I am fortunate to live in an area of Yangon which has a very busy bus schedule with buses frequently moving in all four directions. While taxis here are plentiful and comparatively cheap, the traffic is a constant source of headache and there doesn’t seem to be that many rules to obey on the road. I have become used to living in cities with good public transport and the thought of constantly using taxis to get around strikes me as both overly luxurious and bad for the environment.
Standing as close as I thought seemly possible, I joined the throng waiting for the bus. I wanted to check that I wasn’t going to end up on some wild goose chase to some unknown part of the city, so I approached a young friendly looking couple and enquired. They told me that all of the buses in this direction go to downtown Yangon, and as yet, they have not been wrong.
I have seen a grand total of two stressed looking American tourists on the bus, and one very nicely dressed French lady and her son. Suffice to say we are unusual.
Also, one noticeable thing that Yangon buses favor is loud music. Loud, disco music at 6:30 am. Perhaps it’s an attempt to rouse the workers as they set off for their long days. I assume it’s the choice of the driver who evidently has full control seeing as he is behind the wheel.
The bus conductors are very friendly and accommodating, despite their ill-concealed amusement. As I travelled the same route to school in Thanlyin at the same time each day, I got to recognize some of the bettle-nut chewing conductors who collect the low bus fare. Or rather, that is to say they recognized me.
On the way to school, each morning at the Shwe Baho hospital, another big bus location in Yangon, I would be pointed in the direction of the 181 bus. I once made the mistake of taking the 109 bus. Stating Thanlyin as my destination, the conductor smiled, nodded and took my fare as I plonked myself down in a seat ready to face the hour journey and watch for the designated landmarks that told me when I needed to alight.
As we arrived in the center of Thanlyin, marked by the two ladies selling eggs by the side of the bus, which sounds like ‘Oveo’ to my untrained ears, the bus conductor seemed concerned that I was still on the bus. After some pointing and gesturing, he evicted me into the middle of the egg sellers and motorbike taxis. At first I was simply confused; then I became angry. I had paid my fare, why had I been kicked off? Then I became worried about my onwards journey.
Looking at the bus, it became clear why I was no longer welcome on the bus. The left indicator was flashing and the bus soon turned down the road and disappeared. Thankful that the conductor had my best interests at heart, I decided that explaining my destination to a motorbike taxi was far too difficult for 7:30 am and waited for the next bus going in the correct direction.
Before long we were zipping through fields at what I considered to be an unnatural pace for the conditions, namely a bus in the countryside full of people. The view was nice, and the wind was a pleasant addition to the humid day. We had already completed a 7 point turn after getting trapped in some kind of plant. We encountered a new problem on this road which obviously wasn’t used to seeing buses. There were a lot of people yelling and looking out of the window. The bus had slowed down and was stopped, but this didn’t really indicate a problem to me as I thought maybe the driver was changing the disco song or recuperating for the next leg of our magical mystery tour. It turns out that the issue was more physical. There were goal posts blocking our exit onto a more major road. Half a dozen of the younger men helped to lift the posts; the driver edged the bus underneath, using considerable caution considering his earlier liberties. With the men safely back on board, we were able to pick up speed and head for home.
I mainly keep myself to myself on the bus, on account of not knowing the language and generally being in my own little world. I noticed that everyone on the bus seemed to be proffering a 100 kyat note at the conductor. I worked out that this was for our excursion, and thought that approximately 10 cents for the entertainment and workout of hanging on round the corners was great value. I like to think that the conductor was grateful for my contribution to the cause, even if I hadn’t been part of the more laborious manual tasks.
Currently, I'm teaching at a monastery in Yangon. By now, I have learnt that the bus routes are a little fluid. On the weekend, the 124 bus goes directly past the monastery. In the week, it doesn’t. This was a surprise to me the first time that the bus climbed over the steep bridge and I scrambled to get off. The conductors would rather not have people jump from a moving vehicle and it ended up being quite a long way until the next bus stop.
The 48 bus and the 188 are more regular. Or so I thought until today. We passed by the prison, and I was a little unnerved that the route was not what I was expecting, but there was still a distinct chance that it would join the other road later on. It is surprising how quickly a merry jaunt can turn to panic when the bus turns the opposite way at your location marker. I ended up with a 15 minute walk back to the monastery.
All in all, I love taking the bus here. Provided I end up in the right place, I enjoy the scenic route. I witnessed a railroad crossing Myanmar style and I saw a beautiful rainbow colored butterfly. The buses are more reliable than I was lead to believe, and although one gentleman did warn me of them as they are hothouses for disease in his opinion, I seem to be coping admirably. Long may it continue. And it stands to reason that if the traffic did get especially rowdy one day, I’d be much safer in the middle of the giant bus than I would in a luxurious taxi anyway!
NEH Coordinator and Teacher Trainer