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Burma Road

This article is an itinerary.

The Burma Road runs from Yunnan into Burma; it was built during World War II (see Pacific War for background) 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.


  • Understand 1
    • The Burma Road proper 1.1
    • The Ledo Road 1.2
  • Prepare 2
  • Get in 3
  • Go 4
  • Stay safe 5
  • Go next 6


The campaign in China, and therefore the Burma Road, was an important part of the war effort, probably more than most Westerners appreciate. From the viewpoint of Japanese expansionists, taking Korea in 1910 and Manchuria in 1931 was a great success. However, the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 turned into a major disaster for both sides.

The Chinese were fighting an invader with far better armament and training, making do with whatever weapons their allies could send (many of them WWI surplus), enduring some spectacularly vicious oppression, and taking enormous numbers of casualties — over ten million military and civilian deaths, far more than any other nation except Russia. Moreover, they were disunited; the Communists and the Nationalists (Kuomintang) were sometimes more interested in their own disputes than in battling Japan.

Despite all that, the Chinese Army (run by the Nationalists with American advisers) managed to give the Japanese a remarkably hard time. Japanese planners thought they could take all of China in three months, leave a small force to hold it, and move most of their armies elsewhere. Actually, it took them three months just to take Shanghai and in eight years of fighting, 1937-1945, they never managed to take more than about half of China. The Chinese Army fought on through the entire war, often retreating but always at a cost to the enemy. Chinese guerrillas and saboteurs — Nationalist, Communist and independent — harassed the Japanese everywhere. Roughly half of the total Japanese ground forces were tied down in China throughout the war, including troops they had planned to use elsewhere. Arguably, every Allied land victory in the Pacific War was partly due to Chinese tenacity and the supplies delivered via the Burma Road.

American trucks on the road

Most of the engineering work on the road during the War was done by the US Army, and most of the trucks were driven by black American soldiers; at the time the US Army did not allow them in combat roles. There was a good deal of fighting in Burma with the Allies battling Japanese forces that held much of Burma and at one point even threatened India. That was a much more international affair: Allied forces included British, Indian, other Commonwealth, American and Chinese troops. Keeping the road open was an important Allied objective. Chittagong in what is now Bangladesh was one of the most important Allied bases, since it had a good harbour and could be reached by rail without leaving British-controlled territory.

The alternative to the road was "flying the hump", which was taking supply planes from air bases in Assam to ones in and around Kunming over a number of mountain ranges east and south of the main Himalayan chain. This was done by American pilots at great risk. Another Allied objective in Burma was to knock out bases used by Japanese fighters harassing the hump flyers. Today "The Hump" is a popular tourist bar in Kunming and there are commercial flights from Kolkata to Kunming.

The Burma Road proper

Building the road

The actual Burma Road was largely built by the Chinese themselves, in 1937 and 1938 — about 200,000 workers with no heavy equipment hacking a road through Western Yunnan and Eastern Burma, from the regional centre Kunming on the Chinese side to the railhead Lashio in Burma (now called Myanmar). The road is about 1150 km (over 700 miles) long and the area is extremely mountainous and heavily forested, so this was an amazing accomplishment. Starting in 1942, US Army Engineers did considerable work upgrading parts of this road.

The Burmese part of the Burma Road is short, from the border town Ruili to Lashio, and can be traversed today only one way (Ruili to Lashio) and only under escort.

Travellers on today's Yunnan tourist trail cover some of this route, albeit on far newer and better roads. Traces of the old road, including some milestones, are still visible.

The Ledo Road

Another road was partly built by the British and Indians, starting in the 1920s, from the railhead Ledo in Assam (Eastern India) over the mountains into Burma. This Ledo Road was upgraded and extended by US Army Engineers during the war, and is also called the Stilwell Road after American General "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell. Total distance on this route from Ledo to Kunming was just over 1,700 km, almost 1,100 miles.

Travelling this road today is nearly impossible. On the Burmese side, the four hundred kilometres between the border with India (near Pangsau Pass) and Myitkyina is off-limits to foreigners. The road itself had mostly returned to the jungle but has been rebuilt, allegedly with forced Naga and Kachin labour, in recent years. The Myanmar junta is in the process of converting this section into an all-weather section for trade with India.

The Indian section of the road, from Ledo to Nampong is also a restricted area.


For holders of most passports heading to this area, a visa will be required for each country you plan to visit — for this route, China, Myanmar (Burma) and perhaps India; see the country articles for details. Visas can be obtained in your home country before you depart or, in most cases, in regional centers near the destinations such as Singapore or Bangkok.

Parts of this route — Assam near the border and Northern Myanmar — are in areas where travel is restricted. You will need permits to visit these; see the linked articles for details. There may be additional complications such as dealing with the rebels who control the area around Laiza as well as with the official government. For most travellers, visiting these areas may be too complicated and risky to consider.

Get in

One end of the road at Kunming is readily accessible, with some international flights plus air, road or rail connections from anywhere in China. The border town Ruili, on the old Burma Road, is southwest of Kunming and accessible by road or air from there. From Kunming you could also travel northwest, partly on routes close to the old road; see Yunnan tourist trail.

Lashio at the Burmese end of the Burma Road proper and Ledo at the Indian end of the Stilwell Road are harder to reach and there are restrictions on travel beyond them.


In the event that sections of the road open up to travellers, the following are some of the highlights along the Ledo Road and the Burma Road.

