My 5 Worst Bus Rides in Burma (Myanmar)

Categories Adventures in Transportation, Myanmar (Burma), Where Have I Been?

I’ve waxed poetic about the friendliness of the Burmese people, the delicious soups on offer and the sheer vastness of the central plains and their zedi-covered glory. But it is also important to mention a more uncomfortable side to trolling around this complex country: the actual ‘getting around’ part.

Before I left for Burma, friends warned me that I needed to build in extra time for transportation. Not for the actual transporting part, but for the recovery required thereafter. And while I did find that listening to The Cat Empire’s full discography made the bus rides I was on less obviously painful, there is no denying the bumpy, freezing, music-drowned nights were a lot less than pleasant than some others in Asia. Of course, adventures in transportation are an integral part of any traveler’s story repertoire, and well more interesting than a posh, seamless ride from A to B. Especially when your usual bus station looks like this:

… replete with monks, goats, cows and the requisite ‘lady selling oranges from the basket atop her head.’ The older Burmese women on the bus would buy bags of the oranges and I quickly learned that smelling the peel during the worst of the hairpin curves helped to quell my nausea. An important lesson to learn when taking tiny buses through winding roads in the middle of the Shan foothills.

The 5 Worst Bus Rides in Burma.

1. Yangon to Mandalay. The bus itself was lovely: newly built, with mostly reclining seats and a free bottle of water to boot, and it took the new road from Yangon up to Mandalay. However, the temperature inside the bus hovered around -10C. Despite the fact that everyone on the bus was wrapped in every item of clothing they had, the air-conditioning was not to be touched. “You paid for air-con, you get air-con” said the driver. Lesson learned. Like clockwork, the bus stopped every two hours for food and drink and everyone was forced off the bus each time. When I asked to stay put and sleep, the driver and attendant exchanged a look that clearly said ‘craaaazy white girl!’ and promptly escorted me off the bus. There was one other tourist on the bus, and everyone automatically assumed we were dating because no way would I be alone. So after our 2am food/drink stop, the bus attendant took it upon himself to reunite us by moving the Burmese lady to my left, only to be utterly confused when I stuck out my hand to introduce myself to my new friend.

Though uncomfortable, the ride wasn’t awful and in the end the sunrise as I approached Mandalay made the freezing, sleepless night well worthwhile:

2. Yangon-Kinpun. With consecutive hours of high decibel South-Korean rock videos, a family of women who screamed at each other the entire time, and for good measure a small boy who took pleasure in burping at my face every 10 minutes, I did not have a pleasant bus ride. To make matters worse, this was part 2 of my epic journey from Inle Lake to Kinpun (so that I could visit the Golden Rock) and I was already coming off a sleepless night of public transportation and not feeling too patient. I spent most of the ride taking deep breaths and thinking of tarsiers.

3. Inle Lake-Yangon. This long bus ride was Part 1 of the trip from Inle Lake to Kinpun. As usual, the bus was freezing cold and boasted a calculated set of entertainment options: a continuous loop of loud South Korean rock, interspersed with Bruce Lee movies. At 7pm this was just fine. At 4am I wanted to tear my hair out. Earplugs were just no match for Mr. Lee when he went on a rampage.


Inside the night bus from Inle Lake to Yangon.

4. Bagan-Inle Lake. Use of the word ‘bus’ is actually pushing it when discussing my transportation from Bagan to Inle Lake. At 3am, what could best be described as a minibus screeched up to my hotel and the driver made everyone climb out so that all the luggage could be piled on the roof and secured with cords. By 4am we were able to pile back in the minibus, which was so full that mini stools were set up in the aisles. The ride was 12 long hours, the air was choked with dust and almost every Burmese person on the minibus vomited extensively, including the angry older woman sitting about 6 inches from my face, staring at me balefully. Every minute of the excruciatingly long trip went by slower than the next, and by the time the bus spat me out on the side of the road in Nyaungshwe, I was caked in dust, sweat and the remnants of other people’s vomit. Delish.


The minibus at 3am


View from inside the minibus. Those stuck in the aisles still had to pay full price. Happily I wasn’t one of them.

