Travelling on the ground always seemed to be a big part of every journey and that was especially true for Myanmar. As local transport was generally slow and usually arrived later than expected, a significant amount of time was actually spent in all sorts of different vehicles. While on the one hand this additional time needed to be factored into the overall schedule, on the other hand every single one of these travel experiences provided a great opportunity to participate in local travel culture. Not only was it always possible to meet many friendly local people and practice silent communication, but it was also great to participate in all sorts of interesting means of local transport.
Tip: If you are really pressed on time when visiting Myanmar, skip Yangon altogether and fly directly into Mandalay. Mandalay makes a more convenient base to reach Bagan and the Inle Lake area, plus other interesting sights like Amarapura, Kalaw, Pyin Oo Lwin and even Hsipaw are close by as well.
1. Horse Carts
Surprisingly enough, but simple two-wheeled horse carts were still widely used in Myanmar and they seemed to be a common way to travel. My first accounter with them happened when arriving in Bagan and thereafter I saw them consequently in every place I visited. Originally designed as a passenger vehicle, these horse carts could sometimes be seen transporting goods as well.
2. Horse Carriages
These beautiful horse carriages of the former British colonial hill station Pyin Oo Lwin looked like a big tourist trap, but actually they weren’t at all. In fact, almost no tourists could be seen in Pyin in Oo Lwin and almost all local transport happened in these classic four-wheeled beauties.
Tip: The horse carts of Bagan have become a real tourist attraction and prices were stated in US dollars only. For a more local experience try them elsewhere or even better, visit Pyin Oo Lwin and rather take a nice horse carriage instead.
Two Wheeled Travel
Bicycles were widely used in Myanmar to cover short distances and of course, whoever used them never seemed to be in any sort of a rush. For me personally they became the best way to mingle and explore a town or village. I ended up renting a bicycle in Bagan, Mandaly, Katha and Pyin Oo Lwin.
Like in any other Asian country, motorcycles were the most popular way to travel and literally every single person seemed to own at least one of them. As a traveller I sometimes used a motorcycle taxi and I even found some friendly locals, happily offering me a lift on the back seat and dropping me at my desired destination.
Tip: Motorbike rentals didn’t seem to really exist in Myanmar, but renting a bicycle for a half or full half day was very easy. They really shouldn’t cost more than 1500 Kyat (1.5 USD) per day, but make sure to shop around and negotiate the price.
Three Wheeled Travel
5. Bicycle Trishaws
While cycle rickshaws in Asia usually looked like a bicycle in the front with a double seated bench in a back, the trishaws in Myanmar rather came with a little side car attached to an actual bike. This unusual design required the two passengers to travel sitting back to back on designated wooden seats.
6. Motorcycle Three Wheelers
Where the sealed roads ended and the regular traffic thinned out, the motorcycle three wheelers became the best way to travel. Linking villages and small towns, these vehicles did only hit the dirt road when jam-packed with people and goods. By the way, the photo was taken half empty already after the arrival in Shwebo.
7. Three Wheeler Cars
This adorable little vehicle would have easily become my favorite means of transport in Myanmar, but unfortunately I only ever saw them parked. It surely would have been a fun experience to travel in one of these three-wheeled cars and the only better thing I could imagine would be actually test driving one of them.
Tip: Take trishaws only for the experience, they are incredibly slow when fully loaded and only move in walking speed. Also bring time when using motorcycle three wheelers. While they drop you exactly at your destination, in return expect them to pick up the kids from school, the grandma from her house and the bags of rice from the shop along the way as well.
8. Hood-less Tractors
Probably the most rudimentary of all moving vehicles, these hood-less tractors were as universally used as they were noisy. The machines had to be started manually with a winch and while in other countries the front part was only used to plow fields, in Myanmar they had evolved to real vehicles, carrying everything from construction material over human passengers to skyscraper high loads of goods.
9. Hood-less Trucks
These hood-less trucks really seemed to be some interesting creatures as they didn’t look like anything that a regular automotive company would produce and sell. And in fact, I passed by some small shops that seemed to macgyver these trucks together out of all sorts of available spare parts. But whatever these vehicles were, they were widely used all over Myanmar and they looked extremely fascinating, especially when fully loaded and rattling around town.
Tip: Hitching a ride on the back of one of these hood-less beauties can be really good fun. Expect a true cultural experience and communicate with your best smile only as certainly no English is spoken.
10. Pick-Up Cars
Pick-ups were definitely one of the most popular ways to travel in Myanmar. They were really cheap, connected all sorts of different destinations and they could be entered or left at any point in time. While they were also usually cramped to the top with all sorts of stuff and they really did a lot of stops along the way, they still were certainly a great local way to travel Myanmar.
11. Pick-Up Trucks
The range of pick-ups went from actual cars to smaller trucks, but the principle of operation was always the same and once they understood your destination, they tried everything to get you there, or at least as close as possible. Although pick-ups could be hailed anywhere along the road, they usually had designated starting points as well where the empty pickups waited to slowly fill up before they left.
Tip: Pick-ups were usually the cheapest way to travel in Myanmar. When using them, try to find the designated starting point to make sure you catch the correct one and to actually get a seat.
12. Big Trucks
Big trucks existed in Myanmar in all sorts of different forms, shapes and conditions. While they were normally used to carry heavy loads, more often than not they also functioned as a local means of transport with people sitting, standing or hanging onto them.
Tip: As fun as it may look and as local as it may seem, try to resist the temptation. Being hospitalized in a foreign country and explaining to your insurance why you fell from the roof of a moving truck is not nearly as much fun as it may sound.
Long Distance Travel
13. Local Buses
Local buses came as well in all different sizes and conditions. They usually operated during the day and the real advantage was that they had operable windows. Even though cramped at times and toilet stops could be infrequent, these buses still were a great way to participate in local travel.
14. Air-Con Express Buses
Air conditioned overnight buses were unfortunately the best way to travel between Yangon and Mandalay, Bagan or the Inle Lake area. They were used by locals and travellers alike and they always made sure to use their air-con on full power when driving. The freezing temperatures and the constant food stops throughout the night in combination with the occasional breakdowns really made sure that a night in these buses was not quite as restful as one had hoped for. But hey, at least Mr. Bean was always there, looking out the front door…
Tip: Bring not only all your warm clothes inside the air-con bus, but also some duct tape to close off the broken fans above you that are blowing freezing cold air right into your face.
15. Myanmar Railways
While the railway system existed throughout the country and while trains would have been the best way to travel in other countries, unfortunately in Myanmar they were not. Incredibly slow service at higher prices than air-con buses, there was really not much reason to use Myanmar Railways for long distance travel. But for shorter trips and to enjoy the beautiful scenery, using these trains certainly was a great local travel experience.
Tip: To learn more about the train system in Myanmar, please have a look at Adventure Travel on Myanmar Railways.
Have you travelled in Myanmar? Did you use any other local transport?