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.
“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.
Whenever 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.
“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…
More breath holding today. 😉
🙂 The bus ride wasn’t that bad…and it was the worst yet. It passed quickly, but I was tortured by horrid karaoke music videos and a self-destructive emotional loop of thoughts; we stopped for food and I got to (non)chat with some kids selling (something that may be) quail eggs, but there’s a good chance I got lightly robbed at some point. I need to keep better track of exactly how much money I have on me, and where it is. I hope I’m wrong…but I’m pretty sure the bastard got away with about $80 USD. First time for me in nearly five years on the road. Super bummer, but a toast to the other 4.9999 years.
got a St.Christopher medal with you? 🙂
🙂 As a matter of fact I do. And also an old-looking-but-undoubtedly-fraudulent coin with Athena on it from Ephesus, a dancing Ganesh from my Nepali brother, and now some sort of tiny Burmese coin with wavy edges that is undoubtedly worthless financially, but since I found it in a rural mountain village of an ethnic group with a history of armed conflict but smiles the size of the Himalayas I’m going to count it as lucky.
So I should be pretty well protected!
Scary! the post, and the further stories in the comments….where to AFTER Burma??
Apparently flights from Yangon go to: Bangkok, Colombo, and Kuala Lampur. I think I’ll take the foremost and go see what this famous Thailand place is like…
Yay that’s a possibility for me late next year so I look forward to reading about it 😉
This is awesome! You really bring the reader on the back of the bike through traffic with you. Excellent writing and way to go on the post!
Thank you George, I appreciate that! It was one of the times I found myself trying to “keep my cool” and not grin like an idiot, partially out of concern for my ego but more so due to the bug content of the air hitting my face. Glad you enjoyed the read!
My writing is sticks and rocks compared to this. Travel safe!
I’ll take that as a compliment; thank you! But sticks and rocks are what’s on everyone’s mind in Myanmar…or at least what’s on everyone’s faces. They take a certain kind of stick, put a little oil on flat stones that look a bit like fancy cutting boards, and rub the stick on it until a muddy layer builds up. This they spread on their faces as sunscreen, and leave visible patches in various designs on the cheeks for decoration. It took a little while to get used to! I hope to have access to my photos someday not too far off, I’ll post a picture of it…
Oh, Tim! More wonderful photos! And they are exactly what this post needs! I would like to see one of you with your pack etc on the back, but I will content myself with the 2/5 of a picture your words make!
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I’m going through past journals for a project, smile-inducing memories on every page… I’m glad I posted this back then, because the notes about it, written on a bouncing bus, are nearly illegible now.
Hilarious! What fun.
On my third day in Mandalay, it dawned on me that my room being A, while everyone else had a number, might mean something. I peeked in one of the other rooms and realized, yup, I had been paying to sleep in a storage closet.
So crazy mototaxi or not, I was ready to leave!