Infrastructure in Myanmar needs a serious upgrade. For decades the government had not really bothered investing in much, neither education, health care nor maintained basic road infrastructure very well. There are some ferries on the Irrawaddy, but they are slow and the only viable route is Mandalay-Bagan or vice versa. As trains are actually from the colonial period, the roads however are still pretty much your only option to get around the huge country.
On shorter routes you have minibuses or crammed tuk-tuks (or rather pricey private cars/ taxis as well). The local people often hitch rides on any sort of vehicle and then sit among the cargo, on top of coconuts or crates of other produce. The main cities and tourist attractions however are linked by quite comfortable buses with assigned seats. Some new and shiny and some old and rusty. If you book the VIP bus option you get spacious reclining seats with leg rests, that may or may not work. We took several buses and their average speed is about 40 km/h – at best. So sit back relax and try to keep your food inside your stomach.
This is what happened on our bus ride from Nay Pyi Daw to the hills in Kalaw. The distance is 211 km, departure time 18:00, arrival time 0:47.
Before the bus leaves a colourful parade of vendors, monks and announcers enter the bus to sell stuff to the waiting travellers. We could have bought books, fruit, tiny eggs, little yoghurts, something that looked like lottery tickets or monk’s blessings. We didn’t though. 🙂
18:00 Planned departure. We actually left at 17:54 which was a promising start. Very loud Burmese karaoke music with kitschy videos starts blaring out of the loudspeakers. In one of the videos people shoot a home-made rocket. Interesting.
18:12 We pick up a few more passengers a couple of streets over.
18:21 We pick up a few more passengers a couple of streets over.
18:33 We stop again. More passengers? No, everyone gets of the bus. Weird. The driver shouts “toilet” in our direction. That is a little fast, but OK. When we get off we see, that next to our bus a space of around 30 m2 is full of crates, boxes, bags in all shapes and sizes. Interesting. Then, all the luggage including our backpacks gets unloaded?! Wait we are not there yet, NO!!
Slowly it dawns on us why we stopped. The field of stuff next to our bus is coming along on the bus ride to Kalaw and Taunggyi. Slowly, some of the very heavy boxes are heaved in through a back window, till the back is full. Then all the stuff gets neatly covered in cute blue dinosaur blankets.
The boys loading the crates in their longyis do not have the most efficient system. Bundles of flowers or vegetables get loaded and reshuffled 3 times. Big bamboo baskets covered with leaves (they seem to contain corn cobs) get repositioned and unloaded twice. It looks like it is their first time loading luggage onto a bus.
19:27 We have been here for an hour and watched the loading and unloading process unfold. It stopped being amusing about half an hour ago, but it is great that they are using all the space to transport goods. Went to the toilet twice. Looking at the map makes me sad, we haven’t even left Naypyidaw yet!! To pass the time, I decide to make this bus journey into a blog entry 🙂
19:29 Oh, we are leaving. Yeah! The music is back on. It is rather cold on the bus, the AC is doing overtime, hence the blankets. We stop twice. A woman gets on. The bus steward picks up more boxes. (I can’t believe he found more space to store them!)
20:31 We are stopping. Again? Everyone gets off. I go to the toilet, again. Apparently this is our dinner stop. Indeed, 30 min break to eat. There are two small fires next to restaurant where people can warm themselves. Nice. Still, depressingly the bus has not gotten very far.
After getting back on the bus I actually fall asleep (I took a precautionary travel sickness pill, which kind of knocks me out for 2-3 hours), which is a good thing because the ride gets increasingly bumpy as we ascend into the hills up winding streets. Other travelers tell us that on their bus rides people have been throwing up left an right. I guess we were lucky. I consider it a personal triumph not having gotten sick, although I guess I cheated. Oh well…
Way after midnight the bus driver comes round and tells us to get off. He throws our backpacks onto the muddy street and we are slightly disoriented, but we seem to have stopped near our hotel. The bus leaves and stops again 300 m down the road. It is really nice (but inefficient) that they do personalised stops for the passengers. All in all the bus ride was an education in Myanmar infrastructure and cargo delivery. It definitely made me appreciate Flixbus a little more.