5. Kyaitkyo Pickup Truck, from Kinpun to midway up the Golden Rock. This was one of the shorter rides in the country, but what it lacked in distance it made up for in discomfort, fear and sound effects. For 45 long minutes, I was wedged into the back of a bench-lined pickup truck with far too many other people. The rows were so close together that my knee was essentially up the ass of the person in front of me – and I’m only 5ft tall. In a truck that would normally fit 15, we stuffed 48 people on the way up, and then 50 on the way down, including a gaggle of 30 nuns resplendent in pink and orange robes. I was whipped in the face by the long braid of the woman in front of me (perhaps payback for the knee up her backside?), the nuns were screaming in unison most of the way down the extremely steep slopes and we were thrown to the side of the truck with every turn, despite the fact that logically it should have been too full for us to be thrown anywhere but outside. For its stomach-lurching, scream-inducing, barrelling-down-a-mountain insanity, this short ride earns my top spot for the worst bus ride in Burma.


How many people can you stuff into a truck headed straight up a mountain? Many.


The truck on the way down. Mostly nuns, mostly screaming the entire time.


A view of the pickup truck’s shadow from the lower bus station

Arriving at my destination often eliminates much of the sting (though not stink) from my efforts to get there. Hiking to the top of  the Golden Rock from the upper pickup truck station was no exception: perched on the edge of the mountain, the rock glinted in the sun and the area was brimming with nuns and monks deep in prayer.

More to come from Burma, including a photoessay on Yangon and the long and karaoke-filled boat ride down the Ayeyarwaddy from Myitkyina to Mandalay.

- Jodi

25 comments to My 5 Worst Bus Rides in Burma (Myanmar)

  1. I miss the ladies / gents who come and sell things during stops. Europe has none of that, single tear.

  2. Sweet sweet memories!

    Makes me recall Mandalay – Kyaupadaung. The bus was only slightly more comfortable than the Bagan – Inle one but this was compensated by the road being bumpier than bumpy. In addition we blew a tire just after leaving Mandalay, thankfully still on the main highway. I heard a loud bang and the driver lost a bit of control, managed to brake and direct the bus tot the side of the road. The drivers and 2-3 others got out and replaced the tire as other buses and VIP motorcades were rushing by. Everyone else stayed on the bus as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

    Still – Bagan to Inle will stay etched in my memory as the roughest one…

  3. Oh my! They sound incredibly stressful…but at least you’re left with the anecdotes! Am gearing up for the first bus ride of my trip so far, and am now a little nervous!

  4. Well – front seat… It did mean we were facing all those old ladies with their colourful towels =) And do you remember the ‘sweets’ aka lumps of sweetened sugar that that guy handed out?

  5. This brings back good memories! I think our craziest bus ride was from Meiktila to Bagan. The bus pulled up and it was packed! They tried to get Dan to sit on top of the bus! We refused. Eventually, they found a seat for Dan on the edge and one for me in the isle on a kindergarten seat for 7 hours. Talk about a sore bottom by the time we arrived in Bagan!

    One of the things we loved about Burmese buses were the food stops. You could get a great meal so quickly for about one hour. When we traveled through Latin America, we really missed this feature.

  6. My bus ride from Yangon to Inle Lake still ranks as one of the most uncomfortable experiences of my life. Walking would have been better. And probably just as fast.

  7. Jodi, that sunset is stunning. It’s now my desktop picture. Fun post!

  8. I pretty much had the same experiences. I did hear plenty of people getting coaches to Kalaw/Inle Lake somehow. We had no such luck and ended up in Meiktila at 3am having to catch the same type of bus you did. A beatup old minibus with the windows and doors open to allow the dust in.
    I couldn’t physically fit on the seats of the bus up to Golden Rock and had to stand on the back instead. I was scared.

  9. Ah, great pics, Jodi! Reminds me of our trips to Burma years ago. I do recall visiting Kyaithiyo (the hanging stone) which was amazing! Thanks for sharing.

