Events narrated in this article happened on Friday the 24th of January, 2020. Jonas and I hitchhiked from Dawei to Myeik in the Thanintharyi Region of Myanmar.
Finding a Tollgate
During our three prior hitchhiking experiences in Myanmar, we figured that nothing beats a toll booth. Unfortunately, neither OSM nor Google Maps had a toll booth on the road south of Dawei in direction of Myeik (မြိတ်). I’d found a report online about Myanmar’s infrastructure which said there are nearly 400 tollgates in Myanmar. Surely, there must be a tollgate south of Dawei. So I used the good old technique of scanning the satellite map for a building that crosses the road. And yes, I found it!
This tollgate with a weighing station for trucks (left side of the image) was only 8 kilometers from our hotel. We’d only need a short tuk-tuk ride to get there and then we’d probably get picked up rather quickly. I saved the spots to my OSM map and Google Maps apps so I could add them to those maps after I confirmed their existence and location.
At the reception, we asked the staff to arrange a tuk-tuk for us the next morning. Jonas showed them a picture of a tollgate and I showed them the name of the nearest town Ka Din Wa (ကဒင်ဝ). The young guys nodded and an older man said he could drive us with his tuk-tuk for 6.000 MMK. That’s the same price we paid to get a tuk-tuk ride for 18 kilometers in Mawlamyine, but that was so cheap we felt like we accidentally ripped off our kind tuk-tuk driver.
We agreed on 8:00 and went back up to our room to pack for the next day.
Drive to the Tollgate
The next morning we ate breakfast and finished up packing. I’d thought about wearing my longyi (လုံချည်) on this hitchhiking day, but eventually copped out and wore something with pockets. When we got down to check out a few minutes after 8:00, our driver seemed surprised we were there despite our prior agreement. He got his car keys out and walked us past the tuk-tuk and to his fancy and huge SUV (with its steering wheel on the left). Also not what we agreed on, but OK.
A tuk-tuk would literally have been faster in the city. The huge-ass SUV couldn’t really get out of the little street even. I mean, it’s indeed very comfortable with airconditioning and leather seats, but it’s so… unnecessary. Our sheer size had a slight advantage over tuk-tuks on the road outside of town approaching the tollgate, but that’s only because it’s such an intimidating car.
I’m confident that the tuk-tuk will one day save the world.
Once at the tollgate, we got dropped off just before it at 8:25. The driver helped me get my backpack on and laughed when he noticed it’s that heavy. Jonas paid him the 6.000 MMK and we waved him goodbye. Jonas got my super tiny Myeik hitchhiking sign out of my backpack and I shot a little video for a vlog of this hitchhiking day. We walked through the tollgate with many people staring curiously at us.
Speaking with the Manager
We greeted the tollgate personnel with some Mingalaba (မင်္ဂလာပါ) and smiles as we walk past them to our spot. We stand still and face the traffic from Dawei. A young man wearing thanakha (သနပ်ခါး) walks away from his post to point us at some plastic chairs they have in the shadow of the toll booth. We shake our heads to say no and he leaves it alone. Jonas takes a few photos for me.
There’s quite some local traffic of scooters, small trucks, and tuk-tuks. Whenever there’s a big private car without a red license plate, we hold up our Myeik sign. Lots of people from the tollgate stare at us when we do this, and it triggers the manager to come.
An older guy the same height as me approaches us. We say Mingalaba again and are ready to say “no bus, no taxi” on repeat. He reads our sign out loud. “Myeik. VERY far. 176 miles!”
His face looks kind of angry and it’s throwing me off. I try to show the sign to a couple of cars that drive through the tollgate, but the manager is standing in front of it and inside my personal space. I make eye-contact with a driver who smiles but also looks confused. I’d love to explain hitchhiking, but I simply can’t. I just want this guy to go away so we can get out of here in like 10 minutes or less. All we need is to be left alone and we’ll be out of the guy’s hair.
Trying to show the sign to drivers triggers something in the manager. He steps even closer in my personal space and I defensively hold my tiny Myeik sign in front of and away from my tits. He starts tapping on the sign and saying Myeik is very far. I kind of freeze and hope Jonas will step in. He says something about the bus, and I say “no bus, no taxi.” This leads to more angry tapping on my cardboard breast armor shield and I give in to the intimidation and take a small step back.
Jonas puts on his kind voice and says that we’re OK and don’t need anything with the spread-fingers hand gesture. The manager walks away in an angry fashion and keeps tabs on us from a distance.
The Longest Wait
So, that didn’t start well. Where were we?
