Sheri and I have been on quite a few adventures and taken all sorts of different transportation—from a horse-drawn cart in Bagan to 150 kph bullet trains in Malaysia. One never knows what the transportation will be like. It could be very pleasant. It could be extremely uncomfortable. Occasionally, the ride is thrilling. Our road trip through New Zealand, our tuk tuk ride in Cambodia and our motorbike ride in Chiang Mai come to mind. However, I was confident in my own driving abilities or those of our driver.
Myanmar, by our standards, is definitely third-world. In the more remote areas, such as Bagan or Inle Lake, it’s what makes it charming. In these areas, roads barely qualify as such. Sure, they’re paved, but that’s where the similarities end. They are bumpy, dusty, full of obstacles and often dangerous in the mountainous areas. There are no lane markings, no guard rails, and no signage. I’ve driven on gravel forest service roads that are better than some of the roads in Myanmar. However, when I’m driving, I maintained an appropriate speed for the road conditions.
We spent an entire day in Bagan visiting temples by horse-drawn carriage. For the condition of the roads, this was an appropriate form of transportation at the appropriate speed. However, the next day, we wanted to visit Mt. Popa nearly 50 km. away, and riding a horse-drawn cart in 100°F+ daytime temperatures would likely result in heat-stroke and a dead horse. Instead, we hired a taxi driver from our hotel in Nyaung-U who makes this trip daily. On this occasion, our taxi ride nearly made me soil myself.
Our driver was young and obviously thought of himself as indestructible. His car was an older Nissan station wagon that probably needed new shocks. I’m pretty sure he replaced the brake pedal in this car with a horn, since I heard him honk more often than I felt him slow down. He would make a native Bostonian proud. The road between Nyaung-U and Mt. Popa is a narrow, barely two-lane road, with dusty dirt shoulders, shared with everything from ox-carts to large tour buses. People and animals walk along the road and are often standing on the shoulder like kangaroos in the Outback. There doesn’t seem to be any posted speed limit. At 90-100 kph, the road was like a roller coaster ride as we lifted out of our seats quite often along the way. Nobody else was traveling this fast. I’m not sure why our driver had such a need for speed, but this meant he was passing everything on the road, even on hairpin turns up the mountains.
To make things even more interesting, Myanmar has confusingly adopted mostly right-hand drive cars, similar to the English, while driving on the right side of the road, as in America. I say mostly, because we saw a mix of left-hand and right-hand drive vehicles. If you’re not sure why this isn’t a good idea, try riding on the passenger side as the car attempts to overtake another vehicle. In order for the driver on the right side to see past the vehicle they’re attempting to pass, they must pull out into oncoming traffic, placing the passenger directly in the path of any approaching vehicle. I made the mistake of sitting in the death seat on our way out to Mt. Popa and it was quite possibly the scariest ride I’ve ever taken. Far too often, I was looking directly at a large oncoming bus as we attempted to pass another large bus in our way. Far too often, I felt my butt cheeks clench as we ducked back into our own lane just in time. Sheri, on the other hand, was safely behind the driver, watching the world go by her window, somewhat oblivious to the danger.
Obviously, our driver wasn’t really concerned about safety. He drove much too fast and didn’t have his seat belt on. At least the seat belt on the passenger side worked. He also didn’t really seem to care about our comfort. We paid for an air-conditioned ride, which barely worked, and he kept rolling down the windows or turning off the air conditioning. On top of all this, it was an expensive ride, costing nearly as much as the bus ride from Bagan to Yangon. When we arrived back in New Bagan at our next hotel, I almost got out and kissed the ground. Needless to say, I didn’t tip our driver for our ordeal.