My friends grandfather always told him to "drive fast and take chances"; his grandfather clearly had things figured out. The main tourist attractions in Burma are grouped into two clusters, one in the north and one in the south and there's very little between them. Due to overland entry restrictions into Burma, Brad and I started out in the south like all other tourists. Unlike other tourists we took the road less traveled to the northern attractions and that has made all the difference.
Had you asked me a year ago to order a list of everything that I've done in my entire life from most likely to least likely, hitchhiking across Burma probably would have been at the bottom. I could have pictured myself swimming with manta rays or getting lost on a mountain, and getting attacked by bees alone in a jungle at night was only a matter of time. I could even have imagined a situation in which I rode a motorbike full-speed down the center of an active airport runway, but I really wouldn't have guessed that I'd be standing on the side of the road in Myanmar holding a cardboard sign with Burmese script on it.
When hitchhiking, starting from the outside of a city is key. In town people usually aren't going long distances, there's too much happening and worst of all, it's full of taxis. Getting to the edge of town can sometimes be the hardest part of the journey, and for Brad and I this was no exception. We had decided to take a public bus and everything from finding the bus stop to actually boarding the vehicle was a challenge. To give you an idea of what riding a public bus in Burma is like, go to a crowded rock concert and stand about 3 feet/1 meter away from the stage and then bend at the hips and prevent yourself from falling over by supporting your weight on the stage with your arms. See if you can make it 30 minutes.
We eventually arrived near the edge of town and found a suitable stretch of road to stand on: shaded, room for cars to pull over and enough visibility that people could see us from a distance. Unfortunately it was too far into town and suffered from all the problems listed above, especially the harassment of taxis. The three cars that did pull over were willing to take us to the edge of town but only for a price. We learned that most Burmese people can't read Latin script, so if we were gonna have any chance of getting up north by thumb we were gonna need a sign in the local alphabet. Luckily I had come prepared with that.
As we were giving up hope and discussing what to do, a van pulled over an a nice young gentleman offered us a ride to the expressway junction 45 minutes north of town, exactly where we were headed. Jackpot! The man didn't speak much English and didn't really understand what we were trying to do, but like many Burmese and Indonesian people he was more than happy to help. Before he dropped us off he gave us his phone number and said to call if we had any troubles. I don't have a local number here since the phone service is outrageously expensive(see below for a pay phone picture), but it was still a nice gesture.
The Yangon-Naypyitaw Expressway was recently built but is rarely traveled as it bypasses most towns between the north and the south and parallels the old expressway. The pavement is nice, the boulevard is landscaped with well-maintained botanicals, there's markers every tenth of a kilometer and there are no streetlights or cops. Around 6pm the guy dropped us off where the two expressways split, just as the sun was setting. He told us that buses go by there all night and that we could catch one there if necessary. We waited for about 20min and the sixth car to pass pulled over to offer us a ride.
The Lexus sedan had 3 men in it already, all of whom spoke English well, 2 of whom were Burmese, but when they conversed amongst themselves they used Japanese. They told us that they were headed to Naypyidaw, the capital of Burma, but that they would take us to the rest area—one of only two on the expressway—115km down the way and that we should have no trouble getting another ride from there. At speeds ranging from 120 to 140kph we made introductions and I explained our plan, seizing the opportunity to increase my Burmese vocabulary and learn all about the country and culture. I asked the man sitting next to us in the back how the three men knew each other and he said that they worked together. I asked what they did and he said to ask his boss who was riding shotgun and hadn't given us his name during the introductions. I asked the man up front what the company did and he let out a rather loud and just slightly maniacal laugh that faded into a sigh. We left the question at that.
At rest stop 115 I thanked the men in English, Burmese and Japanese and then we walked toward the restaurant that they had recommended. We arrived at the outdoor seating area to find all the tables full. As we stood there with our packs on looking around I noticed someone waiving to us from a circular table in the corner; it was the men who had given us a ride. They ordered the dishes they had recommended to me in the car and as we waited and ate we got to talking. The Japanese man from the front seat is the owner of the company the three men worked for and the company is involved in politics. The man who had been driving the car is a professional actor(we confirmed this fact 2 days later when someone at a tourist attraction offered us a postcard with his picture), the family of the guy who was sitting next to us in the back seat owns several ruby and gold mines, and the owner of the company is a multimillionaire who owns constructions companies in Japan and Taiwan and financial companies in Singapore.
