A Local Bus Experience
One of the best ways to experience a country is to travel the local way- making the journey, rather than just the destinations, a memorable part of a holiday.
Although infrastructure in Myanmar is still developing, you still have a variety of different modes of transport from which to chose. I was traveling south for one weekend to explore Hpa An and Mawlawmyaing and the only way to get there is by private car or public bus. Traveling on a budget I opted for the bus which, much to my surprise, was air conditioned and quite comfortable. So far, so good.
After an exciting weekend in these beautiful places- highly recommended!- it was time for me to return to Yangon. In the morning I ventured to Mawlamyaing’s bus station to ask for a ticket on the day’s last bus. I bought a ticket for 5000 Kyat and was told to be back at 4pm for the 4:30 departure. Again, so far, so good! When I arrived at the station in the afternoon, people were already waiting in the small waiting hall: families, old ladies with huge amounts of groceries, people with rice sacks and so on. It was a potpourri of local people and it was interesting to watch the arriving passengers. Clearly, as the only foreigner, I was also interesting to watch as several locals cast curious glances my way with a few intrepid youngsters coming to shake my hand. Departure time approached and 2 buses were left in the lot: one was old, small and not really safe looking whilst the other was bigger and more modern. Which one was I going to be traveling on? Despite my streak of good luck, you can probably guess what the answer was: the former.
We boarded the bus well past departure time and there was a bit of a push to get on first but I was not concerned as I had a pre-purchased ticket. I found my seat and waited. Indeed, there was no space and my long, long legs were squeezed between the two rows of seats. It’s ok, I thought, only 7 hours! The bus was filling up quickly, everyone seemed to carry big and bigger luggage and after a while all seats were taken. Hmm, but there was still a queue outside- I was intrigued by what would happen next. Despite having no more seats there were more people, but no problem in Myanmar! The bus attendants came with really tiny plastic chairs, like the ones small children sit on, and one by one people sat down in a tight row that filled the aisle. Problem solved, I thought to myself. But there were still more people to come! No problem, of course! The front thus filled with people standing but it was still not enough space and there were a handful more people yet to board. I’m thinking to myself ‘Surely they will have to take the next bus’ but the attendants directed the remaining 3 guests to the roof where they confidently sat down! It was a highly entertaining spectacle to watch and there is no doubt that the Burmese people have perfected the art of filling a bus to the maximum capacity! After 1 hour delay (not uncommon in Myanmar) the bus was finally ready to depart. Some annoying and loud music video was put on and the journey began. But the ‘seating circus’ was not over- the bus stopped in every small village to let some people out and of course to take some more people on. Despite slowing down my travel plans and despite having no space for my legs, I had a good time watching all this action.
A few hours in to the journey we stopped for a tea break, as is customary in Myanmar. I was standing around, stretching my legs when a local girl approached me. We introduced to each other and her first question was: Why are you taking THIS bus?? Well, I didn’t really know there were too many options, so I just chose the one they sold me a ticket for. The girl started explaining to me that this was a really local bus and that I could have had another air conditioned express bus which was far more comfortable. I shrugged and told her that I was happy to make this journey and gain a truly local experience. We kept talking and, surprisingly, at the end of the break she even bought me some mangoes and gave them to me as a present. I kept talking to her during the remaining bus ride and this spontaneous new ‘friendship’ was really was a highlight of my trip. Indeed it was not the most comfortable journey I had experienced, but truly impressive how everything seems possible in this country and how amazingly friendly people can be. Without a doubt, I will always opt for the local bus again!