We flew. From Bangkok, Thailand to Kolkata, India. And then back again from Bangalore, India to Shanghai, China.

We'd come from California to Thailand by car, container ship, train, ferry, and bus. And then we were stuck. We had no way of getting from Thailand to South Asia, to see family in India, and to try to learn about the real impacts of climate change in Bangladesh. It was infuriating to be so close, and yet unable to get there by land or sea. Even as we were planning our trip, we'd known that this segment was a bit of an unknown, but we figured we'd find a route on the road. But none of our three options panned out (more on this below).

We'd challenged ourselves to try to circumnavigate the world plane-free, to help show that we could live without high-carbon aviation. We had a choice: we could either skip South Asia and keep going, or we could take a plane flight to see our family. In the end, we picked family. Anirvan's grandfather is 93 years old; we couldn't bring ourselves to lose a chance to see him to maintain idealogical purity to a self-imposed test. George Monbiot calls these love miles, the planet-killing air travel we do to see the ones we love. When it comes to family, ecological logic shuts down.

Before we started this trip, we weren't thinking about all the different factors that help shape how people move in the world. Stepping out of our aviation-powered comfort zone has given us a glimpse at what we were missing.

Why couldn't we get from East or Southeast Asia to South Asia without flying? We investigated three options:

The most direct route from Thailand to South Asia is by train through Myanmar (Burma), which we couldn't do for ethical reasons. Burma's democratic opposition has a long-standing call for an international boycott on all tourism in Burma, though this has been challenged over the past few years. Some people do this route (which involves a mess of permits from Myanmar and India), but we chose not to. Boycotts or engagement? Environment or human rights? I hope we made the right choice. As Tourism Concern says:

"[M]oney earned from tourism helps to prop up one of the most brutal military regimes in the world. Increasing revenues (over $100 million a year) from tourism has not brought local people benefits but has helped the Junta retain control...That tourism is an important source of revenue for the illegal military junta has been highlighted time and time again. Our campaign endeavoured to stress that tourism does not just fail to benefit local people but is also linked directly to their suffering."

The other obvious route would be to take a ship from East/Southeast Asia to India. We contacted booking agents and shipping lines, but couldn't find a single ship doing the route at the time and willing to accept passengers. We suspected that it might have something to do with Indian port security, but Joycene Deel, our agent at Freighter World, suggests the global economy may be to blame:

"The economy has affected everything including the freighters. A colleague sent me a picture of a lot of freighters anchored outside a port awaiting jobs with cargo. It has slowed down so much that I had to lay off both of my employees in December 2008 and it has not picked up enough for me to rehire them. The freighters run on cargo requirements and things are just really slow at this time and it is not a matter or port security issues or insurance issues. Everything has slowed down."

The craziest idea we'd hatched up was to backtrack to China, take a train to Tibet, then take a bus or train to Nepal, and finally India. But traveling the Himalayas in winter wasn't the wisest option. Our friend Livleen Kahlon, an expert on all things Himalayan, explained why:

"About the Himalayas, I have always reminded people that in their entire stretch of about three thousand kilometers, there is really only one road that traverses across them: and that is the highway from Lhasa to Kathmandu, built mostly by the Chinese initiative. By the time this highway enters Nepal, it has already done its most rigorous journey across extremely high plateau land, almost 15000 feet high, and crossed passes above 17000 feet. In winters, the extreme cold and snow/ice etc. over long stretches of the high plateau land probably defy even the Chinese ability and enthusiasm to keep the highway open. I am sure this is a challenge for the Chinese and they would love to solve it: It'll be a while though. And no, even the traditional traders to and from Tibet and India/Nepal could not travel across the Himalayas in winters: these are very high and frozen lands. Actually my issue is more that there is really only one 'road' across the 3000km length of the Himalayas! Pity, you had to take this flight."

Here's our route so far. We flew to get to India, but things look achievable from here on out. Next up is the long train ride from China to Russia via the Trans-Siberian Railway.

