Someone once said “Travel not for the destination but for the joy of the journey”. And I would agree. Travelling isn’t just about destinations. Some of the biggest adventures happen on the way there. Travel in Myanmar can definitely be described as an adventure!
Since leaving the UK in September 2015, we have travelled long distances by car, train, bus and plane in Nepal, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand, but Myanmar is definitely the most challenging so far. We had nine different journeys during our month in this amazing country. And here they are….
Our first journey was by plane from Bangkok to Yangon. Nice. That was probably the end of “nice” when it comes to travel in Myanmar.
Our second journey was by train from Yangon to Kyaito in the south. Now, to book trains in Myanmar, you have to turn up at the station from which you are hoping to leave at least a day before you want to travel. In Yangon, however, you turn up to the ticket office. This is not at the station but in a cattle shed the other side of the tracks, several streets away. It is not easy to find and looks like a farmyard at first glance. Were it were not for the lovely, lovely man at www.seat61.com, we would still be looking for it. I love him and his invaluable train website. Anyway, you find which sheep-dip-like passage you need and are relieved to find that the chap behind the glass speaks a smattering of English. You choose the train class you want to use and then choose your seats from a scraggy bit of paper with squares drawn on it. Your details are filled in on a piece of paper which you will next see in the grubby hands of the train ticket inspector when you are sitting in said seats on the train. Tickets are written out by hand, with your full name, date and time of travel, seat number, and your passport details…. Ah. Passports. You can’t buy train tickets without your passports. The lovely, lovely man at Seat 61 probably told you this, but you appear to have forgotten. You may have spent the past hour and a half fighting your way through Yangon’s lack of pavements trying to find the ticket office in sweaty midday heat but you’ll have to come back again. At this point you should go to Myanmar’s first KFC, which is handily just round the corner, to stop the dehydrated kids complaining and try again tomorrow. Sigh.
We were more successful at the second attempt the following day, and for a mere £1.20 each booked four ‘upperclass’ seats (because we are posh) for our five hour journey. Hooray!
We got a taxi to the station at 6.30am and were immediately accosted by a man wanting to know which train we were on. Usual story. He took the tickets off Dez, grabbed our bags and ran off shouting “This way! This way! ”. I’d managed to wrestle my bag off him and one of the boys kept hold of his too, but he was off like a whippet with the other two bags toward Platform 4. We’re used to this in other countries and don’t normally let anyone carry our bags, but he was a speedy one! Oh well. None of the signs here are in English, we don’t recognise Burmese numbers, and he’s showing us to the right train. At the train he found us our seats and threw our bags up onto the racks over the seats. I tried to give him 1000 kyats for his help and he then, inevitably, demanded 8000 kyats, 2000 kyats each for carrying the four bags. Sigh. The scams have reached Myanmar then.
The train journey was fantastic! I didn’t stop smiling for hours. We relaxed and bounced around in our luxury reclining seats in a carriage full of locals. Vendors wandered up and down, their wares balancing on their heads, advertising loudly in Burmese. I hung out of the door with my camera, taking in the views. Life goes on by the tracks and people wave and smile. Children play on buffaloes. Women wash clothes. Men ride bicycles, work in the fields and chat. Bamboo houses sit high over the fields on stilts. The fields are dusty and dry. It must look a lot different in the wet season. After five hours our destination was approaching. Or so I thought. I saw a train station sign with the right number of letters, starting with a K and a Y, and frantically piled us all off the train, bags and all. I was expecting a bigger station, or at least a platform.… Nearly popped my dodgy knee out jumping down to the ground from the train with a heavy backpack, only to have half a dozen Burmese people shouting at us to get back on the train. Wrong stop. Doh. An hour or so later we were at the correct station, arguing with a betel nut chewing bus driver who wanted 10,000 kyats for a journey that costs the locals 500 kyats. Happy days!