"One of these two men is going to be Prime Minister of Burma in 5 to 10 years" the owner of the company explained with a straight look on his face. Then the man from the back seat of the car said: "Wait just a minute, I will get the owner of this restaurant and instruct her to tell all the servers to listen to everyones conversation and if anyone is going to Bagan, they'll get you a ride. You can stay and drink at any establishment at the rest stop and the owner of this restaurant will come get you when they've found a ride". In approximately 1 minute the owner of the restaurant and 15 servers were standing at attention around our table listening to our friend instructing them on what to do and explaining how interested we are in Burmese culture. The Japanese businessman was watching his employee to see how well he could make connections and pull strings. He seemed impressed.
Immediately after that meeting the owner called all 40 of the servers together and explained the plan. Our friends finished their drinks, paid for the meal and said good bye once more. They said we shouldn't be waiting there long before a server catches wind of a ride. Just before departing I got both potential future prime ministers to sign the back of our cardboard sign. After an hour and a half of waiting it was getting late and becoming evident that no one was on their way to Bagan or if they were they weren't talking about it so we headed back out to the road. After about 45 minutes of waiting an older man and his wife driving a beat-up white pickup truck pulled over to offer us a ride. They weren't going to Bagan but they were going to a town north of it called Mandalay and offered to drop us at the road to Bagan about 4hrs north. We were planning to go Mandalay later on the trip anyway and we didn't have any plans in Bagan so we figured we'd just take the whole ride to Mandalay and hopped in back.
Two minutes down the road all the light from the rest stop had disappeared and only things illuminated were the stars and sparks shooting off the back of the truck. No moon, no taillights. Based on our calculations from counting the mile markers we were going approximately 50kph. I saw a shooting star. Then another and another. I saw 5 shooting stars that night. We were rising in elevation and it was getting cold. Somewhere around 1am the truck broke down. After 15 minutes of tinkering they got it working again. It was during that time that I noticed the man and his wife were sharing a pair of shoes, switching off every couple minutes. As the night progressed and our elevation increased the temperature began to drop.
How to survive a frigged night in the back of a pickup truck:
- Sit on a piece of cardboard to insulate you from the cold metal truck bed.
- Change into your warmest cloths and use your longyi as a blanket.
- Put your rain coat/poncho on to help protect you from the wind.
- Get inside your sleeping sack.
- Put your boots on.
- Eat chocolate.
At this point you should be wearing your boots, warm cloths and a rain coat inside your sleeping sack while laying on cardboard and munching on chocolate. Getting as close to the cab of the truck will also help keep the wind down not to mention bring you closer to the warmth of the engine.
As I lay in the back of the truck freezing and thinking "Esto es vida, ¡y lo demás es tonteria" I looked over at Brad and saw behind him the big dipper standing mighty and proud on the edge of the horizon. The big dipper is very significant to me. This was the first time on the whole tip I'd seen it and it brought me the comfort and familiarity of home. It also reminded me of someone I love. It's the only constellation I know and I can use it to navigate. It was to be the second in the celestial trifecta that night.
Somewhere after our second breakdown around 4:30am a flaming phoenix moon dive-bombed the planet like a slice of ripe cantaloupe falling to earth in it's gamboge granditude. Shortly after sunrise we pulled over so the driver could take a nap. Around 8am we stopped at a roadside hut to get some gas. Around 8:01am we broke down again. When we finally arrived in Mandalay 19hrs after our departure from Yangon the driver pulled into a real gas station where he asked someone that spoke English to ask us where we wanted to be dropped off. I tried to say "anywhere" in Burmese but she didn't seem to get it so we decided that any hotel would do. They ended up dropping us at the backpacker hotel in the middle of town.
Mandalay is quite a bit different than Yangon; it's far more dusty and far less modern. Since Brad and I didn't have any plans or time restraints and barely slept that night, we checked in and pretty much napped the day away. That evening we had a couple Myanmar beers, which in my opinion are the best of the southeast Asian macro brews. That left us primed and ready for the next days adventure, but that's a tale for another time...