“This sounds like a clichéd introduction, but my name is Abhilash Surendran, or as my family and friends have been calling me since my childhood, Abhi…”
Born in a small town called Mahe, which is part of one of the 4 districts that make up the Union Territory of Pondicherry bordering on the state of Kerala, Abhi shares all his cultural traits with Kerala; “We speak Malayalam, enjoy our spicy food, and celebrate Onam, Vishu, and possess an all-encompassing love for Royal Enfield and heavy alcohol. But despite all this, technically, we are not Keralites.”
Growing up in Oman, Abhi then moved to the Philippines in his mid-20’s, living and working for 5 years doing transition management for BPO companies. During his stay on the beautiful islands of the Philippines Abhi “became addicted to 3 things that are integral to my life right now: travelling, writing, and photography.”
So around 2014 he took the plunge and quit his job, taking a break from work to backpack, hitchhike and couch-surf his way through Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Vanuatu, Qatar, the UAE and almost the entire continent of Europe. This 15-month adventure was also when he managed to ride a motorcycle from Kerala to Nepal, continuing to Bhutan and finishing in Kolkata.
Now back in Singapore, as of writing this interview to us as Livingit, Abhi has been to 74 sovereign nations, and already has his flights booked for the next 4.
Focusing on his passion for travelling on motorcycles, starting with his Kerala to Kolkata ride across India , we at Livingit ask Abhi a few more questions about his incredible year of journeys.
Livingit: What made you choose a motorbike as your mode of transport? It, being your ride from Kerala to Kolkata on your motorbike.
Abhilash Surendran: There are a few reasons for this:
- Given the traffic in this country, I would have slowly pulled out every one of my hairs by the time I travelled from the south to the north of the country in a 4-wheeler. Motorbikes may be risky, but they do have an advantage on Indian roads, as they can make their way through the traffic more seamlessly than cars.
- I am personally more comfortable riding a motorbike than driving a car.
- I was travelling on a tight budget. Have you noticed how there are so many toll roads across the country, but none of these tolls actually make the 2-wheelers pay anything? ?
- Fuel efficiency. A standard car in India has a fuel efficiency of 13 – 15 KM/L. But a motorbike gives the fuel efficiency between 40 – 50 KM/L. The amount of savings on fuel alone is amazing!
- For accommodation, I could actually stay just about anywhere, since it is not difficult to park a motorbike.
- A motorbike gives much more flexibility to stop anywhere on the route, and enjoy an unplanned breather. With cars, this flexibility is reduced a lot.
Livingit: What attracted you to your motorbike of choice, the Enfield Thunderbird 350?
Abhilash Surendran: I am not going to lie, I was first attracted to motorcycling because of movies; Dharmendra riding a BSA in ‘Sholay’, Garcia Bernal (as Che) riding the Norton in ‘Motorcycle diaries’, and Mohanlal riding Royal Enfield in many Malayalam movies during his younger days.
These were all cruiser bikes, and there is something so romantic about a cruiser bike, which the sports bikes nowadays can never match. It was not about speed, but about elegance. I had decided from a young age, that I would definitely be a Royal Enfield owner when I grew up.
When the decision to do a road trip came about, I had to choose which motorbike to go for. The reasons for which I choose the Thunderbird 350 could be controversial one among the RE fanatics. I mean, aesthetically, I think the Classic 350 is much better than the Thunderbird, but I decided to go for functional reasons:
- Fuel efficiency. None of the other Royal Enfield’s beat the fuel efficiency of the two 350 models. (Again, that’s my opinion. I am sure there would be people who disagree.)
- Comparing between the two, the Thunderbird 350 has a bigger fuel tank. In fact, it can store 7 liters more fuel than the Classic. That’s a huge advantage for any long trip.
- The rear design of the Thunderbird actually gave me more flexibility to add a custom frame to the back of my motorbike, so that I could keep my backpack there during the ride.
Livingit: How often was a motorbike your mode of transport before your India tour? Would you have considered yourself a bike enthusiast pre-2014?
Abhilash Surendran: Before I did the long trip in India, I had been riding in different countries around South East Asia; Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos and East Timor. But none of these were long rides. The motorbikes were rented locally, and I rode them around the city/country. I especially enjoyed 2 of these rides: one was doing the southern part of Laos (Bolaven Plateau) on a Honda wave scooter, and the second was riding a dirt bike through the unexplored villages in the mountains of Timor-Leste.
Livingit: When did you first start riding?