Our third journey was by local bus down to Mawlamyine, further south. The thought of getting back to the train station at Kyaito and waiting an unknown length of time for the train from Yangon to turn up was not floating our boats. So we opted for the local bus, organised on the roadside as we got off the back of a flatbed truck from Golden Rock. A man with an open back truck picked us up from our hotel in the rain and drove us the twenty minutes to the bus stop in Kyaito. He pointed at where the bus would stop and left us sitting in a slightly scary tea shop, drinking tea and eating cake with the locals. Being a foreign family with kids always gets us lots of attention so we didn’t have to worry about missing the bus. Loads of people shouted to us when it pulled up. People carried our bags to the bus and the tea shop owner refused to let us pay. Myanmar people are so lovely.
The bus journey was, well, a bus journey. Not particularly comfortable. A bit cramped. Quite bouncy and definitely vomit inducing if you’re Evan. Not exciting like a local bus in Nepal. It had windows for a start. Long distance buses in Myanmar have an annoying habit of stopping every three or so hours, usually for thirty minutes, and evicting all the passengers for the duration of the stop. This is a pain in the arse. Just as you’ve got settled, your boots are off and the boys are happily listening to an audiobook, you all have to file off the bus and stand outside for half an hour. The bus is locked and the driver disappears. I guess this is so the bags are safe. Nobody on the bus means nobody can steal anything. This doesn’t happen in Nepal or India. You look after your own bags there. Still, after five hours and two stops, we arrived in Mawlamyine. Job done.
Journey number four was a particular favourite. Not because it was comfortable or easy or picturesque. Just because it was one of those travelling experiences that we’ll talk for years to come. An overnight train ride on the bounciest, wobbliest, most comical and scariest train ever. One of our upperclass reclining seats was permanently reclined and the other three wouldn’t stay reclined at all, just kept popping back up again. We put Evan in the reclined seat and weighed Sam’s chair down with our bags, hoping us adults had enough weight to keep our chairs flat. We were the only foreigners on the train and the locals eyed us with amusement, as we stocked up on water and Pringles for the journey. We had heard stories of overnight trains taking twenty hours and being so bumpy that passengers were bounced out of their seats. But how bad can it be, right? Well, about that bad really, but in an awesome way. The first few hours were spent laughing and giggling with the other passengers as we were bounced around the carriage. And I mean bounced. Our bottoms literally left the seats as we went over every sleeper on the train track. It was really quite uncomfortable but very comical, with the whole carriage full of locals watching us and laughing along with us, while they bounced out of their own seats. The woman in the seat next to us was giggling uncontrollably. And then the rocking would start. The whole carriage would sway from side to side, as if it was going to de-rail. This was quite alarming. And then the swaying would subside and the bouncing would start again. And so it went on. When the train slowed a bit, we would get some respite, until it reached optimum velocity again, and then the bouncing and swaying would begin again. We did get some sleep. The boys slept quite well I think. I didn’t. I was too busy holding Sam’s chair flat through the really bouncy bits. Then the train pulled into Yangon train station a whole hour early! What? But it’s only 5.30am!
Our plan for journey number five was to get another overnight train that evening from Yangon to Bagan. The ticket office didn’t open till 8am and today was Evan’s 9th birthday, we had booked into a posh hotel as day guests. We would spend the day lounging by a pool and then get on the night train. The lovely man at Seat 61 said we could book tickets on the day, so Dez got a taxi back down to the train station only to find the train was full. Doh. After much stress, we were booked onto one of those nasty local buses to Bagan. Excellent. How bad can that be after the train?? Well, quite bad actually. The seats were cramped with little leg room. We were evicted from the bus every few hours to stand outside for twenty minutes. The lights were turned on randomly, waking everybody up. Loud music blared out till late. Evan was in tears several times as he just couldn’t find a way to make himself comfortable. This was our worst journey by far. And then at 4.30am we pulled into a bus station and all the locals got off. The dozen or so blearly-eyed foreigners stayed in their seats. We weren’t due into Bagan till 5.30. But no, this was Bagan. Still, every cloud has a silver lining. The hotel had a room ready for us and we decided that there was no point going to bed now, so we hired electric mopeds and went out to find a sunrise. Best morning EVER!
