Myanmar

Driving to Kalaw with the Myanmar racing team

We took the overnight VIP bus from beautiful Bagan to Kalaw, so we could do the trekking to Inle Lake. This is a small review of the conditions and the quality of the bus trip.

There’s two ways to read this post:

You’re about to book or board the bus and you just need the bullet points

When:

We booked the overnight VIP bus at 8 PM from Bagan to Kalaw on 22 July 2016 (monsoon season)

Where to book:

We booked at Green and Green travel in Nyaung U and payed 18000 kyat per person.
You can also book a morning VIP bus there which is operated by Joyous Journeys.
If you need the best price or you just need a bus at a different time, just walk up and down Thi Ri Pyitsaya 4 St in Nyaung U, where all the backpacker bars and travel agencies are located.

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The Bagan Minn Thar Express took us from Bagan to Kalaw

State of bus:

The bus company was Bagan Minn Thar Express
They do a hotel pickup and you get dropped off at the bus station once in Kalaw / Inle Lake.
The bus has a toilet on board and stops 2 hours in to the trip for 30 minutes to get some food at a road side buffet.
You can also buy some packaged food at a small shop there.
You get a travel pillow (not new), a bottle of water, a toothbrush (new) and a blanket (questionable state).
The air conditioning was on but not full force and doable with the blanket.
No loud music or movies where playing.
They lock the baggage compartment and ask everybody to exit the bus when they stop to avoid theft but if you have room you can ask to keep you baggage with you.

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The bus company provided a travel pillow, free water and even a tooth brush!

State of the roads:

Hair pin corners about half way in to the trip, bumpy unpaved dirt roads but overall the bus handles it well and it’s a comfortable ride.

Once you get there:

It was estimated 9 hours (arrival time 5 A.M.) but we arrived at 3 A.M. at the Kalaw bus station. Nine hours is probably to Inle (Inlay) lake itself. There will be motorcycle taxis there to get you to your hotel if it’s too far from the city center. We got quoted 1500 kyatt per person. Call ahead for early check-in at your Kalaw hotel if you don’t want to wait until 8 or 11 A.M. to check in. (We stayed at Nature Land Hotel which booked us in at 3 A.M. without issue)

You have some time and want to hear about the racing team

Ah, the feared bus trips in Myanmar. They seem to be what everybody writes about.
Transportation in a developing country is always interesting to say the least, and when big VIP buses meet dusty roads and a tropical climate you are bound to get some good stories.

Let’s start off with saying that this is not a horror story, the bus ride went fine and was comfortable. It was shorter then expected and we had a functioning toilet on the bus that didn’t smell like some demonic spawn was about to enter our world. What we did have was a dedicated bus team that where the unsung heroes of our trip.

Let me introduce our 4 person Myanmar racing team by role, as I think this is a common setup for all overnight buses.

We start off with the English guy, who looks a bit younger then the other guys and speaks the most fluent English. He will answer all your questions and takes care of all service announcements. He seemed like a cool guy, a blend of western and Burmese personality that I reckon is into motorbikes because he wore a nice leather jacket.

Next up we have the driver, the guy who knows what all the buttons do and makes sure all the wheels stay on the ground when we lean into the next hairpin curve. He also seems to be very religious which we’ll talk about shortly.

Then we have the cross fit guy, a skinny guy who will prove to be invaluable once we get to the first stop.

And lastly we have the co-pilot, who will annoy the sh*t out of everybody but plays the most vital role. He is the hero we need, but that nobody wants.

To understand why the co-pilot is invaluable we need to explain our driving conditions a bit more. The bus they’re using is a Japanese bus, pimped out with some Burmese swag and even a small Buddha shrine, but non the less a Japanese bus. Which means, as the Japanese drive on the left side of the road, the driver sits on the right.
Now in Myanmar everybody drives on the right side of the road, and this is where it starts to get interesting. As the driver is driving this big bus on an unpaved road without lightning that is just big enough for 2 small cars to pass, his field of view has a dead angle the size of a small country.
This is where the co-pilot comes in: he’s the one who, for the next 9 hours, will sit or stand on the left side of the bus and constantly call out every dog, scooter, car or pothole in the road so the driver knows what’s up. He will also call out when to dim the lights so they don’t blind ongoing traffic.
Without the co-pilot, if the bus driver wanted to:
Pass a truck, he needs to #YOLO it because he can’t see the ongoing traffic
Make a hairpin turn on the wrong side, #YOLO it because he can’t see if halfway in to the turn there is another bus #YOLOING it.
… you get the idea.

Now our co-pilot had the tendency to clear his throat whenever he announced something which didn’t make him popular with all the tourists who where trying to sleep. But by god that didn’t stop this committed bastard from doing his noble job, and he even finds the time to spit some chewing tobacco every hour to boot. We salute you, good sir and all the noises you make. He sounds like he used to work for a call center and has the most monotonous voice I have ever heard. He never gets tired and he’s a big part of the reason why the bus doesn’t crash while you sleep.

But the co-pilot doesn’t need to take all the credit because after 2 hours we rolled in to the rest stop at the side of the road for a 30 minute break.

And this is where the team really shines, as apparently while driving for 2 hours one of the tires got punctured on a big rock and needed to be replaced. As this is a big bus this isn’t just a quick thing to do but these guys assumed positions like they where a Formula 1 pit stop crew.

English guy and co-pilot guy grabbed the tools and flashlight to unscrew the bolts while cross fit guy rushed to the front of the bus to get the spare tire.

Driver guy rushed to the “bolts” team to lean in on the lever springing the bolts in record time while cross fit guy was preparing for his Workout of the Day.

Crossfit guy warming up while dropping the spare tire

Crossfit guy warming up by getting the spare tire off the bottom of the bus

This guy’s arms are no bigger then an toothpick but he pulls the tire from under the bus like he’s reaching for a cold one and flips it up to roll it towards the back of the bus.
Just as he gets there, the bolts come off and they all stand back while he drops the spare tire, pulls and kicks off the first tire, removes the second tire and flips the spare back up to push it in to place.

The rest of the crew is just standing there like they know they’ll just get in his way and are mentally preparing to re-screw the bolts in record time.

Cross fit guy jumps up and rolls the broken tire back to the front of the bus while the other guys get to work on the bolts.

All in a day’s work for this team, and 6 minutes later we where ready to hit the road. Now mind you a couple of fellow travelers seemed slightly less at ease knowing that this didn’t seem like their first rodeo and where now questioning the state of the bus, but not me as I was back in my seat ready to see the driver do a systems check. A systems check would be overstating it a bit, as he went straight to the Buddha shrine which came complete with a small mood light that didn’t seem to be turned on. He unscrewed the bulb and examined it, noticing that it was broken. And with a universal look that I can only translate as “so that is why the tire popped”, he checked the rest of the logistics and we where back on the road.

It was smooth sailing after that and we got to our destination ahead of time and with all the remaining tires intact. The driving was entertaining to watch and all joking aside, the organisation of the trip and the people that where driving made you feel in good hands. They make these driving conditions seem easy and for that they have my respect and thanks. I hope all my bus travels will go as smoothly as the one I got to experience in this beautiful country.

P.S: For the people that like to talk to the guide on the bus, the English guy does a switch-a-roo at about 2 AM and jumps on a bus headed back to Bagan so make sure all your questions are answered beforehand.

If you have any good stories about bus travel in Myanmar, feel free to let us know in the comments!

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