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(Worst Ever) Bus Ride to Inle Lake, Myanmar (Burma)

Every traveler has a harrowing tale of a rickety bus ride up narrow mountain tracks with a suicidal speed freak behind the wheel. These journeys are inevitable on trips of any duration; I knew I was in store for a series of them. But I wasn't prepared to endure the All Time Worst Bus Ride so early into my trip.

Strips of Holes
Although people refer to them as roads, the things people drive on in Myanmar are best described as dirt strips of potholes. Water buffalo bathe in these potholes; children fish in them. Barely wide enough for one vehicle, the strips of holes host two-way traffic of busses, logging trucks, rickshaws, horse carts, bicyclists, and pedestrians.

Rules of the Road
"Survival of the fittest" seems to be the only rule on Myanmar roads. Size and aggressiveness determine right of way. Pedestrians are clearly at the bottom of the food chain. The horn is used in lieu of blinkers or brakes.

360 miles in 20 hours
My trip was on a "luxury" bus between Bago, Myanmar, and Inle Lake, a popular mountain retreat. "Luxury" meant that tepid air trickled out of vents above me and that the lady in front of me was able to recline her seat into my lap. In total we traveled 360 in 20 hours. Do the math – it's heartbreaking.

notice the seats in the aisles

Packed to the Gills
Of course, the bus was filled to capacity and beyond, with passengers sitting on fold-out chairs in the aisles. Standing Room Only seemed to be a popular option too.

The Dreaded Last Row
My seat was in the very last row of the bus. Hot and noisy because it's atop the engine and tragically bouncy because it's so far from the wheel base, the last row is the least-coveted spot. I learned this the hard way.

Three Pit Stops in Twenty Hours
The bus made just three stops during the 20-hour journey. Coping with this required astonishing feats of dehydration and self-hypnosis.

Thanks for Nothing, Ambien™
If there was ever a night that demanded a sleeping pill, this was it. But even a heavy-duty Ambien couldn't combat the skull-rattling jolts and deafening pothole crashes.

portrait of a zombie

Night of the Living Dead
Squeezed into the back row, suffering from sleeping pill dementia, I squandered ten of the least productive hours in my life. It's difficult to translate the full negativity of my thoughts, but they went something like this: Why didn't I fly? Why didn't I fly? Why didn't I fly? Why didn't I fly?

(The answer? Flights cost $100; the bus cost $2.50.)

Mountains in the Morning
The bus began climbing steep and narrow mountain switchbacks as dawn broke – perfect timing for me to study the sheer cliff drops on either side of the road. There's nothing like adding terror to discomfort.

But I Made It
Inle Lake is heaven on earth – cool weather, blue skies, lush mountains, clear water, fascinating culture. As I sit here and drink it all in, the nightmare journey is already fading into a cocktail party anecdote.

Well, almost.

Got a traveling tale that trumps mine? Tell me about it below.

Posted on November 21, 2002 09:48 AM


Comments (post your own below)

As a matter of fact I do. I went on a one day trip with the lovebirds Kevin and Maria. You had to be there!

Posted by: Scott Ahrens on November 21, 2002 04:37 PM

Um, not quite as poopy as yours, but...
It was 1991. I got bullied into taking a road trip from Milwaukee to somewhere in Ohio because my roommate wanted to see a Dead concert. I had little interest, but I was promised I would get paid, get a free hotel room, amongst a few other delights. And a road trip didn't sound too bad.

Well, I drove said roommate's HUGE Buick through a blizzard (timing would rival your slow ascent up the mountains) while she and 2 of her smelly hippie friends tripped their balls off in the backseat. They kept screaming, then crying, then laughing maniacally, while I white-knuckled it all the way to Ohio.

When we got to the motel, we discovered that many, many other hippies had already checked in and were in the hallways, playing with devil sticks and being creepy-crazy. The rumor circulated - the show that night was cancelled due to the blizzard. So, I had to spend the evening with a bunch of tie-dyed strangers, clutching my one flask of 7-grain whiskey, fighting off would-be patchouli suitors and eventually sleeping in a dripping bathtub.

I guess your bus trip sounds way worse.

Posted by: jessica zierten on November 21, 2002 06:59 PM

I once traveled from Virginia to Florida by train. The ride was over 25 hours. By the time I opened my Tupperware container of smuggled cafeteria chicken fingers; the chicken was replaced by a handfull of lil maggots. Poultry has never been the same since.

