MAWLAMYINE, Mon State — Generally speaking, I’m a firm believer in making plans for the road. But sometimes when you are on your way and opportunity and desire present themselves, it’s tempting to see just how far you can get by just going with your instincts. That’s what happened a few months ago when I was visiting Mawlamyine, capital of Mon State. Having come 190 miles (310 km) from Yangon, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to continue heading south. That’s how, nearly a week and 700 miles (1,100 km) later, I found myself in Kawthaung, Myanmar’s southernmost city and a grueling motorcycle journey away. I blame the motorcycle. Strictly speaking, perhaps I shouldn’t have had it in the first place, as apparently there may be rules against foreigners renting motorcycles in Myanmar. But many local guesthouses seem happy enough to let you putter around town on one of their bikes for a small price, and the police don’t seem to mind. And, having had a taste of biking exploration in Mawlamyine, I felt somehow compelled to push my adventure onwards. And so I set off from the Mon capital for Dawei, a city some 230 miles (370 km) to the south. [irrawaddy_gallery] Of course, I did this with the blessing of the motorcycle’s owner, who said he’d never heard of a tourist attempting this trip before (perhaps because until August 2013, this stretch of highway was off limits to foreigners). He didn’t seem to mind letting me give it a shot with his bike; maybe he would have been more concerned if the vehicle in question wasn’t a poorly maintained 100 cc Honda Wave that was at least 15 years old. Equipped with nothing more than this woefully inadequate means of transport and a crash helmet that could have been a child’s toy, I bounced along without incident until I reached a checkpoint on the border between Mon State and Tanintharyi Region, a little more than halfway to my destination. There I was stopped and ordered to provide my details, which were meticulously noted in a large ledger. To my relief, I wasn’t asked to show any papers for the bike. It seemed that as long as my name was logged, no other questions needed to be asked. On I could go. Beyond this point, however, the road steadily deteriorated and the bike beneath me slowly shook itself to pieces. Luckily, I was far from alone in facing the perils of punctures and mechanical failure, and even the smallest village along the way had at least one makeshift shop that could be counted on to keep my bike roadworthy. With the help of more than one enterprising local mechanic and fueled by petrol poured out of whisky bottles, the motorbike reached Dawei in one piece. I, however, was much the worse for wear. Dawei Break A few well-earned days of rest and relaxation on Dawei’s untouched beaches did me a world of good. But what they didn’t do was rid me of the urge to see just how far I could go on this foolhardy journey of mine. And so, as my aches and pains slowly faded, I began to contemplate the possibility of going all the way to Kawthaung. I knew that it was theoretically possible; but I also knew I had not heard of other foreigners traveling overland beyond Myeik, about 150 miles (240 km) to the south of Dawei. Bus companies cannot sell tickets to foreigners wanting to travel farther south than that, I had heard, but as far as I knew, no other measures were taken to prevent tourists making the trip. So, after a quick call to the owner of my bike to tell him I needed it for a few more days, I got back in the saddle and headed south. Apart from the deplorable driving conditions on the bumpy roads, all went well until I reached Myeik, where I spent a night in an overpriced, moldy room at one of the few hotels in town. Then, in the town of Tanintharyi, I had another encounter with local officialdom, in the form of a smartly dressed man in a white shirt and well-pressed longyi. Magically appearing at my elbow, he asked to see my passport and inquired as to where I was going. I said Bokpyin, the next major town on my route. It turned out that his main concern seemed to be that I moved along and, after grudgingly agreeing to let me stop for something to eat before leaving Tanintharyi, he sent me on my way. It was already past midday, and Bokpyin was 100 miles (160 km) away. As I rode on through the country landscape, it became obvious that I wouldn’t be able to reach it before nightfall. As darkness fell, I resigned myself to spending the night without shelter and stopped at a small roadside restaurant so that my misery wouldn’t be compounded by hunger. Realizing that I had nowhere to go, one of the staff said I could stay there. I gratefully accepted the offer of a sun lounger under a noisy television in a corner of what turned out to be an all-night truck stop. End of the Road It wasn’t a very restful night’s sleep, but the next morning I was ready for the final stretch. After a night of rain, the road was muddy and slippery, and until about 75 miles (120 km) outside of Kawthaung, it was tough going. Then, oil palm plantations began to take over the landscape, spreading out as far as the eye could see, and the rickety road turned into a sealed three-lane highway. Clearly, commercial needs push road building a lot more than the needs of the people. Finally, after having pushed myself and the motorbike to the limit for a total of five days, I arrived in Kawthaung. Now all I had to do was make my way back. My plan was to return to Dawei by ferry and from there ride back to Mawlamyine. But that turned out to be more complicated than I had expected. Suddenly, after days of driving without ever being asked to show the motorcycle’s registration papers, I was told that it couldn’t be transported by ferry without full documentation. It was beginning to look like I might have to go back the way I came. I was a broken man. My initial exhilaration at completing a journey that to my knowledge no other foreigner had attempted quickly drained away, as I faced the daunting thought of having to do the whole thing over again. In the end, however, I was spared this nightmare scenario. With some trepidation, I entrusted the bike to a local bus company and boarded the ferry back to Dawei. There, after an anxious day’s waiting, I was reunited with the motorbike and ready to bring it back to its owner. It’s not a trip I would want to attempt again anytime soon, though there were many moments when I felt lucky to see a sometimes stunning and still relatively unspoiled corner of Myanmar.
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