Oh yes, catching a ride to Myeik. It’s like 260 kilometers from where we are and we already wasted our precious first 10 minutes. Somehow, the few big pickup trucks and SUVs that drive by have a monk in it. They smile at us but don’t stop. I mention in passing that if a monk sits in the back of the car with us, it would be difficult for us to hitchhike with them because of the no-touching rule that applies to a monk’s robes.
“What?! You can’t touch a monk’s robes? I mean, not that I want to…”
We’ve been in Southeast Asia for nearly three months now and this is the first time this comes up. I read about this somewhere before but didn’t completely remember if it only applied to women. I tell Jonas that monks probably need to clean themselves or do more prayers if touched by women. Kind of like that time I hitchhiked with a devout Muslim in southern Turkey who picked me up but kindly requested not to shake hands or touch in any way because he had just cleaned himself for prayer. (On a side note: that was the most comfortable hitch in Turkey ever).
“It’s a menstruation thing, isn’t it?” Jonas asks.
“I think it’s just a misogyny thing. Anyway, just remember to never touch monks.”
Lots of trucks coming from Myeik also need to cross the entire road to get to the weighing station of the tollgate. This weighing station only exists on one side, which means these truckers have to create quite some temporary chaos to cross the road and then back again.
A big Batman-themed long-distance bus comes through the toll gate and everyone is getting ready to stop it for us. We shake our heads, do the hand thing, and the bus drives by us. The confusion spiked and we see someone walk to the toll booth on the other side of the road to make a few phone calls.
We’ve been waiting for half an hour now and Jonas hadn’t applied sunscreen yet. He starts putting it on when a taxi arrives from direction Myeik at the toll booth. A beautiful young woman who works at the toll booth walks shyly towards us, with the taxi driver following. We say again we’re not waiting for a taxi and they walk away. She crosses with small steps in her matching longyi and shirt, he makes big lugging steps in his pants. The backside of his vest says “PRESS” and Jonas wonders if he actually works for the newspaper. I think it’s just second-hand clothes from high-waste countries like ours. We’ve actually also seen some young man on a scooter wearing a sweater saying “MANAGER” on the back and we thought it was hilarious.
Speaking of the manager, he’s still watching us. Even as he walks away from the toll booth to – presumably – take a crap in the field beside it. By now, most people working at the toll booth have started to just ignore us. We’re also wondering what’s taking so long.
We’re 55 minutes into our wait when finally a car stops. We run after it to the shoulder 100 meters behind us. It’s a big SUV/station wagon with license plate YGN with already five people in it (including a woman!), but they’re adamant to make it work. Jonas’ backpack goes into the trunk and mine goes in the space left between the two seats in the middle row. I join two guys in the backbench and Jonas sits in the comfy chair in the middle row. We drive off and I never even look back to wave at the few kind people at the toll booth and the angry, angry manager.
Chatting with Our Drivers
The music’s volume goes up and the road soon gets a little bumpy. This is the same route National Highway 8 (NH8) we’d hitched from Mawlamyine to Dawei. It ends in Myeik. Beyond Myeik, a newer – though not better – road continues southward to Bokpyin and Kawthoung, where Myanmar ends and Thailand begins.
I’m chatting with the guy next to me, and Jonas chats with the guy next to him. I can’t hear his conversation except for a few words. This is the first time we’re hitchhiking with people and actually chatting with them for longer than a minute.
My conversation partner tells us they’re from Yangon and going to Myeik on a business trip. That’s almost a 900-kilometer drive in 17 hours. None of the five have ever been to Myeik before, but luckily they’re staying there for 10 days after this harrowing drive. I try to gather what kind of work brings them to Myeik, but my guy speaks very softly and I can’t hear him over the music most of the time. So we switch to small talk about Myanmar and our trip through the country. Soon, we drive out of the periphery of Dawei and into the mountains. The road condition deteriorates gradually.
I ask him what his name is, but I can’t hear him and notice quite late he’s spelling it out letter by letter. The first sound started with a B or a P, which probably means he was born on a Thursday, so let’s call him ‘Thursday’.
Jonas’ conversation partner hears this and introduces himself. I only catch the latter part “Thura”— similar to the name of a prior driver who took us to Yangon. He explains means “Double Sun” which he doesn’t like that much. We introduce ourselves and I say my name means rainbow in ancient Greek. And “Jonas”…? That’s some guy from the Bible who got swallowed by a whale.
They ask again if my name is pronounced EE-ris or AI-ris. Jonas says that it depends on whether you’re speaking English or Dutch. Thura decides that if it’s AI-ris, it could also be a Myanma name. So I guess I should use the English pronunciation for the waning duration of my stay here.
