The Myanmar bus transport industry is undergoing the same rapid evolution as the rest of that country’s travel business, and it’s all to the Myanmar visitor’s benefit. Gone are the days when there were no other options but cramped, non-air-conditioned buses. VIP buses have now far outstripped Myanmar’s ubiquitous trains as the fastest and most comfortable surface travel option around.
Let’s not pretend you’ll be cruising on rose petals, though. Even Myanmar’s super-comfy VIP buses travel on some pretty bad roads (the winding dirt tracks out of Nyaung Shwe are a nightmare). And the aircon is always set to “freeze your buttocks off”.
Types of bus transport in Myanmar
The advantages of bus travel in Myanmar are immediately apparent to the experienced traveler. Low cost (read about Myanmar kyat), faster travel times than the train, and (for sleeper buses) expenses for one night’s hotel or hostel stay avoided; these make bus travel a favorite option for backpackers. But not all buses are created equal.
VIP bus. These large buses are the best on Myanmar’s roads at the moment. A VIP-class bus has three seats per row – one seat on the side of the aisle and two on the other. The seats recline and provide footrests. The buses have no bathrooms, though, and passengers must “take care of business” immediately before the trip to ensure no “accidents” between departure and the first rest stop.
Ordinary bus. Average Myanmar citizens ride these buses – they may be air-conditioned, but they’re packed to the brim before they leave. Once the four seats per row are filled in, the pursers put plastic seats down the aisle for even more passengers to sit on.
Minibus. Unlike the previous buses, which follow regular timetables, minibuses leave only when they’ve been filled with passengers, about eight to 20 depending on the size. Intercity minibuses can pick passengers up at their hotels or hostels, saving them a trip to the bus station.
Popular Bus Routes in Myanmar
Almost every point in Myanmar (save the Mergui Archipelago) can be reached by bus. The following bus routes rank among some of the most popular for tourists.
Yangon to Bagan. The sleeper VIP bus from Yangon departs at 8:30pm, arriving at Bagan Bus Station at about 5am. If you fall asleep right away, you’ll get enough Z’s to get to Bagan bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. The roads are all paved (though the “expressway” looks no more than a single lane in width).
Bagan to Mandalay. Minibuses will take you straight from your hostel or hotel in New Bagan to your hotel in Mandalay, taking up to seven hours to complete the journey.
Nyaung Shwe (Inle Lake) to Mandalay. The backpacker town of Nyaung Shwe has no bus station to speak of; the JJ Express Bus I rode in took in passengers on Yone Gyi Street, before proceeding on the eight-hour journey to Mandalay. (Pictured above.)
I slept for the first hour in, awoke on the second and regretted it – the roads out of Nyaung Shwe are unpaved and tortuously curvy.
What to expect on your Myanmar bus ride
Myanmar bus rides are by no means first-class ones, not even on the hyperbolic “VIP” buses. Book a seat and you can expect the following as part of the experience:
Out-of-the-way bus stations. Bus stations in major Myanmar cities are often set at a remove from the city center… sometimes too far. Aung Mingalar Bus Station took two hours to get to, wading through Yangon traffic. Kywel Sel Kan Bus Station in Mandalay is a forty-minute taxi ride away from the vicinity of the Palace. Bagan Bus Station, close to Nyaung-U Airport, is thirty minutes’ drive away from New Bagan, where all the hostels are located.
Blanket and water. VIP sleeper buses in particular will offer this grudging nod to your comfort: a synthetic fleece blanket and a bottle of water. The blanket will help keep you warm in the bus’s sub-arctic temperature through the night.
Rest stops. The bus will pause at least once at a rest stop about three or four hours into the trip. The stop lasts between 30 to 45 minutes, allowing passengers ample time to grab some food or to drain their bladders.
Really cold air conditioning. You can mitigate this by pointing the vents away from yourself, or by bringing a really warm jacket to sleep in.
Loud music videos. Buses come with one TV, generally playing either a soap opera or a music video mix. Some bus lines turn this off after an hour on the road; others will keep it playing till the wee hours.
Booking a Myanmar bus ride
Most of Myanmar’s bus companies are happier letting third parties handle the bookings for them.
One such third-party site is MyanmarBusTicket (myanmarbusticket.com); you’ll need to create a profile before buying a ticket, but they’ll allow you to pay via credit card or PayPal.
I used this site to book both my Yangon-Bagan and Nyaung Shwe-Mandalay trips. I had to wait about two days before they got back to me with the approved ticket, but I had no problem riding at the appointed times.
If you don’t mind waiting till you get to Myanmar to book your ticket, you can ask your Myanmar hotel to arrange the trip. Many hotels will gladly arrange your bus ride; minibus services will even pick you up right at the hotel, and drop you off at the hotel on the other end.
Myanmar bus travel tips
Prepare a comfort kit. I learned from my first bus trip (Yangon to Bagan) and put together a comfort kit to help me sleep better through my second bus trip (Nyaung Shwe to Mandalay). My comfort kit includes earplugs, eye shades, thick socks, and a little snack.
Choose any seat except the front row.The front row does not have a footrest, and the unimpeded view of the road is cold comfort, particularly if it ends up terrifying you out of a good night’s sleep.
Don’t pooh-pooh the toilet break. Sure, your bladder feels fine now… but who’s to say that your skipping one toilet break won’t leave you writhing, bladder full, on the second leg of your trip? And who’s to say you won’t have an embarrassing accident? Spare yourself the pain, go now even if you don’t have much to drain.