The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: A Bus Ride In Myanmar

by Monica on April 19, 2012

Having just had an incredible few days in Bagan exploring ancient temples, I’m looking forward to taking in the breathtaking beauty of Inle Lake.

But first, I have to get there.

So I’m on a 12-hour journey via bus. I use the term “bus” loosely here. Picture a tin can on wheels, and you get a more accurate depiction.

I have the only broken seat. The result of which is I’m forced to sit slightly pitched forward, leaving approximately six inches of space between my forehead and the dingy, matted seat in front of me. At 5’6” I’m considered a giant here in Myanmar, so there’s no legroom to speak of, causing my knees to bang against the aforementioned seat in front of me with every passing bump and pothole.

Sweat beads materialize on my neck and chest and the sun hasn’t even come up yet. Unlike my previous Myanmar bus experiences, this ride has no blasting AC, so I peel off my four extra layers of clothing. On the bright side, this bus also has no alarmingly loud music video with a guy resembling a bad Johnny Cash impersonator. Could be worse, right?

We stop for a quick breakfast but I decide to pass. I give my pre-packed sandwich to a boy begging for food.  I will later come to regret this decision, but with a 3:00AM wake up call, I’m too hot, too tired, and too cranky to even think about food at this point.

Back on the bus, I futility attempt sleep. The more I struggle the more agitated I become. I start to question my sanity (again). Esoteric thoughts tumble one after another: What is the meaning of life? What’s my purpose? Why won’t this god-forsaken hunk of metal move any faster?!!

It’s not my finest hour.

Suddenly the aforementioned god-forsaken hunk of metal comes to a grinding halt. From seemingly out nowhere a hoard of Burmese women begin filing into the truck, like locusts descending a crop.  As they are shouting, pointing, and madly gesticulating, I can hardly believe my eyes. I mean, there’s absolutely no way even half of these women are going to fit on this thing. Are they going to stand for the remaining ten hours?

But the joke is on me as tiny plastic backless stools are resurrected and begin lining the aisle. I find myself wishing I knew the Burmese translation for “fire hazard.” One by one the women fill up every square inch of room. Before I know what’s happening I’m sharing my already midget sized seat with an elderly women with missing teeth while she proceeds to share her chair with not one but two more women.

The journey continues. Annoyance turns to panic attack. I can’t breathe. I try to open the window. Surprise! It’s broken.

And then it begins.

Every Burmese woman takes out a small clear plastic bag. Like a tilting domino set, one after another proceeds to spit and/or vomit into her bag. The windier the road, the more the bags get filled.

Just when I think I’m going to succumb to the same fate (due to the smell, not the roads) the “bus” makes another unexpected stop. Dear God, are more people getting on this thing? Where are they going to go- across our laps?

But no, everyone is ordered off.

Our hunk of junk has popped a tire.

For the record, this is my second popped tire experience in three weeks, but I’ll save the other story for another time.

For now, I’ll get some fresh (albeit excruciatingly hot) air.

It’s on this break that I remember I have my iPhone and can listen to music for the remainder of the bus ride. Practically slapping my hand to my forehead for not having done so sooner, I resolve to have a better attitude for the rest of the trip. Over-saturated pep talks of character building and something about that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger blah blah blah replace my Why God have you forsaken me? spaces in my brain.

Eventually the tire is replaced, and we pile ourselves back on the “bus,” as if going reverse into a clown car. I pull out the iPhone, put in my headphones, and pump up the volume. I’m about halfway through Billy Joel’s Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” when I get the sneaking suspicion I’m being watched. A glance to my left proves my theory correct: the elderly lady with the missing teeth is furtively staring at my phone. If this were a New York City subway I’d probably give her a look that says stop being so nosy, but what I see here is genuine curiosity.

So I take out the earplugs and gesture them towards her. She doesn’t speak a word of English and my knowledge of Burmese being largely limited to How much and no meat, it takes a bit of coercing to convince her that she can hear the music if she puts the funny white circular objects in her ears. But she does. And for as long as I live, I will never ever forget the look on her face; her toothless grin and her guttural laughter at the sounds she was hearing. Soon the other people on the bus begin eyeing us. A young Burmese girl sitting on one of those God awful plastic stools puts down her plastic bag. I offer her the iPhone and change the music to a Taylor Swift song (insert your judgment of my music taste here). She giggles and wiggles in her seat. Her mother smiles at me. It’s a big beautiful smile.

And that’s how the bus ride from hell turned into one of my most cherished memories of my time in Myanmar.

Of course, the bus does eventually reach Inle. It takes a few days for my body to recover, but thankfully, my smile never fades.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Jason April 23, 2012 at 4:14 am

That’s an incredible bus story. Those long journeys can be hellish but sounds like you made the absolute best out of a tough journey. Love the photo! Can’t wait to visit Myanmar one day:)


Monica McCarthy April 24, 2012 at 12:24 am

Thanks Jason! As in most journeys, the good manages to outweigh the… not as good.


john June 21, 2012 at 10:51 am

that brings back some memories! If i recall, you are missing a KEY part of this bus ride story…hope you are doing well Ms. McCarthy.


admin June 21, 2012 at 12:13 pm

JD!!!!!! I’ve been trying to find you but I couldn’t remember your last name! Fact: There are a surprising amount of JDs on Facebook:)


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