Get on the bus Myanmar – and get me there alive!

The overnight bus ride from Hsipaw to Nyuang Shwe was a rather memorable event… even more so, it makes a damn good story.

…It felt like we’d only just rolled out of Hsipaw when already we were pulling into a road house for a rather early dinner break, which was perfectly okay by me. The road houses here in Myanmar are incredible; they serve such great looking food and put the shitty road houses in Australia to absolute shame – there were no three month old shrivelled up sausages rotating on bacteria infested metal rollers here, on no! Instead, fresh curries, vegetables and rice, noodle soups, snacks and sweets, hot teas and social circles could be found at every table. You want some spiritual enlightenment whilst you eat your curry? Yeah, there were monks there too.

As the dinner break came to an end, so did our first bus driver’s shift – he swapped with a man teenager who then spent the next few hours – and way too many hair pin bends – trying to learn how to actually drive the bus.  He first attempted to learn what switch did what (turned cabin lights on, off, dimmed, on, off, lowered the bus suspension, turned the TV on, then off, then on, then the lights on, then off, then on again, found the sound button – turned that up to full volume…) before eventually crashing our bus hard into a cement barrier…
on a hair-pin bend…
on a very steep incline…
directly above a large cliff face…

I was suddenly very awake.

Reversing the bus whilst the local passengers laughed and I quietly shat myself, the driver attempted to move around the bend again… and again, he was unsuccessful and another crash, jolt and horrible scraping sound could be heard.
Managing to turn on the third attempt, he was able to drive for a few more minutes before another sharp bend saw our bus crashing again – barely missing a large truck as it drove on by at full speed, honking the horn loudly as it passed. At this point, the local male passengers were wetting themselves laughing whilst I was finding nothing about this situation all that funny.

“Oh my god. We’re going to die.”

A few more minutes passed whilst terrible Burmese karaoke continued to blare through the TV screens and our bus driver collided our bus hard with another sharp corner yet again. The grating sound was long and louder this time and even when reversing – or at least, attempting to reverse back up the steep incline – the grating on metal continued. It forced two of the other drivers/bus staff out onto the pitch black roads – bare footed and in their little white singlets and lungis – where they spent the next half an hour or so running in front of the bus, between massive trucks and speeding motorbikes and around the sharp corners, directing the driver and teaching him that he actually needed to go wide to get around these corners and not bottom out. From my window I could see this all unfolding and couldn’t help but think… “only in Asia.”

These steep roads, blind spots, hills and sharp inclines/declines, curves and bends, narrow roads and terribly rough and damaged road conditions understandably make it difficult to navigate a bus, and I spent a good portion of the night hours staring out my window watching every section of dimly lit road pass under me. The driver had obviously learned the hard way how to take corners wider but had not yet discovered the off button for the cabin lights that shone brightly all night long.

At some points during the journey I felt nervous; at other times the situation was just so ridiculous that it was actually laughable…

…Like at 12am when our bus stopped for another dinner break, giving us all an opportunity to check out/admire the damage to the front of the bus. Yep, it was… aaah, well. Let’s say “rather damaged.” Someone’s boss isn’t going to be too happy.

…and then again at 1am when I watched as our bus driver foolishly attempted to overtake a motorbike on a sharp bend – at the very same time that our bus was being undercut by a massive truck with an idiot driver behind the wheel. I mean, seriously. I’m wondering how I am actually still alive and writing this.

…and then again at2am when Akon’s “I Wanna Make Love Right Now Na Na” ringtone buzzed loudly before the phone-owner eventually answered and began having a general chit-chat.
What is it with Asia’s obsession with Akon!?
It’s becoming insufferable.

…and again at 3am when the driver was still winding his way up and around and then down and around hills and mountains; the the bus bouncing and jerking over every pothole and uneven surface… and the lights were all still on.
It was impossible to sleep…unless you were a local, of course.

Finally at around 6am I watched our bus arriving into Nyuang Shwe – more than two hours earlier than we’d expected. I was happy to be here… and just alive in general, really.

If traveling has taught me anything, it’s this:

Sometimes, you just have to trust that things will be okay.
And if you can’t trust? Then I guess you just have to have faith.”

Inle Lake: I’m here.

Advertisements

Sri Lanka: Big Smiles, Honking Horns and Curry!

My first impressions of Sri Lanka?
I’d have to say the big, big smiles.

Big smiles with red-stained teeth, covering the faces of the gorgeous people here. The women in bright, bold patterned outfits, and the men in their traditional skirts. Bicycles – lots of bicycles: sharing the road with trishaws and cars, buses and tractors, chickens, cows, dogs, goats, cats, people, motorbikes and more. The roads are filled with the obligatory Asian hectic traffic, which I seem to be able to best describe as “organised chaos.”
It’s busy here. And it’s hot: really hot – humid and sticky and wonderful.

