By Zon Pann Pwint
Sixty years ago, a couple from Yangon decided to drive a motorcycle across half of the globe. Their adventures lasted 365 days and covered 30 countries – and their escapades and experiences are more real, remarkable and exciting than the exploits of Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days.
The globetrotters pose on their bike in 1955. Photo: Supplied/Kabarhle Tin Tin SeinThe globetrotters pose on their bike in 1955. Photo: Supplied/Kabarhle Tin Tin Sein
In 1955, Daw Tin Tin Sein and her husband U Ba Toke, a forest conservator in the Burma Forest Service with a passion for photography, had been married for two years. He was 43; she was but 18. They had a young infant daughter. But they were also struck with wanderlust, curious about visiting remote corners in the western edge of their country, places like the Naga territory, the Chin hills and northern Kachin State.
But when they started actually planning a trip to see these places, they decided to dream even bigger – and go a lot further than the border.
“We tried to go beyond the limits of what is thought to be possible and wanted to see the natural wonders of the world. We decided to travel around the world,” Daw Tin Tin Sein, now 80, told The Myanmar Times last week by telephone.
What seemed at first like a crazy fantasy was made possible by the fact that U Ba Toke’s job as a government officer meant that, under the Service Regulation and Financial Regulation (SRFR) law, he was permitted to take a year’s paid leave for travel. Looking to take full advantage of that, the couple began applying for visas for a proposed route that would take them from Yangon northwestward through India, then across Asia and Europe, and then across the ocean to America.
The couple also drummed up their own publicity – and fundraising. A conversation with Nation newspaper editor U Law Yone led to a front-page story about their endeavours. It also led to a surprise sponsorship: U Law Yone gave them K1000 – a fair bit of money in those days.
Half of the gift – K500 – was used to purchase their vehicle: a 1942-model BSA (Birmingham Small Arms company) motorcycle, dating from the Second World War. Later on, a British newspaper article about the couple – entitled “Wanderers smile way across world” and reproduced in Daw Tin Tin Sein’s book Kabarhle Tin Tin Sein (World traveller Tin Tin Sein), published in four parts in 1999 and later gathered into one edition in July 2014 – reported that the motorcycle had had at least 10 previous owners, and had been purchased as junk. But despite knowing little about mechanics, U Ba Toke set about fitting it up for the journey.
The bike would prove up to the task – though for a while it seemed as if the trip would end almost as soon as it had begun.
With U Ba Toke in front and Daw Tin Tin Sein sitting behind – they never switched – the pair set off from Yangon to Monywa in Sagaing and then to Kalaymyo. But there they were told by residents that they would not be able to proceed to India via Tamu as planned – the route had been blocked by a landslide. They biked back to Yangon to think up another plan.
The setback proved a lesson in how gruelling the trip would be.
“The ground there was too rough to ride over. I was very tired from the journey and felt pain when the motorcycle jumped … As the journey started, we had the first taste of the trouble that was travelling by motorcycle.”
Still, they were not to be easily dissuaded. Since riding to India was impossible, they decided they would simply go by ship then pick up the road from there.
On September 29, 1955, the couple and their motorcycle departed Pansodan Jetty on a steamship bound for Calcutta. Friends, family and journalists came to see them off as they pulled away. Also staying behind was their six-month-old daughter, who remained in Yangon to be cared for by their parents. Daw Tin Tin Sein’s father had at first objected to the whole idea of her taking such a risk, but eventually offered his support.
The smooth sailing, however, ended on arrival in India. Immigration officers in what was then called Calcutta asked the couple to show their import permit for their motorcycle, which they hadn’t brought because they didn’t know it would be needed. The motorcycle was impounded.
After contacting the Automobile Association back home to help them reclaim their ride, the pair chose to stay at a monastery in Calcutta while they waited. They also took advantage of the delay by doing some travelling about southern India by train.
To help pay expenses, U Ba Toke began developing the negatives of the photos he had taken thus far, selling enlarged prints of the places they had seen.
At last, a month and a half later, the motorcycle was returned to them. Unfortunately, it had become covered in rust, necessitating a further four days of delay for repairs before they could be off.
Their first destination was Bodhgaya, birthplace of Buddha, where they spent two nights. (Later destinations holy to other faiths included the Mount of Olives and the Ganges River.) They also visited the Taj Mahal, as well as climbing into the Himalaya hills.
“I saw snow on the Himalayas for the first time in my life. It was too chilly. I melted the ice to drink and cooked our rice with cold water,” said Daw Tin Tin Sein.
The cold weather wasn’t the only surprise. She remembers being taken aback at some of the customs they encountered, especially those of one tribe in northern India.
“All brothers who were born of same parents wed a single woman. The brothers, their wife and their children lived in the same house. I had never heard of such custom and I wondered at it. But I saw how the brothers treated their wife and their children kindly. We were told that the custom had been practised since long ago in order to limit the population growth.”
