Carlos & Carlo: Roadtripping Myanmar’s Civil War Zone – Friend Theory

If we would’ve followed the advice of the media, we would have never gone to amazing places like Kyaukme. When you travel, you want to be part of the pioneers group – because those are the only ones who get to discover the real essence of foreign countries.

One of the best perks of studying in South East Asia is the travel opportunities you have all around that region. You can fly to Thailand and party 24/7, you can go to the Philippines and chill on world class beaches or you can go to Bali and catch some of the best waves in the world – all you need to do is to book a low cost flight ticket and you’re sorted. However, when Friend Theory cofounders, Carlos and Carlo were studying in Hong Kong, they didn’t want to go for any of these mainstream options, they wanted something more challenging… something exciting!

After some research, they started reading about this Southeast Asian country that only opened up a few years ago and still had some violent conflicts happening in but, on the other hand, was apparently stunning – the name of the country is Myanmar, or Burma depending on who you talk to. This country sounded like a perfect option for them so it didn’t take them long to book their flights to Yangon, Myanmar’s capital.

They didn’t have a plan in Myanmar – they only knew that they were flying in and out of Yangon and they had roughly half month to explore the country with their two uni buddies from Sweden who also decided to join them on the trip. Carlos found out he had a friend he made in the UK living in Yangon at that time, so she hosted them all for the couple of nights they spent in Yangon. Unfortunately, already in Yangon they already realised how much the people were trying to cover the raw reality of the country – as soon as they were seeing a foreigner, everything was smiles and happiness, but if you’d dare to ask them any political related questions… you’d rarely got an answer – people were still too scared to share the situation with outsiders.

They visited the other known places in the country, like Bagan and Inle Lake, and even though they were breathtaking spots, they knew they hadn’t gone all the way to that country just to check the touristy spots. In Yangon they realised that if they really wanted to see Myanmar’s genuine side, they had to go off the beaten path and explore all those regions that were considered by any country’s Travel Advice website as “High Risk – Avoid All Travel”. But of course, this wasn’t going to be easy. Although the touristy spots within Myanmar were surprisingly well connected, as soon as you wanted to go anywhere a bit less popular, finding transport was a hard task.

Carlos and Carlo decided to go up north, right to the border with Laos, Thailand and China, where the Himalayas start. Was there a reason why they decided that specific spot? Well, they love motorbike trips, especially around stunning mountains like the Himalayas. Was there a reason why everyone thought they were nuts? Well, that’s where the Burmese Golden Triangle is. Not sure if you guys are aware of what this region is famous for, but long story short, the Golden Triangle is where you can find worldwide’s second biggest opium cultivations, after Afghanistan – so as you can imagine, the vibes weren’t chilled up there.

It took them two long days to get the little town of Kyaukme, and once they got there, the struggle didn’t come to an end. Very few people knew how to interact in english. Hostels? Barely any. But what actually concerned them the most was how hard it was to find the motorbikes they needed for the road trip around the mountains. Well, they actually didn’t manage to find anyone who wanted to rent them motorbikes, they were all basically saying the same –  “You will get into trouble if you head up the mountains, I will never get my motorbikes back!”. 

After several hours getting rejected from several motorbike owners around the town, they had some dinner in a restaurant that surprisingly had wifi. That was when everything changed. An Italian friend texted Carlo regarding a photo he posted in Myanmar a couple of days before, and she told him that she actually went to Kyaukme, where she met a local who took her up to the Mountains with the motorbikes he owned. That was game changing – she passed Carlo his contact details, he called him from the restaurant, and 10 hours later we were at his place trying out his motorbikes – the excitement was real.

His name was Joy Kyaw Hlaing, and he was a local young guy from Kyaukme. He was fluent at english and he knew the area better than anyone else. He informed and warned them about the conflict happening in the mountains between Myanmar Armed Forces and various ethnic armed groups in the area, including the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Arakan Army (AA), and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA). Nevertheless, he said it wasn’t dangerous for them to go up there, since they weren’t targeting foreigners. Surprisingly enough though, he said it would actually be a lot more dangerous for him as a local, and being with foreigners was his protection.

They kicked off the roadtrip and everything went smoothly. The landscape was amazing and roads were super fun for the off road motorbikes they got from him. They passed a few a military road blocks but there wasn’t a single problem – although they were holding guns, they were actually super friendly with them! They got to explore some of the most genuine towns they had ever seen in their life. Nothing had been modified for tourists, everything was so real… especially the people. They didn’t know a single word of English but you could still tell how friendly and happy they were just from seeing foreigners in their land.

The following nights they stayed in little villages lost in the mountains, and this was probably the best part of not only the roadtrip, but of their entire stay in Myanmar. They were able to see first hand how their everyday lifestyle looks like – where they sleep, what they eat… everything, and the more time they were spending with the locals, the more they were falling in love with everything around that town. They were finally seeing what the real Myanmar was, and they could’ve not been happier about it.

On our last day in the mountains they had a little problem with one of the motorbikes, so at that time they had to divide the group – Joy went back to town with their two swedish friends and the broken motorbike, and Carlos and Carlo stayed around the mountains for the rest of the day – they had no clue of how to get back to the town. Joy only gave them a handwritten map of where to go, but it wasn’t anything close to what you expect from an accurate map. They didn’t care though, they knew that somehow they will manage to find the way back to the town, and after riding the motorbikes through every possible road they found, they managed to get back to Kyaukme (Later on they found out that some specific roads had mines underneath, but I guess they were lucky enough for not riding over them!).

After the experience up in the mountains, Carlos and Carlo realised 2 important things they always apply to their trips:

Point 1) Never trust the media: They will always try to dramatize everything, so they can sell more magazines or get more online impressions, so please once again: NEVER TRUST THE MEDIA. Instead, get in touch with actual local people from the area and ask them directly – it will be a way more reliable source of information, especially if that person is someone you’re related to, like a friend of a friend.

Point 2) Take advantage of Point 1: Most of the people out there still trust all the crap the media says about ‘dangerous’ places, and that’s actually great for all the people who don’t. The main reason why we loved Kyaukme so much was the fact that the place was still so remote and untouched by tourists, that you could still see the real side of the culture – and if a place is touristy, you would never ever be able to.

For all of you who have always wanted to go somewhere around the world but have always been afraid of taking the step: DO IT. If we would’ve followed the advice of the media, we would have never gone to amazing places like Kyaukme. When you travel, you want to be part of the pioneers group – because those are the only ones who get to discover the real essence of foreign countries.

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