Great Ways to Get Around Burma

Stick your head out the open windows of the world’s bounciest trains and perfect the art of riding motorcycles side-saddle. Rumble down quiet country roads on ancient bullock carts and chug down the Irrawaddy on stately government ferries. Welcome to the wonderful world of Burmese public transport!

We’re not talking about domestic flights and express buses here, because those are efficient but dull (I think) – not to say expensive. Instead, let’s look at more interesting ways to get around in Burma…

Express Bus

An express bus packed with people going home for Thingyan (Burmese New Year) prepares to leave from Kyaukme in Shan State.

<< Click on each gallery to see a slideshow of images >>
By Train

Burma’s antiquated narrow-gauge rail network dates from the days of British Burma. Trains are slow and frequently delayed – at one point I arrived at a station three hours late for my train, only to discover that the train was running five hours late itself – and comically bouncy.

Although they’re best avoided if you’re on a tight schedule, Burma’s trains allow access to parts of the country where road transport is closed to foreigners. They also offer more opportunities to interact with other travellers – plus, as I discovered to my cost, they’re the only transport that still runs during Burma’s week-long Thingyan (New Year) holiday…

By Boat

Boat trips – on Burma’s rivers and a handful of coastal routes – are an excellent way to get around the country. From cruises on teak-lined steamers to crowded “fast boats” and ponderous government ferries (descendents of the wonderfully-named Irrawaddy Flotilla Company), there’s a boat trip to suit most travel budgets.

However you get on the water, you can expect to see a slice of the life aquatic – women lathering wriggling children for their daily bath in the Thanlwin (Salween), monks thwacking their deep red washing against rocks by the side of the Ayeryarwady (Irrawaddy), and fishermen perching hopefully on rickety bamboo platforms in the Andaman Sea…

Two-wheelers and Tuk-tuks

Private cars are still a rarity in Burma. Most people rely on two-wheelers – either bicycles, motorbikes or tuk-tuks – to get about. I spent a lot of time riding around on motorcycle taxis, and learnt to sit side-saddle, as Burmese women do, with my legs hanging down on the opposite side to the exhaust pipe, flip-flops dangling inches off the road surface.

On four legs

Buffalo carts and elephants. Those are your options in the four-legged transport category šŸ™‚ . Buffalo carts are Burma’s original form of wheeled-transport, and they’re still used widely in the countryside. Asian elephants work mainly in Upper Burma’s logging camps, as they have for a century or more since the British started pulling old-growth teak from Burma’s magnificent forests. Neither is really a practical transport option for the casual visitor, to be honest, but they’re very picturesque nonetheless – I was particularly enchanted to meet these elephants on an otherwise empty road near Katha…

On two legs

Finally, if you’ve exhausted all other options, shanks’ pony is always available – and you don’t even need to go barefoot, like the monks do.

P.S. Want to experience the glories of Burmese public transport in just 47 seconds? Check out this video, compiled of wobbly, unfocused clips I recorded on my trip:

7 responses to “Great Ways to Get Around Burma

  1. Pingback: Freshly Seen at Jill’s Scene during September | Jill's Scene·

  2. Hello Jo, I’m heading to Myanmar in a few weeks. Your post has encouraged me that I’ve made the right decision to go, depsite the challenges I might encounter getting around! I’ve included your post in my Freshly Seen feature on my blog.

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