Compared to other SEA (South East Asia) countries, like Cambodia, Thailand and Laos, Myanmar is a very special country. It is probably the most underdeveloped country in SEA, with the most difficult and complex political situation. However, it is a beautiful country with great people!
In many ways, it is the ‘Iran’ of SEA. Iran has the authoritarian theocratic government, Myanmar has the authoritarian military junta. Iran became poor after it was blocked by foreign powers. Myanmar suffered heavily from similar blockade. Both nations are deeply religious and have great hospitality. Because the long blockade, both countries have remained mysteries until recent years. When you travel there, there is still the joy of pure discovery. They both belong to a category of nations where I call ‘the people are great but the government is shit’.
However, there are also significant differences. Myanmar has reached general reconciliation with the West and since 1992 the country has been encouraging tourism. It is fast becoming the next Thailand. Iran still remains a mystery for most people and a reconciliation with the West is becoming difficult with Donald Trump as the president of US. Iran has been peaceful for a long time, ever since the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988. It is probably the safest country in its region. That is not the case for Myanmar. Myanmar government has been in constant warfare with its northern regions, inhabited mainly by minority groups. In 2015, when I wanted to cross the border to Myanmar from Chinese side, the guards at the Chinese border told me that even if he let me go, the Myanmar side would not let me in unless I had the official approval letter of the Ministry of Defense of Myanmar because just near Chinese border a war was going on. The buses could only drive for one hour from the border, then it would be stopped by gunshots everywhere. I saw also in the news that some flying bombs exploded on the Chinese side and caused some damage. Many refugees fled Myanmar and sought refugee in China. All this was just in 2015, merely 3 years ago.
Although peace was restored afterwards, the tension is persistent. Since last year there is also the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims. Myanmar is much more turbulent than Iran. In contrast with Iran, Myanmar is undoubtedly the most unstable country in its region.
So, is it safe to hitchhike in Myanmar?
Obviously, if you happen to be a Muslim, this is not the best time for you to even travel in Myanmar. Although I do believe that most Burmese people are good instead of killers portrayed in mainstream media. As my personal experience tells, most Burmese are soft and gentle Buddhists. I even could not imagine them killing a sheep as they are so devoted. However, I mainly went to the South. Mandalay was the most northern point I had been to, so in the mountainous north the situation might be different. Since the North is right now too turbulent, let’s mainly talk about hitchhiking in the region from Mandalay down.
This region is very safe. The people are generally peaceful Buddhists. The country was closed off from external influence for a long time, so the people there still preserved the kind countryside mentality from the old times. Seriously, if you go to any places which are not touristic, you will have the feeling of time traveling. This is the most surreal time traveling experience I have ever had. The countryside with its sheds made of bamboo and wood, the endless rice fields still tilled by carts pulled by cows. There is even no electricity in most countryside. The only light you will see is from burned wood for cooking. You are back in the 50s. To be exact, Myanmar simply stopped for more than half a century. The only reminder of the modern era is the few mobile phones you will occasionally see. Even they are the old style phone made by Nokia or Motorola. The whole scene is mesmerizing.
People were so peaceful that one does not hear about any crimes. Myanmar has a murder rate a bit lower than Azerbaijan and Armenia and a bit higher than Albania and Nepal, ranking 142 in the world with a murder rate of 2.42/100 000 inhabitants. This is a ranking with the conflicts in the North considered. Thus, as you can imagine, the South is really safe.
Is it easy to hitchhike in Myanmar?
Just as Iran is the easiest country to hitchhike in the Middle East, Myanmar is the easiest country to hitchhike in Indochina peninsula. It happened to me more than once that the traffic police helped me to catch rides. Their pure kindness was impressive.
One situation which does not happen in Iran is that there are not many private cars. Therefore, you will most probably be picked by buses or shared vehicles. I also hitchhiked multiple motorcycles, but that is a common scene in SEA.
Is it common to hitchhike in Myanmar?
