Riding the Bus in Myanmar

In this space I have frequently documented my transportation escapades and what better way to cap off my recently concluded trip to Myanmar than with a blow by blow account of the inter-city bus trips that I took while I was there.

Yangon to Inle Lake

The bus station in Yangon is located about 40km outside downtown, even further from the city center than the airport. So the journey really began with a long taxi ride through the traffic choked streets of Yangon to the bus terminal.

Although to be honest calling it a bus terminal would be charitable. This place is like Thunderdome, a sprawling, snarling collection of buses and people with absolutely no rhyme or reason to it. On this trip, I have passed through many bus stations and without a doubt this was the worst. Good luck finding your bus without some help.

Of course finding the bus turned out to be the easy part. The traffic to leave the bus station was far worse than the traffic getting there. No joke it took us nearly two hours just to leave the bus station.

Once we were on our way, the discomfort of the bus itself gradually kept building up. For what seemed like the duration of the trip, Burmese pop music was blaring throughout the bus. Loudly. The seats, clearly not designed for westerners, meant that Raha and I were sitting cheek by jowl.

But what pit it over the top was the air conditioning. Or to be more precise, the sub arctic temperature the air conditioning brought with it. Without question this had to be the coldest bus ride I had taken throughout my trip and it wasn’t even close as you could literally see your breath.

Every time I woke up (thankfully I took a sleeping pill), I threw on any additional clothing I could pull out of my bag until by the end I was bundled in three layers. People on the bus were wearing hats, gloves, scarves, winter coats. You would have thought we were about to go skiing.

Unfortunately, once the bus ride mercifully ended, after nearly twelve hours, we stopped off the bus to find ourselves in the middle of nowhere. And even outside it was freezing cold (at this time of year in the northern parts of Myanmar it gets quite chilly overnight, which I wish I knew before I came).

With all of us shivering in the dark, it didn’t give us much leverage in negotiating our taxi fare to our hotel, which was 11km away. But at least we survived the trip and had a great time in Inle Lake.

Oh yeah, one more thing. Early on, we stopped at a rest stop that reminded me of a tacky Burmese version of Vegas with lots of bright lights, a giant Santa Claus, a myriad of goods for sale and a huge dining area with swarms of people eating at a rapid pace. Evidently, all the buses that head north from Yangon stop here, which explains all the people, but it kind of left me disappointed when the rest stops on my subsequent bus rides didn’t measure up.

Inle Lake to Bagan

Another cold night bus although this time I came prepared with my long pants, arm warmers and gloves on before I walked on to the bus.

While this bus felt like a walk in the park compared to the bus from Yangon, it wasn’t without its share of drama.

Early in the trip, I was chatting with an Israeli father and sơn seated across the aisle from me when all of a sudden I heard a loud noise and saw small pieces of plastic or glass fly in my direction. Everyone tried to figure out what had just happened when we saw the culprit laying in the aisle.

A rock had flown through the window, nearly smacking the Israeli son right in the face. Only at his insistence did the bus stop so he could remove the shards of plexiglass off his clothing and seat.

Quickly, the bus staffers moved the pair to an empty seat, duc taped the window and proceeded with the bus ride.

Again I had taken a sleeping pill so I was able to put the scary thoughts of getting hit by another rock out of my mind and slept like a baby.

The biggest downside of this bus ride was that we arrived at 3:30am and I had nowhere to stay for the night. Luckily, I teamed up with a Kiwi girl that I had met in the bus to find a place, even if it did require us to stop in at five hotels before we settled down.

Bagan to Mandalay

The first two bus trips I booked through a travel agency and my hotel respectively. But with the bus station in Bagan so close to my hotel, I figured I would cut out the middle man on my trip to Mandalay and just buy directly from the bus company.

First, I armed myself with some information by asking around at various guesthouses and travel agents. They all quoted me a price of 7,500 kyat (or slightly less than $9).

So when I biked over to the bus station, what was the bus company’s price? 7,500 kyat of course. It made no sense to me. Are the travel agents and hotels selling these tickets without a commission? Does the bus company give them a discount on the tickets they sell? It never became clear to me, especially when you factor in that buying the ticket from your hotel (as I ended up doing) means the bus picks you up right at the hotel, instead of having to transport yourself to the station.

Anyway, back to the trip itself. This was the shortest of my bus rides at only six hours, and the only daytime bus that I took. So at least the air conditioning was set to a more reasonable temperature.

But my discomfort came in other forms. I had the pleasure of sitting next to a gentleman who sang along to the music playing on the bus (they have a tv in the front of all the buses where the music lyrics roll along karaoke style).

Then when the music stopped, I was treated to a chorus of laughter by my bus mates as we sat through some riveting Burmese television shows.

And similar to Yangon, the bus station in Mandalay is pretty crazy so I was treated to a half hour from the point we entered the bus station until the bus actually was able to drop us off.

Mandalay to Yangon

Probably my most painless ride of the trip. The bus was half empty, meaning I had two seats to myself. And the bus left later than my other night buses so falling asleep was easier (they even let me sleep through the rest stop on this one. Usually they make you get off the bus for the half hour stops).

The real story from this trip was that my original seatmate Shelly, a Chinese woman from Guilin, had missed her flight that day from Mandalay and was heading back to Yangon to try to sort out her situation.

What happened was she had mistakenly thought she was flying out the following day. So when she arrived in Mandalay from Yangon the morning of our bus ride she discovered her mistake too late to catch her flight (yes she was doing consecutive night buses, the first night from Yangon to Mandalay and the second from Mandalay to Yangon. Crazy I know.).

With no US dollars left and very little kyat, she didn’t have enough money to rent a hotel room in Mandalay and had to pawn her camera just to get enough money for the bus ticket back to Yangon. I offered to help her out if she needed money but she said she just wanted to head to the airport to figure things out.

So when our bus arrived at 4am, we shared a taxi to the airport (my flight want until 8:30 that morning but I certainly wasn’t going to take the long trip back to Yangon for an hour or two).

Thankfully, she was able to speak with a representative from Air Asia and buy a ticket using a credit card but it cost her $300 and it still took her 20 hours to get home.

That definitely made me realize that despite all of these bus adventures I didn’t have it all that bad.

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4 Responses to Riding the Bus in Myanmar

  1. danberstein says:

    What did these buses look like?

  2. stuschis says:

    Our Cambodian bus trip may seem like nothing now! I still rank that among one of the more challenging travel experiences in my life though.

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