Susan Bailey embarks on a breath-taking route across one of the most remote regions in Myanmar. Photos by B. Ozkal.
Myanmar’s secondary roads are not for the faint of heart. The bone-jarring bumps and breathtaking swerves are but a small price to pay for the stunning views, fresh air and authentic towns you experience along the way. I’ve done more than my fair share of road trips in Myanmar over the past dozen years but a recent motorbike trip to northern Chin state exceeded all expectations of what an ‘overland adventure’ should be.
While you could easily spend a week or more in the region, we were limited by work schedules so planned a four-night loop from Mandalay. We packed up our motorbikes on a Friday—I was on my Bajaj Boxer X-150 and my traveling companion on his 200-cc TVS Apache. Both bikes have proven to be reliable on previous adventures, so were hoping the
same as we rolled out of Mandalay.
After an easy post-work drive from Mandalay to Monywa the first day, the real adventure began on day two as we revved up for the journey to Kalay. The morning started on good roads but as we reached the edge of Alaung Kapatha National Park that all changed. Mammoth-sized potholes, deep pits of loose gravel and some steep climbs on mixed
terrain brought our travel speed down to a painfully slow 25 km/hour most of the time. And, being April, the park wasn’t at its most beautiful—not that we had a lot of time to look up from the handlebars of the bikes!
Exiting the park, we soon found ourselves back on good roads, getting speeds up to where we could finally feel a breeze. The final stretch of the day’s ride took us to Kalaywa and then on to Kalay, a beautiful winding road that finally gave the feeling of being in the mountains.
The next morning, after filling up our bellies with an Indian-inspired breakfast and our bikes with fuel, we crossed into Chin and made our way toward Tedim. The winding roads were almost void of traffic and in decent condition, making for a pleasant drive. We paused at Kennedy Peak, the second highest peak in Chin State at 2,700 meters, and cruised into Tedim for a look around. Set on a hillside, the town had a nice feel to it but we decided to carry on and come back later when we had time to continue up to Rih Lake a couple hours north of there.
We turned back past Kennedy Peak, carrying on to Falam. The roads were far from perfect but a relief from the previous day’s terror. Twists and turns took us around spectacular peaks with views of lush forested highlands and the occasional village.
Falam came in to view as the sun was setting over the mountainside town. The hilltop gilded pagoda stood out, but we soon came to learn that the town has more than 300 churches. A simple dinner at the only restaurant in town consisted of Chinese dishes and warm beer, but was more than satisfying after a day on the bikes.
On our third day, we woke to the sounds of hymns reminding us it was a Sunday. And even at 7am the churches were buzzing. Sadly, nothing else was buzzing—not even a shop open for a cup of tea—so we packed up and hit the road to Hakha. The short journey to the capital of Chin State was uneventful, if a bit chilly. The site of a ‘city’ brought promises of hot coffee and breakfast, but again, all doors were shuttered, as the entire population seemed to be at church. We lingered around until the end of services but could only find a hole-in-the-wall café for a caffeine fix and sugary-sweet cake.
Despite this rough start, the day proved to be our favorite. Leaving Hakha we found the roads were once again empty. It felt as if we were at the top of Myanmar on this stretch of road, riding high above mountain ranges and valleys below. The scenery was breath-taking and multiple stops were made to enjoy the views. We arrived in Gantgaw, a non- descript town, in time for cold sunset drinks at one of the only beer stations in town.
The last leg of our road trip took us from Gantgaw back to Mandalay. From Gantgaw to Pale, the road was the best we had seen in days. Nearly 100 percent sealed and gently rolling hills, crossing the southern end of Alaung Kapatha National Park and descending to the flatlands near the town of Pale. After several days of remote travel, entering Pale proved to be an unwelcome return to civilization with the roads suddenly occupied
by trucks and other motorbikes. For the rest of the journey to Mandalay, we were on rather boring roads compared to our days in the Chin hills, but it was a small price to pay for the brilliant adventure.
Exhausted and with dirty motorbikes and sore bums, we rolled into Mandalay. Stepping off the bikes at home, the boredom of the last three hours of driving was quickly forgotten as we flicked through our photos of the beautiful Chin Hills.
When: Due to heavy rains, landslides occur from June to October. It is best to travel during the dry months.
How: An off-road bike is good but not necessary—a solid 150-cc bike will do the job. Mandalay Motorbikes and Myanmar Bike Rental are both reputable shops with a range of bikes for hire. They can also arrange a local guide to accompany you if you wish. If you prefer four wheels, Yoma Car Share has 4-wheel drive vehicles available for pick up at the
Stay: Kalay, Hakha, Tedim and Gantgaw all have good quality guesthouses and hotels with en suite bathrooms, hot water, etc. In Falam, the options are more simple. There is no need to make hotel reservations in advance.
Hints: Always have drinking water on the bike and carry a spare tube and hand pump as there are long stretches of road with no shops. Keep an eye on your fuel gauge and fill up whenever you have a chance as, again, petrol stations are few and far between in the highlands. Please make sure you have insurance—if you get in an accident up there, it will
be costly to get you to a hospital for treatment!