian Dy. P.M. at the main Angkor Wat complex. Indeed a great photo-op and an unforgettable location and event. From Siem Reap we drove on to Poipet the border town in Cambodia to enter Thailand (second time) at Poipet.

Poipet is the Las Vegas of South East Asia. Wine, women, song and gambling! We found a most extraordinary business going on here. Vehicles (especially goods carriers) that moved from Cambodia to Thailand (or vice-versa) used to stop for a few persons on either side of the border. These persons would load material into these vehicles. The vehicles then pass customs and immigration of one country, and enter the next country, which is but a few yards away. On the other side within the customs and immigration area, another person would search the particular vehicle out, take the loaded materials and pay the driver. We found that all this is accomplished on a regular basis, probably with the connivance of the border forces of both countries. The vehicle number is passed on by mobile phone across the border from one country, and the material is collected by a person in the second country, all within a space of a few minutes and a few yards distance.  What materials were being transported in such a manner, we could not find out.

After the usual send-off ceremony on the Thailand border, the rally entered world class expressways for the journey to Bangkok at Aranya Prathet the Thai border town. The road to Bangkok is a wonderful elevated expressway. Ramps, turnpikes and exits confused many rallyists, who took wrong turns only to land up late at the hotel at Bangkok. The Indian Ambassador was with us again, and the Thai government arranged a cultural evening and press meeting at the hotel we were put up.

The next morning 8th December, the Dy. Prime Minister of Thailand flagged off the rally and we were on our way to the next stop at Surat Thani in Central Thailand. To get out of the maze of expressways that is Bangkok, a very “American English” speaking Police Officer with radio contact to rally cars guided us. It was a big effort negotiating the notorious Bangkok traffic with grid locks, overpasses, signage we were unaccustomed to. We had to stop and re-group outside the City to form a convoy again as many cars were missing. Needless to say, many rallyists took wrong turns, only having to be guided back by the police. A busy commercial center that Bangkok is, the regular traffic was not stopped for the rally cars to pass through. A commendable decision indeed by the civic administration, as the Bangkok driver is already sore about the problematic traffic.

The drive to Surat Thani again is by modern expressways on the small sliver of land that is south Thailand, with Myanmar on one side and the Gulf of Thailand on the other. It also passes through a very sensitive and religiously volatile area. Heavy security was provided by the Thai Government and the rally had to be done in stages only after an all clear signal was received by the pilot vehicle with a forward helicopter relaying the messages. This area is filled with resorts of all sizes. The night stay at Surat Thani was in a hotel, which is the tallest building in town. A new town, a lot of industrial activity is being promoted here. A newly developed town, the government is promoting its development in all spheres.

On December 9th, at 5 am, the rally started from from Surat Thani to the Thailand-Malaysia border at Sa Dao. The mandatory receptions being done, we found that Sa Dao is very small town, its fame being that it is the main road crossings into Malaysia. But still, the cross border vehicle traffic was not much. But once you cross the Malaysian border town of Bukit Kayum Hitam, the roads are fabulous, the traffic is heavy and you see vehicles traveling at very high speeds. The famed heavy rains of this region started at this border town, a downpour that made visibility just 6 to 8 feet. One of the two ambulances was rendered immobile on this road and was towed to the night’s destination.

The elevated North South Trans Malaysian Expressway was the longest single day drive in the entire rally and we covered 890km non-stop. Marshals, voluntary police helpers cum motor bike enthusiasts, rode state of the art sports motor bikes (Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha and BMW) as escorts to the rally from the Thai-Malaysia border to Putrajaya. It was a wonderful sight seeing these Marshals in bright green jackets riding beside the rally cars.  They were directing traffic in the slower lanes to give way to us, weaving at terrific speeds into the traffic, and holding traffic at entrance ramps to the expressway. Zipping past the rally at 160 plus km/hour on their bikes in order to go ahead of the rally, they helped us when we approached turnings and exits, directing us on these unfamiliar roads. The heavy rains in Malaysia, coupled with the designated rally speed of 130 to 140 km per hour for this sector, put the driving skills of many a driver to the test. It was only the hazard lights of the preceding car that we were able to flow at that high speed, visibility being so poor.

