Myanmar (aka Burma) is the final derailment for getting off-track. Compared with the 15 million bottle-binging, party-poppin’ backpackers that flood neighboring Thailand every year, you may feel as novel as the pope in this Buddhist country. Travelers have long steered clear of Burma because of its North Korea-esque government, wary that tourism could further fuck up life for the people of Myanmar. But after the 2010 election, the country officially opened to foreign visitors. National heroine Aung San Suu Kyi now supports “responsible” travel. Burma just may be back in the game.
Responsible tourism can mean a lot of things, but in Burma it means getting down and dirty with locals. This means making an effort that the majority of your money goes directly to civilians, and not to the government. It also means letting go of some of the comforts you’ll find elsewhere on the backpacker trail. Burma isn’t about hanging out with other travelers, throwing down cocktails into the wee hours of the night. When mingling with the people of Myanmar, smile big, try to speak their language, and hop into the back of their truck. Find that one Internet café in town, print some Google maps, and get hitched.
Why Do It?
In a country that has been long-closed to the outside world, people are psyched to share their culture with you. You’re going to rub shoulders with interesting and curious locals, and get access to roadside food that you’d never come across otherwise. Myanmar lacks the formal infrastructure and rules of other more popular countries—you won’t find any “No Hitchhiking” signs here so you can always play dumb if you have to.
Where and How to Get ‘Em Down
It’s easiest to snag a free ride in in the traveler’s triangle linking Lashio, Mandalay, and Yangon. Your best bet for some Keroucian rambling is in the Shan State. But sticking out your thumb isn’t a universal symbol for “free ride.” Instead, flag down drivers by merely waving your hand, palm-down, from the side of the curb. Some people aren’t going to get what you’re saying, and you may need to run into the street to make them stop. It’s okay. Myanmar people are super nice—the chances that they’ll run you over are slim to none.
Who to Flag
Get ready to get blown! The easiest rides to get are also the most fun—in the back of delivery trucks or in someone’s pick-up. You don’t need to feel obliged to tip anyone: half the point of hitching is to save on the bones. Offering to pay for tolls or to pitch in for gas is always appreciated. And don’t hesitate to flag down semis; they’re often going long distances, and are usually more than happy to let you get down with their goods for a few miles. But be warned: you’re going to get pretty high up near Lashio. Bring warm clothes if you’re riding after sunset.
Don’t Be Stupid
There may be a real feeling of freedom in Myanmar lacking elsewhere in the tourist machine that is Southeast Asia, but it comes with a price. Some roads are closed, gun-toting rebels guard some areas, and some regions are completely off-limits to tourists. Do your homework. Talk with locals, and take their advice.
It’s not likely that someone would pick you up and agree to take you to an off-limits place, but if that someone makes a mistake, it could end up costing him way more than your ride. Police at checkpoints won’t blink an eye if they see you cruising by, but it’s best to let guesthouses think you’re arriving by taxi or private car.
Adventuring in Burma is a bit like sleeping around in the 50s. Not everyone is doin’ it, so if you’re close to the real deal, you might as well go all the way. Hitchhiking through the country isn’t the easiest way to get around, but it’s definitely a backpacker badge of honor. Especially to whip out later while you’re getting tanked in Thailand.