Events narrated in this article happened on Tuesday the 14th of January, 2020. Jonas and I hitchhiked from the new capital city Naypyitaw to the old one named Yangon. CONTENT WARNING: there are vivid descriptions of vomiting in here. Emetophobics might want to sit this one out.
The breakfast time in Vegas Hotel Naypyitaw started at 6:30. That was the time we chose to wake up. I didn’t feel very great, but I soldiered on and dragged myself to breakfast. We’d already packed the night before, so the only thing that was stopping us from hitchhiking the 360 kilometers to Yangon.
I was looking forward to Yangon. It sounded like a lively city with certain amenities like Grab. Getting around Naypyitaw had been quite a pain, but Yangon promised us experiences like in Mandalay.
After breakfast, we brushed teeth and finished up our packing. On the way down to the lobby, we shared the elevator with two older Chinese ladies. I thought they were looking at my hitchhiking sign saying ‘Yangon City’ (ရန်ကုန်မြို့). Before I knew it, they started taking selfies with me in the elevator. We were temporarily trapped in the slightly aggressive elevator because there was some trouble finding the camera app.
In the lobby, the selfies didn’t end there. While Jonas was busy dealing with checking out and arranging a tuk-tuk or a taxi, I found myself posing with more and more middle-aged Chinese ladies who were very excited for some reason. Jonas had prepared me to take photos with provincial Chinese people visiting the big city in our 144 hours in Shanghai, but that never happened over there. I couldn’t really understand why the fuss over taking a photo with a foreigner was such a big deal to them in a foreign country.
But I can’t disappoint friendly old ladies, so I just stood there while they formed formations around me and taught their friends where the button is on their smartphones to simply snap away.
Taxi to the Toll Booth
Saved by the taxi, I was finally freed from my wax statue duties. Jonas finally had the time to get me up to speed to what happened: the hotel was too fancy to call a tuk-tuk, that’s why we took a taxi. The taxi driver seemed to understand where we needed to go. I was skeptical, so I asked Jonas for his iPhone so I could follow on GPS. Somehow, my Xiaomi phone’s GPS was not reliable in Naypyitaw. That’s been the most unforgivable feature of this otherwise very breathable city.
The taxi driver took us through the giant neighborhoods past the old checkpoint and to the toll booth. Without any instructions, he drove pretty much the route we expected him to take to our toll booth. We still have no clue how the communication between hotel and taxi driver or Jonas and taxi driver went that this was so easy. Normally we dread having to explain to paid drivers where we want to end up. Looking at the time, I knew we’d be hitchhiking at about the same time as the last time (and the first time) we hitchhiked in Myanmar.
By the road at 8:30 seemed to be our sweet spot. It’s kind of funny to me how we develop standard times for such activities as hitchhiking or kayaking rather quickly. None of it is on purpose.
We entered the Yangon-Mandalay Expressway in the wrong direction, but the guy stopped there and popped the trunk. We took our backpacks out and paid the man in the Myanma way: hand over the money with your right hand while using your left hand to hold up a (real or imagined) sleeve on your right arm. Add a little bow and you’re super polite.
He drove off and we walked to the side of the toll booth in direction Yangon.
A Short Wait
We crossed a few closed-off lanes on the wrong side of the highway, walked past a few pregnant-looking stray dogs to cross over to the right side. I really wanted a photo this time of me holding the hitchhiking sign I worked so hard on, so Jonas snapped a few pictures before we got serious about finding a ride. A big red tour bus made eye-contact with Jonas in a funny way, but they didn’t stop for us.
We were waiting for private vehicles to come through. There wasn’t a lot of traffic – as usual on this highway – but there was plenty to work with. I realized that there’s a rapidly growing middle class in Myanmar that can afford to take the Yangon-Mandalay Expressway, pay for some foreign goods, and enjoy that kind of lifestyle. It’s all happening.
A private car is approaching the toll booth. We’re patiently waiting for them to pay and drive through. We show the Myanma side of the Yangon sign as they slowly drive out of the booth. They read our sign and the driver puts his hand up in ‘shrug’ with a smile and points to the back seat. It’s full of boxes. We smile and wave and nod to wish them a good journey as they directly pull off the highway and into the restaurant/rest area.
The next car approaches the toll booth. It’s a large pickup truck. Once they’re through, we see that the cab is full of men in camouflage uniforms. They smile because it’s not going to happen and I smile because hitchhiking with the army has never happened to me either. I put the sign down and they also drive into the rest area.
Another small car drives by. It already has more than maxed out the number of seats by carrying about six people. They also enter the rest area.
