We're on a Road to Nowhere

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

With a lag of about a year to two between each big international trip I have taken in my life, there are some rules of the road that I remember clear as day and others that get a little rusty. For example, it comes as instinct to me to clearly agree to a price or the meter when getting into a taxi. On the other hand, for a moment in Bagan, I forgot that paying $30 for a long taxi ride is a no-brainer compared to $7 for a long bus ride. Or maybe taxis weren't an option, after all the cost of fuel in Myanmar was making life very difficult for drivers.

Cramming onto a city bus, Yangon

     In any case, I have a rule of thumb that dictates that riding a bus is about the lowest on my list of transportation options, right down there with crawling on hands and knees on a dirt road with my backpack on my back.

     I think things go in roughly this order, considering prices, cultural exposure, speed and comfort: Sleeper train, passenger train, taxi, flight, motorcycle, back of a pickup, beast of burden, walking, bus, crawling.

     But, for whatever reason, I wound up faced with the choice between a 15 hour bus ride back to Yangon, or a 7.5 ride to Pyay and then completing the ride to Yangon another day. Having at least the sense to break up such a torturous journey, I decided to buy a ticket to Pyay. The bus left at 7PM, targeting Pyay at something like 2AM. In general, it is my aim to make long journeys seem shorter by sleeping through them. I was sure to get a few hours of sleep before arriving in Pyay. While it wasn't ideal to arrive in Pyay at such an ungodly hour, I intended to drop into a hotel for the balance of the night before exploring the town after sunup.

     In any bus, bags are stowed underneath, and one is allotted a carry-on bag, very similar to an airplane. The difference between a bus and a plane in this context is that one doesn't feel they need the comfort of their remaining luggage because planes invariably have one sort of entertainment or another, a restroom stocked with the proper amenities, and the feasibility of sleep. Buses offer no such comforts, and the bus to Pyay was no exception.

     Buses in Myanmar are temperature controlled, optimizing the passenger's comfort by allowing for windows to be opened, and letting in lung-clogging road dirt in suicidal quantities, and making the incessant horn-honking all the louder.

Cramming onto a city bus, Yangon

     I was thankfully seated next to the window, so at least 5% of the cabin's environment was under my control. I started with the window open, as the heat onboard was unbearable otherwise. I immediately found myself wishing for my cloth face mask, which of course was under the bus in my luggage.

     Taxis offer the lulling rhythm of the rails, taxis offer silence, planes offer movies and radio, and buses in Myanmar offer television. Loud television, to ensure that any passenger no matter how damaged their hearing may be from years of listening to Burmese trucks honk their horns, all passengers can both hear and feel the programming.

     Our in-route entertainment began with videos of Burmese people singing karaoke-style to canned or live musicians. The music was generally sappy Asian tunes, probably originating from China or Korea, over which the singers screeched and crowed. There was no ignoring the television, and most of my fellow passengers, all locals, seemed genuinely entertained by the program. They seemed to have little interest in the thatched huts we zipped past, which were splashed with hues of orange and violet as the sun set. This was probably a rare treat in a country where television satellites are only acquired by government permission and are predictably prohibitively expensive.

     A few familiar songs were sung in the karaoke video, my favorite being Greenday's Warning, sung in Bamar by a teenage girl. The English lyrics go as follows:

Caution, police line, you better not cross
Is the cop or am I the one that's really dangerous?
Sanitation, expiration date, question everything
Or shut up and be a victim of authority

     As we passed through the occasional military checkpoint, was the girl on TV really wailing these lyrics? In a country where the junta quashed any sort of questioning of authority, where nothing had an expiration date, where the cops really were the ones who were dangerous, was the girl on TV really singing these lyrics? Or were they translated to something tamer in Bamar?

     Planes and trains move at a steady pace. Taxis don't but they are more agile than most other vehicles on the road. Buses fancy themselves faster and more agile than trucks, a questionable assumption at best, and there were plenty of trucks to compete with on the road back to Yangon. I don't know whether the driver was truly concerned about making his destination on time, or whether jockeying for position on thin, pitch black dirt roads was his way of ensuring that he stay alert and awake for the duration of the night. Regardless, the endless acceleration and then slamming of brakes, accompanied by the ear-piercing honking of horns as we tore around lumbering trucks laden with more goods than they should rightly carry, kept me alert as we burned past tiny village after village, polluting their air with our trailing rooster tail of dust, exhaust, and noise.

Walking a bike across a bridge, Nyaungshwe

     As the sun set, I was faced with the option of closing the window, reducing the noise and dirt a bit, but containing the heat of the bus and the noise of the television. All the locals had closed their windows hours before, as they considered December their winter and temperatures in the 90s were downright chilly to them.

