I arrived at the airport in Yangon never having heard of Indawgyi Lake. In fact, I had no idea whatsoever where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do or see during my month in Myanmar. I figured I would start by taking a taxi downtown and finding a place to stay. I asked around to see if anyone wanted to split a cab, but apparently everyone on the plane had pre-booked the exact same hotel because Lonely Planet had told them to. Since the hotel was quite far from downtown—and overpriced and filthy, as I later learned—I had no desire to stay there.
Eventually, I met a girl who was also going downtown, so we split a cab. On the way, I learned that this was her third time in Myanmar and since she had already seen all the standard sights, she was planning on visiting some places people don’t generally go, mainly because they’re ridiculously hard to get to. The first place on that list: Indawgyi Lake. Described in Lonely Planet as “huge and serene, home to 120 bird species…and surrounded by 30 rarely visited villages” and then never mentioned again (aside from two lines on how to get there that, if followed, will never get you there), it seemed interesting enough. I decided to go with her. To this day, I can’t say if this was a good decision.
After a drawn-out money changing adventure, we booked a ticket on an overnight luxury bus to Mandalay for a few days later. Obviously, luxury is a relative term in country like Myanmar, but I learned a long time ago to always splurge on transportation if a more luxurious option is available, because most of the time it isn’t. The bus would arrive around 4 am, which I later learned is the standard arrival time for everything in Myanmar. I have no idea why and no one was ever able to explain it to me. I just know that it was always a wonderful experience to constantly arrive places in the middle of the night when nothing is open and the stations are often pitch black because the power is out.
On the Yangon to Mandalay route, you have the additional problem of passing by the newly created capital city of Myanmar. The government does not want any foreigners to see their new capital, so all transportation must pass by in the middle of the night. I can only assume that the new city is a hideously botched failure and the government is simply trying to avoid embarrassment. If the Chinese had a hand in building it—highly likely given that they have a hand in building everything in SE Asia these days—it probably looks like a cross between Disney Land and the Kremlin.
We decided to take a city bus to the long distance bus station because I try to avoid taxis whenever possible and she seemed to agree with me on that. Luckily we left early, as it took us a good forty minutes to find the correct bus. At the downtown stop where we were waiting, a new bus pulls up about every five seconds, completely packed with people hanging out the doors and often sitting on the roof. Somehow half the bus empties and fills back up at pretty much the exact same time with everyone pushing and shoving and climbing all over each other, while the conductor screams something and various people grab you and try to force you on board.
All the bus lines are marked by a number, but unfortunately those numbers are all in Burmese. I figured it would be easy enough to distinguish one number from another and get on the correct bus, but I could not have been more wrong. First of all, all Burmese numbers consist of circles; that’s it. Nothing else, just circles. I’m told there are differences between the different numbers, but after a month in the country, I remain skeptical.
Even if the numbers were written in our script, finding the correct bus would be a challenge. The numbers are all faded nearly to oblivion and are never in the same location on the bus, but seemingly just printed somewhere at random. To make it even more difficult, all the buses are completely covered in Japanese language advertisements (the whole fleet of Yangon buses is made up of Japanese buses from the 60s and no one apparently ever thought to remove the old Japanese ads), which are all much more eye catching than the barely visible scribble that denotes the bus line.
As if that weren’t enough, you can’t just stand there and study each bus as it arrives. As soon as one pulls up, which is all the time, everyone starts screaming to make themselves heard over the conductor’s screaming and the whole mass of people start pushing and shoving in every possible direction, whether they are actually trying to get on the bus or not. Despite the densely packed mass of people, everyone is still smoking and chewing betel nuts, usually at the same time, so you have to spend most of your attention trying not to get burned by a lit cigarette or get hit by a stream of betel nut spit (seriously, the whole city looks like a war zone, the sidewalks stained red with the stuff).
All this doesn’t leave much opportunity to determine which bus you need to get on. And if you try to ask someone they will just say “Yes, bus!” and start dragging you toward the closest one. Eventually, we managed to find someone who spoke the Shan language, which my friend, who had spent a month in a Shan village, could speak a little. With this guy’s help, we soon found ourselves squeezed so tightly onto a horrible smelling bus that we could barely breathe.
Each time people got on and off, we were moved around the inside (no choice really, when you’re wedged in as tightly as we were—I don’t even think my feet were touching the ground half the time) and pretty soon, we actually found ourselves in a seat. Of course it was a standard two person bus seat—standard in Asia, much smaller than the US—that we were sharing with three other people. We were stuck in that seat, unable to move, for close to two hours. I didn’t know it at the time, but this relatively short ride served as perfect foreshadowing for the misery we would soon endure over the next few days.
Series continued in part 2: Arrival in Mandalay