Northeast to Southwest – a.k.a taking public transport in Myanmar

Posted on Posted in Nomad Life

6 minutes before 10am our bus scheduled for 10am departed for Mandalay and I sat on a seat not assigned to me because it was free, which was to a big distress of our steward who was telling me I couldn’t sit there and later moved me to another seat in the front. Something was going on I did not understand, but I quietly obeyed.

The clock in the bus was 20 minutes behind (I later noticed it only worked when the bus was moving so during the ride the difference increased) and the TV showed some Burmese pop music videos. Having a luxurious front seat I saw all the driving abilities of our driver and others, sometimes wishing I wouldn’t.

Not even an hour after we’d hit the road we stopped for a food break at a very local place where I got so much food for so little money (2000 kyat). Locals around me were more scared than curious and noone wanted to talk to me, even though I tried to fish for some Burmese words out of my Lonely Planet Phrasebook. A very short storm passed through us – a sign that the rainy season is coming.

Stopping randomly with an engine on became normal throughout the time and I impatiently asked only once when the waiting on the side of the road became unbearable. After my question, the driver honked few times, turned the key in the ignition and took off. It’s still puzzling to me what the reason of our waiting was, I guess I’ll never know. In Myanmar I will learn to accept things and then let them go.

Public transport in Myanmar not being on time has its advantages; after arriving to Mandalay with 2-hours delay, I was late for my train to Pakkoku, but to my delight at that time, the train has not yet left and I could still board it. After a big confusion in many simple tasks such as buying a ticket (upper class, today – we don’t have upper class, only ordinary class at 6 o’clock – But it’s 6:40, the train is still here? – Yes, yes, 30 minutes – It leaves in 30 minutes? Yes, yes! – OK, one ticket please! Are you sure there is no upper class? – etc.) and finding my platform I got help from a railway worker Maung Soe who talked to pretty much everyone, trying to find out at which platform I need to be. After we found that out Maung Soe gave me a crash course in Burmese, I know now how to say The train is delayed and count to ten. Maung Soe also upgraded me for free to the upper class as it turned out, it was plenty of seats available there. I got a pretty decent sleep until 4am when we reached Pakokku.

Buying train tickets is a mission itself
Buying train tickets is a mission itself
There is plenty of opportunities to buy food on the train
There is plenty of opportunities to buy food on the train

People in Southeast Asia wake up and start working early, but not as early that I would be served breakfast at 4am. I ventured into a local eatery and sat there until they were ready to give me some food, which was delicious and I didn’t mind the meat in there although I had said before I was a vegetarian. There, I started to talk to a tuktuk driver who was waiting for passengers and when we reached his desired number, he took us all to the market.

Good morning, Pakokku, where can I get some breakfast?
Good morning, Pakokku, where can I get some breakfast?
Tuktuk taking me to the market
Tuktuk taking me to the market

I love markets, I greet everyone and most of the time I get greetings back. Vendors in Myanmar are not as pushy as in other SE Asian countries I’ve been – it almost seems like they don’t want to make a business at all, they are just happy to sit around and chat. I set myself a goal of finding thanaka, the sunscreen Burmese girls and women use on their face. It’s made from the Thanaka tree and Pakokku is for some reason famous for it. I ended up buying one proper tree branch and two ready-made pastes, putting more stuff into my already heavy backpack.

Morning market's atmosphere
Morning market’s atmosphere

My plan to take a boat to Bagan was cancelled as I was told there were no boats, so I took a bus and paid the tourist fee (25000 Kt) to enter the archeological site of Bagan, which I had wanted to avoid. I spent a night cycling around these spectacular archeological sites, had lunch at an awesome vegetarian restaurant Moon in Old Bagan, met again with Daniel just before he left for Yangon and chatted with Claudia for hours. I like Bagan, it’s a very charming place, although undoubtedly hot. But that gave us with Claudia a reason to take the next day cool and got a massage where all my body was twisted in a way I’d never imagined it possible.

Cheesy sunrise in Bagan (1)
Cheesy sunrise in Bagan (1)
Cheesy sunrise in Bagan (2)
Cheesy sunrise in Bagan (2)
Cheesy after-sunrise in Bagan
Cheesy after-sunrise in Bagan
People at work around Bagan's temples
People at work around Bagan’s temples

From Bagan, I went to Mrauk U, but that wasn’t easy. It was after 6pm when I had still been waiting for my 5:30pm pick-up. The bus is not yet here was what had been said to me as the first thing when I finally arrived to the bus station by the tuktuk and the given reason was the water festival that ended last week. 20 minutes later, I was told that I should’ve booked another company and find another bus that would take me to Kyaukpadaung where I change buses to Mrauk U. Knowing this is nothing abnormal, I asked with capitulation why he is just telling me this now. He laughed and took me around the corner where I found several buses waiting for their passengers. With a little surprise I met Claudia again and we waited for our buses together. It turned out that I will be taking the same bus as her.

Madame, Mrauk U, this way! After saying goodbye to Claudia in Kyaukpadaung for the fourth time I found myself being driven in a tuktuk by a madman to catch my bus to Mrauk U that has already departed from Kyaukpadaung. Sitting in the back of a pickup truck and looking into the darkness surrounding me, occasionally interrupted by lights of a passing car or a motorbike, I imagined I was being kidnapped to a place noone would find me. I’ve been reading about Myanmar a lot and this ridiculous idea was not at all strange. But in my heart I knew that I’m 100% safe and nothing suspicious is going on other than people helping me to catch the bus.

Tea? I asked and got a reply No tea! I resolutely pointed to the termo can, which stood on other tables, knowing it’s full of tea. Ah, green tea… We had time to refresh and eat at few pitstops (and some to empty their I-have-been-sick-bags) on our winding road to Mrauk U.

With all my honesty, I can say that coming to Mrauk U was a complete waste of time for me. People compare it to Bagan with all its temples and encouraged me to go there if time allows me. So I went and found: heat, temples and people who aren’t as friendly as in the rest of the country. Now, while I don’t know what’s going on under the surface of people’s life there, I felt I wasn’t welcomed there. Every time I asked for directions or greeted someone, the answer I got was a frowned face, some sentences in Burmese I didn’t understand, waving hand for NO, cold shoulder and a laughter after I had left. My cheerful Mangelaba was received with indifference by locals, which left me puzzled.

Temples in Mrauk U
Temples in Mrauk U

So, ‘in love’ with Mrauk U as I was, I decided very spontaneously to leave on the next day (it did not bother me that I spent 15 hours on a bus bringing me there). That proved not to be too easy, however, as all the tour buses had been booked out until the next week (again the reason was the water festival, give me a break). Panic-striken I started to cycle around Mrauk U, trying to find an agency that would arrange my transport to Yangon today or tomorrow – latest. I managed to secure one ‘between seats’ seat for the next day, but after cycling to the bus station I found there indeed was a bus leaving for Yangon the same day. It didn’t matter it was a proper local bus and there will be people sitting everywhere but the roof, I just wanted to get out of Mrauk U. Today. I had 40 minutes to cycle back from the bus station, return my previously bought ticket, pack, check-out and get a motorbike taxi to the bus station. I made it last minute and happily boarded my bus for a 24-hour-long epic journey to Yangon.

Boarding the local bus
Boarding the local bus
Inside of the local bus
Inside of the local bus
Border checkpoint to Rakhin state
Border checkpoint to Rakhin state

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *