We’ve all been there. 105 degrees and sand blowing in the widows like a duststorm, winding down the edge of a cliff with rain pouring down in mud soaked waterfalls from the side of the mountain, bumping down a potholed road in gridlock traffic, freezing in an over air conditioned bus in Southeast Asia, or having the bus break down at the worst time. Bad bus rides. A lot of people ask what my worst bus ride was, well here it is.
PART 1 – 6:00 pm
During the autum of 2016, I had made my way through India and was about 25 days into my trip in Myanmar. I had 3 more days to go as the Myanmar visa is only 28 days. I was making my way down through the very rarely visited region of the southern Myanmar peninsula. As a side note, this region turned out to be my favorite region in Myanmar and one of my favorite regions in the world. It opened itself to measured and very coordinated tourism about 4 years ago and about 1 year ago opened a specific road that allowed tourists to exit the country into Thailand at the very southern end of the peninsula. This was previously impossible, making a tour of the southern peninsula very difficult and expensive since you had to retrace your steps.
Continuing….I was in the city of Myeik, a dusty and bustling riverside town. I was probably 1 of 10 foreign tourists in the city at the time.
The adventure starts at the bus station, which turns out to double as the prostitution tenement for the city. The bus station is shaped like a square. The inside of the square of buildings in the parking lot of the buses and the bus agents selling and reselling tickets for their own and other company’s buses – whatever they can make money on. In the back of each bus agent’s ticket office was a set of stairs. These stairs led to the second floor of the square building complex, where, in the windows peered out the local flavor of the night. In dark rooms, cloaked by tattered window shades colored by red, green, and blue neon lights, hid the sex market. It was not that well hid.
My bus was supposed to leave at 6:00 pm and arrive at 9:00 AM the next day. It was an overnight bus headed south to Kawthaung. I knew something was wrong when, after thirty minutes and a few questions about where the bus was, our bus agents suggested I come inside his office for a tea. I laugh a bit, he laughs a bit too….and I agree. I ask him where’s the bus. He answers my question with a question after seeing my guitar, “can you play?” I say “yes, but only on the bus, do you know where it is?” I finished my sentence with a smile, using it to cover my stress and not let it get misinterpreted as hostility. He responds, “don’t worry, don’t worry, its coming.”
I move on for the time being, assuming he has it under control. Our tea arrives, brought from upstairs. A Myanmar woman, probably aged 45 delivers the tea. She winks at me, stares at me way to long, then stumbles back upstairs. Shortly after, another Myanmar woman shows up to the ticket office. She looks at me, points upstairs, and asks, “you want come?” I say, “no, thank you” she respectfully continues on her way and I return to the green tea.
Another 30 minutes pass, I ask the agent, “what’s up, my friend?” He says, “no worry, no worry, play a song,” and returns to the back of his office.
This continues for another 30 minutes, totaling about 2 hours. By then, I have been offered tea twice, to play guitar 3 times, and a trip to the second floor about 5 times.
Finally, a van shows up, not a large overnight bus, but a van. I say, “this is not my bus.” He responds, “yes, this take you.” I say, “no, I paid for a big bus.” He says, “yes, this take you to big bus.” I had seen this trick before. The van was not going to a big bus, but was to drive like the world was ending through the night straight through to the destination. The vans are dangerous and very uncomfortable. I tell my agent, who I must say was a pretty nice person, that I am not getting on the van. He says “fine, I’ll take you” and fires up his motorbike. Surprised, I throw on my backpack and say, “lets go.”
20 minutes of roaring through the streets beeping to the rythym of Jingle Bells and stop so he can light a cigarette for the drive, we arrrive to a shack of people sitting by a soccer field. My bus agent introduces me to a lady who hands me a ticket and leaves, first letting me know that this is my new bus station. By now, it is 9:00 pm. Turns out, my ticket was successfully resold to another company that had an almost full bus. I guess my agent’s bus bailed because there weren’t enough people to make the trip worth the cost of gas.
At this station, we wait another 2 hours. I take out my guitar and play for some locals. They enjoy it and we even sing Under the Bridge by Red Hot Chili Peppers together. The locals notice the chinlon strapped to my backpack and start getting excited. I ask them to play with me, they say okay. We walk out to the field and kick the ball around for about 10 minutes, then finally the bus arrives.
Across SE Asia, overnight buses are quite refined. They are a poplar means of transportation for locals and travelers and for the most part are pretty nice often offering tooth brushes, snacks, waters, blankets, and pillows. As I mentioned, tourism hadn’t made it to this region in Southerm Myanmar and these buses were not nice. This bus was probably 30 years old with the same upholstery, same cushions, and same air conditioning that had just about a zero percent chance of working at this point. The seats didn’t lean back at all and were placed at about a 90 degree angle. They were so thin that there was no space for an arm rest. Your shoulders and knees touches your neighbors shoulders and knees. I got in and they were BLASTING Myanmar pop music and playing the music video on the TV screen in the front of the bus the ENTIRE NIGHT, not unusual. I don’t understand but Myanmar people always blast music and music videos the entire ride on a night bus ensuring that nobody sleeps well……but we were off.