Abhilash Surendran : My mother was very protective of me when I grew up. So, I was not allowed to go near motorcycles (“Drive a car, that is safer!”) as I grew up. So, believe it or not, I rode my first motorbike at 23! I was in Chennai, working in an MNC and sharing an apartment with some other guys I randomly met in Chennai. A couple of them were complete daredevils when it came to riding a motorbike. I was amazed at how they zipped through traffic. Obviously, I begged them to teach me. After a few falls, yet no crashes, I bought a Pulsar in Chennai. Back then, my riding style was fast and crazy. (Blame the age, but it has toned down now).
One of my earliest memories on a motorcycle was doing a drag race from Pondicherry to Chennai, 196 kilometres, with a friend. We lit up the east coast road, and I have never ridden faster in my life. Everything was hunky-dory until about 40 metres away from our home; I skidded on some gravel and smashed my spectacles into my handlebar. I still have the mark on one of my eyelids to prove that it was a reckless move, and one that could have easily cost my eye.
It was probably since that incident, that I became a more cautious rider.
Livingit: How did your tour from Kerala to Kolkata, covering 12,000 kilometers in three months on your brand new Enfield, turn riding into a passion? Why do you enjoy riding?
Abhilash Surendran: Abhi: You could say I feel a little claustrophobic when I sit inside a car. I am boxed in. Sure, I can move the car, but I still feel a sensation of being caged in a small box. Motorcycling takes that away. I love the feeling of the wind in my hair when riding. (Yes, I grew my hair out when I was on the trip across India).
In the beginning, I wasn’t sure if I could make it all the way. The longest I had ridden till then was a 10-day riding streak in Bali, during which I did 800 km. But India was a completely different animal, in terms of scale, complexity, skill, and perseverance.
But once I started out, I started enjoying it. The most impressive thing was the diversity that the country has to offer, where the scenery and environment changed within a few kilometres. For example, Gaya and Bodhgaya, are just 10 kms from each other, yet one is an over-crowded urban maze, and the other is a serene and calm place, and one of the cleanest I have seen in India. Similarly, would you associate Goa with wildlife sanctuaries? I had to ride through the Netravali wildlife sanctuary before I came face-to-face with the beautiful beaches of Goa.
I love being surprised, and this diversity of the country kept me going, keeping me curious to find out what lies at the next bend.
Livingit: What are the essentials to pack on a motorbike trip?
Abhilash Surendran: The thing about riding in India is, don’t expect your clothes to stay clean/new at the end of a long trip. They will pick up quite a lot of mud, dirt, and smoke along the way. So, unlike what many people believe, I actually took my oldest, tearing-at-the-seams clothes on the motorbike trip.
Apart from clothes, everything else you carry is a personal choice. However, there are some motorcycle essentials you must carry: a rain cover, a sound lock, and a repair kit. If you have a Royal Enfield with a custom-built frame, carry a few spare fuses as the wirings can often get tangled on our roads. I blew my fuse somewhere in rural West Bengal and had to push my motorbike for nearly 3 kms before I could find a place to get some spare fuse.
Livingit: As preparation for your trip you learned the basics of bike maintenance and repair. Did you end up having to use your new found knowledge?
Abhilash Surendran: I believe I managed to take excellent care of my motorbike throughout the trip, so I only had 3 issues on the road. Out of those, I only had to use my repair skills once, which was when I blew my fuse in West Bengal. Another time, I was a victim of the ‘nail-on-the-highway’ trick, near Southern Maharashtra, and ended up with a flat tire. There was nothing I could do since I had no spare tire or tube, and even if I did, it was probably best that I left this job to the experts.
However, the most embarrassing issue – which I will never forget simply because I cannot believe how stupid I was – happened in Pushkar, Rajasthan.
I was staying in a guesthouse next to a primary school and had parked my motorbike at night near the school. When I came out in the morning, I found that the kids had been jumping around on my bike and one of those pesky kids had broken the foot rest under my gear-shift lever! If you ride, you would know that it is going to be extremely difficult to change gear, unless you have a foot rest to balance your feet on. And getting a replace foot rest for the Royal Enfield is not an easy task in a place like Pushkar. I managed to stiffen my feet and ride around to 5 different shops – at a very slow speed – all of whom informed me that I would have to ride to Ajmer to have any chance of finding a new foot rest. So, I rode to the Royal Enfield bullet workshop in Ajmer. It was only 15 kms, but it was the slowest 15kms of my life, thanks to the missing footrest and the scary Pushkar road which had to climb through the Aravalli range.