It is a rule in all rallies, that hazard lights are to be kept on, day and night when rolling, (an impressive rally term that just means driving!). This helps the cars in the convoy spot the rally car ahead and behind. It also helps the regular users of the roads to give us the right of way when traveling on the fast lane. At night it was a huge asset, as we could spot the rally car that took the wrong turn very easily. Yet, one must experience driving miles and miles at top speed, following the blinking lights in front of you, and having the same lights blink in your mind’s eye when you retire for the day and close your eyes! A frightening nightmare!

An aside here. Although designated stops and rest rooms at fuel stops are the norm for answering calls of nature, in a rally of this size with 250 and odd participants, it is indeed impossible to time everyone’s need for a rest room to coincide with the designated stoppages. So it was usually the sides of the roads or behind bushes. On expressways, this becomes difficult. For one, we are using the fast lane. To stop, you have to go to the slowest lane and then look for “shoulders” or parking spaces on the side to stop. And then at that place, there may not be a tree or bush to shield you from voyeurs. So “watering” goes on in public view! While it was no problem in sparsely populated countries or on roads with minimal or no vehicles, this was not possible in countries like Malaysia where the population living along highways is high and the traffic is very dense 24 hours of the day. Well, when you gotta go, you got to go! The rally cars stopped once or twice for this purpose. The rally police pilot vehicle pulled us up and said it was not to be done again. In spite of it some rally cars did stop again. At the next midday stop, the rally chairman Rajat Majumdar blasted the occupants of the cars that had stopped after the warning. A newspaper reporter who was overhearing this “blasting”, promptly reported it to his newspaper. Next morning the headlines in local newspapers screamed out, “Indian rallyists hauled for roadside peeing”, though all the peeing was not done only by Indians, but by participants from other countries too! He had even reported verbatim, the “blasting” Rajat gave!

It was on this stretch that we had the only accident to a rally car in the entire rally, but fortunately no one was hurt, but the car (A Toyota Qualis), was immobilized. Crossing two mountain ranges at early night on excellent roads, with well-illuminated limestone quarries on the hills was very picturesque. Whole brightly lit towns in the plains, glittering like jewels in the dark. The rally moved on to Putrajaya, the new administrative capital of Malaysia.

That night the stranded ambulance and the damaged Qualis were brought towed to the hotel. They were later towed to Singapore and shipped to India.

After an overnight stay at Marriott Putrajaya Hotel, Putrajaya, a most modern mammoth edifice, the Dy. Prime Minister of Malaysia flagged off the rally at Putrajaya Square on December 10th. This event was a big draw and many tourists and locals had gathered in the square to witness it, thanks to the excellent publicity in the Malaysian print and visual media. A marvel of modern construction and architecture, Putrajaya, the Dream City built under the direct supervision of the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Dr. Mahatheer Mohamed provided a fitting backdrop to the flag off ceremony. Huge modern buildings, with typical Malaysian Islamic architecture, with colorful domes dotting the whole planned town. Japanese and Chinese tourists flocked the venue and wanted their pictures taken with the rally cars! It is only then that you realize what tourism can do for a country. Chinese and Japanese peasants on charter tours! Brought there by the now popular slogan, “Malaysia-Truly Asia”.

The Putrajaya-Singapore run was a short 368 km. run. The wonderful highways and the marshals helping us brought us to the Johor Bahru border in no time. After immigration (which was over in a jiffy), on entering Singapore, the rally cars were taken to an open field in the middle of Singapore for a civic reception. An antique car parade was arranged by the local Automobile Association of Singapore, and a fleet of exquisitely maintained antique and classic cars were on display, some drivers in traditional and period attire. The dinner hosted by the Singapore Government that night, was attended by some high ranking government officials from India who had flown into Singapore to welcome the rally.