The next car that enters the toll booth closest to us looks completely empty. We hold out the sign and then see that there’s a young child in the passenger seat. The driver makes eye-contact and nods and I point at the space behind me to the left in the closed-off lane for him to stop. He drives in there and stops the car. Jonas asks me if I’m okay with hitchhiking with a child, and I say I’m fine. This is the first time since my sterilization that I (somewhat deliberately) put myself in the presence of a child. Would it make me feel invincible?
We exchange a Mingalaba with the driver and he opens the trunk where we drop our backpacks. We don’t even further inquire if he’s going to Yangon; he’s read the sign. Everybody here goes to Yangon. We get in the back seat. As predicted, we also drive off into the rest area first. It’s 8:35 and it took less than five minutes to find this direct ride to Yangon.
What’s Your Name?
Our driver just needs to make a stop for gas. The gas station is fully serviced and our driver doesn’t even need to get out. I ask our driver’s name, which is Htun Thura. I shared our names with him too, but I think he didn’t catch ours.
Htun Thura catches us by surprise when he asks Jonas if he’s my father. My explanation for this is that he might have confused ‘father’ with ‘brother’. But Jonas thinks our driver actually meant ‘father’ because it’s really hard for people here to guess how old we are. And Jonas does have a bit of a beard, which might come with seniority. (We still don’t agree on which explanation fits best).
His boy child climbs on the passenger seat to look back at us, and I do what I think people do when interacting with children: wave and smile. If only I had seen the signs of obvious fuckery ahead of us.
We drive away from the gas station and onto the highway. The wheel is on the right side like in a left-hand-traffic country, but Myanmar drives on the right since 1970 when they decolonized their roads. It’s something we’ve gotten used to by now in Myanmar.
The vehicle has airconditioning, which makes this a very different experience from our last ride from Bagan to Naypyitaw. But like our last ride, this guy is driving really fast. We usually clock 135km/h over the concrete of the Yangon-Mandalay Expressway. Even though today we have to hitchhike 100 kilometers more than last time, it won’t take that much longer because we’re on a major route.
A Series of Stops
The kid makes some noises to indicate he needs to pee, so dad pulls over and helps the boy out of the car. Within minutes, we’re driving again. The boy lies down horizontally on the passenger seat and sticks his feet out onto his dad’s legs.
I’m enjoying the speed and comfort of the car quite a bit. At least I don’t have to wear a face mask this time. We pass so many unmapped villages and pagodas. The highway cuts right through some dense wilderness sparsely interrupted by small farms with banana trees. Sometimes there’s a group of road workers fixing up the concrete with asphalt.
Our cautious driver has a dashcam installed that records all this landscape and infrastructure that’s mundane to him but fascinating to me. Then we see a motorbike ghost riding on the edge of the road, and you realize very well why that dashcam is here. I’m hoping we get to talk a bit more with the driver, but he seems quite happy in silence right now as his kid is falling asleep.
This idyllically middle-class comfort abruptly ends as the boy launches himself up to vomit. I see the white foam oozing out of the boy’s mouth and onto the blankets and toys around the passenger seat. When the smell hits my receptors, I shortly think of reaction-vomiting myself. But then realize there’s no particular reason to start spewing.
Some of the stomach goo ends up close to dad, but I can’t keep track of it all. Dad pulls over and takes the boy out of the car. Jonas and I stare at each other thinking if there’s something we can do to help. I have some tissue paper in my pocket to give to the boy to wipe his own face. Jonas wants to give a plastic bag for the boy to vomit in, but he doesn’t have one on hand.
Htun Thura suggests that Jonas moves to the passenger seat and that the kid sits next to me. Jonas gives me that look of concern, but I think it will be fine. I think I’ll be fine next to the kid. At least he vomited it all out now… right?
The vomit blankets move into the trunk where our backpacks are. I try to give the tissue paper to the kid, but he doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. When dad returns from the trunk I try to give it to him. He takes it gratefully and wipes the face-vomit off the kid’s face.
Jonas moves to the passenger seat, which neither of us can really ascertain is vomit-free. The kid asks his dad for something, and dad gets him something from the driver’s armchair box. It’s wrapped in newspapers. It’s a drink in a glass bottle – presumably something medicinal. Dad opens up the drink for the kid, encourages him to nap, but the kid stays up to sip his drink. We drive off again. I’m keeping my last wet wipe from a plane ride nearby just in case.
Then the characterizing smell of taurine hits me to reveal the nature of the drink: it’s an energy drink. I look at the bottle and spot a bull’s head on it and the name ‘Carabao’. Oh good lord fuck no. This will be a pandemonium of vom.
