The Ministry of Hotel and Tourism is slowly easing travel restrictions on remote areas in an effort to encourage tourists to stay longer.
Recently it lifted the ban on the road that connects Taunggyi to Kyaing Tong, a city in eastern Shan State near the Thailand border. This drive is epic enough to receive the ultimate seal of approval: it was featured on the BBC’s ‘Top Gear’ program in 2014. And now it is possible for anyone, with the proper permission, to experience Myanmar’s Highway 4.
Taunggyi to Kyaing Tong ticks all the boxes for a good road trip: beautiful scenery, little traffic and an interesting story. This area was, until recently, one of the largest poppy growing regions in Myanmar and Highway 4 was the main route for distributing the methamphetamines to Thailand. Thus the road came to be known as ‘The Opium Trail’ and was often the scene of hijackings or fighting between rival distributors. Although there are no signs of the poppy trade these days, the region’s sordid history adds a nice twist to the post-trip travel stories.
The drive takes 15 hours without stops but it is best broken up in to a two- or three-day journey, allowing plenty of time to explore. There are a few simple but adequate guesthouses along Highway 4 with the best being in Kar Li, Kunhing and Mongping. The road (and yes, it is officially called a ‘highway’) is in surprisingly good condition – perfectly smooth and one of those typical rural roads that is one-and-a-half lanes wide.
Simply put, the drive is stunning. Around August is particularly vibrant – the fields, rice paddies and mountains are various shades of green and the distant mountains appear almost blue in color. It is one of the least densely populated parts of the Shan State and the only signs of life are small villages with single-story wooden houses, a few farmers in the fields and the occasional wayward buffalo. Unfortunately Telenor and Oredoo have also traveled along this route as many of the houses were plastered with the ubiquitous blue and red signs. The last 100 kilometers approaching Kyaing Tong feature some hair-raising turns on steep mountains but otherwise the road is mostly flat and marked by gently rolling hills.
There are several stops to make along the way. We skipped the Htam San Cave as they have been ‘Disney-fied,’ as my local friend put it. The massive cave is now decked out with multi-hued lights, a bad replica of Shwedagon Pagoda and a series of walkways and viewing platforms that detract from the cave’s beauty. Instead we veered off at Loilem to visit the Panglong Memorial. This peaceful garden commemorates the signing of the 1947 Panglong accord which unified the Burmese government with the ethnic Shan, Chin and Kachin groups and is celebrated annually as ‘Union Day.’ There is also a waterfall located 15 kilometers off the road but it was not nearly as impressive as the ones near Pyin Oo Lwin.
The best stops are the villages where the locals are extremely friendly and curious about visitors. One of my favorites was a Silver Palaung village where the women wear dozens of silver hoops around their waist and in their ears. They live in stilted long houses with three to four families in each abode. We were invited in for a cup of tea and as we sat on the floor around a small fire, I realized that not a single one of the 20 or so Silver Palaung who had gathered around us was holding a cell phone. It felt like a time warp and a welcome change from the phone-crazed streets of Yangon.
We stopped to talk with farmers who proudly showed us their latest harvest. We met members of the Yinn Net ethnic group who had been walking a full day from their village to the town of Namsan to sell their mushrooms. And we chit-chatted with a friendly restaurant owner about the weather as we stuffed ourselves with Shan sour pork and sticky rice.
The only difficulty we encountered was when we were stopped at the immigration check point. Located alongside the Thalwin (Salween) River, it was a scenic spot to be stuck for 45 minutes while my permission papers were checked. Despite having the stamp of approval from Nay Pyi Taw there were several phone calls made and photos sent over Viber before I was allowed to pass.
Arriving in Kyaing Tong was a bit of a denouement. Being surrounded by humanity was a shock after the freedom of being on the road alone for two days. My friends continued along Highway 4, a much busier and more developed stretch of road, and traveled onwards to Thailand while I flew back to Yangon.
In over ten years of traveling Southeast Asia, I cannot recall another road journey of this length that was so untouched. Travel companies are hoping to use this drive as a way to promote Myanmar as a natural paradise, rather than focus solely on its heritage sites. Edwin Briels, Khiri Travel’s general manager, puts it this way: “In this part of Shan State it often feels like you’re walking into a National Geographic documentary. And it is even more special knowing that even they haven’t been there yet.” His company has developed a three-day, two-night itinerary that includes river trips to remote Shan villages, lunches in family homes, scenic walks and bamboo rafting.
Although it is unlikely to be as popular as Bagan or Inle Lake, there is no doubt that this region will see an uptick in tourism and become more developed over time. So grab your friends, pack your bags and go experience the Old Opium Trail before the crowds arrive.
Note: At present, no permissions are being granted for foreigners to travel along this road. However, this expected to change in the near future.
Locally-based Myanmar Diaries ([email protected]) and Khiri Travel ([email protected]) are two highly recommended companies for this trip. They can organize the trip from start to finish including the MOHT permission and, should you wish, onward overland travel in to Thailand. (Note: At the moment, self-drive by foreigners is not allowed unless they travel with an escort from the Ministry of Hotel and Tourism or Immigration office.)