Before arriving in Myanmar, I heard mixed reviews about the long distance busses. But Myanmar is a big country, and if
you’re adventurous like me, traveling on a tight budget, overnight busses are the cheapest and most time efficient way to get around. So I decided to bite the bullet, and book an overnight bus ticket from Yangon to Bagan. At a fraction of the cost of flying, this was pretty much my only option aside from the notorious train trek.
JJ Express had by far the best reviews, and with a motto of “the way, the truth, the life,” what is there not to love? Busses in Myanmar are not as regular as busses in Cambodia and Thailand and often sell out in advance. Luckily, I snagged the last seat on the “VIP” overnight bus for the date I wanted. Upon receiving the ticket by email (how civilized), I realized that I mistakenly booked as a Myanmar national, not a foreigner. Foreigners pay an extra surcharge on all busses in Myanmar, so this could have presented a large problem. Thankfully, the kind staff at my Yangon hotel called up JJ Express and explained the situation. They advised me that I simply could pay the additional 3500 kyat (~$2.50 USD) at the bus station upon departure. On the afternoon of departure, my guesthouse called them back to reconfirm this, and when I arrived at the bus station, the staff at JJ Express were already expecting me and my additional kyat. Non-Myanmar national surcharge paid, I was ready to travel. They checked my backpack in and gave me a metal keychain with an identifying number to claim it in Bagan. Again, so easy and civilized.
Hearing horror stories of Myanmar’s overnight busses, I bought an eye mask for 500 kyat (~35 cents, USD) at the bus terminal, as I wanted to sleep. A few minutes before the bus was scheduled to depart, boarding began. A very easy process since all seats were assigned. The layout on the VIP bus was 2+1, two seats together and one across the aisle. When I booked, I was able to get the type of seat I prefer, which is the single seat. I was pleasantly surprised to find a large, comfortable seat with ample leg room and a leg rest. My daypack fit comfortably under leg rest, so I did not need to fret about putting it up and keeping an eye on it.
We departed right on time, and the bus attendant made her announcements in Burmese followed by English. Shortly after departure, they offered us a light snack and a drink. Side note: Burmese Orange Fanta tastes like cough syrup. Going back to my “water only” rule after that experience.
Reading reviews, I had three big concerns about the bus journey, which I will address individually:
- 1. The bus stopped for a break every 2-3 hours. I read somewhere that everyone had to get off for 30 minutes, at every stop, and then re-board. Since I wanted to sleep through the night, I was worried about the interruptions to my sleep.
- 2. Loud music and television would be blaring all night, as headphones are not encouraged for the individual TV screens (yes, JJ Express had this!) in this part of the world.
- 3. With the air conditioning cranked up, the bus would be freezing cold all night.
For the most part, the reviews I read about all three were very incorrect. Yes, the bus stopped for a dinner break and then a bathroom break (two stops total for a nine hour bus ride), but no one was forced to get off. Since I was dehydrated from the nasty Orange Fanta (and did not want to do my normal hydration because I did not want to have to use the bathroom all night, as usual; there is not a bathroom on the bus at all), and not very hungry, I opted to stay on the bus and sleep for both of the stops. No one forced me to get off. While most everyone else ate, I slept like a baby on an almost empty bus.
There was no loud noise from the televisions or any sort of sound system. Everyone who wanted to watch their individual TVs used headphones. Again, how civilized. This was a huge relief to me, as I not so fondly remember an overnight bus trip in Perú with action movies at top volume all night long. I arrived to Nazca early in the morning quite cranky.
And to address my final concern, yes, the bus was indeed cold. But the bus attendant handed out blankets (again, how civilized!). This, coupled with my proper planning of bringing my jacket on the bus, wearing socks, my trusty neck buff, and long pants, as well as using both of my sarongs as extra “blankets”, kept me warm(ish) enough. I simply do not have winter clothes with me for this part of the world, though at around three in the morning, I woke up wishing I had my down jacket. But I quickly fell back to sleep.
Because the bus was so comfortable and quiet, I was able to get about five hours of mostly uninterrupted sleep, which, as anyone who has taken overnight busses abroad knows, is a big win. The road was bumpy, so reading would make me nauseous. When I wasn’t sleeping, I listened to my music and reflected back on my travels.
At 530 in the morning, and right on schedule, the bus pulled into the Nyaung U bus station, the closest to Bagan. This was right before the sun came up, so I bargained with a horse cart operator (THE way to get around these parts) to take me to the temples for sunrise and then take me to my guesthouse. Such a bonus to catch a beautiful sunrise over the stupas of Bagan right after arriving! Everything with JJ Express was extremely organized, easy, and comfortable. Thanks to them, I arrived in Bagan happy and safe. And right in time for my first Bagan sunrise. Chezu timdare*, JJ Express!
* (“Thank you” in Burmese)
Want to travel to Myanmar? It is one of those places that it helps to talk to someone who’s been there, as there are a lot of random intricacies. Contact me and I can help you plan a fantastic getaway to Myanmar, Southeast Asia’s least touristy country.