     Eventually, I found an unhappy medium with the window cracked, a small amount of dust coming through, all of the horn-honking coming through, and at least a reasonable breeze to keep the dirty air moving. Sleep would have been a great option, wouldn't it? That's what I kept thinking, as I wished for my earplugs, also under the bus, and was introduced to the most inhumane torture imaginable.

     With the windows closed, the sound of the television was that much louder. I'm an eavesdropper by nature. I like sitting in the line at the grocery store or sitting on a bus or subway and listening in on the issues of the moment for perfect strangers. It's a minor frustration of mine when traveling that I can't eavesdrop; that I have no idea what the family next to me on the bus is talking about. Imagine, if you will, the frustration of watching a comedy show and just not getting the jokes, while everyone else the audience went nuts. Imagine that the reason for not getting the jokes was because they were in another language. Imagine that rather than sit there wondering what was so damn funny, how nice a nap would feel. Imagine how impossible it would be to sleep with a screeching television cranked to 11 on a jostling bus choked with dust, exhaust, and heat blaring its horn at the countless sugar cane trucks it was vying to pass wile the television carried on and on with a comedy show in another language.

     The comedians were a stand up duo. I was picturing a Burmese Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis combo here. Whatever they were saying was keeping the canned studio audience in stitches. Bamar is a naturally nasal and screechy language and the affirmative is uttered as a grunt. And every joke was punctuated with a rim shot that sounded like someone crashing two large trash can lids together.

     "Ding doyoyoying! Ming kaaa ding yaang!"


     "Oh! Nying naang bin waa wo gaang!"


     "Tomeego thwaa yaang? Dabeeng canaw!"


     "Bwaa haaa ahaaa hahahaa!"

     And so on and so forth. Hour after agonizing hour, no way to turn it down, no way to turn it off. A few of my fellow passengers were actually chuckling along with this stuff, while the rest slept peacefully, probably quite immune to such scenes. Never again, I swore, the time before. No more buses.

Trash was on the floor, A stink was in my nose

When the bus stopped, I sat bolt upright, in a haze from finally catching a short nap once the comedy video finally ended. This was the first time the bus had stopped since I boarded, so I was relatively certain that we were in Pyay. I was the only passenger departing, sometime after 2AM, and as my bag was handed to me, one of the two trishaw drivers who had stayed up late enough for the bus' arrival approached me.

     I had circled Pan Ga Ba Guest House in my Lonely Planet, and written $3 next to it on the map. I couldn't remember who had recommended such an inexpensive place, and it wasn't until after my trishaw driver had departed that I realized I had just broken another one of my rules of the road: always inspect the hotel room before agreeing to stay there. I thought that I would have learned my lesson after the filthy place in Yangon… recommended to me by that rat bastard Yim! Yes, it must have been him that recommended this place too!

     The owner was a dark skinned, overweight man, topless and wearing a longyi when he opened the gate to let me in. He had obviously been sleeping when I arrived. We walked through a pitch dark space towards a set of stairs and the hotelier kicked off his sandals as we passed a yellowed paper sign asking that I remove my shoes. I pretended not to see it. He pointed at my room and said there would be breakfast for me in the morning. I walked down the dark hallway towards my cell.

Working with a sickle in the fields, Pyay

     Inside, I was so disgusted that I was too embarrassed to even take photos to show people back home. The walls, painted yellow decades ago, were soiled brown with years of hand smudges and the red splats of dead mosquitoes smashed against them. A single bare bulb hung from the ceiling by a wire caked in years of dust and grime. The window was similarly caked and above the window was a grimy air conditioner that looked like it would pump out far more gallons of dust per hour than cool air. A bit of graffiti here and there on the walls demonstrated that I wasn't the first human to brave such deplorable conditions, but that was little consolation. Once again, I found myself so tired and in such a small town that I felt like I didn't have an alternative. What the hell, it'd build character.

     I took special care to never touch anything. I stood tiptoed on my sandals while I removed my clothes and wrapped myself in my sleep sheet. I used a plastic bag to work the lightswitch and to remove the blanket and put it on the other bed. I placed my head-sized bug net around my head, to complete my seal from the filth around me. I'd save the bathroom adventure for the morning. Another restless night.

     I woke shortly after dawn and did my best to eat the breakfast. It looked fine, except for the grime on the butter jar, but if the room was as filthy as it was, I couldn't imagine the kitchen to be any better.

     I did shower and shit there, but the conditions were so deplorable that I won't even write about them.

     I spent the day getting carted around in a trishaw, looking at the various payas that exist in Pyay. On the whole, taking the filth and the lackluster sights into consideration, I would have been better off just taking the long ass bus ride to Yangon in the first place.

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