By Jared Downing
With recent highway upgrade, the road from Bago to the Thai border is a beautiful, historical hitchhiking journey.
In eastern Myanmar, winding like a grey thread through the Karen Hills, the notorious Kawkareik Pass guards the road from Yangon to Thailand. In 1942, tens of thousands of Japanese invaders marched across the 45-kilometre bottleneck on the way to Rangoon. In the following decades it was mined, shot across, captured and recaptured by the Myanmar army and ethnic militias. Even after shaky peace settled in the region, the dusty trail of crumbling ledges and blind curves took half a day for freight to cross, bending land trade for hundreds of kilometres to its will … until the road was rebuilt in 2015.
Now it’s a breeze. That the once-dreaded Kawkareik Pass takes only one, terror-free hour to cross does not make the journey through the eastern hills a dull one, especially when travelling in the cab of a freight truck rolling from Yangon to the eastern border. As our guide to hitchhiking in last month’s edition explained, travelling Myanmar by freight truck is safe, easy and fun, and the road from Bago to the Thai border is a beautiful adventure to try it out, brimming with lorry drivers happy to show hitchhikers the tree-lined highways of Mon State and the sweeping valleys of the Kayin Hills.
Heading from Yangon, the best place to start is the crossroads at Hpa Yar Gyi, just north of Bago. Simply stand on the side of the highway, wave at the loaded eastbound lorries, and when the drivers stop, say “Myawaddy” or “Hpa-An.”(Don’t worry, drivers are often thrilled to give foreigners a lift, though it helps to carry a note in Myanmar language explaining that you want to ride with trucks and not busses or taxis.)If your truck drivers (they come in pairs) speak some English, they may regale you with tales of the old days, when crossing the Kawkareik Pass was a badge of honour. The road was only wide enough for freight to move one direction (east or west) each day, and off-day truckers spent the night at the base, chewing betel, swapping stories and preparing their rigs for a day in the mountains. I had the privilege of accompanying two of these legends across the pass in 2014—a journey fraught with fallen boulders, death-defying hairpin turns and dusty ledges I was certain would fall away and send driver, hitchhiker, rig and all plummeting into the valley. Though those days of mountain adventure are gone, the real magic of the eastern road is its history. After Bago, the highway crosses the Sittang River, where the British army staged a last stand against the Japanese in the Battle of Sittang Bridge. Soon the lowland highway crosses the town of Thaton at the head of what was once the notorious Thai-Burma Railway, where tens of thousands of Allied prisoners—and untold numbers of Myanmar people—died working in heat and squalor.(For a happier activity, catch a bus from here north to Kyaiktiyo, site of the Golden Rock pagoda.)Next stop: Hpa-An, an excellent place to stop and watch the sunset from the surrounding limestone hills, trek to waterfalls and hidden shrines. The road continues through the Karen lowlands with its neat rows of rubber trees dripping sap into ceramic bowls, before weaving into hills capped with pagodas and monasteries, each with a sweeping view well worth a long climb. Eventually you will enter the Kawkareik Pass itself, though a smooth, new road now shared by civilian cars, and even recreational cyclists, is over before you know it. Still, it helps that one can now cross the hills, once riddled with landmines and military patrols, with minimal mortal peril. And even though the pass is less glamorous than some of the more-visited historical sites, it plays no less of a roll in the long story of Myanmar. If you are hitchhiking, the journey takes a day or two, depending on your own pace and success wrangling trucks, and will likely end at the customs checkpoint outside Myawaddy. There, you can continue the journey into Thailand (the border town of Mae Sot is another underrated destination).