‘I will drive you,’ the guest house manager said when we asked him to book a taxi to Aung Mingalar bus station. ‘We’ll leave at 6:00am.’
My initial relief turned to disappointment. I’m not fond of early mornings and I’d considered our 8:30 departure to Taungoo (approximately 290 kilometres north of Yangon) a pleasantly civilised hour.
I hadn’t factored in the Yangon traffic. Or that the timetable is more indicative than exact. Local buses tend to leave when they’re full (a fact that took some getting used to for this timetable obsessed traveller) or when the driver is ready.
The next morning I was up before the ravens nesting in the tree outside our hotel room. I was on the street, watching the manager load our packs into the boot of his car, when the street sweeper made her first pass along our footpath with her straw broom. And I got to see the sun rise over the Pazundaung Creek (despite the name it was the size of a river and is a tributary to the Yangon River) as we drove to the station. There was no stopping for photos—we had a deadline and traffic to beat.
Although still moving, the traffic was thick. Children, in their uniforms of green trousers or skirts and white shirts, walked or cycled to school. Taxis, trucks, the occasional private car and trishaws all jostled for space on the road. At traffic lights, mothers with babes in arms tapped at car windows, hands cupped in the universal symbol for help. Sometimes, those mothers were no more than children themselves. When they saw us, their eyes lit up with hope only to turn to disappointment and sometimes disgust at our selfishness. It was difficult to wave them away.
Fortunately, our early start meant we avoided the worst of the traffic. I thought perhaps the problem had been over stated. I discovered the hard way, on our return three weeks later, just how dense Yangon traffic can be. That evening, the middle of rush hour, it took one hour to travel one kilometre. The locals got off the bus and walked!
Getting to Aung Mingalar bus station (the station that serves northern Myanmar) is one thing. Finding your way around it is something else entirely. All signs, everything, is written in Burmese script.
To confound me further, the bus station doesn’t have one or even two terminals. Each bus company has their own terminal for each destination they travel to. There are many, many destinations. And many, many different bus companies.
The Lonely Planet does sound a note of warning about this, but nothing had prepared me for the confusion. It’s that old thing: you can take the girl out of the small town, but you can’t take the small town out of the girl.
In the station itself we drove past lane after lane lined with buses, taxis, trishaws, and food stalls.
‘This is why I like to drive our guests,’ our driver explained. ‘Sometimes taxi drivers get lost here.’
I could quite believe it. But like anything, once you know the system it’s easier.
Each destination has its own street within the bus station. Once you’ve got that figured out, then its simply a matter of finding the terminal of the company you’re travelling with. Easy! If you can read the street signs. Easy if you have enough of the language to ask for help.
My top tips for using the local buses to travel from Yangon:
- Ask at your hotel or guest house for advice. We found that they were happy to help and generally their advice was spot on.
- Book your ticket through your hotel.
- Allow plenty of time to get to the bus station.
- Keep hold of that ticket. If you do get lost, it has all the information you need to get found again.