Conversations with Our Driver
We continue driving down the lengthy highway. Jonas strikes up a conversation by asking where he started his drive from today. I expected the answer to be Mandalay, but to my surprise, he said Meiktila (မိတ္ထီလာ – pronounced as Meythilah). That’s probably why he didn’t need to make a longer stop at the rest area of Naypyitaw.
Htun Thura is 24 years old and a public servant. He’s driving to his wife in Yangon. We tell him we started in Naypyitaw and that the traffic there was very little, just as on the mostly empty highway right now. Our driver tells us that Yangon is one big traffic jam. The mile markers count down so fast to Yangon that it’s hard to imagine we’ll get massively stuck later.
He asks Jonas what he does. Programming and making websites is something very easy to communicate. Then he asks Jonas what his salary is, which he puts at US$2000 a month. Our driver shares with us that his salary is US$250 a month. It still kind of haunts me that this is probably the salary of the middle class and is somehow supposed to pay for everything.
We approach the toll gate at Phyu and our driver brakes just a tad bit too hard. The kid resurrects from his drowsy sitting only to vomit on the back seat and all over himself. I fucking knew this would happen.
We make a stop before the Phyu toll gate. The kid gets a clothes-change and now he’s Spiderman. As the entire backseat is soaked in stomach acid and energy drink, the vomit blanket comes out of the trunk to cover it. At this pace, there won’t be any puke-free seats anymore very soon. The kid sits on the thick layers of blanket and we drive through the toll gate. Opening the window for 30 seconds is quite a blissful experience.
Our driver just shows the toll booth people a little receipt. He doesn’t have to pay and then they let him through. I’m not completely sure what the toll prices are here, but it’s probably quite taxing along with the usual cost of owning a vehicle. Jonas already decided to offer some money for taking us once we arrive in Yangon.
The Final Stretch: Arriving in Yangon
The miles and furlongs fly by as we approach the former capital city. Traffic slowly increases as we get caught in the gravitational vortex of Bago and Yangon. The kid sleeps now on the blanket, until his next vomiting spree. This time he voms all over the floor mat behind the driver’s seat. Htun Thura hands me a clean and folded pasoe and I pass it on to the boy who doesn’t use it to wipe his vomity face and fingers. I think all of us can’t wait to arrive.
The boy chugs his energy drink and then lies down again. Then the drink hits and he starts getting really fucking annoying. He’s distracting his dad while the man tries to dodge some pretty dangerous drivers. We drive through the last toll gate of the Yangon-Mandalay Expressway, where he again only needs to show his permission slip. This also marks the end of speedy driving.
I ask Jonas to message our Airbnb host to see if we could check in one hour earlier. We’d expected to arrive at 15:00, but it looks like we’ll get there by 13:30. That statement becomes a lot less certain when we hit the first major congestion hiccups some 20 kilometers away from our destination at Taukkyan War Cemetery.
Jonas talks to our driver about where he’s going. He says the name of something that’s presumably a neighborhood. I try to find the name on Wikipedia to see if that’s close, but I can’t find it based on the phonetics. The best candidate I can find is a district called Sanchaung (စမ်းချောင်း), which neighbors our district Kyimyindang (ကြည့်မြင်တိုင်). I tell him the train stop on Yangon’s circular railway that’s closest to our apartment. I completely butcher the pronunciation, but he understood it. When stuck, he finds the spot in GPS where he will drop us off.
Our driver says we can take a taxi from there for cheap. Jonas says we’ll take a Grab, to which he responds that it’s much more expensive than a regular taxi. This got us thinking if that was true. Jonas asks how much a regular taxi would be from the drop off location, to which our driver says about 5.000 MMK. Of course, we will need to take a Grab anyway, since we have no way of explaining where we need to go with just words.
Magically, the kid has not yet vomited since his binge drinking of the energy drink. But he has not sat down either. He did that thing children do: climbing between the seats of the driver and passenger, completely blocking the rearview mirror, and then yelling loudly in our confined space and leaning on the driver. I just thought about that TV series The 100, where they cryo-hibernate the people aboard the spaceship. I see great potential for mini hibernation coffins pods for children in cars, planes, cafés, everywhere.
But right now, my only explanation for this behavior is that the kid wants us all killed.
Ironically, the more he yells the more I think death is the desired and best possible outcome.
I feel only a little bad. Vomiting isn’t nice and all, but the kid just has zero instincts into what to do to prevent the next barf session. And it’s definitely not my place to tell the kid to sit down and stop drinking the silly barf juice.
To be honest, dad also looks overwhelmed. Childcare is such a giant leap backward in one’s life. They say it takes a village to raise a child but I think a soundproofed room will also do just fine.
