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Local Travel in Myanmar with the Wind in Your Hair

  • Stephen Lioy
  • 29 August 2011

In a world increasingly interlinked by budget flights and express trains, old-school Myanmar (aka Burma) in Southeast Asia is still a haven for (sometimes happy, sometimes jarring) slow travel. From the deck of an unhurried boat to the roof of a speeding minivan or swaying train, this reclusive little country is definitely a slow traveller’s idea of a good time.

Myanmar local transport train

On trains in Myanmar (Burma), 'air conditioning' is hanging out the window or going for the full effect by riding up on top of the wagon. Photo courtesy of Stephen Lioy

Take It Easy – by Train

As you chug over the Gokteik Gorge on the rail line from Mandalay to Hsipaw, you are rattling in the tracks of part of American author Paul Theroux’s bizarre train journey recounted in The Great Railway Bazaar.

During the ride, if you feel like the train’s open windows don’t give you quite enough breathing room, climb over the crowd lining the aisles to get to a seat with a little more ventilation: the roof. Climb up between the cars and across the top at snail speed only to marvel at vendors walking upright with full loads of goods for the full length of the swaying wagon. When you’ve had enough, climb down to the somewhat safer but ultimately less exciting seat you vacated.

Before you buy your train tickets, think carefully about your notions of personal space and pick a class that suits. Upper-class offers a seat cushion and reserved seating, while ordinary-class is a bit of a tangled mess through which walking involves precisely placed steps from armrest to armrest over the crowd of passengers.

Myanmar local transport boat

If you don't score a first-class cabin on the Ayeyarwady River ferry in Myanmar (Burma), then you may find yourself in a steerage-class slumber party on the deck. Photo courtesy of Stephen Lioy

Buy Yourself Some Time – by Boat

If boating is more your style, I’d suggest a slow cruise on the Ayeyarwady River by passenger ship to experience some of the river-town life of George Orwell’s novel, Burmese Days. Top-shelf tickets get you and three of your closest friends a middle-deck cabin for the whole ride. Sit in comfort on your shaded walkway as the banks and ports slide slowly by.

Cabins are limited and can sell out, though, in which case the other option is the deck free-for-all, which feels a lot like camping on a boat. During the day, tarps go up to provide each little group a bit of shade and a nice place to play cards and read, while at night these are converted to groundsheets as the boat becomes one big slumber party. It can get a bit chilly at night, so pack a light blanket along with a tarp.

Though many travellers take this trip from Myitkyina to Mandalay, if you’re a bit pressed for time, start at Orwell’s former home of Katha for a two-night trip.

myanmar local transport bus

The advantage of buses in Myanmar (Burma) is that some run under government radar rather than profiting the country's controversial military junta. Photo courtesy of Stephen Lioy

Meander to Mt. Popa – by Bus

After your boat/train/bus ride from Mandalay to Bagan, consider hanging out with the Nats (spirits) at Mount Popa. From Bagan’s Nyaung U township, bench-seat minibuses travel every morning to Popa. Since the insides of these buses can get pretty cramped, topside is once again the more interesting way to travel. Views over the countryside are especially nice on the approach to Popa, but the ride can get a bit dusty; some sort of makeshift face mask is useful. If there are a number of foreigners in/on your bus, the driver may even offer to stop at a few sites on the way back to Bagan.

Though many of the state-owned public transport options in Myanmar funnel money to the controversial military government, there’s little way around it. Many private bus companies do reportedly run below the government’s radar, but all public boat and train services profit the junta. Also note that most train and boat tickets for foreigners can only be purchased in US dollars, rather than in local currency (called kyat).

In a country full of interesting places and lots of friendly people, the possibility of the journey itself being an amusing adventure makes every trip more exciting. That’s the way it should be when you do some local travel in Myanmar. Read up about the political and human rights situation, though, so that you’re informed once you go. But definitely go.

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Stephen Lioy

Stephen Lioy is currently on his fourth last year in Asia. After a year and a half of teaching English in Shenzhen, China, he left to travel Southeast Asia and on from there. He is currently homeless, unemployed and quite happy with it. Read more at www.monkboughtlunch.com to see why.
Stephen Lioy
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adventure travel, Asia, Myanmar/Burma, personal experience, responsible transport, South-Eastern Asia, traveller tale, WHL Group newsletter,

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