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Break Down: Bus Ride from Hell

MYANMAR | Monday, 14 May 2007 | Views [2390]

In an effort to stick to a budget, and also not partake in the government transportation system, we opted to take the bus from Yangon, north to Kalaw.  The difference in cost Bus- $10/pp; Train- $40/pp; Air- $100/pp.  The bus was pitched as an "Express" bus that would get us into Kalaw in only 15 hours - around 5:00 a.m., we figured the overnight bus wouldn't be so bad and we had met two other backpackers who had just recently taken the bus, and apparently they had a good experience, onboard movies to boot.

After locking up the bulk of our goods in storage at our Yangon Guest House, we took a 45 minute taxi for 5000 kyat to the bus station.  The station is a city unto itself.  It was like entering a little village, rows of storefronts and old dilapidated busses parked haphazardly all over.  The ground was a sloshy mud bit, flies abounded, and the touts were roaming between each bus stand, selling multiple scents of inhalers, throat losenges, sunflower seeds and candies.  We were the only whities, so of course the touts all flocked to us, as we represent walking ATM's in the developing world.  they were pointing, making faces, and giggling at us, as if we were the new outcasts just moving into their school district and needing a place to sit at the lunch table.  By noon we all piled on the bus, a motley crew we were... a guitarist and his little roadie-boy band members; two young guys in front of us with a bag full of durian which stank up the whole bus; all age ranges of monks, a few couples, and a bunch of local men with their bottles of local whiskey and rum.  Our seats are messed up - one reclines, the other is permanently upright.  Our big heavy metal seats are bolted to the floor with only 1 bolt which quickly came loose and the seat never again bound to the floor, continuously rocked back and forth unless we held the "oh shit" handles on the backs of the seats in front of us - which of course didn't please the guys sitting in them.  So off we went, 20 minutes later making a petrol stop, and only one hour into the trip, the bus breaks down, completely stalls and doesn't start back up.  The driver and his co-pilot/mechanic open up the back panel of the bus, pull out their tools, and start tinkering with the engine and dumping water all over the carburetor.  An hour later the engine starts again, and we head out.  This repeats itself another time, and eventually we stop off in a town, and the local touts are out in force, selling everything from fish and fruit, to barbecued baby swallows on a stick (yes, beaks and all) along with sachets of betel-nut.  We watched in disgust as all those around us gnawed at their baby swallows, picking them apart, beak by feather, by tiny head and torso.  They chewed their betel-nut and spat the red "paan" into the little yellow plastic bags given to each of us on the bus with our water.  I had thought they were vomit bags, but apparently spitting paan throughout the trip is the norm, so that's why they're provided.  Our fellow passengers left all the remains hanging in the plastic baggies on the backs of each of their seats for the entire trip.  I tried to photograph the guy selling the skewered baby swallows and he promptly put his bamboo hat over his tray of goods and moved away from my bus window - well, that's one way to get rind of pesky touts.  An hour later, stalled again on the roadside, this time the monks got out to supervise - the elder monk pacing quietly back and forth by the engine, and the other younger monks chewing and spitting betel-nut on the roadside next to him.  I didn't realize monks were allowed to indulge in such temptations as betel-nut and cigars, as alcohol is banned from consumption.  But here they're all over them.  The bus gets rolling again, for the next 45 minutes, before the driver decides to make a dinner stop.  Not sure why he didn't decide to push on, as by this time, we're already 4 hours off schedule.  But we all pile out to the local roadside diner that's been awaiting a busload to feed local Burmese cuisine.  We're shuffled to a table for two, bummer as we had wanted to mingle with the locals, but no one spoke English, nor invited us to join them.  The restaurant owner spoke a little English, so we effectively communicated "no fish paste, but chicken ok."  Next, we were served up a heaping pot of rice, some funky beans, some sort of salad that was not cooked, chicken with bones, which means no real meat, and some cauliflower , potato and green bean curry.  The curry wasn't half bad, and flavored the rice; the beans, ok, but skeptical if they had been cooked well enough for the water bacteria they were soaked in to be killed off... We ate what we felt safe with, and 30 minutes later we all boarded the bus again.  The bus sputtered along for another hour and then repeated the breakdown routine another 4 times before the driver called it quits. 

Tags: Misadventures

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