Myanmar Transportation Guide: JJ Express Bus Review
Until 5 years ago traveling in Myanmar by long distance bus was not a comfortable affair. But with the introduction of JJ Express, the first ‘VIP’ line of buses, and the completion of Highway 1, overland travel got a major boost. These days VIP buses run some key tourist routes including: Yangon-Mandalay, Yangon-Bagan and Mandalay-Inle Lake, offering a comfortable and affordable alternative to flying.
I remember traveling in 2006 to Inle Lake from Mandalay and being piled in to a non-air conditioned bus with my traveling partner. Our backpacks were thrown on to the roof of the bus and we were shown our seats- technically a cushioned bench with space for two. As the bus filled up lost more and more room with bags of rice placed under our feet and a few folks crammed in to the aisle next to us. An hour late, we finally set off accompanied by a soundtrack of poorly-sung cover songs. We considered ourselves intrepid travellers but after 12 hours on bumpy roads inside a steaming hot bus with very little room we were exhausted and grumpy.
Fast forward to 2015 when I booked a VIP bus for the same journey. First we were picked up at our hotel by local open-air truck and my thoughts were ’nothing has changed’. A 15 minute drive took us to the town of Shwe Nyaung where we waited roadside for our bus to arrive from Taunggyi. We waited around 20 minutes, with a bus stopping every few minutes to pick up guests, before our bus finally arrived. Approaching the door I was greeted by a gust of cold breeze drifting out of the air-conditioned bus. An attendant checked my ticket and escorted me to my seat with a pillow, blanket and the ability to recline to a comfortable sleeping position. But even more impressive was the touch-screen seat-back TV with dozens of movies in English as well as Burmese. The seating configuration had 2 seats on one side of the aisle and only a single seat to the other side- perfect for solo travellers like me who enjoy having their own space.
And as we set off from the roadside bus stop – right on time- the attendant delivered a snack box of sweet and savoury pastries plus a choice of tea or coffee. We stopped in the trading town of Aung Ban and the backpacker town of Kalaw to collect a few more guests and then cruised through the Shan Hills. Whilst the roads are still winding and steep, they are in much better condition than before and only the occasional bump woke me from my sleepy state. Around 2 AM we stopped at a brightly it restaurant for a toilet break and snacks. Seemingly in the middle of nowhere, it turns out we were just around the corner from Myanmar’s new highway.
Started in 2006 to connect Yangon to Nay Pyi Daw, the new capital, the highway was only completed in 2013. It is far and away the best road in Myanmar with 4-6 lanes for traffic, perfectly smooth surfaces and virtually flat the entire way from Yangon to Mandalay. All VIP buses’ engines are calibrated to stay under 100km per hour so once again I was back to sleep in my comfortable seat.
Around 5 AM the lights in the bus came on and the attendant announced that we were approaching Mandalay. I exited the bus feeling awake and ready to explore the city!
The VIP buses are a great and affordable way to travel in Myanmar. Now there are more than a dozen bus lines offering this service. Please let your travel consultant know if you wish to add a bus journey to your individual Myanmar holiday!
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