I was headed to Mandalay with Lauren, Yana, and Nathan, the Aussies I met in Yangon, via a 12-hour overnight bus ride. The bus was first class meaning it had air conditioning, no toilet, though. We didn’t know that when we signed up.
After arriving at the bus station, the agent showed me a seating chart. My seat was in the back row. I looked at the bus and saw it was old and rickety, not what I would consider first class. I noticed also that the back seat was just a long seat you’d see on a city bus. The others were reclining bucket seats, what I expected. I started getting uncomfortable. The thought of sitting on a bus for 12 hours, shoulder to shoulder with the other unfortunate souls in the back without the ability to recline, no armrest between us, was a future I wasn’t looking forward to. Little did I know my fears would pale in comparison to what actually took place.
We boarded the bus after our bags were loaded, and only after constant pestering. The durian fruit had been loaded into the bottom hold of the bus at least an hour before. I guess they were unconcerned about the rest of the baggage. After all, you can only buy durian fruit everywhere, hence the necessity in loading it onto a passenger bus.
I sat in the back seat as the passengers boarded. I watched my Aussie friends settle themselves in their comfortable bucket seats. They looked back at me with amusement and sympathy. The guys on each side of me were Burmese. At least I wasn’t in the middle, I thought. I was one guy away from the window. One of them looked at me with a smile and said something in Baram, his language. His friends sitting up ahead had been looking back at him too. I didn’t need a translator to read his expression, “We really got the short end of the stick on this one”, he seemed to be saying.
The bus started and we got on our way. The bumpy dirt road on the way out of the bus yard made me realize there was a big metal bar running horizontally across my back just under the fabric of my seat. The first bump in the road let me know that if I forgot the metal bar was there, the subsequent bumps throughout the journey would remind me.
The air conditioning fired up as soon as we headed down the road. Everyone looked as though they were getting some relief from the heat as they reached up to adjust the direction of the vents above their heads. The man to my right and myself put our fingers up to the vent above the head of the guy to my left, next to the window. Yep, the vents were slightly cooler than the air surrounding our heads.
We stopped a mile or so after leaving the bus station. The doors opened, people started getting on. I was puzzled because the bus was already full. Were people going to stand? Then I saw little seats that swung out from the aisle seats. They were not the same big bucket seats that lined the sides of the bus. They looked more like the kind of foldup seats you see people hauling to a baseball game. I couldn’t believe they were piling more people on the bus.
I looked for the chickens to be loaded next, but as luck would have it, there were none. I guess escaping this bus in the event of a fire was not a consideration. There was no getting away from this coffin. The last middle seat in the aisle, right in front of the long back seat I was sitting on, pitched back about 45 degrees, and had a back rest that went to about the middle of the back of the guy sitting on it. I could see the strain in his neck as he had no place to rest his head or upper back. There was actually somebody on this bus with a worse seat than mine. I wondered if he paid the same 10 dollars I had. With this man sitting where he was, the person to my right lost his leg room. The head of the man in front of him was practically in his lap. He could have massaged his scalp without leaning forward. Another seat worse than mine.
After a couple of hours, we stopped in a small town to rest and to buy food. I chose not to eat – no toilet on the bus and nowhere to go in the event of an illness. After that rest stop, I noticed that someone had pulled up a big bag of rice that was under the seat of the person to my left, next to the window. There was no way to get that giant sack of rice back under that seat, so the man next to me had to sit with his knees practically up to his chin. I sat there waiting for my turn, my turn for this ride to get even worse. I was surrounded by dwindling fortunes. As we sweated, I watched the Aussie girls I was traveling with cover themselves up with shawls. The air conditioning at their seats was a bit too strong. I sighed and resigned myself to my fate.
I thought the temperature would cool off as night came, but that thought was crushed when, after hitting a big bump, my seat shifted a little. When I went to move it back, I realized we were sitting on top of the engine. All the heat coming off the engine was radiating upward through the seat and the floor. There was no way it was going to get any cooler.
Throughout the night, the bus had to stop at police checkpoints. Everyone got off the bus and showed their identifications. Being foreigners, I thought we’d get the most scrutiny, but they waived us through. Although my mates disliked the checkpoints because it meant they had to wake up, I didn’t mind. It was an opportunity to stretch my legs and get a break from the heat. I wasn’t going to sleep anyway.
After more than 12 hours of no sleep, no food, unbearable heat, non-reclining seats, no air conditioning, a seat that kept shifting out of position, sitting shoulder to shoulder with my two sweaty Burmese friends, (bump in the road), (don’t forget that metal bar going across my back), we arrived in Mandalay. We piled into a small blue Mazda pickup local taxi, and headed for what we hoped would be a decent accommodation. Luckily, the Silver Swan Hotel was very pleasant and after haggling with the manager over the price of one of the rooms, we checked in. I promptly took a shower and headed straight to sleep.
Note to self, stay off the buses in Myanmar.