Taking the High Road in Myanmar

Not long ago off-limits to foreign travelers, the highway running through eastern Shan State has opened up to reveal one of Myanmar’s most rewarding and unexplored regions.

Stopping for a break on Highway 4.

Stopping for a break on Highway 4.

“We’re nearly at the top of the Shan Yoma,” said Sai Naung Naung Tun as our car eased to a halt at the edge of the dirt track grandly known as National Highway 4. “They say if you drop an egg from this point, it’ll hatch before it hits the ground.”

I’d been in Myanmar for long enough to realize that people here have a delightfully quirky way of looking at things.

Two days before, we’d left picturesque Inle Lake to travel east through Shan State from its capital Taunggyi to Kengtung near the Golden Triangle. In between lay the remote highlands of Shan Yoma, crisscrossed by multiple mountain ranges and home to a rich tapestry of ethnic groups.

Our first introduction to this lesser-visited part of the country had been at Hten San, a pilgrimage site close to Taunggyi where a group of smiling, brightly turbaned ladies sliced vegetables at a cave temple run by a Hummer-driving monk named Koyin Lay. Considered by some to be a sort of Buddhist Robin Hood, he became a local hero when, as a young novice, he was drawn to these remote, jungle-shrouded caverns by a vision. Koyin Lay went on to establish the temple where people now donate food for Buddhist pilgrims; his white Hummer was apparently the gift of a wealthy donor who wanted to offer something less perishable than vegetables. As for the vegetable-slicers, they are volunteer cooks from the monk’s own Pa-O ethnic group: their colorful headdresses (these days usually made from bath towels) represent the dragon Naga, the legendary mother of the Pa-O people.

I congratulated myself on the fact that, several weeks into my trip, I was finally able to recognize at least one of Myanmar’s mind-boggling variety of ethnic groups. Officially the country boasts 135 recognized tribes, yet the reality is even more complex. The Pa-O, for example, are considered to be one of the four subgroups of the Karen tribe, but anthropologists have counted as many as 24 Pa-O subgroups. The fact that Myanmar’s new leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, made it one of her first priorities to found an Ethnic Affairs Ministry illustrates the complexity of the intercultural situation.

The distinctive headwear of the Pa-O people has its origins in the group’s creation myth.

The distinctive headwear of the Pa-O people has its origins in the group’s creation myth.

As our driver, Teng, steered the four-by-four back onto the highway, Naung Naung, our guide, announced that we were leaving the Pa-O Self-Administered Zone and entering eastern Shan State. This frontier region—bordered by China, Thailand, and Laos—remained entirely closed to outsiders until recently. Historically it was avoided as a bandit-infested opium route: even today, Myanmar remains the world’s second- 
biggest producer of opium after Afghanistan. The more recent past has seen four decades of resistance fighting by various rebel factions dedicated to overthrowing Myanmar’s former military regime. The fighting was sporadic but frequently brutal, and the rebellion was further
complicated by factions (often from the same tribes) that tended to spend as much time fighting each other as they did the army.

In 2013, the area along the eastern section of Highway 4 was downgraded from a no-go warzone to what Myanmar’s tourism office calls a “brown zone,” a region of limited risk accessible to tourists with special permits. That same year, Naung Naung guided Jeremy Clarkson’s Top Gear team on a drive through this fascinating area for the BBC series. It was the first time since Myanmar’s independence that the journey had been made by outsiders. Since then, Naung Naung has driven it five times.

Driving through the highlands of eastern Shan State.

Driving through the highlands of eastern Shan State.

From Hten San the road winds onward and upward in a series of tight switchbacks that are doubly unnerving because most cars in Myanmar are right-hand drive yet driven on the right-hand side of the road, making overtaking difficult and dangerous. This strange situation came about in 1970, when military dictator Ne Win issued a surprise edict switching the traffic flow to the opposite side of the road. According to popular theory, he was either inspired by a dream or advice from his wife’s astrologer.

When we stopped for lunch at a tiny Shan diner I realized that this close to the Golden Triangle, the local Shan dialect was already so similar to Thai that even my basic attempts at the language seemed to be understood. I haggled for a water canteen from a stall that sold military supplies to Shan militia and even had holsters for automatic pistols hanging on display. The vendor just smiled when I asked him if he sold anything to go in them.

We still had several hours’ driving to get to Kunhing and our night’s lodging, but first Naung Naung wanted to introduce me to a unique tribal community—one that has remained virtually unknown to the outside world.

“The Palaung people, like everyone else in this area, had their own resistance army,” he said, “and they kept themselves mostly removed from the Shan because of their unique cultural way of life. Look at these people coming toward us. What do you think, men or women?”

With rifles strung over their shoulders, the  two hunters walking in our direction were clearly masculine, but I could see Naung Naung’s point: one had long, flowing hair hanging straight down his back and the other sported a silky ponytail. The effect was doubly striking when we pulled up at the nearby village and climbed the steps to a rickety longhouse where a group of women were weaving and chatting. While Palaung men never cut their hair, the women shave their heads after the birth of their first baby and keep them closely shaved for the rest of their lives. As Naung Naung opened the box of provisions we’d bought as a gift, the Palaungs’ smiles glinted in the sunlight and showed off the longhouse’s wealth—traditionally stored as gold teeth in the mouths of its women.

We reached Kunhing just before sunset and checked in to a simple hotel that offered ample supplies of hot water and cold Myanmar Beer. Our meal, which featured a dish of surprisingly delicious raw fermented pork, was briefly interrupted by a surprise visit of four men who Naung Naung identified as plainclothes police officers. They waited politely while we finished eating, then scrutinized our travel permits and reassured us that all was in order for the final 
leg of our journey to Kengtung.