Thursday has some questions about how we actually met, since we’re apparently not from the same country. I show Thursday on the map where Jonas and I are from. He notices it looks like the same distance we’re driving today. At about 270 kilometers between our mothers’ houses, I guess it’s pretty comparable. But there’s only one road from Dawei to Myeik compared to the small selection of highways between the Netherlands and Germany. And over there it’s flat. Over here… it’s bUMpY aS hECk. Though it’s always worse in the back of a vehicle.
The 00s Greatest Hits
Our conversations slowly hit their natural endings and the rocking of the car makes everyone tired. The guy on the other side of the backbench has slept the whole time. It’s catching on with us. There’s an active decision to change the music from Myanma hits to female-fronted alt-rock/metal. Quite a change.
I try to stay awake, which becomes harder as the music moves away from metal and into Green Day’s greatest hits Nickelback, and Avril Lavigne. It’s kind of strange how that music was so prominent in high school and then just… disappeared. Strange.
I slowly fall asleep as well as we race down the road in the comfort of the AC at 60 kilometers per hour. I almost forgot how hot it was outside until we make a short smoking stop to switch drivers and the open door pushes in a hot humid heat that makes you gasp. And it’s only a little after 10:00.
Squats and Seafood
By 11:30 the road improves drastically as we enter a village called Palauk. We overtake the Batman bus in the town and drive on. By now there have been a few changes of the driver and Thura is back in the seat in front of me. After the village, the road conditions deteriorate again.
After my next nap, it’s noon. We stop again for a manly pee stop in the bushes and some nicotine. Jonas joins them for the peeing in the bushes part. Thura asks me if we’re hungry and tells me they’d just eaten before they picked us up in Dawei. I say we’re not, but he says I do look hungry. I was thinking more about a toilet visit as well, but not here.
We drive 500 meters down the road and stop again for a restaurant. I was thinking that they’d might want to drink a coffee or eat something small, but we’re actually stopping for the non-bush toilet for the women in the car. The outhouse is a bit of a struggle for me, but we’re driving again soon with an equally empty bladder.
Across another short river originating in the Tenasserim Hills, we stop again. There’s some discussion in the car about a company and we drive back and forth between a few restaurants in town. They’re looking for seafood, but after speaking to the manager at one restaurant they decided not to patronize their business. “They only pay their staff 1% of the bill,” Thura says “But the seafood here is excellent so we need to try it.”
They settle on a restaurant Ma Yoe Naing across the street and park their car. All seven of us get out of the car and pick a table at the establishment. An older man who works at the restaurant looks me up and down and gives me the stink eye. I’m not too fond of the fishy smells and dodgy men, so I am again uncomfortable. Thura sees this and says “Be comfortable, you’re our friends.”
I get a coffee and Jonas participates in the fish fest. He tells the party that I’m a vegetarian, which triggers the delivery of a bowl of bean soup to me. I eat some of it but I’m frankly not very hungry. I don’t want to be the weird one out, but I can’t eat. Luckily, Jonas will eat all the unappealing shrimp and mussels for me as I sip my coffee, staring at the “We stand with state counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi” billboard across the street. The Batmobile bus overtakes us again.
The party seems very excited about checking out that local business they hovered around. Jonas figured it’s a microfinance company called VisionFund. Apparently his conversation yielded an answer to what they do, and VisionFund is their direct competitor. Jonas tells me that this journey to Myeik is apparently a scouting trip to branch out to the south of Myanmar. Aha.
After the food, we offer to pay for our food and drinks. The guy who had been sleeping all the time on the other end of the backbench is apparently the accountant, and he says no. Thura sees this and confirms that we’re invited.
Forking Roads and GPS Advice
After lunch, we switch positions again in the car at 13:20. The only other woman sits in my spot next to me, I sit in the middle of the backbench, and the accountant still sleeps in his fixed position behind Jonas. Jonas and the accountant are basically the only people who haven’t changed their seats during this ride.
Then I realize something very strange about hitchhiking in Myanmar: no one brings any luggage on their trips. It’s crazy yet true that we’ve now had four long-distance rides with people in Myanmar and their trunks were all near-empty. There were five people in this car before we joined forces and just Jonas’ backpack and mine are more luggage than the few sports bags and tiny handbag in the trunk. For a 10-day trip. It’s incredible. The good people of Myanmar must have cracked the code to hyper-efficient packing.