They slept in hotels when they could and by the wayside when they couldn’t. Occasionally the motorcycle would blow a tyre on the rocky roads and send them flying off, injuring them both. Whenever this happened, U Ba Toke stayed with the bike while Daw Tin Tin Sein followed a guide to a nearby town, found a mechanic and then led the way back to the scene of the accident.
Despite the hardships, she remembers having a blissful time. A meeting with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru at his home was just one of many highlights in India.
From there they continued to Lahore, Pakistan. They planned to ride through the Khyber Pass and on to Kabul, Afghanistan. “But we were told that the pass was unsafe for visitors and robbers might attack us so we couldn’t.”
It was another setback, but fortunately word had spread by then about these two intrepid travellers. Articles appeared in the newspapers, and a Pakistani radio station invited them to discuss their trip on-air, for which they were paid an honorarium. Such radio appearances, along with sales of U Ba Toke’s photos, kept them on the road.
Instead of going north to Afghanistan, they continued west through Iraq. The most dangerous moment in the trip came when they travelled 1000 miles across the desert sands north of Baghdad.
“We spent a night in a petrol shop, in Ramadi in the desert. The night in the desert was terribly cold. The cold was unbearable. The following morning, we continued to bike to Ruthba. At one point we faced a sandstorm. Unexpectedly we met a group of travellers with camels. They stopped us and dragged us from the motorcycle.”
The group surrounded them, shouting abuse in their own language. Then the shouts turned to a beating.
“Men, women and children kicked us, one after another. A middle-aged man tied our hands and legs together. I cried and cried. Though my husband was consoling me, his face fell,” Daw Tin Tin Sein said.
It looked as if the journey might come to an ill-fated end. But just as the group was building a fire nearby, a car drove up and stopped. The driver got out and yelled at the group in Arabic, causing them to fall quiet. Then another two men got out of the car and untied the rope binding the couple’s hands and legs.
Their rescuers, they later learned, had saved them from a group of cannibals.
“The man who rescued us said they were making a fire to roast and eat us. He told us to ride off on our motorbike. For our safety, the car kept following us until we reached a safe place,” Daw Tin Tin Sein said.
The near-miss wasn’t the only time they were saved by strangers: Whenever they faced danger during the trip, Daw Tin Tin Sein said they were always assisted by someone who selflessly came to their aid.
The Dead Sea, the Nile, the Great Pyramids of Giza, the spot where the Lighthouse of Alexandria once stood; Lebanon and Syria – soon it was time to leave Asia behind and enter Europe through Turkey.
They travelled by ship, train and bus as well as by motorcycle. They even saw Inuit people who showed them how to fish from a kayak in icy northern waters.
In Yugoslavia they were briefly detained for not being able to speak the language, but they were later freed. Otherwise, they got on with English, and everywhere they went their nationality proved to be a passport to acceptance.
“At that time, our country had dignity. If the people knew we were Burmese, they showed respect.”
Even their money was accepted. “I was impressed that I could convert kyat into local currency in the banks in many countries,” she said.
By this point, however, money had run dry. The original goal of a trip round the world was becoming increasingly unlikely, and their eventual destination proved to be England, where, among other media appearances, they were interviewed on BBC television for a program called In Town Tonight, for which they were paid £190 each.
“In the following days, almost every newspaper in London covered the story with the articles about us,” Daw Tin Tin Sein said.
From England they shipped the motorcycle home, then returned via train and ship, seeing many countries they had missed on the way out.
Then, a year after they left, the couple flew from India to Yangon – the only time they took a plane in 365 days of travel that took them halfway around the world.
After their return, the couple would go on to have five a family of five. Daw Tin Tin Sein worked as a teacher as well as a civil servant, first for the Ministry of Transport and later for the Ministry of Forestry. She gave lectures on Buddhism, and now owns the Myat (Glorious) Bagan Hotel. Her charity, World Tourist Tin Tin Sein Foundation, raises funds for the poor and destititute. She has written several books in addition to her account of the extraordinary journey
Sadly, U Ba Toke, her companion on the trip of a lifetime, passed away in 1996. He was not able to join her on the many trips she later took in her old age to America (the subject of a book-in-progress), Japan and Europe, where she taught a number of classes about meditation.
As for the motorcycle, after their return U Ba Toke treasured it and gave it a well-deserved retirement, riding it no longer. But he had older sons from his previous marriage (he was a widower when he met Daw Tin Tin Sein) and he was afraid his son might try to ride it and damage it. He gave it to his nephew for safekeeping, but since then, Daw Tin Tin Sein isn’t sure what’s happened to it, and so it’s no longer among her many keepsakes from their journey.
Another souvenir they didn’t get to keep was a brand-new motorcycle, personally given to them by BSA when they visited Birmingham – trade regulations, it turned out, prevented them from importing it back to Burma along with them.
By Zon Pann Pwint