We flew in to Colombo, Sri Lanka in the early morning, and headed to our accommodation in the beach city of Negombo. Holding on to the handles as our trishaw turned and darted and weaved through the traffic, we had to smile. We’re here – we are finally in Sri Lanka!

A quiet street in Negombo

A quiet street in Negombo

We spent our first day in Negombo, where we walked into the town, through the bustling and lively (and fish smelling) fish market to the city centre. It was exciting, but intimidating. We didn’t see one other tourist, and people everywhere around us were openly staring and laughing at these two very white foreigners. People were leaning out of their passing trishaws to get a better look at us, and the eyes following us were something we are not used to.

Negombo Fish Market

Negombo Fish Market

The hectic sprawl of Negombo city was bustling with life – so much colour and noise, people and traffic!
We spent a while wondering around Negombo looking for a bank that would accept our foreign cards – it took us 8 or 9 different banks before we found one that worked. Relief.
One thing is for sure – we now know that Sri Lanka has a large range of banks, should you wish to open an account.

We spent our first night in a little restaurant near our accommodation, enjoying Sri Lanka’s Lion Beer and traditional rice and curry. Sri Lankan curries are great fun – they come with all these little dishes in separate bowls, making for a real experience as you taste each one, trying to work out what it is.

Lion Beer and Vegetarian Curry

Lion Beer and Curry

On our second day, after sharing a traditional Sri Lankan breakfast with another Melbournian couple (Em was adventurous and ordered banana pancakes) we prepared for a day of travel, as we made our way inland from Negombo to Anuradhapura, an ancient city with sprawling ruins that was once Sri Lanka’s capital.

The bus rides there (two two-and-a-half hour rides) were a very new and, well, let’s say ‘different’ experience.
The first leg of the journey, Negombo to Kurunegala, was pretty standard – a dodgy looking bus that sped over the pot holes and unsealed roads at staggering speeds, dodging whatever was in it’s path. We took over the back seat of the bus so our big packs would fit – luggage storage doesn’t exist here on busses, apparently – and bounced our way into Kurunegala.

Kurunegala bus station is something else – something I can’t even put into words, although, I’ll try my best.
It is a station packed full of, surprise surprise, busses. But not just a few busses – lots, and lots, and then some more – all fighting for space and room to reverse and turn and move in. Horns honk constantly, as people mull everywhere. The smell of petrol fumes was overpowering, but the sights before us were just oh so wonderfully hectic! Finding a bathroom, first off, was an experience, as every person stared us up and down as we walked through the halls. Local touters and restaurant owners tried waving us down, “come lady, sir! Come madame, sit, sit, here, you come!”

To find our bus to Anuradhapura, a little man was kind enough to show us where to go. We waved his hand for us to follow, then marched us right on through and into the centre of the station, in front of and behind moving busses, through small gaps between vehicles, through groups of people and petrol fumes…
Then, when we managed to board the bus alive and take our seats on bus 57 to Anuradhapura, another little  man was kind enough to inform us “no A C.” (air conditioning)… Oh yes, the ride was about to get very interesting – and hot.

Before the bus started rolling, the “music of the station” as I decided to name it, began to ‘play’. As the bus engine hummed and shook, passenger after passenger kept boarding our bus. The humming engine and the footsteps of people provided the hum and pulse of the song. Constant honking of horns around us provided a beat. And the melody came from the many vendors who boarded our already jam packed bus, yelling out their sales pitches in the exact same tones over and over. Pop corn vendors, snack vendors, cold drink vendors, hot food vendors, fried food and short eat vendors… and then the picture book vendor and the gold jewelry vendor moved about, squishing through the bodies and touting their goods. What a sight and sound – we had to smile and laugh.

The following two and a half hours was a bum-numbingly, uncomfortably good time (We’re keeping things positive).
As we bumped and bounced and swayed in our tiny seats, every seat and space in the aisle of the bus was jam packed with passengers – I felt so sorry for the ticket fee collector who had to squeeze and shove his way through the crowd. Jam packed does not even begin to describe it: we were packed in so tightly, at times I wondered how any more people could actually fit in! People were leaning over me, on me, and around me. There is no such thing as personal space when it comes to travelling on a public bus, it would seem. If I didn’t have someone’s crotch rubbing on my shoulder, I had a stomach pressing against me, or someone standing on my feet, or staring at me from a few centimeters away, or breathing heavily on me… But still, it was all an experience – an uncomfortable at times but positive one – and we laughed and smiled our way through it; it was really a lot of fun.

And as the monsoon rain arrived and night closed in, and the bus driver continued to honk his horn and dodge and dive and weave, we looked forward to what we’d find in the ancient city we were about to arrive in: we could not be happier to be here in Sri Lanka.