An unexpected chance to get killed in Mandalay

My ride to the bus station in Mandalay, Myanmar, showed up 45 minutes late, unhurried and calm, and led me out front to our ride. One of the little motorbikes that zip everywhere in this country, 125 cc at absolute maximum. I’m guessing half that. I looked at it with my big bag on my back, shoulder bag on one side and water bottle in hand.


Mandalay traffic“On there?” I asked.
He smiled. “Yeah.”
“Am I going to fall off and die?”
He smiled. “Yeah.”


We cram ourselves into the internal combustion frenzy of rush hour traffic, although “rush hour” seems to last about 15 hours a day here. The sunlight flashes off grimy tailpipes, gangs of diesel fumes drift around looking for vulnerable lungs to pick on, and the spastic percussion of pointlessly insistent horns is as unceasing as ever.

His turn signal beeps its intention to turn, and passing motorists honk back their intention to ignore it.

Two teenage boys riding in the back of an empty delivery truck pass a cigarette back and forth and watch us approach. As we wait for a sliver of a chance to pass I greet them, “Mingalaba!” They grin and laugh in answer. One salutes while the other gestures at my lack of a helmet and signs that I’m crazy. I shrug my shoulders in reply. They laugh at that too.


Mandalay traffic nightWhenever we get to 50 kph (which feels like 50 mph in those circumstances) the unbuckled strap of my driver’s helmet whips me in the nose. Few people seem to actually buckle their helmets here. My thighs feel sweaty where they touch his, and my chest bumps his back at every change in velocity.

We are a single starling in a flock of kin, one-to-three per bike, four if the kids are small, men in grimy tank tops and longyi (skirts) and women sitting side-saddle in intricately patterned skirts, brilliant blue, vibrant yellow, indulgent green.

The bicycles are slower-moving cousins, utterly fearless and unapologetic, often wearing those conical hats from the logos of tea companies. Delivery trucks with the engine block chopped off and replaced by tractor motors deliver stacks of boxes, piles of sheet metal, or joust with bundles of rebar. Cars are a minority.


Suddenly we all divert to what looks like a sidewalk, whizzing past stalls selling potato chips, sodas, telephones, who knows what else.

I see them before my driver does. A father and son coming in to merge. Our horn would have been lost in the chaos anyway. Side mirrors are only accidentally positioned to show the road behind, so we have no idea what is there when we swerve right. A flash of red as a family of three looks at me with glassy disinterested eyes from a few inches away…and we all just putter on.

We come closest to crashing on the dirt, gravel, and pot-holed road that leads to Pyi Gyi Myet Shin Highway Bus Station. He leans forward and right to blast a stream of crimson spit from the betel nuts he (as everyone else in this country) is chewing, and his correcting swerve wobbles us through a few more pot holes.

Then we are in the caffeinated village of the massive station. The yellow stray dog barely moves in time as we park, and he points towards the nexus-of-chaos terminal and mumbles some Burmese words dripping with narcotic betel nut saliva.

Mandalay traffic 3
“That way?”
“Okay! Thank you, chezu tin ba de!”

His answering nod almost loses him his helmet, and there are flecks of chewed up leaves on his red and brown teeth and black gums as he grins goodbye.

I survived the ride to the station. Now just to survive an 8-10 hour overnight bus to Inle Lake…