The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round – Bagan to Kalaw

We heard the bus rides in Myanmar were bad.  No air-conditioning, slow moving, small seats, unpaved roads.  We were prepared for these inconveniences and needed to save some money, so we bought a one-way ticket on a deluxe mini-bus for the 9 hour ride from Bagan to Kalaw for 10 500 kyat each ($14 US).  Taking some pretty questionable buses in the past, we thought this ride could be no worse, and anticipated the worst part being the 3:30 am departure time.  After all, we had seat numbers!

Our 3:00 wake-up alarm came quickly the morning of the big road trip, and at the time, we thought nothing could be worse than waking up at that ungodly hour.  The Bus arrived promptly at our hotel for our 3:30 pick-up.  Our first impressions were exactly as expected; ridiculously small seats, organic air-conditioning, and louder than a herd of stampeding ox.  No big deal though, because we had seats 9 & 10!  Numbered seats are always a good sign.

Boarding the bus, there were just 2 other people (Western backpackers), already looking very cramped and uncomfortable.  Not a good sign.  Our bags were carefully positioned under several seats and we were shown to our bench.  Nobody requested to see our “ticket”.  Clearly, having pre-determined seats was insignificant.  Within minutes, we soon realized why the two other passengers had such disgruntled looks.  Our bench, err seats, were made to fit 1 ½ people, not 2.  We had two choices; one of us could sit awkwardly sideways, or one of us could sit with just one cheek on the bench.  We twisted and shifted, and managed to arrange ourselves for the time being.  As this was such an early bus ride, with any luck, it’d be relatively empty and we could spread out, we thought.

Unfortunately, we soon found out that this was the only bus that runs each day from Bagan to Kalaw.  Our first stop saw us pick up 4 more Westerners, and about 6 locals.  One of which had a motorcycle to bring along, which was then hoisted to the roof by the 4 on-board Bus employees, with the help of some plastic stools and a wooden table.  The Westerners about to board The Bus did not look impressed, and promptly asked how many people would be riding.  The reply was “30”, at which point, we counted the seats.  There were enough for about 25, driver included.  Perhaps they were counting on some infants to ride along, which could easily sit on laps, we thought.  Our new bus mates reluctantly boarded and paid the 5 500 kyat fee ($7.33 US).  Half of what we paid!

As the wheels on The Bus got rolling, the side door remained open and saw two employees hanging out yelling at various “stations” to inform the locals that the bus had arrived.  Each attempt was successful, and it wasn’t long before the bus was full…so we thought.  Bags were carefully placed under every seat, under all feet, and then on the roof with the motorbike.  As soon as every seat was occupied, we thought for sure The Bus would begin its long journey to Kalaw.  Nope!  Those two employees continued to hang out the side of the bus yelling for more customers.  Each time they were successful, adding people wherever they could fit them.  Plastic stools were placed down the middle aisle, a young girl sat on a step between the legs of another man, a young boy of no more than four years was grabbed by a stranger and placed on his lap, grandmothers were standing, and one man who really wanted to ride after clearly not being able to fit ANYWHERE proceeded to climb the ladder on the side leading to the roof!

This game of “lets see how many people we can fit on the bus” became quite amusing to watch, and we started to count the number of passengers.  Men, women, children, employees…we were at 38 with enough seats for 25.  Those two committed workers hanging out the door continued to shout for passengers, and continued to find success.  42…44…48.  It started getting so crowded that locals in the bus began climbing out the window and onto the roof.  The Bus got to about 54 passengers, before people started refusing to board.  As we looked around to see if there was at all an inch of room for more passengers, we couldn’t help but notice all of the wasted space above our heads.  We were sure if there was a way for them to start stacking people, they would!

Once The Bus really got moving, and progress was beginning to be made, we became more and more uncomfortable.  And so did the locals.  The woman on the plastic stool rubbing shoulders with Thomas began vomiting into a plastic bag.  Five minutes afterwards, she tossed her “lunch” out the window.  As we got further into the journey, and the temperature started to climb, The Bus began to have more of a difficult time.  The unpaved roads caused a window to fall out and smash on the stones, the two trusty employees hanging out the door had to chock the wheels each time the bus stopped on the slightest incline (to prevent the brakes from seizing??), and frequent stops were made so that rain water collected in concreted cylinders could be used to cool the engine.

Despite the treacherous conditions, we didn’t want to waste any time getting to Kalaw and were cringing at the thought of a rest stop.  How on Earth would they pack everybody again so neatly??  A rest stop was inevitable though, and it took nearly 20 minutes for everybody to position themselves once again.

The last portion of the trip went relatively smooth, aside from the explosion of a tire on a semi in front of us that nearly sent our driver careening off the side of a cliff to oblivion.  We reached our destination right on time, and retrieving our bags from under seats and feet required more than half of the passengers on the bus to disembark and reorganize before proceeding on their journey.

With our arrival to Kalaw came great relief, and sadness.  We became quite close, literally, to the people on board with us.  Despite bruised bums, filthy baggage, stinky clothes, and a couple of headaches, we wouldn’t change the journey for anything.  While it was an experience we’d never want to have again, it’s one that we’ll never forget!

Tags: , , , , , ,

Categories: Myanmar, Travel Tales

Author:Thomas & Katherine

A love for travel, adventure, and photography. We just can't help but write about it!

One Comment on “The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round – Bagan to Kalaw”

  1. Abigail kiddle
    May 10, 2014 at 1:40 am #

    Hi this is Abby from TMC! I was in your class last year and I wanted say I like your blog

    Like

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