Next morning on December 11th, the eleven lead cars and the DSNG van were ferried across the straits to Batam, Indonesia along with all participants. These 11 cars as usual were the representative lead cars of India, Myanmar, Thailand, Lao PDR, Vietnam, Singapore, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia. Batam is a small island that has suddenly shot into prominence, as it is being made into a major port to take a cut off the commerce-pie of Singapore, which is just a few miles away. A flag-down ceremony was arranged in Batam after a drive across the entire island. But for the rallyists in the eleven cars, other participants went by buses behind the rally. A group of cars from Batam, joined for the Batam leg of the rally. The Chief Minister of Assam Mr. Gogoi who was with us at the flag off ceremony in Guwahati on Nov. 22nd attended this ceremony. The chief guest was the Indonesian Dy. Prime Minister who received the 11 representative cars at the finishing podium. This ceremony was also telecast live around the world by the DSNG van. The ceremony ended after lunch with a live band and a crooner, hosted by the Indonesian government. At night there was another official reception with a crafts bazaar, shows and a great gala time was there for all. A band called Harmony, which consists of diplomats from many countries, provided the music for those on the well-filled dance floor. All rallyists stayed overnight at Batam.

On the final day, 12th December, after a friendly round of Golf in Batam in the morning, the rallyists and the eleven cars were ferried back to Singapore.  All rally cars were handed over to the staff of the Indian Embassy and the shipping agents for transport by ship/ land back to their respective countries. Some rallyists left Singapore with a heavy heart, tired bodies, sweet memories and a sense of achieving something that looked beyond reach when they started 21 days ago.

In spite of the parties every night and the excellent novel cuisine and wines we gorged on, most rallyists had lost on an average between 5 and 8 kgs. of body weight! Everyone was sun burnt beyond recognition. Some had grown beards, having saved waking hours by not shaving. Considering that the space available in each car for personal luggage had seriously restricted size of individual baggage, all of us were in apparels and regulation uniforms in various shades of over use!

The other new experience for me was the eyes getting adjusted to regular reading vision. Since we were driving continuously for nearly 20 days, on an average at least 12 to 14 hours every day, the eyes get used to long distance viewing. It takes a minimum of 3 to 4 days to get back normal, elbow length reading vision.

The rally was a test of physical and mental stamina for the drivers and a test of endurance for the vehicles. Imagine driving under trying conditions, and keeping up mental and physical well being for 21 days, when sometimes you could just sleep 2 hours a day. At times, the flag off for the day was 4 am, which meant that you had to be ready for mandatory vehicle checks (to be done as per rally rules only by the driver of the vehicle) at 3 am!

Full marks to the organizers for conducting a rally of this magnitude, covering some of the least visited areas in the world, over inhospitable terrain in some countries that are very wary of foreign visitors. Every single member of the rally team had a role to play and it will not be correct to say that it was a “drivers’ rally”. Without the co-operation of the governments of the countries we drove through, the Ministry of External Affairs Government of India, The Confederation of Indian Industries, the ASEAN Secretariat, the initiative of Mr. Vajpayee, and the interest of our Prime Minister Mr. Manmohan Singh, a rally of this scale could not have been possible.

To sum up, the rally was an experience of a lifetime and a drive that any rally enthusiast can only dream of. All said it was a triple whammy for me. A lover of cars, a traveler by heart and a foodie to boot, I consider myself lucky to have driven on the India-ASEAN Car Rally 2004! Luckier that I was able to complete it without any damage to the car, others or myself! And without even a flat tyre! Lucky may be.

I am greatly indebted to Vicky Chandok and Bharat Raman for all the help they rendered, to make sure I was in the rally. A debt that I will not be able to repay, but an experience I will always cherish and remember.



 

RALLY PHOTOS

View them at

https://get.google.com/albumarchive/101850974532416984179 

ASEAN CAR RALLY OFFICIAL WEB SITE

http://www.aseanrally.com

RALLY ROUTE

Guwahati (Assam, India) - Kohima (Nagaland) - Imphal (Manipur) -Tamu (Myanmar) - Mandalay - Loilem - Kengtung - Phitsanulok (Thailand) - Nong Khai - Vientiane (Laos) - Hue (Vietnam) - Nha Trang - Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) - Pnom Penh (Cambodia) Siem Reap (Angkor Wat) - Bangkok (Thailand) - Surat Thani - Putrajaya (Malaysia) Singapore- Batam (Indonesia)

INDIA ASEAN CAR RALLY 2004 OVERVIEW

https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B455eQeWCAfUOEJ0aFFYTDRub1htelNLSGVVRFhQdDRDT1JB