Jonas and I went hitchhiking in Myanmar between the 3rd and the 31st of January 2020. These tips are based on our experiences and the laws of Myanmar during that timeframe. Feel welcome to add your own hitchhiking in Myanmar experiences + adventures in the comments!
- 1 Basic Tips
- 2 Is Hitchhiking in Myanmar Legal or Illegal?
- 3 Do People in Myanmar Know What Hitchhiking Is?
- 4 Where to Stand When Hitchhiking in Myanmar?
- 5 Why Do They Drive on the Right?
- 6 I Keep Hearing About This Yangon-Mandalay Expressway. Why?
- 7 How to Make Hitchhiking Signs in Myanma Script?
- 8 What to Wear When Hitchhiking in Myanmar?
- 9 Frequently Asked Questions
- 9.1 What Do the License Plate Colors Mean?
- 9.2 What Are the Abbreviations on the License Plates?
- 9.3 Can I Hitchhike with a Buddhist Monk?
- 9.4 Can I Do CouchSurfing/TrustRoots/BeWelcome/WarmShowers in Myanmar?
- 9.5 Can I Go Wildcamping/Freecamping (or Just Camping) in Myanmar?
- 9.6 Can I Use Airbnb in Myanmar?
- 9.7 Where Did I Go Hitchhiking in Myanmar? What Were My Experiences?
- 10 Thanks for Reading! Let Me Know Your Experiences Hitchhiking in Myanmar
- 11 Prepping Signs for Hitchhiking in Myanmar
- Have the map of Myanmar downloaded onto your smartphone. I prefer Open Street Maps!
- Have the Google Translate app. Unlike Thai, Google doesn’t have an offline package for Myanmar language yet.
- Get a SIM card in Myanmar upon arrival.
- Always make a hitchhiking sign. Buy some black markers, preferably black markers with a chiseled tip, and have something to cut the cardboard, like a Swiss army knife. If you’re flying to/from Myanmar, make sure not to pack the Swiss army knife in your cabin luggage.
- If you can, try to hitchhike from toll gates (တိုးဂိတ်). They’re the best. Gas stations aren’t good for hitchhiking unless they’re on the Yangon-Mandalay Expressway.
- Also, the Wikipedia app is a good idea to have since you can find the Myanma spelling of city names to make your hitchhiking signs.
- Always, always carry your passport with you in case there’s a police check.
- Research your route before embarking on it. Look for toll booths and city gates. Double-check whether you’re passing through no-go zones for foreigners.
- Keep an eye on how many days you have left on your visa. Unfortunately, most visas are very short for this big country.
- In an interesting turn of events, they drive on the right-hand side of the road.
- Optionally: download Grab to make use of the tuk-tuks in Mandalay and the (huge and slow) taxis in Yangon.
Is Hitchhiking in Myanmar Legal or Illegal?
No law prohibits hitchhiking in Myanmar. Locals often share rides (and often pay a little amount). Whilst being the only foreigner in a vehicle might draw attention from the police, it’s not actually forbidden for you to be in there.
The tricky part is that there are many no-go zones for foreigners in Myanmar. You aren’t allowed to be there. Not even if you’re just passing through. That’s the main reason why it’s impossible to hitchhike within Myanmar from Tachileik overland to Mandalay. You’d have to take a domestic flight or travel thousands of kilometers extra through Thailand. Locals might not be aware of this rule, so please don’t get them into trouble.
Do People in Myanmar Know What Hitchhiking Is?
Not really. The thumbs-up sign is rather meaningless and ‘pat the dog’ is for stopping taxis. That’s why I strongly recommend you to make hitchhiking signs!
However, when someone picks up a foreigner, the ride is likely for free. Since you can’t be a guest at someone’s home in Myanmar, you could instead be a guest in someone’s car for a little while.
There are not that many privately-owned vehicles. If you hitchhike long enough or in bad spots, it will undoubtedly happen that a taxi tries to pick you up. Or that someone wants money. It’s good to discuss this with the driver before you get in.
If you’re waiting beside the road for a long time, locals might also approach you and try to stop a bus for you. We haven’t been able to explain to anyone why we wouldn’t get onto the buses and minivans.
Where to Stand When Hitchhiking in Myanmar?
It’s imperative that you get a bit out of town before you try to catch a ride. Many people will try to chat you up and wonder what you’re doing if you’re still in the middle of the city. If they see your sign, they’re likely to point you in the direction of the bus or train station or stop a taxi for you. These friendly people mean well, but it’s not what you want.
Your next guess might be that gas stations are a good spot. While there are plenty of places to get gas in Myanmar, they’re not as important to drivers as you’d like. The only place where they function as exclusive stopping spots is on the Yangon-Mandalay Expressway.
By far the best spot is at the toll gates outside the cities. If you’re taking a regular taxi or tuk-tuk to the toll gate, show the people this word (တိုးဂိတ် – pronounced as toe gate). It’s a bit of a weird request, but people are very helpful. The people at your accommodation can also arrange a taxi or tuk-tuk for you on the phone and communicate which toll gate you need to go to.
