Trucking on the old highways

Hitching rides on long-haul trucks is safe, easy and a great way to see the Myanmar’s untouristed backroads.

By JARED DOWNING | FRONTIER

TRAVELLING AROUND Myanmar in the cabs of freight trucks is the best thing almost no one does.  

Thanks to modern infrastructure and safety concerns, the Jack Kerouac-inspired romance of hitchhiking is largely dead in the West. But lorries in Myanmar still ride the old highways, where it is remarkably easy to wave down a 22-wheeler, hop in and rumble away.

I say “old highways” because freight traffic is not allowed on the new Yangon-Mandalay Expressway, and while these backroads are somewhat slow, they offer a glimpse of valleys, towns, pagodas, markets, local festivals and other slices of life totally overlooked by travellers blasting to Bagan or Inle Lake on an express bus.

In fact, of the dozen or so countries I’ve hitchhiked in, Myanmar is by far the easiest and safest.

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Yes, it is safe. Or at least as safe as busses or trains. Pickpockets and swindlers are a lot more likely to lurk in places where travellers congregate. While a pair of truck drivers (they tend to ride in pairs) are strangers, at least you know what they’re doing and why.  

The drivers might be more confused about you, of course, but they are usually thrilled by your presence, and there is plenty of room. Long-haul lorry cabs tend to be vast, decorated with flowers and little shrines, and outfitted with padded sleeping platforms for a guest to sit (or nap) upon.

Furthermore, their huge windows and windscreens afford an excellent view of places familiar on a map, but rarely visited.

Take the route from Yangon to Mandalay, for example. You might find yourself stopping for tea in Taungoo, the birthplace of Myanmar’s most fearsome empire, or spending the night Meiktila, with its colossal, golden hinthar bird floating in the river.

And when the truckers do stop for tea, they will likely treat you. In my experience, truckers have without exception refused offers of payment and will arrange rides with their colleagues if they aren’t headed to your final destination.

How to start

The first challenge is getting people to understand what exactly hitchhiking is. When I started doing it Myanmar, things got a lot easier after I finally acquired my Magic Note. Written in Myanmar language and laminated with packing tape, it reads:

Mingalabar. I am trying to learn more about Myanmar people, so I am riding around the country on large trucks. I do not need a bus or taxi. I would be grateful if I could ride with you. Thank you.

You can also show the Magic Note to taxi drivers, who might take you to a good spot to stand, or local police officers, who more than once have whistled down a lorry on my behalf. (I imagine hitchhiking is against the law, but nobody seems to worry about it.) 

The next challenge is finding a good place to wait for a truck. If you are leaving from a city with many arteries and bypasses, take a shuttle to the next town along the highway.

Leaving from Yangon, for example, you might first taxi to Hlegu, a wide spot on the highway to Bago.

After that, it is a matter of standing and waiting – sometimes a good deal of waiting. It takes patience – but trust me, it’s worth it. The first time a full-loaded 22-wheeler stops and opens his door, you’ll know what I mean.

After that initial pickup things get easier. Freight traffic moves in currents around the country, connected by known junctions and rest stops. Drivers will help you find new pickups, or at the very least drop you off at a spot with a lot of freight traffic.

Major shipping arteries are easiest for a hitchhiking journey, while other routes can be more difficult. These are a few good starting journeys.

Bago to Myawaddy (~350 kilometres)

This route leads to the trade town of Myawaddy on the Thai border over the once-dreaded Kawkareik Pass. The road used to be so narrow that traffic could only flow one direction on a given day, but it was rebuilt recently and there are plenty of truck drivers who will willingly give you a tour of the Kayin Hills.

Try starting out from the junction village of Paya Gyi, and expect to be dropped off at a customs control checkpoint a few kilometres outside Myawaddy itself.

Bago to Nay Pyi Taw (~300 kilometres)

This journey – on smooth, tree-lined, lowland roads through picturesque farms and villages – is doable with only one pickup. If you have a few days, you can follow the shipping all the way to Meiktila or Mandalay.

As the highway doesn’t pass through Nay Pyi Taw itself, expect to be dropped off in the town of Pyinmana or another nearby town.

Mandalay to Hsipaw (~200 kilometers)

A deceptively short route on paper, this journey is a slow and easy meander up to Pyin Oo Lwin and over the Shan Hills. Leaving from Mandalay in the morning will result in lovely valley sunsets. Even if you just want to get to Hsipaw, hitchhiking is a good alternative to busses for those of us prone to car-sickness.  

Illustration by Jared Downing | Frontier

Things to take along

– A Myanmar-language road map
– A Myanmar-language note explaining who you are and what you are doing
– Imported cigarettes. Truckers usually refuse money, but a fancy smoke makes a good token of your appreciation 
– A lightweight hammock for long journeys (at night, a pair of drivers might simply pull over in the middle of nowhere for a few hours of sleep)
– Photos of your friends or family from home to show

This article was first featured in the Discover Myanmar special edition of Frontier, published in October 2017. 

By Jared Downing

By Jared Downing

Jared Downing is an American journalist from Colorado and Alabama. He likes podcasts, radio theatre and hitchhiking and collects cans of sardines from around the world.
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