‘The Burma Road runs from Yunnan [China, red.] into Burma; it was built during World War II to bring supplies to beleaguered China, to help them resist the Japanese invasion. Not much of the original road survives today, but parts of the route can still be travelled.’ Source: Wikivoyage.
From Mandalay, on two Yamaha Lanza’s, we set out along the historical Burma and Stilwell Road. An amazing journey through Myanmar’s history and culture, along winding roads and dusty paths, with beautiful and not so beautiful (Myanmarese army) encounters, but fore most a complete motorbike adventure.
The guy running Myanmar Bike Rental (MBR) is Tim, a pioneer when it comes to renting out ‘bigger’ bikes to foreigners. He is an Englishman who has been living in Myanmar for 17 years. He is running an English school in Mandalay and is crazy about motorbikes. He told us he has been collecting motorbikes for a while and at one point he started renting them out, as like a second business. He has a fleet of the ‘Asian’ 125 cc Yamaha’s, 230 cc Yamaha Lanza dirt bikes and a couple of 400 cc Honda Shadow cruisers. They range in price from 10 to 30 Euro for the day. We chose for two Yamaha Lanza’s as the road conditions of our route were unknown and these bikes should do well on all, and the mid price of these bikes fitted best in our budget.
It’s especially great that he is renting out these ‘big’ bikes to foreigners. First and foremost because bikes above 125cc aren’t to be found in Myanmar. The Lanza’s and Shadow’s he imported from Thailand. It is therefore also hard for him to acquire spare parts. The flashing lights and all the digital stuff on our bikes are not working. Tim tells that the vital engine parts are available in Myanmar, but there are no parts for the tiny stuff. Secondly he takes a risk is renting out bikes to foreigners. Doing this is as legal as it is illegal. If something happens to us, or we do something stupid along the way the police will most certainly come knocking on Tim’s door and he’ll be in trouble and maybe out of business.
Tim is easy going and its relaxed hanging out at his place for a while, talking about bikes and trips. Stories from him, from us and from a chap that he had to rescue out of a Burmese prison pass by. The guy had driven far into a warzone were the shooting was still going on. The army immediately took him of the road when they saw him. That he was wearing an army camouflage motorbike pants, didn’t really help him not looking like the enemy and therefore not being shot dead. Anyway, when they arrested him they found a camera with images of the warlord against whom the army was fighting. In a true coincidence the biker got completely lost and had been asked to sleepover at a friendly family. The family appearing on the photos was that of the warlord. Bad luck! The Myanmarese partner in MBR drove there for 15 hours in a row and got the guy and his bike back to Mandalay.
Our plan was to follow the historical Burma- and Stilwell Road. The Burma Road is a famous route linking China and Myanmar (former Burma). Nowadays this road is the only land route between the two countries, but the road was build to supply China in World War 2. The Burma Road connects with the Stilwell Road on the border at a town named Muse. From Muse we would go up north to follow the old Stilwell Road as long as possible. The Stilwell Road snakes through Northern Myanmar and connects India with China. There is hardly anyone who has done the route over the last decades due to internal problems in Myanmar. It seemed large parts of the Stilwell Road were surely out of reach.
See the end of this article for more information about the Burma- and Stilwell Road.
There are vast area’s of Myanmar that are today still conflict zone’s and beyond the control of the Myanmarese army. In these conflict areas, (occasional) fighting is going on between the Myanmarese army and (different) ethnic insurgencies. Planning a motorbike trip out of Mandalay is really an exercise in avoiding these conflict zones. The Burma Road up to the Chinese border is open most of the times, but we have to watch out because some adjacent areas are not under control of the army, but by rebel groups. Taking the old Stilwell Road up from Muse is a big guess. The road has been off-limits for foreigners since long time. Foreigner restricted areas are, according to Tim, changing every now and then and don’t necessarily mean it’s not safe to travel as a tourist. His advice is to just go and have a look. If you can get past the checkpoints, you are safe. We like this approach: if you want adventure, go out there and see what is possible, but we don’t want to get ourselves in so much shit as the guy who ended up in a Myanmarese jail.
A little uncomfortable with the new bikes, but with the sun up in the sky and 25 degrees we set out from Mandalay to camp in Pyin Oo Lwin for the first night.
Burma and Stilwell Road
By 1937 the Japanese army had conquered the whole east coast of China. ‘As war between the US and the Axis powers (Germany, Japan and Italy) approached, Washington was increasingly anxious to keep China in the fight. Sending help via China’s own port cities was now impossible. A back door via Rangoon [now Yangon, red.] was the only option and the Burma Road was born.’ writes Thant Myint U in his book, Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia.
Asia’s role in the Second World War has never been really clear to me. Not much more did I know then the names and a vague idea what happened in Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and along the ‘Death railway’ (known from the movie: A Bridge Over the River Kwai). But wars over Asian territories were crucial to the outcome of the war, involving both Axis and Allied Powers (among others, Great Britain, France, U.S. and Soviet Union).
‘The Burma Road was built at literally breakneck speed, by 200.000 Chinese labourers using shovels, or sometimes nothing but their bare hands, to dig away at hills and mountains. 2.000 died in the proces’, Thant Myint U continues about the construction of the Burma Road in 1938.
Soon after completion Emperor Hirohito’s Japanese forces swept through south East Asia and invaded Burma from the other side. The supply road became useless.
In 1944 Japan moved forward out of Burma to attack India, which was still under British rule, in a power struggle over Asia’s hegemony. Fierce battles were fought in North East India, but finally British and Indian soldiers were able to keep Japan out of India. With Japan chased back into Burma, the northern part of the country came back under Allied control.
With the US desperate of reopening the Burma Road the most viable option appeared to be building a new road, starting in Ledo, North East India, through the dense jungle’s of northern Myanmar, to Yunnan in China. Build as the Ledo Road this road became known as the ‘Stilwell’ Road, named after the legendary general Joe ‘Vinegar’ Stilwell. The Stilwell Road was finished and the Burma Road reopened in 1945. Not much later, just after the first American convoys had past the road, Japan and the Axis powers were defeated.
Read more about this motorbike trip along the Burma- and Stilwell Road in Myanmar in the following blogs.