The next day’s drive was even more startlingly dramatic as we climbed steadily through a chain of pretty highland villages rarely visited by outsiders. Even migrant road workers pulled out their cell-phone cameras to record the novelty of foreign travelers in this remote region. All along Highway 4, I found an air of hospitality that has remained a central part of Shan tradition despite the years of armed struggle.

Guide Sai Naung Naung Tun taking in a roadside view of the Shan Yoma mountains.

Guide Sai Naung Naung Tun taking in a roadside view of the Shan Yoma mountains.

Around mid-morning we stopped at a roadhouse to meet poet and local leader Sai Hla Shue, who became well known as a negotiator between the military and the various groups of Shan freedom fighters during the ceasefire talks. The allegiances and enmity of so many parties was so complex that I’d finished my glass of steaming Shan tea by the time the man had outlined them for me: “The Shan State Army and the Shan National League for Democracy Party agreed to the 1991 ceasefire,” he explained, “but I think the Shan Liberation Democratic Party and the Restoration Council of Shan State are still 
at war.”

I hoped he was wrong and that what he called the National Ceasefire Agreement was still proving effective. Certainly, there is growing confidence that Myanmar’s first democratically elected government since 1962 will be able to secure a permanent end to the fighting. Its people are looking forward to lasting peace and a measure of prosperity that, before the generals began their plundering, had made old Burma the rice-basket of Southeast Asia.

In the 1920s, Rangoon University boasted an academic level that competed even with Oxford and Cambridge, and in the 1950s Burma (as the country was then known) was still producing rice for export throughout the region. But after taking power in 1962, the military regime tightened the thumbscrews to the point where, in 1987, Myanmar was officially given “least developed country” status by the United Nations. If George Orwell—who worked as a colonial policeman in Burma in 1922—could have visited the country 60 years later he would have found a dictatorship that was even more fanatically paranoid than the fictional Big Brother regime of his book Nineteen Eighty-Four.

By 1988 freedom of speech was nonexistent in Burma and the military was mercilessly killing demonstrators by the thousands. Aung San Suu Kyi heroically flouted their rules against public meetings, advocating non-violent resistance that landed her 20 years of house arrest in Yangon. She issued statements asking tourists to boycott Myanmar because the visa fees were being used directly to fund the junta and would not benefit ordinary people. Although I had been desperate to see Southeast Asia’s most mysterious country, I decided to respect this and stay away. Then, in 1994, I hired a motorbike in Thailand and rode for three days along the route of the so-called Death Railway to enter Myanmar at a militarized zone called Three Pagodas Pass. Inexplicably, visas could be avoided here but it was illegal to stay overnight: I spent several hours in Myanmar, had a haircut and kick-started the bike for the long journey back to Thailand.

Needless to say, I met few locals on that trip and it would be 22 years before I could return to the country when Aung San Suu Kyi finally took power. But even as her new civilian-led government ruled from the purpose-built capital of Naypyidaw (a pet project of the junta), being in Shan State’s “brown zone” meant regular encounters with military personnel.

At each of the main river crossings we were obliged to stop so that Naung Naung could get our permits checked by sentries while we cautiously kept our cameras from pointing at the concrete bunkers and bamboo palisades guarding both ends of each bridge. We were told that the checkpoints closed at 6 p.m. and that no traffic would be allowed on the road at night.

Fishing on the Pang River, a tributary of the Salween.

Fishing on the Pang River, a tributary of the Salween.

The long bridge over the Salween River was no exception, and we drove across in the early morning with a warning from the guard that, while we could take photographs, we should not stop our vehicle in the middle of the bridge. Yet the mood below was far from tense: two fishermen paddled their dugout canoes through the swirling mist as the river meandered peacefully around overgrown islets—a timeless, languid presence between banks festooned with swaying arches of bamboo. In these parts, the mighty Salween is known as the “Miracle River” because it crosses from north to south across the extent of Shan territory, irrigating a large part of the region with a seemingly limitless supply of water. Shan State covers less than a quarter of Myanmar yet it produces about 60 percent of the country’s fruit and vegetables.

As the road descended from the mountains toward Kengtung and our journey’s end, Naung Naung recalled his teenage life in a country whose population was deliberately kept isolated and ignorant of events in the outside world.

“The ruling generals became so paranoid that even phones were illegal since they could be used to access “real” news—beyond state-issued propaganda—from the free world,” he said. “In 2001, you’d have to pay US$4,000 for a cellular phone!”

The simple fact that he is now free to tell me such things speaks volumes about the immense changes in Myanmar. One of the great pleasures of travel in this born-again nation is the infectious enthusiasm of people who are learning to have honest conversations about their own country without having to whisper like conspirators. After enduring years of enforced isolation, freedom of speech and of the press are still novel ideas to the average Burmese.

And while people revel in their newfound access to information, this is one place where soap operas and satellite dishes are unlikely to catch on: it is cheaper, the locals say, to download a movie onto your phone for a few dollars at the market, so who needs TV? The new Myanmar, with all its colorful quirks, is already rewriting the rules.


Myanmar tour specialist Khiri Travel organizes trips throughout Myanmar, including itineraries to rarely visited areas. Road trips between Inle Lake and the Golden Triangle are customizable and priced at around US$200 per person per day, including a guide, permits, and private transportation.

This article originally appeared in the August/September print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“State of Emergence”).

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