Posted by: Matt Jordan on November 21, 2002 07:02 PM

In 1998 I took a 3 hour boat ride to Cat Ba Island in Halong Bay, Vietnam. The water was wicked rough and the boat was very small. The wooden benches were packed hip to hip with locals and tourists alike. The combination of the heat, the crowd, and the waves was very disconcerting the stomach.

The tourists were the first to lose it - runnning to the side of the boat to throw up overboard. For some reason I didn't feel so queezy and remained sitting. After a while it hit the locals as well and they just started yacking on the floor. After about 5 - 10 minutes of this the boat smelled like complete stank (it wasn't so rosy to start) and the puke was washing around on the floor. That's when the ultimate nasty happened - this old dude behind me boots all over my back .. twice !! Of course that kicks in the domino reaction and I run to the side to throwup overboard (and toss my shirt along in the process).

I take a few minutes to cool out and clean up (from the water washing onto the boot). At this point there's no way I'm going back to sit on the benches with the yack and stank. So I wander upstairs to the captain's deck. Its the summer of 98 and the World Cup is going on. There's a few people sitting in the deck watching a match. Come to find out its USA vs. Iran and just started. I look around and realize I'm in a cabin with a few North Vietnamese guys and a dude from Iran. I couldn't understand a word they were saying, but Iran kicked USA's butt and everytime a goal was scored they would high-five, cheeer, laugh, and point at me. I guess it was payback for years of imperialistic foreign policy and I was the whipping boy.

That really sucked.

Posted by: Shane Kinder on November 22, 2002 06:06 PM

Man that's nuthin'! Try... Greyhound bus from New York City to Chicago in the middle of summer.
Did I mention the stop off in lovely downtown Cleveland (wow I didn't know that hashish was legal in the U.S.). I'm not quite sure how long it actually took as time seemed to have actually stopped somwhere near Scranton.

Posted by: Chad on November 25, 2002 12:30 PM

No bad trip stories for you. Just a suggestion for your next long bus trip.

I was once stuck on a 3-hour bus trip with no bathroom stops and lots of carry-on coolers (beer...big mistake). One of my friends came up with this handy bathroom alternative. Bring a plastic waterbottle with you (preferably one with a cap).

When the urge comes upon you, just discreetly lean forward in your seat (window seat) and use your bottle. Cap it up and use it again later if needed. Promptly dispose of the contents or the whole bottle after the trip.

No bottle...a cup with a lid will work too. Just don't forget what's in the cup if you get thirsty along the way.


P.S. If you have other business to attend to, then I can't help you there.

Posted by: Kevin Wojdak on November 25, 2002 01:54 PM

The bus from Bagan to Gnapalie in Myanmar... sitting on a rice bag... over night... over the mountains. Puts the Bago to Inle trip to shame. 50% of the locals puking... and myself halucinating and puking from the lack of sleep, dizy ride and horrible conditions... a ride I would not wish on my worse enemy...

Posted by: Luc Levesque on January 31, 2003 10:39 AM

Try being stationed in Korea. Saying the words bali bali to the taxi driver basically means go mach 4.

Posted by: Diana on March 3, 2003 07:43 PM

going so fast on a Saigon bike taxi that my mouth went inside out and my eyeballs popped out

Posted by: risko on March 6, 2003 05:23 AM

Oh Mike,
Since its your first experience it would be really painful. I pity you...
By now you would have atleast seen the buses in India. The daily local bus is just jam packed. there are no doors, people are packed in and the you literally hang out. This was atleast true during my college days which was 5 years ago. Now most of them have two wheelers and the buses are more decongested. The trains are still the same. I remember the way I travelled to school on a suburban train. It was a 12 km drive and took to minutes. during which, I have to hear to all the curses and bitching of the cotravellers for the school book bag and lunch bag. My whole body would be convoluted. with my head in one pocket of space and the body is another. Evenings are more horrible to travel as some guys would have boozed and others are really tired of work. So the smell of Sweat and booze fills the compartment and you get to suffer at times. The most feared thing in this crowd is the fear of pickpocketers. Thanks to my luck I never was a victim so far.
Regarding your back seat ride. I thought its a well known fact that the rear seat is the most bumpy one of all. I never take such a seating in my bus journeys, even in the modern air suspension coaches which are bump proof.
Once while travelling with friends in Israel from Beer Sheva to Eilat in the night, we were given rear seats. One of the travellers two rows ahead us puked int he middle of the journey as we were descending down the Negev. The driver stopped and got the guy out and since there was space ahead all of us moved ahead. the guy alone sat in his place and when the bus started to move again the stench of the puke filled the front of the bus and there was synchronous moans of displeasure from all the passengers. Then the driver stopped for a break at some motel and got the bus cabin washed. It was a journey I never had in India too.

