The morning of Thursday 14th January saw the beginning of my two-day journey to Bangkok, beginning with the last part of the tour, a flight back to Yangon. The flight took about 90 minutes and although if I had planned the trip myself I probably wouldn’t have chosen to fly, it turned out to be good fun.
Heho Airport is a small domestic airport near Inlé Lake which serves eleven destinations around Myanmar. It was originally an airbase in the Second World War, and it doesn’t look like that much has changed since. We arrived in the car park, which looked more like it belonged to a National Trust property than an airport, and went into the terminal. The check-in desk was well, a desk, and a guy with a trolley took our bags rather than any of that fancy conveyor belt nonsense. We breezed through security because a) there was noone else there and b) there were no security restrictions or procedures to follow, and we sat for a while in the departure lounge. As everyone who was due to travel arrived early, about half an hour before we were due to board we were directed through a door right onto the runway and walked to our plane. It was about a third full and we left a full thirty minutes early. Stress free flying at it’s best!
Back in Yangon we collected our bags from the corner of the arrivals hall with an A4 printed sign saying ‘Collection Baggage’, and said our goodbyes at the official end of the tour. I headed back into downtown Yangon for a few hours for a final look around, before getting a taxi to Aung Mingala Bus Station. I was glad I had collected my ticket in advance because it would’ve been rather overwhelming trying to buy a bus ticket there; there was no central office, just rows and rows of individual bus company offices facing onto their bus terminals. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of companies covering an area the size of a small town, with no explanation of how they were organised or which cities the different companies went to. Thankfully I already had my ticket and by showing it to my taxi driver and after a few conversations with traffic directors I was dropped off the GI Group office.
After explaining several times to my fellow travellers in Myanmar that I was taking a 24-hour bus ride to Bangkok rather than flying, and after seeing their bemused reactions, I had been starting to wonder exactly why I had chosen to travel this way. It was only marginally cheaper than flying, more confusing and much, much slower. But on the other hand, apart from avoiding the disconnected feeling of being picked up in once place and plonked down in another that you get from flying, I got to have a bit of an adventure. One of my favourite things about travelling independently in a place where I don’t speak the language is the completely disproportionate sense of achievement I get from getting the tiniest things right. I got to the right part of the bus station on time! I found a toilet and food! And I got on the right bus even though there was another bus going in the opposite direction leaving at exactly the same time! Gold stars for me.
While I waited I chatted to a Burmese IELTS teacher (the international English language qualification needed to, among other things, study at UK Universities), who was returning to Mandalay with his sister who, judging by her expression, thought I was doing something either fascinating and wonderful or unnecessary and bonkers. Later on I met a Danish girl taking a semester out from her degree course to live in Yangon and work as a freelance hostel consultant, which sounded like an excellent and pretty ingenious way of travelling around and getting paid for it.
By the time the bus left at 9pm I was ready to sleep and was hampered only slightly by the Burmese pop music videos blaring out on the coach. The bus was comfortable and they provided bottled water and blankets, and got a fair bit of sleep before we stopped at midnight and everyone had to get off while the bus refuelled. The service station was an open-sided cafe, a few snack stalls, and some plastic chairs, but it was cold and I was keen to get back on the bus. I had wondered why a journey that took seven hours according to Google Maps was scheduled to take twelve hours, and I got my answer at around 3am when the bus stopped again so that everyone, including the driver, could get a proper sleep. It was a bit toasty without the air con, but after some decent sleep and a breakfast stop (mini toothbrush set and wet wipes included) I felt quite refreshed.
The last part of the journey was the most I’d seen of rural, non-touristy Myanmar as we drove past people starting their day in bamboo hut villages and makeshift tents in farmland. Between the investment-fuelled building of Yangon and the developing tourist towns of Bagan and Inlé Lake, it’s easy to forget that Myanmar is still a country of extreme inequality and desperate poverty. I was glad to be reminded of this as I left, but mostly I found Myanmar to be a country of gentle, friendly, inquisitive people, great geographical diversity, and a rich and active cultural heritage.