Travelers, whether they admit it or not, are always competing. You will quickly see what I mean if you ever settle into a bar and enjoy a few (too many) beers with the backpacking crowd anywhere in the world. Often people are vying for titles from the most off the beaten track experience to the craziest drunken night that they survived. Now I have to admit that I have “competed” in several of these conversations at bars, but never have I had a story that I am confident could be the winner in any given category. But let me tell you, I’ve heard your 28 people on a pick-up stories and I raise you the bus ride from hell in Myanmar to take the prize as the worst bus ride ever.
The offending ride was from Bagan to Inle Lake in Myanmar and lasted a grueling 14+ hours. I had mentally geared up for this bus ride as I had heard horrible things from travelers that had gone before, but nothing could have prepared me for this. First off, the bus leaves at the ungodly hour of 3:00 a.m. In my bleary-eyed, half-awake state and under the cloak of darkness I was unable to protest about my tiny hardwood seat and lack of space. I didn’t even have enough brain power to fathom how bad it was going to get because I just wanted to go back to sleep. From the start of the ride, which is basically the middle of the night, it is 89 degrees Fahrenheit. I knew the temperature was sure to climb and it quickly did as more and more people boarded the bus.
At the start of the ride I counted 26 seats and 45 passengers, it doesn’t take a math genius to see that makes for a very uncomfortable experience. I stopped counting the people that got on in every small town on the way, because it became too depressing. My legroom quickly vanished and was replaced with bags oozing slimy liquid and puking young children, seemingly riding without parental supervision. I didn’t know if I should feel bad for them or kick them to the curb until an adult claimed them just to free up foot space. Plastic seats filled the aisles and locals whom had not showered possibly ever loomed over me, falling on to my lap or just resting there. This made it particularly interesting every time we hit a bump, which was often.
The potholes became closer together and more similar to the Grand Canyon as we reached the uphill portion of the ride. If the holes in the road and gravel gaps between pavement didn’t make you lose your lunch then the other passengers losing theirs would. In fact just four hours into the trip, with about twelve to go, one of the riders on the roof lost his lunch all over me. You forget about the other twenty some odd people riding on the roof until they remind you by regurgitating their last meal all over you. With chunks of chewed rice and bits of vegetables drying on my clothes I attempted to clean my seat and negotiate a little bit more space so that I could sit a bit farther from the window lest this happen again.
Just as I was starting to recover from my vomiting incident and was feeling comfortable enough to open the window, it started to pour. Once again we were reminded of the riders on the roof as they flung themselves off the top of the bus and dripping wet, piled inside. Clearly they had been drinking up there and so they attempted to stand, but without success, there were no seats left so lack of better options they ended up sitting on people that did have seats. Of course nothing goes better with drinking than smoking and on the roof it was no problem, so they had no qualms about lighting up inside.
As I sat there inhaling second hand smoke and assessing the situation I was reminded that I had in fact paid for this experience. Just as I was laughing about the whole ordeal, to keep from crying, our bus came to an abrupt stop and I realized that even though I had paid for the bus it still might not get me to my destination, which according to the original time estimates was supposed to be an hour ago. When we finally arrived to Inle Lake I almost fell out of the bus having lost all sensation from the waist down.
We safely made it to a very nice guesthouse where I took a much-needed shower. Feeling like a new person I went out to buy detergent to soak my clothes. The ordeal cemented my belief that just one ride on a local bus will bring you more local ‘color’ than a month in an upscale hotel in any given country. I didn’t expect the local color to come in the form of dried carrot on my shirt, but it was definitely an authentic experience. While I can’t recommend this kind of travel to everyone, I suspect 99% of people I know will never take a bus ride like this in their life, it sure makes for good travel stories over beer. This story might even be a ‘winner’.