Hitchhiking a way through Myanmar

One of the oldest (and romantic) ways to travel; hitch hiking your way through a country. Nowadays this way of travelling is questioned by many due to safety reasons. Pauline, a Dutch girl who is travelling solo through Myanmar, gave it a go. This is her verdict..

Hitchhiking was always something I dreamed of, but never did until I met Martin in Myanmar. He taught me the tricks of hitchhiking and since then, I have often hitchhiked myself. It’s a great way to meet local people, it makes your trip more exciting, and you can save some money.

It all started at the airport in Yangon, the capital of Myanmar where Martin and I met. We arrived at the same time and walked to the hostel I booked. The next morning Martin told me that he was planning to hitchhike through Myanmar. A plan that sounded impossible but also super exciting, so I decided to join him!

Thumbs up or not?

Two hours later, we were ready and walked to the main road with our sign for our first destination: Bago. After waiting for a while a friendly woman picked us up and brought us to a bigger, main road. People would look at us curiously and some tried to help us by pointing at a taxi or bus and signalling we should get on it. Taxi drivers eagerly stopped and offered to take us to Bago. After yelling ‘NO MONEY’ at over 50 taxis, a small pickup stopped and brought us to a bus station near the airport. Here, again, everybody wanted to put us on a bus and looked wary when we told them ‘NO MONEY’. After a while, a small bus stopped and the bus driver offered to take us to Bago for free.

This day made us realize that, although the people in Myanmar are really friendly, they simply are not familiar with the concept of hitchhiking. Because of this, putting your thumbs up makes no sense but carrying a clear sign helps a lot.

No worries, they will pick you up

The next day, we traveled from Bago to Inle Lake. First, we took a train to Thazi and after 14 hours we arrived at 5 AM with a sore butt. Luckily, the restaurants were already open and after a much-needed breakfast, we tried to hitch another ride. After about 20 minutes, a private mini-van stopped and told us that they could take us to a village near Inle Lake, but we did have to pay for it. I was scared we wouldn’t be able to find another ride so I convinced Martin and we hopped on. A decision I later regretted, as with a little more patience, we might have been able to find a ride for free. Four hours later we arrived in Shwenyaun, a town not far from Inle Lake. Again, we had to wave away many taxis. But after 10 minutes a pickup full with Myanmar college students stopped and took us to Inle Lake.

The perfect sign

After exploring Inle Lake we decided to go to Kalaw. Here we asked the owner of the hostel where we stayed the night to make a sign for us. Below the name of the city, he added a sentence saying: ‘Can you take us?’. A great idea, with this new sign, people smiled at us and more cars stopped. The sign worked wonders. We only needed three cars to get to our destination and we got picked up within ten minutes each time.

After our stay in Kalaw, we trekked to Inle Lake. Here we split up as Martin would attempt to hitchhike up North from Inle Lake to Hsipaw. Not all the roads in Myanmar are accessible by tourists or residents, which can make parts of the journey quite challenging. Because of this Martin was stopped by the police several times and was forced to take the bus back to Inle Lake. If you are planning to hitchhike in Myanmar, make sure that the route you plan to take is open for tourists. Your safest bet would probably be to follow the roads the tourist buses take.

My first solo hitchhiking experience

Two days later I left Inle Lake. Super scared, but reassured by another female backpacker that it would be safe, I left the hotel with signs for Meiktila, Mandalay and Hsipaw. After waiting for five minutes with holding the sign for Meiktila, a small bus stopped. They didn’t speak any English but even though I told them ‘NO MONEY’, they still seemed to want to take me there.

Puking locals

On the bus all passengers were given a small plastic bag. I didn’t understand why, until the road started winding and the locals around me started puking. Two hours later, I got a bit concerned. Nobody spoke any English and I had no idea where the bus was going. I hoped the bus would go to Mandalay, but it was impossible to know so I just got off the bus when we crossed the highway near Meiktilla.

Scooter boys with red eyes and a fancy BMW

After I got off the bus, two guys on scooters with red eyes approached me. They really frightened me so I ran to the other side of the highway and hoped someone would pick me up as soon as possible! And I was lucky. I had hardly unfolded my sign when a fancy BMW stopped. There I was again, on the road with two rich people who amazingly enough spoke some English. They told me a little about what life is like in Myanmar which was really interesting.

Sweet scooter boys

In high speed, we drove to Mandalay. There they dropped me on a spot I initially thought was perfect, but it turned out it was not. People drove too fast and did not stop. But again I was lucky. Two local boys on scooters stopped, as they were concerned that I would never make it to Hsipaw so they offered to take me to the bus station. At first I refused, but then I realized that it was already getting dark so it would be safer to take a bus anyway. At the bus station it turned out the tickets for the evening were really expensive. The boys even offered to pay my ticket! But, of course, I refused and after wandering around for a while I found a cheap ticket and in the dark, I left for Hsipaw in the dark.

At two am, I arrived in Hsipaw. To save money I decided to wait in a trucker restaurant until sunrise. At first, they looked a bit wary when they saw me, but they had good coffee and I felt safe there surrounded by the guys having naps in front of the tv. At nine am, I bought some breakfast and continued my trip with a two-day trekking in the hills of Hsipaw.

Tricks of the trade

  • People in Myanmar don’t know what hitchhiking is, as it is not something they come across often. A good sign would greatly improve your chances of getting picked up, you could even use the picture in this article as an example, just be sure to change the destination.
  • Download the app called maps.me to track where you are even without internet data.
  • Try and find a good spot. Don’t wait near a bus or train station as people will try to get you on a bus.
  • Tourists are not permitted to travel on certain roads. Try to follow the same routes tourist busses take and check with locals where you are and are not allowed to travel.
  • Not all hotels in Myanmar are allowed to rent rooms to tourists, so take care when you travel to a small town as you might not find a place to stay.
  • Moreover, tourists are not allowed to stay at locals’ houses so it’s probably wise to bring a tent.

The photos were made by Martin and myself. Follow Martin and me on Instagram for more pictures of our adventures.

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