  • car from Berkeley (USA) to Seattle
  • container ship to Yokohama (Japan)
  • metro to Tokyo
  • bullet/normal trains to Kyoto, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Beppu, Osaka
  • passenger ferry to Shanghai (China)
  • train to Hanoi (Vietnam), Saigon
  • bus to Phnom Penh (Cambodia), Siam Reap, Kep, Bangkok (Thailand)
  • plane to Kolkata (India)
  • bus to Dhaka (Bangladesh), Noakhali, Chittagong
  • train to Dhaka
  • bus to Kolkata (India)
  • train to Hyderabad, Bangalore
  • bus to Mysore
  • train to Madurai
  • bus to Kanyakumari
  • train to Bangalore
  • plane to Shanghai (China)
  • train to Xi'an, Beijing

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Anirvan Chatterjee and Barnali Ghosh were surprised to learn that their carbon footprint was bigger than 90 percent of Americans due to air travel and challenged themselves to spend a year without flying. Read More


its great that you know nothing about myanmar yet believe everyhing you hear on tv. people of myanmar have no problems with their government for the most part and they are no more oppressed than the people of thailand lets say.
Also, if you decided to wage a crusade for democracy i wonder why you entered cambodia or thailand.... vietnam? china? cmon... get real...

as for traveling by train through myanmar, it would not be possible for the simple reason that you, being a foreigner, cannot enter specific areas of specific states. Also, you cannot cross into myanmar on land, except for some border towns which you cannot leave. the only way is flying for a non-asean foreigner.

it's kinda cool on the other hand that brainwashed idiots like you guys are kept away by the international media campain aiming at destroying myanmar's tourist industry. no backpackers no 'enviroronmentally concious' idiots. mostly high-so travelers who are highly educated are the ones traveling to myanmar these days. and that's just right. this country remains one of the few gems that have not been destroyed by mass-tourism.

The "international media campaign" originated with Sun Aung Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy, and has been pushed forward by a wide range of allies. After some fifteen or so years, there's obviously more internal debate about how effective it's been. My understanding is that as of August, Sun Aung Suu Kyi is no longer calling for a boycott, while the NLD hasn't changed its position. I'm not a Myanmar expert, but I'm willing to wait until mainstream Burma solidarity groups change their position before considering breaking the boycott.

but don't you think that this (economic) boycott is hurting the country as a whole? and it's obviously hurting simple folks more than the generals up there. It's also encouraging activities like the producing and smuggling of illegal drugs and human trafficking.

Please, tell me why don't you boycott the other countries listed by me? non of those are functioning democracies, yet you have supported their regimes by spending your money there. Yes, there are groups calling for the boycott of China and Thailand for sure! How come you don't support them? What about Tibet? Some people are oppressed there, so what? But Myanmar is different, right?
Please give me a rational answer, if there is one.

I don't know of any international networks doing solidarity work in support of Chinese or Thai people's movements that are actively calling for a general tourism boycott of either nation at the time. Do you?

If you'd like an end to the tourism boycott on Myanmar, you should start by asking the NLD to clearly change its position. Groups like Tourism Concern and the various national Burma solidarity campaigns generally base their support for the strategy because that's what the NLD explicitly said it wanted.

Thanks, and good luck.

i just googled 'boycott china' and got some 2,800,000 results. There are several groups out there calling for the total boycott of china. You must know that there are many Tibetans living in exile in India. They too call for a boycott. What's more, the Dalai Lama himself approved their call for a total boycott of China in 1993.


Surely, there are sepratists and fanatics in almost every country, and this includes the US as well. (have a look at all those militias plannign terrorist attacks or the group calling for the independence of Vermont)
However, these groups don't get much attention from the international media, simply because they don't deserve it.

The case is different with the NLD however, as Western Governments happen to dislike the current leadership of Myanmar. So they play on emotions and use people like you as their tools. This is what really annoys me.

I would be happy to see this comment on the page. thanks

I said "I don't know of any international networks doing solidarity work in support of Chinese or Thai people's movements that are actively calling for a general tourism boycott of either nation at the time." I still don't see any; for example, The International Campaign for Tibet isn't calling for a broad tactical boycott of China.

Adam, we simply happen to disagree. I think EVERYONE has the right to express an opinion about the internal affairs of foreign countries -- including my own. I'm glad so many of America's international friends refuse to remain silent about my country's sometimes-problematic internal policies, e.g. when Amnesty International members overseas pester my government about its support for the death penalty, or when global environmentalists call on the US to move ahead with internal climate change legislation.

The NLD won 81% of the vote in Burma's last election -- are you seriously comparing them to fringe American militia groups calling for the independence of Vermont? The NLD explicitly asked the international community for a tourism boycott. If you don't like the NLD's policy, feel free to express that to them directly.

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About us...

We're a landscape architect (Barnali) and tech geek (Anirvan) from San Francisco spending a year trying to travel across continents aviation-free while talking to people exploring solutions to transportation and the climate crisis.

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