Driving in Myanmar is one heck of an experience.

Most of the taxi’s look like the rest of the city, in some major sort of disrepair. Their internals stripped, a hodgepodge of different colored body panels, windows broken with shattered glass on the floor, and most with some unusual scent that I can only guess to be a combination of rat feces and mildew. Luckily our driver had a newer vehicle for our seven day journey. We are taking a small 4 door sedan. There is a large sticker on the windshield that says Toyota, but the strange emblems on the hood and trunk make it suspect. The drivers seat is on the wrong side, which isn’t the out of the ordinary in southeast Asia, what is unusual is they still drive on the right side of the road. Big deal you say, well when you are flying down the highway, at who knows what speed because the speedometer is broken, and your driver gets stuck behind an huge truck, which is loaded down at twice its capacity, he must not just peak around the truck to see if it is clear to pass but instead completely stick the car in the other lane in order to see oncoming traffic. I, being in the front passenger seat, always have the first view of whatever oncoming traffic is barreling towards us, only for my driver to see and avoid it moments before impact.

Also, for some reason our driver finds it appropriate to take his hands off the wheel, clasp them together, bow his head momentarily, and make a small prayer every time are vehicle points towards some religious building. Again, what’s the big deal you ask. Well, Myanmar has a ridiculously large concentration of religious structures. So when we are driving down a windy two lane road the width of the car, cliff on one side, every corner is a blind corner, and every turn your vehicle points towards a temple, stupa, or pagoda, pretty soon you start praying with the man. The horn is also a form of communication. In the 10 hour drive from Yangon I don’t think there was a 30 second interval that didn’t have our driver honking his horn at something in the road whether it be truck, car, tuk tuk, dog, cow, motor bike, etc. We still have half our driving trip left and if we do not kill something, someone our ourselves before this trip is over I will be surprised.

I will always remember his red, beetle nut stained teeth smiling and laughing, being so amused that such a big man squeal  like a little girl in what I was certain were my last terrifying moments of life.

On our drive from Yangon to Mandalay we were able to stop and have lunch near the new capital. Foreigners are not allowed in and if our driver took us there, in his words, he would be “gone”. Skirting along the outside we are all amazed at the economic disparity between here, where all the government officials live, and Yangon. If we didn’t know any better, we’d swear we were driving through a new community in southern California. Beautiful new roads that are all landscaped, brand new shopping complexes, 5 star hotels and resorts, and mansion upon mansion. We were all quiet with disbelief.

Mandalay is another animal too. With people driving through the streets dancing on the roofs and backs of  trucks, while huge speakers, that are so loud you must cover your ears, blast whatever the latest Burmese music is. The traffic is horrendous, with motor bikes, trucks, and regular bikes, all following their own set of rules. Government propaganda is sprawled out on many of the billboards although the military presence is minimal. The Burmese travel agent said “the government is everyone” with anyone and everyone so fearful themselves that they will quickly turn another in.

We woke the next morning at 4:00am so that we could see the washing of the Buddha’s face.

A ritual performed by the head monk on a daily basis. While locals prayed and chanted, the monk washed the face with water and then sprayed a concoction of colognes on the Buddha’s face. Apparently CK One, Axe Body Spray, and assorted other colognes are the scent of the gods. Once complete the locals went up and applied gold leaf to the Buddha’s body, something that over the years has created a 12 inch thick coating of gold over the entire body.

After getting back to our hotel around 6 and a couple hour nap we were off to look at other sites in Mandalay. They were impressive and our driver knew were to go, how to get there, and how to avoid fees(always a plus). Singai hill was scattered with numerous temples looking over the river. We wrapped up the day with a boat ride across an inlet of the Irrawaddy, which without fail, we were rained  upon.

After such an early morning we are heading to bed early. Tomorrow we are making the drive from Mandalay to Bagan.
Written by The Restless Giant
Ryan is a traveler who works just long enough to get to his next trip. He usually has numerous trips in the pipeline and, when possible, brings his family along with him.