Late for Nowhere

From life in Southeast Asia to backyard adventures in Kodiak, Alaska

Along the Burma Road to the China border

with 3 comments

Christmas holiday in northern Shan State: Day 2


Driving on the old Burma Road between Lashio and Muse.

Until recently, foreigners were not allowed to travel past the town of Lashio on the Mandalay-Muse Road without a special permit. But in early 2013, Myanmar’s Ministry of Home Affairs released a list of previously forbidden destinations around the country where foreigners are now allowed to go, including Muse Township along the border with China.

I was keen to explore this border area but also knew from previous experience that in Myanmar, the reality on the ground does not always match the “official” word from the capital Naypyidaw: Local authorities in northern Shan State might not be aware of the ministry’s new decree and might still be stopping foreigners from traveling past Lashio.

To help defuse any confusion, I brought along a Myanmar-language printout of the ministry’s list of newly opened areas, as well as multiple photocopies of my passport and visa to satisfy immigration officials. As a last resort, I had loaded my mountain bike into the back of our pickup truck: If I was stopped, my family – all Myanmar nationals – could keep going, and I could spend three or four days cycling around Kyaukme or Lashio until they returned – not the worst way to pass my holiday.

Since departing Yangon the previous day we had met up with more relatives in Kyaukme, and we left town at 7:30am in two cars: me, my wife Pauksi and Maung Maung Lwin in the Ford pickup, followed by a Toyota Belta sedan carrying Pauksi’s mother Nang Hseng, brother Tha Tun Wai, aunt Daw Thein Htwe and family friend Zaw Oo. Still others traveled to Muse by bus, to avoid the frigid ordeal of riding in the back of the pickup: Pauksi’s sister Naychi, my stepdaughter Nang Nuu Mai and Pauksi’s uncle L Zaw Maw from Taunggyi.

We started with Maung Maung Lwin driving the pickup, first in sunshine, and then through a valley of cold, dense fog. We stopped just past the town of Thibaw for a quick breakfast of Shan noodles, and again in sunny Lashio for a mid-morning meal.


Shan noodles: The best breakfast anywhere in the world.

I took over driving when we left Lashio, and the “moment of truth” passed anticlimactically as the old foreigner-impeding checkpoint outside of town had indeed been dismantled, as per the ministry’s orders. We sailed calmly into far northern Shan State, and suddenly I was in a region of Myanmar few Westerners have visited since the British colonial era.

We were now on a legendary stretch of highway, following what had once been the Burma Road, which played a strategically important role just before and during World War II. The 717-mile (1,154 km) road, extending from Lashio to Kunming in southwestern China, was built in the late 1930s and used by the British to send supplies – consumer goods, military materials, parts and gasoline – to China, which was suffering under a war of aggression and naval blockades launched by Japan.

An excerpt from the Pacific War Online Encyclopedia describes some of the hazards of the Burma Road: “At its prewar peak, about 10,000 tons of supplies per month came through the road. However, the road had many limitations that made it a serious bottleneck. It was not an all-weather road, limiting its usefulness during the monsoon. It passed through areas in which malaria was endemic. Its status as the last link between China and the outside world made it a focus of intrigue and corruption.”


A treacherous section of the Burma Road in 1939 or 1940.
Photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The two-lane road is now a paved, “all-weather” thoroughfare, but still poses challenges. There were flat, fast stretches through agricultural land, and tricky sections that hair-pinned up and down steep, forested mountains. There were plenty of dusty construction zones, and we were constantly forced to pull into the oncoming traffic lane to accelerate past trundling, road-hogging trucks carrying Myanmar-grown watermelons to China. But the mountain scenery was green and gorgeous, and the brisk air made for pleasant travel.


A quiet section of the Burma Road in December 2013.

We reached Kutkai – the halfway point between Lashio and Muse – around noon; it looked more like a grimy bus depot than a proper town. We had an early afternoon break in Nampaka, where we ate lunch at another Shan restaurant, and we finally reached Muse and the China border around 3:30pm.


Lunch in Nampaka

Some members of our group stayed at Shwe Yar Su Hotel – overpriced at $50 a night but boasting friendly staff, clean and decent-sized rooms, and free wi-fi (but the China-sourced internet connection meant Facebook was censored) – while others stayed at the nearby Kachin Baptist Church. We spent the evening checking out the unappealing array of shoddy Chinese goods at the town’s night market, had barbecued fish and beer for dinner, and then walked back to the hotel through the cold, commerce-hectic streets of Muse.


Roadside scenery: A cemetery along the way between Lashio and Muse.

Written by latefornowhere

January 4, 2014 at 8:11 am

3 Responses

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  1. Sounds like a wonderful journey getting into such unseen parts of the country. We really are trying to encourage people to visit in a way that will benefit the local economy, maybe you will be returning or encouraging friends to?


    January 9, 2014 at 2:57 am

    • This area of Shan State has virtually no government-backed tourism infrastructure, nor is there much in the way of foreign investment in tourism, so traveling there is pretty much guaranteed to benefit locals. It will be interesting to see how the region develops as travel destination in the coming years. In the meantime, I’ll be posting about the rest of this particular trip in the coming days.


      January 9, 2014 at 3:43 am

  2. I’m very envious that you have been able to visit these places. Thanks for sharing. You write beautifully.
    I would like to visit Burma again if the political situation were to change for the better. I was there in 1986 and have very fond memories of the people. We share our house with a Karen couple, ex-refugees. There are over 600 Karen living in our town now. They are making a big contribution to the community.




    February 26, 2018 at 10:27 am

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