  10. Thanks for reminding me what my travel style is….and what it is not. OMG. I cannot believe how dangerously full those buses were! Funny how we travelers will get on an airline’s case if we have to sit on the tarmac for more than 3 hours, but cram people into a bus like sardines for 12, and it’s okay? What a crazy world. LOL.

  11. This made me laugh my head off! I totally know what you went through!

    If you fancy a peak at your trip but plus +40 degrees check out my blog. Happy trails!

  12. Wow. It´s probably not what you intended, but I was LOL through this post. Unfortunately, at your expense. Those trips sound pretty bad but you made me glad it wasn´t me! It reminds me of my favorite saying .. you are never a total waste, you can always serve as a bad example. : )

  13. This is one interesting article. Bus rides are always (or way to often) something that can be an adventure all by itself. While traveling in SEA recently I wanted to go to Burma but did not because 1) getting the visa would take 5 days and 2) I didn’t have too much time, thus the visa and bus rides I’d heard about could have damped my opinion about this country. Your article proves me right, and when I go to that area I’ll give myself more tahn 5 days (which is what I had back then).

    By the way, my worst bus rides have been in Senegal, Africa

    Federico
    maitravelsite.com

  14. Some of my worst bus rides indeed have not been from being squished, traversing terrible roads, or horribly unclean buses, but from ridiculously cold air cons. I hate the cold and especially the fake freezing air that comes from buses. I have also learned my lesson and always take a blanket no matter how terrible I think the bus ride could be. Great adventures Jodi!

  15. Some of our toughest travels that we have ever done were in Burma. We were there in 2004, and I doubt that it has changed much. Trying to avoid government buses makes for uncomfortable travel. I forgot about the vomiting. We couldn’t understand it, everyone was always throwing up on the buses:)
    I remember getting on a bus and the driver kicked a man out of his seat and put him on a stool in the centre aisle so that I could sit. I protested, but nobody listened. The upsetting part was that the man only had one leg. I sat down on the seat and cried feeling like a terrible heel. My seat wasn’t much better though, I was crammed in with a very large woman and sacks of rice under our feet.
    We have so many stories like that from our Burma travels.
    The Kyaitkyo pick up truck hasn’t changed a bit! I love this post it brings back many memories.
    Burma was one of our most fulfilling travels though. The people that we met there touched our hearts forever.

  16. A couple months ago I was on a bus ride (much more tame) from Phoenix to Las Vegas where I live. This was after a rah-rah-rah seminar. The bus pulled out of downtown Phoenix at 12:30 am. Arrival time in Las Vegas was 5:30 am. Some crazy person (probably much younger than I) decided to play motivational tapes – and kept playing them until 4:00 am. I would’ve paid a king’s ransom for a pair of ear plugs and a blanket.

    Got home and napped for five more hours.

    Denise Michaels
    “Your Excellent Adventure”

  17. Yes, those Burmese bus rides were epic, some of the worst I’ve ever encountered. I am fatigued just thinking of it. But it was well worth it.

  18. I love the stories. It is half the fun of travel – at least in hindsight!

    Here is a picture of my 4 year old son sitting on a rice bag on a rickety old bus (which almost keeled over on the rough old road – which of course was being repaired by a gang of young women labourers paid nothing I imagine but still with time and love enough to smile – to the point where we had to get out and walk) on the way to Ngwe Saung. Note the other little green glasses dictator fashion boy at the back ;-)

  19. PS Dave and Deb. My husband and I have always wondered about the vomiting phenomenon. Bus rides full of people who empty their stomachs and then as soon as the bus stops fill up again – ad nauseum. One kid filled my lap after a very long ride where I thought I had gotten away with it. Poor little guy. He was green the entire way. His father made it worse by then trying to rub it all off only to rub it all in. Don’t worry, I said, and I managed a smile. It had to happen eventually.

    ANYWAY… we looked it up online years later and discovered that people of Asian extraction have a gene that predisposes them to motion sickness. They just can’t help it. Although it doesn’t explain the people being sick BEFORE the journey has actually begun ;-)

  20. They each sound atrocious, but packing them back to back makes me never want to get on a bus again! I sort of wish I hadn’t read this before having the chance to do them – although I know we’ll have you to commiserate afterward!

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