As I’m in the middle, I’m having a very hard time staying seated without sliding into other people’s seats. I hold onto Jonas’ chair as we drive over some bumps on the final stretch. We see a few broken-down long-distance buses that remind me again why we – or at the very least I – prefer to hitchhike. And I can’t believe that we’re one or two hitchhiking days away from passing the Kra Isthmus and entering the Malay Peninsula.
I’m following our progress on my maps. The OSM Map says that the left path is the best road, while Google Maps says that the one that goes right and then uses a ferry at Lutlut is the best road. Our drivers are using Google Maps to navigate, so I wonder what the GPS will tell them to do.
We’re at the crossing at 14:10 and Google routes us to use the left option. It’s not far now and their ginormous journey will soon come to an end. This would be good because everyone in the car is in need of a nap with better neck support.
I also notice we haven’t experienced any checkpoints on this stretch of road as opposed to the stretch from Mawlamyine to Dawei. I’m sure they will return as we go further south from Myeik and pass the road that joins the Singkhon Pass with Thailand. According to our visa rules, that border isn’t open to us to leave Myanmar once we run out of days on the 31st of January.
Arriving in Myeik
The final stretch brings to one major arm of the Great Tenasserim River Delta referred to on OSM as the Kyauk Hpyar River. An enormous bridge appears and a big sign saying “WELCOME TO MYEIK”. I hear an elated gasp coming from the front of the car that awakens the rest of its inhabitants. We make a stop to take photos and selfies together and apart. The quiet accountant wants a photo with the two of us, which he seems very excited about. I haven’t seen him this awake yet.
We drive over the very cool bridge to the deltaic island that’s home to Myeik, formerly known as Mergui. Now we have to discuss our arrival. We tell our shuffled conversation partners that we’re staying at the Regent Hotel in Myeik. They’re still looking for a hotel for themselves, so they want to know how much we’re paying. Jonas does the math and says it’s 50.000 MMK per night for a double room. Thura contemplates a bit and then says “We shall ask the price too. I think we can get it cheaper.”
We drive into the city and get rerouted a really silly way. GPS doesn’t always know best, but it’s trying its best. We arrive at Hotel Regent at 15:35 and it’s… lavish. There are a very serious gate, a shimmering pool, and stylish reception. As we arrive, the hotel staff comes out and starts taking everyone’s luggage out of the trunk. Thura and Thursday quickly have to stop them from doing that, while simultaneously asking how much it would be for them to stay at the hotel. Not to anyone’s surprise, the price is too high. We thank everyone for the ride and say goodbye and then they’re off.
Stepping into a hotel like that is always a different world. We just did something pretty abstemious, where we’re invited in someone’s car through honest hospitality. Then we enter a swanky hotel where people wai deeper than necessary for politeness and act subservient as if we’re something. Hotel staff behavior is just weird and uncomfortable (to me), especially from a people that experienced colonization and othering by Europeans. Nothing really happens in a vacuum.
Once in the room, we get pool-ready. Perhaps we’ll run into our drivers one of these days.
Comparison of Hitchhiking and Public Transport
The train lines ended in Dawei. Though there are small voices they’ll continue the rail link known as the Tanintharyi Line to Myeik. One day, perhaps.
There are supposedly also direct flights, but I couldn’t find them in any schedule. As a general rule, domestic flights in Myanmar are quite expensive.
So… the only other option would be by bus, right? Well, no; traveling in direction of Yangon is always easy, but in the other direction, the buses don’t stop to pick up new passengers after having dropped a few off along the way. It’s un-fucking-believable, but it’s supposedly still true. Rome2Rio also suggests you should take a bus from Dawei to Yangon (13h27m) and then a bus from Yangon past Dawei to Myeik for a great 20h. Whatever the low price, nobody fucking does that. I hope.
For comparison, the bus from Myeik to Dawei costs 12.000 MMK per person for a seat in a minivan. The bigger buses are slightly cheaper at 8.000 MMK.
Therefore, the only other viable option from Myeik to Dawei is by paying a minivan to make the trip. That will take about 5 hours and 20 minutes door-to-door (without lunch breaks, which you can probably include). The price? I have no clue, but as a helpless foreigner, I think it won’t come cheaply. My best guess is that it’s 80.000 MMK at a minimum. If you chartered a van for this journey and know the price, please share it in the comments!
Our hitchhiking journey took us from 8:00 till 15:35, so that’s a journey of 7 hours and 35 minutes from hotel to hotel including (photo/toilet/lunch) breaks with our drivers. We spent 6.000 MMK on the tuk-tuk ride and that was all the money we spent.
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