Whoever came up with the saying: “Life is about the journey, not about the destination” had obviously been to Burma. The roads here are absolutely crazy, something which is compounded by the fact that most people drive right hand-drive cars on the right side of the road…don’t ask.
The rules of the road also appear to be very vague and often even the few red lights which are dotted around are ignored by drivers. In general it seems like the bigger you are the more say you have. So the trishaw drivers give way to motorbikes, which get out of the way of cars, which in turn are beeped by trucks and buses. So the poor pedestrian doesn’t stand a chance. It’s usually a case of stepping out when you see a space and stopping occasionally so that the other lines of traffic can go around you.
The funny thing is that, no matter how lovely the Burmese people are in all other aspects of life, they will never, ever, wave you across in front of them. Even when there’s a huge queue of traffic directly in front of them, drivers will put their foot down to zoom forward the extra couple of meters rather than let you cross.
So, in the short time I’ve been here, these are the rules I’ve established.
1. There’s no such thing as “too full”
The funny thing is that the only place where there is space is the seat next to the driver – the ‘first class’ of the pick-up – which costs more to sit in. But for most people here it’s not an option and it’s economy all the way.
|Looking full? No, there’s still plenty of room!|
2. Two wheels are faster than four
I’m not a big fan of motorbikes. My poor balance means that I’m terrified I’ll somehow manage to tip the bike over, so I spend the whole journey totally tensed up, not daring to move. Unfortunately in Burma they’re the main form of transport and you can’t walk down a street anywhere without someone shouting “taxi, taxi?” at you (whether they’re actually licenced to do so or not).
When we arrived at the small town of Taungoo we were nearly knocked over by the group of taxi drivers who jumped onto the train as it was still moving to offer their services. As we made our way out of the station we became the Pied Pipers of drivers as they all continued to follow us, shouting out prices, despite the fact that they still didn’t know where we were going. Outside the price war continued as the men pointed out their various motorbikes and trishaws. “Car?” we asked hopefully, but it obviously wasn’t an option.
Unable to bear the thought of getting an old man to peddle us (and our huge backpacks) all of the way to our accommodation on a trishaw, we finally opted for the motorbike. The barely-teenage drivers confidently manoeuvred our big backpacks between their legs while we slightly less-confidently climbed behind them with our smaller backpacks. They set off at a frightening speed, dodging the pot holes and fearlessly overtaking cars and bikes.
|So it’s totally fine to turn into this oncoming lane of traffic, right?|
3. If plan A fails, there’s always Plan B
“The mountain is broken”, the station master told us gravely. To illustrate his point he drew a diagram of a mountain split in two. We took in the news about the landslide and the fact that it would take “many, many hours” to clear and considered our options. In the end there was nothing for it but to forgo one of Burma’s most scenic train journeys and head back to the hotel we’d just checked out of. The lovely owner instantly sprang into action, promising to flag down every passing bus to see whether it had three free seats to Mandalay.
We were just about to head for a quick breakfast when she came running after us. “You are very lucky”, she said as she explained that a man who was heading to Mandalay would take us for the same price as the bus. Where the man had suddenly appeared from and how he had heard about our plight so quickly, I have no idea. But half an hour later we found ourselves squeezed into the back of his 4×4, while his wife and daughter shared the front seat. Unlike most of the children here, the little girl was completely oblivious to us, as though her father quite regularly picks up foreigners and drives them to cities five hours away.
We actually ended up getting there faster than if we’d taken the bus and even got door to door service to our hotel. Which just goes to show: If plan A fails, there’s always a Plan B.
4. The way you start your journey is not necessarily the way you’ll finish it
My journey to Bagan started like many others. I was on one of the more expensive ‘luxury’ buses and was being frozen by the air-con and deafened by the never-ending video karaoke. I think the term ‘luxury’ can be used in the loosest sense of the word in Burma. I’m sure when the buses were first made they were very fancy but seeing as that was about 30 years ago it doesn’t really apply now.
|“In my day I used to be fancy. Honest.”|
The only thing that makes most of them stand out from the ordinary buses is that they have padding on the seats, rather than just wooden boards. Oh and the tvs, which, when they’re not playing terrible Burmese cover versions of the Black Eyed Peas’ Where Is The Love?, show soap operas which are just as bad. I can only assume that the Eastenders script writers moonlight for the Burmese soaps too as so far I’ve seen plot lines which include a long-lost brother and sister falling in love; women coming to blows over a man they both fancy and many, many, tearful girls being kept apart from their one true love by their parents.
Anyway, I digress. The point is, I was on a bus which suddenly stopped – not actually that unusual in Burma. Everybody jumped out and the men appeared to tighten – although not actually change – a tyre. We then, worryingly, all piled back into the bus and appeared to coast to the nearest town. Once there we immediately went to a garage where we were told the bus was broken and would take two hours to fix. But the conductor told us not to worry as another “bus” was on the way.
The “bus” turned out to be a pick-up truck, already packed to bursting. After reassuring us that we didn’t have to pay – due to the fact that we’d already paid a (relatively) huge bus fee – we were squeezed in. So I spent the last two hours of my journey sat backwards on a small wooden stool clinging to a strap above my head, squeezed between the knees of local women, many of whom were throwing up due to travel sickness. Like I said, not quite the journey I was expecting.