This part of Shan state is designated a black zone — areas that remain rebel strongholds, where battles with government troops raged in the jungles for decades. Shaky ceasefires signed over the past year and a half have paved the way for the roadwork.
The route starts outside the state capital of Taunggyi and heads east through government-controlled towns before climbing into the hills that give cover to rebels.
Here too live the hill tribes — the Pa-O, Lisu, Lahu, Shan and others — many of whom survive by growing opium poppies, the region’s main cash crop. The road ends in the mountain town of Mong Hsat, near the Thailand border town of Tachilek, and is being touted as a new trade route.
The construction itself is a reflection of the old Myanmar, repressed and impoverished under military rule that ended in 2011. East of Dar Seid, children are paid US$3 a day to carry baskets of rocks amid choking dust.
“Sometimes my eyes sting,” said Thein Thein Maw, a 14-year-old orphan girl who sleeps in a tent near the worksite. “But I’m used to it.”
Several stretches of sleek pavement have been finished ahead of next month’s rainy season, but the Burmese Ministry of Construction says completion of the work depends on the availability of funds. The project is part of a national plan to improve Myanmar’s dilapidated infrastructure. Only 22 percent of its 142,400km in roads is paved.
“We use machines to break rocks from the mountains, but the rest is done by hand,” Htay Thaung, a 65-year-old supervisor, explained as his crew fit together brick-sized rocks with smaller stones and gravel to lay a 30cm foundation.
Many portions of the road have foundations of granite, but his was a 1.6km path of gleaming white marble extracted from the nearby hills.
“This is going to be a very good road, a luxury road made from marble,” he said.
That is welcome news for farmers like Nay Lin, who was sweating nearby as he fixed a flat tire on his tractor with a bicycle pump.
“The road is terrible, I get flat tires all the time,” said the 32-year-old man, who sells his hogs at the market in Mong Pan, a 50km drive that takes him nine hours.
“I’ve never seen so much road construction,” he said, surveying the work crew and wiping his brow. “With a paved road, I can commute faster. It will help my business. I can spend more time working, and less time driving.”
After a bone-rattling ride around hairpin turns, bamboo groves and majestic banyan trees, the road dips into a valley and enters Mong Pan, which is gated like a medieval fortress. The ceasefires have resulted in less violence, but nobody is letting down their guard.
The town’s four entry points are padlocked every night at 6pm. A welcome sign lists all that is banned: bombs, narcotics, weapons, illegally logged timber, runaway prisoners.
Mostly, Mong Pan fears its neighbors from the highlands.
“We need a gate for security reasons. In the past it was not peaceful here,” checkpoint supervisor Sai Htin Lynn said, huddled near an open fire on a chilly morning after unlocking the town gate.
Outside Mong Pan, a dozen soldiers patrolled the road with machine guns, ammunition belts and mortar launchers. A round of explosions echoed in the distance, but villagers identified it as rock being blasted from the mountains to make the new road.