When I reached the workshop and explained my problem, the guy was helpless too. He said the footrests for the Thunderbird were not available anywhere in Ajmer – and most likely not even in Jaipur, which was 135km away – I would have to ride all the way to Delhi to find them. Delhi was 400 km away from Ajmer!
“There is another way”, he said, adding that I could have actually done it myself too. “You can take the footrests from the pillion, and attach it to the front. Later once you get new footrests in Delhi, you just have to attach them back to the pillion”
Till date, I don’t know how I missed that trick. My face was a complete picture of embarrassment when he told me that. Guess we all tend to forget simple things at times.
Livingit: Although a fan of the Enfield Bikermania groups based in India, you decided to embark on your trip of discovering your homeland solo. What are some things to keep in mind as a solo rider in India?
Abhilash Surendran: In no particular order:
- They say cricketers need good peripheral vision. No. Bikers need good peripheral vision. Especially in India. You can never guess from where the next bicycle jumps onto the highway, or which cow suddenly decides to swerve right. I consider myself extremely lucky that I did not have any accident during my trip. (Although I did witness a really bad accident in front of my eyes in West Bengal). But ensure that you have a good peripheral vision before you embark on such a long trip.
- DO NOT RIDE AT NIGHT, unless you are very familiar with the neighborhood. Unlike what many people believe, India is completely safe to ride through. But during the day. At night, there are plenty of risks in India. There are entire stretches spanning hundreds of kilometres where there is no street lighting. And there are plenty of drunken truck drivers to add to the risk. Not to mention, probably some opportunistic guy waiting in the shades for you to appear.
- Do not fall back to the ‘reserve tank’ plan. Ensure you fill up your tank much before it even hits reserve. Again, there are long stretches in India where you may not find a petrol station, and it is not a smart idea to start looking for fuel only when you get into reserve.
- Instead of burning your data card on Google maps (especially since you will be mostly roaming), download an app called ‘maps.me’, and download offline maps for the entire country.
- Know your tyres, and don’t hesitate to invest in them even if they are expensive. I did the mistake of riding through Darjeeling and other winter areas without winter-grip tyres (because I didn’t want to spend money on them). I almost skidded down the valleys multiple times. In a place like Darjeeling, a complete skid would have meant sure death. Hope you learn from my mistakes.
- Watch out for gravel. One of the biggest risks to motorcyclists in India is gravel on the roads. If you brake too soon or too hard on fine gravel, you will skid, and that will mostly mean that you lose some fine skin off your body.
- Trust people enough to have a talk with them wherever possible, because that is the whole point of travelling. But be wary of surroundings. Ensure there are other people in the vicinity who can come to your help if something happens.
- And finally, just for safety purposes; carry a knife. For all you know, you may only need it for cutting vegetables. But why take a risk?
Livingit: With no plan, no dates and no targets, you set out “as far as you could get from your own comfort zone.” So you didn’t take care of any logistics beforehand? How did you manage in terms of stay, safety, food, money…etc?
Abhilash Surendran: I did have a rough idea of my route, meaning I knew I wanted to reach Nepal first and then if possible, get to Bhutan. But the specifics of the route were very flexible. In fact, I went east first (from Kerala to Chennai), before coming back to the west. I didn’t specify how much I would ride each day. The whole point was to stop at interesting places.
Having said that, there is a little bit of planning that I have to do the day before each riding day; primarily, on finding out which are the best options for a night halt. I usually identify more than 1 option for which town/place to stop for the night. As for accommodation, I prefer to couch surf ( www.couchsurfing.com ), but this was not always possible, because not only is there a lack of couch surfers in India, but it was also difficult to plan your trip according to the couch surfing host. So, instead, I would look at the hotel/hostel/guesthouse options in cleartrip or makemytrip. If the town had very few hotels, I would make a booking in advance. If there was plenty, I would just ride into the town, and ask around.
One essential for a solo trip in India is a working internet connection on your mobile phone. You can minimize using it for the maps, by using maps.me or other offline maps. But you will still need it for checking accommodations, what-to-do, recommendations etc.
As far as food is concerned, I’m an extra-flexible guy. I can eat mostly anything, and pretty much everywhere, (although, I did end up getting the Delhi Belly in Delhi). On days where I didn’t feel so great, I would find a bag of carrots from somewhere and just munch on them.
Livingit: What was one of the biggest challenges you faced as a solo rider and how did you overcome it?
Abhilash Surendran: Without doubt, it was the solitude. Solo riding is fun and there is nothing like it, but every once in a while, solitude hits you. And it hits you when you least expect it. At that point, I would question if there was any point in doing this, I could just take a flight back to my home and spend time with my family and friends.