  • Nampong is a border town in the Indian state of Assam.
  • Pangsau Pass, just inside the Indo-Burma border, 1,125 m elevation.
  • Pangsau is the first town on the Burmese side.
  • Lake of No Return (Nawng Yang) (Kacin Province, near Pangsau).
  • Myitkyina, in Kachin State, is open to travellers and is connected by road, rail, air, and ferry from Mandalay.
  • Bhamo, also in the Kachin State, is open to travellers.
  • Namkham, a village in the Northern Shan State in Burma. Travel to Namkham is currently restricted and a permit (almost impossible to get) is required from Yangon.
  • Ruili, a Chinese town at the border with a large bazaar mainly selling Burmese goods. It is reasonably easily reached and quite popular with Chinese travellers, especially for buying jade.
  • Kunming, a provincial capital and major tourist centre on the Chinese side.

Stay safe

As anywhere in Asia, routine precautions against pickpockets and tourist scams are advisable, though the risks here are likely lower than in more heavily-touristed areas. Altitude sickness may also be a hazard on parts of the route.

Much of this area is relatively isolated mountain country that sees very few tourists; be sure your health, skills and equipment are adequate before setting out. Consider hiring a guide who speaks the local language.

Go next

Burma Road

Burma Road and Ledo Road in 1944
The "24 Turns" (25.821725°N, 105.202600°E), often mistaken for a segment of the Burma Road, is actually in Qinglong, Guizhou. During the Second Sino-Japanese War, the war supplies first arrived at Kunming by the Burma Road, then went through the "24 Turns" to arrive at Chongqing, the provisional capital, and reach the front-line troops.
Burmese and Chinese laborers using hand tools to reopen the Burma Road

The Burma Road (Chinese: 滇缅公路) was a road linking Burma with the southwest of China. Its terminals were Kunming, Yunnan, and Lashio, Burma. It was built while Burma was a British colony in order to convey supplies to China during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Preventing the flow of supplies on the road helped motivate the occupation of Burma by the Empire of Japan in 1942. Use of the road was restored to the Allies in 1945 after the completion of the Ledo Road. Some parts of the old road are still visible today.[1]


  • History 1
  • Films set on the Burma Road 2
  • Further reading 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6


The road is 717 miles (1,154 km) long and runs through rough mountain country.[2] The sections from Kunming to the Burmese border were built by 200,000 Burmese and Chinese laborers during the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 and completed by 1938.[3][4] It had a role in World War II, when the British used the Burma Road to transport materiel to China before Japan was at war with the British. Supplies would be landed at Rangoon (now Yangon) and moved by rail to Lashio, where the road started in Burma.

In 1940 the British government yielded, for a period of three months, to Japanese diplomatic pressure to close down the Burma Road to supplies to China. After the Japanese overran Burma in 1942, the Allies were forced to supply Chiang Kai-shek and the nationalist Chinese by air. They flew these supplies from airfields in Assam, India, over "the hump", the eastern end of the Himalaya uplift. At the insistence of the United States, and much to the chagrin of Winston Churchill, the wartime leader of Britain, British forces were given, as their primary goal in the war against Japan, the task of recapturing Burma and reopening land communication with China. Under British command Indian, British, Chinese, and American forces, the latter led by Vinegar Joe Stilwell, defeated a Japanese attempt to capture Assam and recaptured northern Burma. In this area they built a new road, the Ledo Road which ran from Ledo Assam, through Myitkyina and connected to the old Burma Road at Wandingzhen, Yunnan, China. The first trucks reached the Chinese frontier by this route on January 28, 1945. (Winston Churchill, The Second World War, v. VI, chap. 11.)

Films set on the Burma Road

Further reading

  • C. T. Chang: Burma Road, Malaysia Publications, Singapore 1964.
  • Forbes, Andrew ; Henley, David (2011). China's Ancient Tea Horse Road. Chiang Mai: Cognoscenti Books. ASIN: B005DQV7Q2
  • Jon Latimer: Burma:The Forgotten War. John Murray, London 2004, ISBN 0-7195-6576-6.
  • Donovan Webster: The Burma Road: The Epic Story of the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II. Farrar Straus & Giroux, New York City, NY 2003, ISBN 0-374-11740-3.

See also


  1. ^ Voy:Burma Road
  2. ^ Burma Road - Britannica Online Encyclopedia
  3. ^ Seagrave, Gordon S., Burma Surgeon, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1943
  4. ^ Chih-Ping Chen

External links

  • Merrill's Marauders: Protecting The Burma Road
  • Burma Road photos
  • WW2 - Campaigns in Burma World War II Burma Road video
  • WWII - Why We Fight - The Battle of China 1943 video 1
  • WWII - Why We Fight - The Battle of China 1943 video 2
  • Life-line to China Re-Opened, 1945/02/12 (1945) Universal Newsreel
  • The Ghost Road Mark Jenkins, Outside (magazine), October 2003
  • Blood, Sweat and Toil along the Burma Road Donovan Webster, National Geographic Magazine, November 2003
  • China to Europe via a new Burma road David Fullbrook, Asia Times, September 23, 2004
  • On the way to MandalayThe Sydney Morning Herald, August 16, 2008
  • Los Angeles Times, "Burma's Stilwell Road: A backbreaking WWII project is revived", December 30, 2008.
  • Transcribed copies of Joseph Warren Stilwell's World War II diaries are available on the Hoover Institution Archives website, with the original diaries among the Joseph Warren Stilwell papers at the Hoover Institution Archives.
  • Transcribed copies of the World War II diaries of Ernest F. Easterbrook, Stilwell's executive assistant in Burma (as of 1944) and son-in-law, are available on the Hoover Institution Archives website, with the original diaries among the Ernest Fred Easterbrook papers at the Hoover Institution Archives.
  • For tours along the Burma Road.

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