One good way to establish whether a toll booth exists on your road is by looking for one on satellite imagery like Google Earth. This way, you can establish the presence of one before asking for help from the staff. Scan for buildings that cover (nearly) the entire road at the main arteries outside of a city. As of 2020, Myanmar isn’t very well-covered by Google Streetview yet, so satellite images are the way to go for now.
If you loathe the idea of taking a taxi to your hitchhiking spot, you could make a hitchhiking sign saying တိုးဂိတ် and try to hitchhike there from the city centers. Unfortunately, I have no experience with hitchhiking with such a sign. So if you try it, please let me know if that helped or caused a lot more confusion!
Once at the toll gate, it will be a lot easier to find a ride that goes a long way. I believe that only the cars that are out of state need to pay toll; local traffic gets a free pass.
Why Do They Drive on the Right?
It’s an act of decolonization, just like renaming the country from Burma to Myanmar. Even though most vehicles have their steering wheel on the right, they also drive on the right. Yes, that’s a bit dangerous. But for better or for worse, you’ll get used to it.
I Keep Hearing About This Yangon-Mandalay Expressway. Why?
It’s the only real highway in the country. It travels from Yangon in the south to Mandalay in the north past the capital city Naypyitaw and a few other cities. Like many things originating in Myanmar, it’s controversial. It’s a rather unsafe highway because it has no street lights and no banked turns. There are quite some road accidents on this highway, as many drivers also lack experience and/or formal training. Most stretches are two lanes and the official – not adhered – speed limit is 100 km/h.
You’ll also see people on bicycles or on foot near or on the highway.
My main tip here is to not hitchhike on this road at night. In fact, try not to go hitchhiking in Myanmar in total darkness at all. Those are the hours when accidents happen.
How to Make Hitchhiking Signs in Myanma Script?
You could, of course, write the hitchhiking signs in Latin script. The tricky thing with choosing the romanization of Myanma city names is that there are at minimum two ways to spell it. There’s no good standardization, which means you might encounter more trouble communicating your destination to a driver than if you’d just write it in their beautiful Myanma script. The government changed the spelling rules for Latin script after decolonization, but you’ll still find the old and the new next to each other. For example Yangon/Rangoon, Mawlamyine/Mawlamyaing/Moulmein, Bagan/Pagan, Naypyitaw/Naypyidaw, Dawei/Tavoy, Myeik/Mergui.
Chances are that you won’t learn the Myanma alphabet – an abugida – since it’s pretty complicated. If you want to write a hitchhiking sign, it’s a good idea to check on Wikipedia on how to write the city name.
The Myanma script doesn’t have capital letters. To get your letters aligned properly, you must mentally divide the hitchhiking sign into three areas: the main part, an upper part, and a lower part. If there are no letters on the lower part, you can use that space on the cardboard to enlarge your letters. An example:
You can see that I could have used more space with the (1) Dawei sign since it doesn’t have any bottom diacritics. The (2) Yangon City sign – my first attempt at writing in Myanma script – is quite well-balanced. In the (3) Naypyitaw sign, I accidentally made the first letter “ေ” too big, like a capital letter. The latter parts look good though. Note that မြို့ at the end of a word means “city”. So if you’re hitchhiking in Myanmar to a city that’s also the name of the region (e.g. Tanintharyi), you might want to add မြို့ to let people know you’re talking about the city or town.
At the bottom of this article, you’ll find a few major destinations in Myanmar. They’re in Myanma script, so it’s very easy to copy them onto your hitchhiking signs. Click here to skip forward to start writing your hitchhiking signs.
Not a single driver had trouble reading these hitchhiking signs. All hitchhiking signs served their purpose well; conveying to the drivers where we wanted to go.
When writing in a new script, always try to get the smoothest cardboard you can find to make the experience not so frustrating. I prepared most of my signs for hitchhiking in Myanmar whilst still in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
What to Wear When Hitchhiking in Myanmar?
Of course, in principle, you can wear whatever the hell you want when hitchhiking in Myanmar.
That being said, Myanma people dress quite modestly. It’s best to copy that style and wear clothes that cover knees and shoulders. This applies to men and women. Many areas in Myanmar (especially the southern and coastal areas) are very warm, so it’s tricky to regulate one’s body temperature. Thin, breezy clothes are best. It’s also very sunny, so it’s a good idea to always have a (cape) hat handy.
In Myanmar, many local people wear longyi. That’s a tube-shaped skirt that you can tie in either the male style or the female style. They exist in a variety of materials that can be warm or cool, formal or informal. Locals seem to appreciate it if you buy a longyi, at a local market, get them tailored, and wear them. I own one longyi, but I did not hitchhike in them. A longyi tends to untuck after some time and it doesn’t have pockets.
If you want to go the extra mile, you can wear thanakha as a woman or as a young man. Thanakha is Myanmar’s gender-neutral beauty product of choice. You’ll see local women, young men, and children wear it on their cheeks, noses, and foreheads.
If you hitchhiked in longyi and/or thanakha, chime in and let everyone know what your experiences were!