As the child grew bolder, the amount of space I’m taking up in the car has been reduced to an uncomfortable minimum. I’m basically squeezed up against the door. I’m holding a wet-wipe package of Binter Cabo Verde ready for when the next stomach purge gets hurled towards me.
In the manner of an addict looking for his next fix, the kid asks dad for another one of those drinks. He receives it, but dad doesn’t open the bottle for him this time. The kid gives it a short try, but can’t open it himself. Not that the kid’s asking, but I’m obviously not going to open the bottle for him.
We arrive at our dropoff spot at 12:57 – much earlier than anticipated. We get out in the humid heat and thank our driver for the ride, to which he says you’re welcome. While we get our backpacks out of the trunk, dad opens the door for his kid. The kid’s first thing is to vomit on the sidewalk almost on his dad’s feet. Jonas offers Htun Thura 15.000 MMK for gas, but he says there’s no need. So again, this was a proper hitch.
Jonas orders a Grab for 3.000 MMK to cover the last stretch to a Batman-themed café. We will have to wait there a bit until we can check into our apartment at 14:00. Htun Thura smiles and waves us goodbye and drives off once he repacked the car and cleaned up his kid.
By the time our Grab arrives, the vomit on the sidewalk has already dried up.
Comparison of Hitchhiking vs. Public Transport
Before you draw conclusions, I’d like to inform you that kids also vomit on buses, trains, and airplanes. Kids just vomit a lot and for no reason.
Our taxi ride from Hotel Vegas to the toll booth set us back 10.000 MMK. Though we offered some money, our driver didn’t want any contribution for gas or toll, so the only other money we spent was the Grab ride within Yangon 3.000 MMK. So the total cost was 13.000 MMK to get from A to B. We left the hotel at 8:20 and arrived at Café Gotham at 13:20. We had to wait there until we could check into our Airbnb at 14:00. The total travel time was 5 hours and door-to-door was 5 hours and 40 minutes.
Bus tickets from Naypyitaw to Yangon start at 7.000 MMK and go up to 12.000 MMK depending on the time of day you want to leave. I believe it gets more expensive if you want to depart at a decent time like 11:00. The buses leave from Myoma Market, which is easily a 10.000 MMK taxi ride away, possibly more. That will take 15 minutes. I think some bus companies also make a stop at the hotels in the Hotel Zone, but I can’t confirm this.
The bus takes about 6 hours. Inside Yangon, you’ll be dropped off at the Yangon Aung Mingalar bus station—which is still 20 kilometers from Shwedagon Pagoda in the center of Yangon or our Airbnb. My best guess is that you’ll have to deal with the real taxi mafia of Myanmar or take a grab (10.000 MMK). That will take one hour of your time and easily 20.000 MMK with a regular taxi. You could, of course, try to take a bus from the bus station, but Google Maps can’t help you there.
In conclusion, the journey from Naypyitaw to Yangon by bus takes 7 hours and 15 minutes. It will cost two people like us 16.000 MMK in bus tickets and a minimum of 20.000 MMK in taxi fares, making a total of 36.000 MMK.
The train from Naypyitaw to Yangon leaves four times a day. According to Rome2Rio, a ticket will cost you between 6.000 MMK and 19.000 MMK per person. Let’s say it’s 20.000 MMK for two tickets. Getting to Naypyitaw Central Station is quite a detour from the Hotel Zone at more than 20 kilometers in the wrong direction. It would probably be better to get on the train in Pyinmana a mere 12 kilometers away in 16 minutes by taxi for about 10.000 MMK.
The train journey will take 9 hours and a bit in the daytime. At Yangon Central Station, it’s fantastic that you’re actually in the city center of Yangon. To get to Shwedagon, it’s only a 3-kilometer ride (15 minutes) which costs about 2.400 MMK by Grab. To our apartment, it would have been a 7-kilometer ride (25 minutes) for 3.200 MMK by Grab. That makes the total travel price for this train journey about 36.000 MMK with something like 9 hours and 45 minutes of travel time.
An abominable trip by plane would not save as much time as you’d think. The flight time from Naypyitaw to Yangon is only 50 minutes, but you’d need at least 30 more minutes at Naypyitaw Airport (NYT). A taxi ride from the Hotel Zone will take about 20 minutes and 15.000 MMK. Yangon Airport (RGN) is about as far from the city center as the bus station. Taking a taxi into the city will cost you about 20.000 MMK by regular taxi and 10.000 MMK by grab. You’ll be stuck in traffic for one hour. The total travel time will be about 3 hours and 40 minutes if everything goes smoothly. The plane ticket starts at 170.000 MMK per person, which for two people makes a total journey cost of 365.000 MMK without counting the cost on planet earth.
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