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.

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Lions and tigers and… wait! Leopards and Elephants and Bears, Oh My!

On the morning we left Ella, we planned to head to Haputale, to base ourselves for the 9.5km round walk to Hortons Plains and World’s End. Sipping tea from “our balcony”, as had become our daily routine, we “rock, paper, scissored”, and let fate (and Jake’s cheating!) change our plans.

We’d asked Sujatha, the cook at ‘our’ restaurant, if she could prepare us some roti for breakfast – we’d bought ourselves an avocado from the markets and wanted to eat it with roti. Declining sugar for the avocado (as Sri Lankans seem to eat it only with sugar), Sujatha was shocked at what these two weird westerners were eating!… so shocked, that she’s quickly added it to her menu!

That’s right. We started a new trend in Ella – and possibly Sri Lanka. Fresh, hot roti with avocado, salt and pepper… Try it; it’s our new thing, and it’s bloody good.

After tea, and roti and avocado, we decided that since it’s our last day in Ella – home of the specialty food buffalo curd and kittul – we better get some curd “for the road”… In the curd shop, our plans changed again with the help of a local guy who explained the bus system and the complex “some buses is direct, some buses is not, all is not direct – must change the bus, most is direct, sometimes direct, sometimes not” time tabling.
Helpful yes, but of course at the same time, he tried to coax us into going via taxi, very cheap – of course, with his “brother driver friend” who was leaving Ella and heading back to Tissamaharama, the same route we were now planning on going.
3,000 rupees was too much for us to part with, and instead we took the 300 rupee direct bus which came with added bonuses; the threat of a cardiac arrest and through-the-roof stress levels.
At 1014 meters above sea level, Ella is situated in the hill country area – surrounded by mountains and valleys and big, big cliff edges – of which our bus driver seemed to thoroughly enjoy driving through at record breaking speeds. Sri Lankan buses don’t seem to be able to close the bus doors, and lucky enough for me, my seat was opposite the open door – revealing the cliff edge way too close for comfort. As the bus breaks squealed every time they were slammed into use at the last second, just before the bus nearly hurtled over the cliff face, I banned myself from looking anywhere but ahead at the flashing-light neon gods and overflowing flower garlands stuck to the front of the bus, above the driver’s head.

I may not be religious, but during that bus ride I prayed to every neon god that we would get through this journey – without hurtling over the edge to our deaths; in return for saving our lives, I promised the flashy neon gods, and myself, that we will never again compromise our safety for the sake of a few thousand rupees.

Once the nightmare journey was over and I was able to remove my white-knuckled grip from the seat handles and my backpack, we were no longer in the hill country, and instead, way down south in Tissamaharama. Try saying that name fast 5 times over.

Tissa, as it’s referred to by tongue-lazy travelers like ourselves, was to be our ‘base’ for a safari trip to Yala National Park – one of the big parks in Sri Lanka, and known for the highest density population of leopards in the world. Yep – stuff the lions and tigers and bears, oh my! – no, no, we were going so see some big, spotty cats… And actually, hopefully a shaggy sloth bear or two.

The hype for this park was massive, and the town of Tissa is brimming with rust bucket (and a few not so rusty) safari jeeps, all driving into town mid afternoon carrying hoards of daggy hat wearing, sun-burned and tired looking tourists. What an exciting prospect to think that we too, the following day, would be one of them (minus the daggy hats – we’re not that tragic just yet… give us time.)

Our guest house owner was a bit of a weirdo; very pushy for us to pay some ridiculously over-priced amount for his safari tour, in which we would get to ride in one of his glorious rust bucket jeeps. We turned him down and went for a highly regarded tour company, decked out with a new, luxury Mitsubishi jeep – for way less money. Mr. Guest House owner was not too happy, and basically kicked us out at 4:30am the following morning before our safari began – gloating that if we aren’t going with him, we’re obviously going to have a shitty time. Proudly, he promised us a glorious afternoon of fun-filled happy times on our return, where he would make us read about “how terrible independent jeep companies are” on his lap top.

As lovely as that sounded at 4:30am, that was not high on our list of priorities for the afternoon, and we had to politely decline.

A 4am start was the beginning of a very, very long day. Seeing as I don’t do early mornings well, and reserve these sorts of ungodly hour wake-up times for only the most important occasions – “we better see a leopard!”

Bleary-eyed, we climbed into our luxury jeep and drove off to Yala National Park, leaving behind Mr. Guest House owner who was trying to quickly repair his jeep before take-off.
The cold air rushing through the windowless jeep reminded me quickly of, firstly, what it felt like to be cold, but more so, that this was to be our first real safari experience…

In the park we spent around 6 hours bouncing around in the back of the jeep, and whilst we saw a lot of deer, water buffalo and peacocks, elephants, crocodiles, coloured birds and some fluffy mongoose-animal, we did not see a leopard or a bear. A little disappointed, we reminded ourselves that this is nature, not a zoo (although some of the jeep drivers drove around as though they were a bunch of crazed animals at times), and we were overall very happy with the fact that we got to see anything at all. The elephants we did see, including one very gorgeous baby, were the highlight of the tour.

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On exiting the park, we passed our guest house’s jeep, which proudly sported a large “INDEPENDENT JEEP COMPANY” sticker on it. What was that Mr. Guest House owner said about them all being terrible?

Driving back into town at 12pm, after having already been awake for 8 hours, we had become those sun burned, tired looking tourists. Eager to get out of Tissa (Mr. Guest House owner ruined the vibe of the place a bit) we got our bags, paid and marched slowly down the road towards the bus station in the heat, with our bulging packs on our front and back.

Exhausted, sun burned, dehydrated, head-achy and sore-bummed (after 7 hours of bouncing around in a jeep), we boarded a bus headed for Galle, our next destination. I hoped – oh, how I hoped – that this four hour journey would be a peaceful one…

It was not to be.

The next three hours – yes three hours – should’ve been four, but our driver drove at speeds I did not know buses could do, and wiped off an entire hour by breaking the speed limit the entire time. Within the first five minutes of the trip I’d lost count of the near misses, my neck was starting to ache from whiplash – caused by the slamming of breaks, my ear drums were about to burst from the combination of incessant horn beeping, break screeching, and incredibly loud Sinhala music that blared through several speakers, and I was struggling to breathe from all the pollution being blown into my face through the open window.
Jake found it to be a real life example of Einstein’s Relativity Theory – Relativistic Speeds really do appear to slow time down; three hours (although better than four) felt like an eternity.

Five minutes in, and I was reminding myself of the promise I’d made on that terrifying bus journey just one day earlier. Five minutes in, and we were planning at which stop we would just get off at, in order to save our lives.

But we didn’t get off, and we survived again to tell the tale – along with every other local passenger who slept their way through that entire ordeal.

We arrived into Galle, absolutely shattered with exhaustion, wrecked from the stress of the drive, covered in sweat, sun screen, dirt and pollution, and with really sore bums. Instantly hassled by a surge of quick thinking tuk tuk drivers, we were easily ripped off by a driver who would not agree to my excellent bartering deal, but were too tired to care.

Driving into the Galle Fort, it was an effort to keep our eyes open, but we did – we were here, we’d made it, and now, all we needed to do was find a budget room in one of the most expensive, touristic places to stay in, in Sri Lanka – without any prior reservations…