Journey number six was another highlight. A day-long ‘express’ ferry along the Irrawady River from Bagan to Mandalay. Another early start at 4am, but worth it for the views of the sunrise. We spent twelve hours on the boat, lounging in the wicker chairs, wrapped in blankets, watching the magic changing light and the life on the river, waving to fishermen. The boys read books and watched movies on their tablet, with the ferry staff watching over their shoulders. They sat in the bridge with the crew and watched the villagers on the shore through massive binoculars. This is the dry season and sandbanks lurked under the surface. The crew would use long bamboo poles to test the depth of the water under the boat. Temporary bamboo shelters along the riverbank were busy with fishermen and families. This riverbank doesn’t exist in the wet season, the river is twice as wide. The day flew by and we were soon nearing Mandalay. The riverbank became busier and busier and piles of plastic rubbish appeared, something that we’ve noticed every time we get close to a big city in Asia. We passed under two huge bridges and pulled up at Mandalay’s ferry jetty. An excellent journey.
Our seventh journey was another bus but this time an overnight VIP bus from Mandalay to Kalaw, recommended by some other travellers. They had promised little TVs in the back of airline type seats with movies and games, with drinks served by a stewardess and, more importantly for us grownups, three wide seats to a row instead of four. Luxury! Our JJ VIP bus didn’t disappoint. The boys got much more sleep, after we’d dragged them away from playing Fruit Ninja and watching X-Men films. In fact it was a shame that this was a overnight journey. The boys would have been happy on there for longer. Our journey started at 10pm, already past bedtime for the boys. Then just as we got them snuggled up and fast asleep, the usual Myanmar bus eviction happened. They barely complained as we woke them up, put their boots back on and dragged them off the bus for half an hour. So proud of them. We did get some sleep though as the bus climbed higher and higher into the mountains towards Kalaw. The stewardess woman woke us when we reached Kalaw. It was 3.30am and the only people around were three motorbike taxi drivers. We considered walking to the guest house. It was only a mile. But it was really cold and it was 3.30am. So we reluctantly piled seven people and six big bags onto three motorbikes and drove through the empty streets to our guest house. It was only later that Dez mentioned that his and Evan’s driver smelled very strongly of alcohol. Still, we made it and crawled into our beds at 4.00am. Zzzzzzz….
Journey eight was on foot, a three day trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake. We trekked through tea plantations, jungle and tribal villages with our guide, Aung-Aung, and eight other dodgy Westerners. We stayed in Pa-O hill tribe villages overnight. We trekked for 70km over three days. It was a fantastic adventure, but unfortunately a little too far for my poor blistered feet. I grew several extra toes and an extra heel. I was very, very brave, obviously, but the last half hour of my journey was on the back of a motorbike. I could no longer walk. My three brave and exhausted boys carried on walking for the last hour and then we all piled onto a long tail boat and zoomed through the back waters of Inle Lake.
Our ninth and final journey adventure was another plane journey. We flew from Inle’s fantastically named Heho Airport to the town of Tachilek, on the border with Northern Thailand. The road across this part of Myanmar is still out of bounds to foreigners so a flight was the only option. Not a cheap option but our next destination is Laos so this seemed like the best way. We got a taxi to the airport, a small, propellered plane to Tachilek, a tuk-tuk to the border crossing, a songthaew to the bus station and a local bus to Chiang Rai.
Myanmar travelling done! Looking back now at these ridiculous journeys, I think they add to the adventure that is Myanmar. With a much bigger budget, we could easily have flown around the country. But dodgy buses, bouncy trains and long ferry journeys add to the experience of this awesome country. If travelling in Myanmar was easy, everybody would do it! And that would be rubbish!
Love buses. Love trains. Love planes. Love travelling.