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Posts Tagged ‘Mandalay-Lashio Road

Winter Solstice on Myanmar’s Death Highway

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Christmas holiday in northern Shan State: Day 1


Left to right: Naychi, Nang Nuu Mai and Pauksi bundled up for the chilly trip from Pyin Oo Lwin to Kyaukme in Shan State.

The “expressway” that stretches for 366 miles from Yangon to Mandalay opened only a few years ago, and it didn’t take long for the poorly engineered road to earn the nickname “Death Highway”.

The hazards are abundant: lanes that end abruptly at concrete barriers; poor lighting and inadequate warning signs; sharp curves that aren’t properly cambered; and rough concrete and puncture-inducing bumps, to name a few.

The lousy engineering has been attributed, in part, to poor funding and the short time-frame given to complete the project. According to an article on the Irrawaddy website, “The former military regime prioritized rapid development of a new highway between Burma’s major cities after it began its secret construction of a new capital.” The new capital referred to is Naypyidaw, which became the country’s official administrative center in 2005.

The highway quickly racked up some of the highest accident rates in the country. From January to November 2013, for example, there were 219 car accidents that caused 100 deaths and 546 injuries, according to highway police records. Drivers tend to blame these incidents on the deficient engineering, while the government likes to point the finger at poor vehicle-operating skills and lack of safety awareness among Myanmar drivers. The truth, of course, is a combination of these and other factors.

In early 2011, my wife’s sister Naychi was involved in an accident on the highway: Working as an interpreter for visiting Japanese businessmen, she was traveling from Yangon to Naypyidaw in the back seat of an SUV that hit a concrete barrier and overturned. She survived with minor head and neck injuries, but the crash killed two fellow passengers – one Japanese and one Myanmar – who were sitting next to her.

I drove on the highway for the first time this past December 21, the shortest day of the year. I was traveling with my wife Pauksi and stepdaughter Nang Nuu Mai, and we were heading to northern Shan State to meet other family members for the Christmas holiday. It was also the first long road trip with our recently purchased 2013 Ford Ranger pickup truck.

We left at 4am, knowing we had about 10 hours of driving ahead of us: 352 miles on the Death Highway, then another 100 miles up to Kyaukme on the Shan Plateau along the much slower Mandalay-Lashio Road.

Nighttime driving in Myanmar can be frustrating and dangerous: An overwhelming percentage of vehicle operators here lack even the most basic familiarity with driving etiquette, and nearly everyone cruises around at all times with their high beams ablaze. This makes it difficult to see the road very well, even if you join the fun and blast everyone else with your own high beams.

But once the sun came up, I didn’t find driving the so-called Death Highway to be all that terrible. Yes, there were the poorly placed concrete barriers, and the too-sharp curves, and the stray dogs trotting down the middle of the road, and the bullock cart crossings, and the slow-moving motor scooters, and the overloaded jalopies with bald tires, and the SUV drivers at the rest stop guzzling beer at 10:30am – but for the most part I was able to cruise along at the posted speed limit of 100kph (60mph) without relying on my stunt-driving skills to keep the rubber side down.

The main hazard was boredom: the sleep-inducing sameness of the slightly hilly, scrub-land terrain, and the fact that there are only two proper rest stops along the entire length of the highway.

But those haters who declare that the Myanmar government does not care about the safety of drivers need only contemplate some of the useful, philosophically astute signs that officials have thoughtfully posted along the highway. Examples include:

“Life Is a Journey, Complete It”

“Drive With Care, Make Accidents Rare”

“If You Drink Don’t Drive, If You Drive Don’t Drink”

Any my favorite, which, in its utter irrelevance to highway driving, seems to have been swiped from the pages of an in-flight travel magazine:

“Your Safety Our Responsibility, Your Comfort Our Reward”

With the help of these signs and my expert driving skills, we made it to Mandalay without padding the highway’s accident statistics.

Back on Myanmar’s “normal” surface roads, we ascended to the Shan Plateau from the central lowlands. About an hour from Mandalay we stopped at the old British hill station of Pyin Oo Lwin to pick up Naychi and her husband Maung Maung Lwin, who would be accompanying us on the rest of the trip. They had recently moved to Pyin Oo Lwin to set up a Japanese-style café, due to open later this year.

The December air was already cold in Pyin Oo Lwin – located 3510 feet above sea level – a precursor to the frigid weather we would encounter farther north. Maung Maung Lwin drove the final 90-minute stretch to Kyaukme, while Pauksi, Naychi and Nang Nuu Mai bundled up and volunteered to ride in the truck bed. After more than eight hours of driving, I was able to enjoy the comfort of the passenger seat for the last stretch of the day’s journey.