Posted by: Arul on March 6, 2003 07:20 AM

I grew up in Trinidad. The most southerly isle of the tropical Caribbean. Home of calypso steel band and limbo. And faith, on the roads if you can call them that, I do mean faith. Trinidad is also the home of one of the worlds largest pitch lakes. So some of the roads are pretty damn good. But good luck with your driver. Tailgating is the law. Driving at less than 100mph is a punishable offense. Aggressiveness and lane switching while drinking alcohol or hot coffee is the daily routine. On vacation recently, on a narrow strip of a road, a driver passed the vehicle I was driving, I was stuck behind a truck for a good 15-min when the other driver came up behind us. Let me assure you that there was no space for me to overtake, there was bearly space for the white line on the side of the road, when the driver blew pass my in excess of 80 mph. I am still trying to figure where he passed. I also learned the hard way that day, the rental that I was driving had no brakes, not some brake, I mean no brakes. It's freakishly crazy down there.

Posted by: w. Shawn oSborn on March 7, 2003 01:04 PM

here's an excerpt from my travel in tirad pass in northern philippines:

At 6:30 PM, our minibus roared to life. As it went around the town, it would screetch loudly to a halt to pick up more passengers. Soon, the minibus was jampacked and there were even people riding on top along with our backpacks and the luggage of other passengers. It was a pandemonium inside. People were shouting although --- you wouldn't believe this --- they were having an ordinary conversation . I realized that's the way my Ilocano Mom talks with her relatives.

Rene with his long legs had to stay on a seat in the middle aisle since he cannot fit inside the seats with back supports. Of course, everytime a passenger way from the back goes in or out, everyone sitting in the middle aisle would have to stand up or squeeze in with the passenger beside him, to give way.

It was around 7:30 PM before the minibus was able to pick up everyone who wanted to get out of Cervantes and before we could confidently say that we are leaving the town at last. It climbed higher and higher on the way to Besang Pass where we were all looking forward for a stopover so we could have dinner, as one of our bus conductors promised.

I tried to sleep and at one point managed to take a peek at the view outside my window. It was full moon and there's a grove of pine trees around us. On our left, which was my side of the road, was a deep ravine with a whitewater river raging below. Suddenly, --- I swear I saw it --- our bus veered and our minibus was running within a foot's distance from the edge of the ravine! I closed my window and tried hard to get some sleep.

Posted by: ricky g. on March 14, 2003 01:50 AM

Nightime train ride in Southern Italy. My friend Margaret and I, alone with a group of hoodlum Italian boy teenagers. They started playing with fire, literally, inside the train. Scary. I think we were headed from the area of Pompeii up toward Milan, or something like that. Summer of 1980.

Posted by: Marjorie on March 29, 2003 03:17 PM

That was pretty bad.

Posted by: joe on April 8, 2003 06:23 PM

that bus trip must have been crazy, i aint got nothing to match that crazy bus ride

Posted by: gary on April 11, 2003 09:14 AM

In '98 going through the Huascaran in Peru I spent several hours in the back of a bus, of which seat I was in had a spring broken and sticking into my butt, my cd player's batteries had run out (the extras were on TOP of the bus in my backpack) so i was forced to listen to the bus's stereo which was evidently broken because it would only play one side of the cassette that was jammed into the slot, then there'd be a wonderful reprieve of 3 or 4 minutes without music while the cassette rewound and then the psyche damaging music would start all over. All this while looking down 10,000 foot cliffs while the bus does 3 point turns to make the corners. If I'd only had those spare batteries on me...

Posted by: aeon on June 29, 2003 10:40 PM

Hi Mike,
I understand you perfectly! I have suffered several of those kind of inconveniences during my trip around Morocco this summer (august, 2003). You haven't mentioned anything about temperatures about 50ÂșC inside the bus,people travelling with goats in their lap, passangers sleeping in the middle of the row, loud sessions of arabic music in the middle of the night, and crazy driving... all that things have happened in local "luxury" buses. I can't forget the expensive costs of the tickets, because in Morocco no fixed price exists, and the compulsory tip for putting yor luggage into the trunk. There's only one solution: Forget about it and enjoy your trip!
Greetings from Madrid.

Posted by: Hino on September 10, 2003 11:36 AM

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