Each time solitude hit me, I would keep telling myself that this was just a phase. It would pass as soon as I came into contact with some other people. I just had to keep reminding myself of the amazing places I rode through so far, and how that trip would have been different if I was doing it with a group.
Livingit: Looking back on your trip, what was one of the best memories you made while riding across India?
Abhilash Surendran: It was definitely going to places which are nowhere on the tourist map of India. I think the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen, was in a place I had never heard of before, and ded up due to a punctured tyre episode: Tarkarli, in Maharashtra. The beach was one of the most beautiful that I have seen anywhere. Similarly, Malad and Murad in Maharashtra, are totally off the tourist map, but breathtaking in natural beauty.
The other beautiful thing was giving a lift to most school kids who asked me for a lift along their way. (They love to pillion-ride an Enfield) I could break the monotony of riding alone a little bit, by taking them along, even if it was mostly only a few kilometres at the most.
Livingit: Do you also have experience motorbike touring abroad? How are the experiences different between India and abroad?
Abhilash Surendran: I have motorcycled in almost all the countries of South East Asia (Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, East Timor, Indonesia, and Laos), and the Dominican Republic in Central America. So far, these countries have pretty much the same road sense as India, sans the amount of traffic. In fact, almost of these countries, people warn me: “It’s so dangerous to ride a motorbike here.” I tell them that I am from India; they don’t say anything after that, because the general consensus is that riding a motorbike in India will prepare you for riding in any other country.
Livingit: Do you have any advice to riders looking to set out on a long distance trip?
Abhilash Surendran: Plenty. And most are from my own mistakes.
- Ensure you research on the weather and terrain of wherever you are going. This research will help you in choosing your attire, gear, and choosing the right accessories for your motorbike.
- Learn some basic repair works.
- Be healthy. Motorcycling may look like it does not require must physical effort, but it actually does.
- Be open to picking up hitchhikers (if you have a free pillion seat). But be very careful to judge the hitchhiker, and to decide based on which part of the world you are. The last thing you want to do is stop for a hitchhiker in a remote highway!
- Your shoulders take a strain after hours of riding. So ensure that you are not wearing any backpack on your shoulders. They should be attached to the motorbike.
Livingit: Keen to set out again, you’re planning a ride from Kanyakumari to Kibithoo, another bike trip but this time along the east of India. Could you elaborate on your approach to the ride?
Abhilash Surendran: The last time I did a ride through India, it went almost entirely through the west coast of the country. I almost neglected the east entirely. Eventually, I did, a small portion of this, riding from Chennai to Kanyakumari, and I understood that the east side is – comparatively – much less explored than the west. I rarely came across tourists on this trail. So, further exploring the eastern coastal route has been on my mind for quite a long time.
In addition, that the only states I have not yet been to in India, are the seven sisters of the Northeast. So, I added that to the plan too, especially since I have heard so much about these states, in terms of natural beauty. Then it made sense to do a trip from the southernmost point of continental India (Kanyakumari) to the easternmost point of India (Kibithoo). I am not sure if this has been tried before, but that would be an awesome ride!
Livingit: How are you planning the international ride?
Abhilash Surendran: Since language is another huge barrier in South America (I speak a little Spanish, but almost no Portuguese), I am taking the help of a Brazilian friend in the planning phase. Information about the paperwork is very limited, and most of the government websites are in Spanish. The first step is to clear all of that.
The second step is deciding whether it makes sense to have my motorbike shipped to Buenos Aires (where the ride will start) or instead, to buy a motorbike there. Imported bikes are subjected to higher taxes and money is definitely an important part of my plan.
Coming to the financial portion, I am currently in the midst of discussing sponsorship deals with certain brands to sponsor a portion of the expenses, hope to close this portion soon by the mid of this year. Also, looking at whether I would need to crowd fund a portion of the expenses.
And finally, it is about setting up a date. Given the weather and terrain conditions, I have already decided that the ride will start in October. I just have to figure out which October. I am trying hard to set off by October 2017, but the research is not easy. And I don’t want to rush into a ride without proper planning. In that case, this ride will start from October 2018.
Livingit: Finally, what does it mean to you to live your passion?
Abhilash Surendran: Abhi: ‘Living your passion’ is more than a phrase to me. I think it is a way of life. I love the feeling whenever someone looks at the pages of my passport, or on the trip meter on my motorbike. There are more stories between those pages, than any other book that I have read. “Living your passion”, means waking up on a Sunday morning at the age of 65 with a cup of coffee in hand, regardless of where in the world I am, and thinking to myself: “That was a really good ride!”