Frequently Asked Questions
What Do the License Plate Colors Mean?
Black license plates are privately-owned vehicles. Those are the cars you’ll want most.
Yellow-plated vehicles are religious ones. Red means a taxi or another type of commercial vehicle. Don’t show your sign to them. White plates are for ambassadors and other uppity folks. Tour buses receive light blue.
What Are the Abbreviations on the License Plates?
They represent the state or region in which a vehicle is registered. This can help you decide how probable it is that the driver will travel a significant distance in your desired direction.
NPW = Naypyitaw Union Territory, YGN = Yangon Region, MDY = Mandalay Region, MON = Mon State, BGO = Bago Region, SHN = Shan State, SGG = Sagaing Region, AYY = Aryeyarwaddy Region, TNI = Tanintharyi Region, RKE = Rakhine State, KYN = Kayin State, CHN = Chin State, KCN = Kachin State, KYH = Kayah State, and MGY = Magway Region.
Yangon plates are the most ubiquitous. It’s kind of the default registration, so you’ll see many YGN plates out of state. This doesn’t necessarily mean that a YGN-plated car will drive to Yangon in one day the moment you see it. However, if you see a TNI plate driving southward on a major road in Mon State, it’s probable that this car will make the long journey to Tanintharyi.
Can I Hitchhike with a Buddhist Monk?
Eh, it’s probably possible?
There are many vehicles driven by/driving around Buddhist monks on the roads of Myanmar. Monks seem to be a very mobile class in Myanma society.
Even though we tried hitchhiking spacious cars with monks present, they never stopped for us. Perhaps it’s my gender, perhaps it’s something else. As a woman or femme person, know that if a car with a monk stops for you, never touch the monks or their robes. If you do, they’ll have to perform cleansing rituals.
I mean, I don’t know why exactly people think it’s okay to touch others. But that’s for another post.
While we’re on the topic, know that Myanmar is the ‘most Buddhist’ country in the world. As a result, Buddhism holds a special place in the law and there are punishments for blasphemy.
Can I Do CouchSurfing/TrustRoots/BeWelcome/WarmShowers in Myanmar?
No. It is illegal in Myanmar to have a guest stay overnight at one’s home without notifying the authorities first. This applies to locals too, but it especially applies to foreigners. You can get your host in serious trouble if you do so.
If you already know people in Myanmar that could/want to host you, you could ask them if they can register you at the authorities. Though chances are that this is just too much work and might still carry a risk for your hosts. Please think of your hosts first!
Luckily, there are many hostels, guest houses, and hotels all over Myanmar that are often very affordable. As a foreigner, you still need to stay at a government-approved accommodation. Not all hotels are licensed to host foreigners.
Can I Go Wildcamping/Freecamping (or Just Camping) in Myanmar?
I haven’t done any (free)camping in Myanmar myself, as I didn’t bring my tent.
I guess that pitching your tent in the middle of nowhere out of sight on public land would not endanger any people. Technically, the government wants to know where you stayed each night. They currently just don’t have the resources to check whether you stayed in a licensed accommodation each night as of 2020.
Myanmar is a country with quite some landmines. This (paywall) article has a non-exhaustive map with known landmine areas in Myanmar. Tourists have also been hurt and killed by them – even in popular tourist hiking areas – as recently as November 2019. I don’t mean to scare you, but landmines are something to consider before you pitch your tent. I know a lot of you will want to save as much money as possible or simply don’t have the funds. In the end, it’s up to you to make a judgment call.
There are a few campsites in Myanmar. But they seem to mostly be services campsites for urbanites’ weekend getaway—with their cars. Several campsites I’ve found provide you with fancy tents and teambuilding activities, rather than simply a field to pitch your tent. I highly doubt that this is cheaper than a bed in a hostel or a room in a guesthouse. It will also inevitably be very far away from shops to buy your own food.
Can I Use Airbnb in Myanmar?
Airbnb isn’t big in Myanmar. It’s mostly hotels that put their business on Airbnb too.
Based on the previously mentioned law, you cannot book a couch in a house or a room in a house where other people live; that would violate the same law that it’s punishable by Myanma law to host a guest overnight in a home without prior notification to the relevant authorities.
Jonas and I booked an entire apartment in Yangon for five days. Even though that was legally a bit unclear, we weren’t hosted by any people. It was nice to finally not stay in a (usually smaller) hotel room and have access to kitchen equipment and a washing machine. Yangon is the only city with real Airbnb condominiums in the country if that’s what you’re looking for.
Where Did I Go Hitchhiking in Myanmar? What Were My Experiences?
Besides this post, I also wrote about each hitchhiking day Jonas and I did in Myanmar. That makes for a total of six hitchhiking days, during which we covered 1585 kilometers in nine rides. The following articles are ordered chronologically. Click the one you’d like to learn more about:
Thanks for Reading! Let Me Know Your Experiences Hitchhiking in Myanmar
Prepping Signs for Hitchhiking in Myanmar
Here are some of the biggest destinations in Myanmar to write on your hitchhiking signs. Enjoy!