The joys of trans-continental driving in your own car basically boil down to freedom—you decide when to drive and where to stop for a break and take in what locations on the way have to offer. That's why driving is often the preferred option in Europe or America over air or rail.
In recent years, road trips in Southeast Asia have started to gain momentum, but unlike in more developed parts of the world, the main obstacles to be found, particularly outside of Thailand, are arduous immigration and customs procedures, as well as poor road conditions that can extend travel time.
Nevertheless, when Myanmar recently relaxed its entry requirements for tourists, Mazda Sales Thailand wasted no time in arranging a road trip to Yangon, the largest city and former capital of the once isolated nation.
Surprisingly, getting into Myanmar from the Mae Sot border town of Thailand was not as much of a hassle as initially expected. In just over half an hour, our 12-car convoy of BT-50 pickup trucks, was in Myawaddy.
The numerous pagodas scattered around the rustic surroundings told us that we were clearly in Myanmar, as did the abrupt switch from driving on the left to the right side of the road. This is somewhat bewildering because nearly all cars in Myanmar are right-hand drive.
According to a history professor who joined us on the three-day trip to Yangon, motorists once drove on the left as they do in Thailand. But after freeing themselves from the shackles of British colonisation, the authorities decided to switch over and join the majority of the world in driving on the right side of the road.
To facilitate such a move, all new cars in Myanmar are now sold only in left-hand-drive, but the majority of cars on the road are still right-hand-drive because they are either very old or used Japanese imports.
But the steep, winding first leg of our route was not nearly as perilous as it sounds, as traffic is always one-way; that is, one day it's outbound and the next inbound. Planning is definitely needed, however, if you intend to drive in Myanmar on this particular route.
The first 50km stretch of the approximately 500km journey was definitely the most difficult. The road is poorly surfaced, narrow and mostly free of barriers to protect vehicles from falling down a steep ravine in the mountains near the Thai-Myanmar border.
Despite the relatively comfortable suspension set-up of the BT-50, the roads made the ride choppy. Even so, pickups like our BT-50 in Hi-Racers, with sufficient ground clearance, are well suited for the job. It would have been even better if the vehicles were equipped with a 4x4 system to enhance the grip, which ours weren't.
Actually, this road is part of the so-called East-West Corridor Asean leaders are envisaging to connect the Andaman and South China seas. If that's going to happen, road tunnels should be considered to make driving safer, more convenient and more environmentally friendly. That also applies to the Thai side when driving between the A1 highway and Mae Sot.
After some three hours of tackling torturous slopes, the caravan finally settled onto a properly paved two-lane road surrounded by pristine lowlands. So untouched is the countryside that it is making Myanmar the next big thing for the tourism industry.
Speaking of the rising tide of capitalism, the car market has yet to boom in Myanmar. Mazda is set to open an outlet there soon, selling BT-50 pickups and Mazda 2 sub-compacts via an entrepreneur representing a Ford dealership. However, local guides say the only cars that can sell well in Myanmar are those that cost no more than 500,000 baht.
It's quite obvious that purchasing power is still generally low in the country, compounded by the fact that no car financing is allowed and payments must be made in a lump sum, according to the guide. Of course, some people may think that controlling the car population is a good thing.
One of the most interesting attractions along our route was the Kyaikhtiyo shrine, situated midway between Myawaddy and Yangon on a rocky mountaintop. Although the tarmac up to Kyaikhtiyo is sealed, motorists are forbidden to drive on it—a shame because the BT-50's grunty diesel engine and neat handling traits would have made the ride up a blast. Authorities say there are too many accidents on this route and this is why outsiders aren't allowed to take their private vehicles up to Kyaikhtiyo.
Instead, people need to cram into peppy six-wheeled trucks and endure a 40-minute roller-coaster ride up and down some nasty slopes. The mode of transport may sound a little draconian, but the attention to making roads as safe as possible—given the limited resources—is commendable.
In the rural parts of Myanmar most locals choose to travel on cheaper motorcycles, but motorbikes are banned in the inner part of Yangon despite multi-lane streets. Our guide pointed out that motorcycles account for most of the country's annual road carnage—but this argument probably doesn't hold much weight in the eyes of the underprivileged.
Yangon certainly looks set to become a bustling city in the near future, given the amount of road construction and the number of buildings going up. But Mazda executives say doing business in Myanmar isn't as straight-forward as one might expect due to regulations aimed to protect the interests of citizens.
At any rate, business is clearly booming for some citizens. There are a startling number of luxury cars on the road in Yangon. Within just 15 minutes of driving during rush hour, Brunch spotted two Bentleys—an Arnage flagship limo and the smaller Continental Flying Spur.
Overall, driving in Myanmar is very similar to driving in Laos or Cambodia. But with all these countries opening their arms more to the outside world, it won't take long to find the investment for better road infrastructure.
In the meantime, Thailand will continue to serve as the hub for travellers in the region, and judging from this road trip, the Mazda BT-50 is still a bit ahead of its time in idyllic Myanmar.
This article first appeared in the Bangkok Post on June 2, 2013.