A Keyhole into Burma – The ass-poundingest transport on Earth

I’m not gonna lie to you. Getting around in Burma is quite literally a pain in the ass. What with my trip involving so many long haul voyages in so little time, I was verily spanked into submission by a variety of seats, chairs, benches, and stools, reducing me to standing for dinner by the end of the trip.

Arguably, the brunt of the damage was done on the first trip, an 18 hour bus ride from Yangon to Inle Lake. I was the only Pinkie on the bus (indeed, the only Pinkie in the bus station), which left at noon in 104 degree heat.

It was supposed to be an air conditioned bus, and it did indeed have air-con, but the air flow was at such a pathetic trickle that you couldn’t actually feel cool air unless you put your hand directly on the vent. Moreover, when the bus was moving the air flow all but ceased, as if the bus was outrunning the air oozing through the shafts before it could reach the overhead vents, except up front directly next to the driver where sweet, cool air blasted out at gale force.

The bus was packed. Every seat was taken, including the fold-down, death seats in the aisle that virtually guaranteed a trampling-related injury if anything more serious than an urgent bathroom episode arose.

Though I suffered greatly (and wrote about it at a length that would eventually cause others to suffer equally) it was on this trip that I saw something that made me (briefly) forget my discomfort. Not long after leaving Yangon, we passed a bus that had been altered into a double-decker without adding any ceiling space. A slap-dash infrastructure had been welded together, splitting it into two tiny, cramped levels. The bus was full to bursting. People were folded up and jammed in like cookies with only enough space to sit on the floor in a permanent squat. If we hadn’t been passing it at 80 KPH, I would have taken a picture for evidence to send to human rights groups.


When we hit the mountains the sealed, relatively smooth road ended and the precipitous, climbing and descending, narrow, dirt, unprotected, winding, glorified donkey cart trail began. Passing oncoming vehicles was delicate at the best of times and I was grateful to be seated far enough back in the bus that I couldn’t see how we were about to die until after we’d narrowly avoided it.

The train from Mandalay to Bagan was unfathomably worse. My ‘upper class’ ticket that Lonely Planet promised would get me into a reclining bucket seat, only bought me half of a maliciously designed wooden bench, with a seat pad the thickness of toast. Still, it was heaps better than ‘second class’, which meant sitting on the floor of a box car. The unforgiving bench and the rattling, spine grinding ride kept me miserably awake and in pain for the entire nine hours.

Airplane seats are the same cushion-free caliber as the buses, though at least you don’t sit in them for double digit hours. I had no idea that passenger planes came with seat options this harsh. The upshot was that they actually served a meal. Tuna sandwiches. As potentially sorry as this sounds, they were very tasty, making me realize that I really missed tuna, of all things.

Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, contributed three stories to the upcoming anthology “To Myanmar (Burma) With Love: A Connoisseur’s Guide” published by Things Asian Press. His personal blog, Killing Batteries, and his staggeringly vast travelogue could fill a lifetime of unauthorized work breaks, if one were so inclined.