Nope! Hitchhiking is not a common thing in most places in South Myanmar. However, in the mountainous North Myanmar, the local population do hitchhike as a regular way of getting around. As for South Myanmar, even among foreign travelers, there are very few hitchhikers, as the roads are worse than Laos and the public transport is the cheapest in the whole Indochina peninsula. I paid 2.5 USD for the most luxurious train ride of the country, from Bagan to Yangon. It took about 12 hours to cover the 600 km (372 miles) distance. You can imagine how cheap the goods there are.
How to hitchhike in Myanmar?
The thumbing up pose is not generally accepted. If you thumb up on the road side, people would have no idea what you are trying to do.
There are 3 ways you can do this right.
- You write a sign. Find a piece of cardboard or just a piece of A4 paper, which can be asked for in almost any shop or gas station. Then use a big marker pen to write your destination on it. Then you stand on the road side holding your sign with a positive smile until somebody stops.
- You wave to cars, like many middle eastern countries and at the same time hold your sign. You stretch your arm horizontally and wave it mildly, as to wave down a taxi in your own country. The only difference is that once cars do stop, you go up to the driver and tell him you are hitchhiking and do not have money.
- You can also ask in gas stations or parking lots but you will find the Burmese gas stations and parking lots very primitive. As I mentioned, the country simply stagnated for more than half a century. The good place to ask would be the restaurants on the roadside where cars stop regularly for food and fuel.
When should I go hitchhiking in Myanmar?
As most SEA (South East Asia) countries, it is hot all year round. It has a tropical climate with 3 seasons.
Hot season: Mar-Apr
Wet season: May-Oct
Cool season: Nov-Feb
Yes, the cool season is the best for hitchhiking and traveling in general.
Unlike the ‘cool season’ of Thailand, where daily temperature can easily reach 35°C (95°F), here in Myanmar the cool season is really quite cool. The temperature can be 16°C (60.8°F), very comfortable for traveling. Of course, as the whole country has a slope downwards from North to South, the North has cooler temperature in the mountains while the South, especially on the coast, the temperature is higher. As the infrastructure of Myanmar is really poor, some areas can suffer from flooding during the wet season, so watch the news closely if you happen to be there during the wet season.
The internet of Myanmar is the SLOWEST in the world I have ever experienced! Yes, it is even much slower than countries like Uganda or Sudan. It took me literally 40 minutes to log in my email and that was a computer in a 3 star hotel in central Yangon, the biggest city in Myanmar. So to be prepared, download the maps in advance. The wifi does get a bit better between midnight and 6 AM. Be prepared for returning to the before internet era.
In big cities and touristic areas there are ATMs, so there is no worry about that. However, if you happen to be outside these areas, which happens a lot if you are hitchhiking, then you should withdraw some cash beforehand for in the countryside it is a big challenge to find ATMs.
How can I sleep?
Unlike Thailand, Laos or Cambodia, Buddhist monasteries or the homes of regular Burmese are not good options or simple not possible. The Burmese law dictates that all foreigner tourists have to lodge in regular hotels. I met many very kind Burmese people and some invited me for dinner on the street but hospitable as they were, they were not allowed to let me sleep in their homes. Once found out, they would be in big trouble. Same goes for the Buddhist monasteries. Eventually I had to go to the cheapest hotel I could find in Mandalay. It was about 6 USD per night and the room literally looked like prison cells. However, there was a bed and a mosquito net, so it was all right.
However, I think it is surely possible to camp in some wilderness or lodge in some monasteries in some villages far from the central power. The bureaucratic system is not that up-to-date or efficient. I know people who managed to do that but you really have to go out of the cities.
Will I have legal troubles if I hitchhike in Myanmar?
Nope! Most police will even help you if they see you hitchhiking on the road. Although I did hear of some tourists were tricked to pay some minor bribe to policemen. The politics there is rather corrupt.
Useful phrases for hitchhiking
How to explain that you are hitchhiking:
How to explain that you want to sleep or camp there