It was easy enough to find a freight truck rolling out of Hsipaw in Shan State on the way to Mandalay—a simple matter of standing by the road and waving.
A truck stopped, the co-driver rolled down his window, I said “Mandalay! Mandalay!” and just like that we were off, rolling through the Shan Hills in a 22-wheeler.
That’s really all it takes to ride freight trucks in Myanmar, which is the best mode of transport no one does. For starters, it’s safe; the bad guys target trains and buses, places where travellers congregate, not big lorries. As for the drivers, they’re just doing a job. Of the dozen or so countries I’ve done this in, Myanmar is the only place to safe enough for a solo woman to hitch (other than maybe Japan, where a man wouldn’t hurt so much as a guinea pig if it ran away with his wallet).
Next, truck cabs tend to be roomy and comfortable, with high ceilings and big cushioned sleeping platforms on which to sit, or even take a nap.
Finally: the view is unbeatable. The one from the truck from Hsipaw featured the lush valleys, paddies and corn fields of Southern Shan, of which I and two truck drivers had an almost 180 degree view through the windows and big, happy windscreen.
This machine was Chinese made, judging from the labelling on the radio panel, but had photos of Aung San Suu Kyi and favourite monks stuck to the bulkhead and a little shrine to the Buddha fixed in the centre of the dashboard.
We exhausted our shared language with the usual pleasantries (“What is you country? America? Obama, haha!”), but they still pointed out interesting landmarks or grumbled about other drivers. By the time we stopped, we had a surprisingly strong rapport born out of laughs, sighs and Burmese cuss words.
The two drivers refused my offer of payment. In fact, they bought me dinner at the Myanmar version of a truck stop, where teamsters smoked cheroots, drank Crown Royal and sprayed their rigs with water to cool them off. One driver bought replace bear with 'beer', and another showed me his box of new kittens.
My guys, it turned out, weren’t going all the way to Mandalay, but they talked to their mates and found a convoy that was. One of my new friends gave me his lucky hat to remember him by, and I was off again.
The next few weeks went like that, rolling with the truckers, eating where they eat, sleeping in a hammock slung on trailer frames, and seeing the out-of-the-way towns, markets, bridges and factories of Myanmar’s old highways (to which freight traffic is still relegated).
Some drivers decked out their trucks in electric lights and gold embellishment; others painted elaborate murals of nature or religious scenes on the sides of their trailers. In Meiktila, a police officer whistled down a truck and asked (or maybe ordered) him to give me a lift. One village I stopped in had a Victorian-era steam locomotive rusting in the dirt. One guy even let me drive his rig.(My Magical Myanmar cannot condone the latter, even though it was totally badass.)
The hardest part of hitchhiking in Myanmar, I would learn, is communicating the strange concept of “hitchhiking”, so that people don’t try to take you to the bus station or call a cab. At a coffee shop on Inle Lake I met an English speaker and had him write me a note: Hello, I am from America. I am trying to learn more about Myanmar people, so I am riding in big lorries. I do not need a taxi or a bus. I would be very grateful for a ride. Thank you.
This was the first item in what is now my basic Myanmar hitchhiking kit. It also includes a Myanmar language road map (to show drivers where you’re headed); a small hammock (good to have even if you don’t plan to camp); and a pack of imported cigarettes as little gifts for the drivers. The trickiest part, however, is finding a good place to stand, especially in a city. It is usually better to take a shuttle to the nearest village down the highway, where the freight is bound to pass.
After that, it is a simply matter of standing and trying to look agreeable to your potential chauffeurs. It’s a game of patience, a bit like fishing: watching the fully-loaded 22-wheeler come your way will take the bait, or roll on by.
Inevitably things will stall once in a while. This happened at the end of my trip, trying to make it to the Thai border from Bago. There were simply no trucks headed east, and after an afternoon of slogging toward Hpa-Ann on local shuttles, I finally found a pick-up from a driver who was merely headed back to his own village.
He knew enough English to tell me that nobody was going east. It has since been widened, but at the time the mountain pass over the Kayin Hills was too narrow for traffic to flow both directions, and today was a westbound day.
The driver took me to a monastery, and spoke to the monks, who let me spend the night there. The monastery’s pagoda was on top of a tall, limestone hill with an indescribable view of the sweeping Kayin Hills below.
Maybe you’ll find that spot, too, if you stick out your thumb.