Tuesday, 25 April 2017

South to Dawei (part 2)

More of Friday 21st April 2017

We actually left Doctor Hla Tun's home at 3.45 p.m. In the car were the Doctor, his elderly mother, his relative from Dawei (who had made the local arrangements), the writer and his elder son (to return the car having dropped us off).

In fairly-heavy traffic, it took us about 45 minutes to drive across Yangon to the Highway Bus Terminal situated in the east of the city. Here, all was the usual chaos as cars, taxis, motor cycles and the trunk coaches themselves vied for space to enter or leave through one of four Gates. Somehow, we found our bus and unloaded our luggage and a couple of large cartons of goods to be donated when we arrived in Mon State.

Doctor Hla Tun and his Mother with some of our luggage prior to boarding the coach.

The bus was a huge, modern Scania painted white but with most of the bodywork (and windows) disfigured by computer-printed self-adhesive decals in the modern way. The text was in a mixture of English and Myanmar characters. However, our vehicle was an example of restrained good taste in self-advertising, compared with some of the others. Like all buses in Myanmar, ours came with a Driver and Driver's Assistant. The assistant, a wiry youth with 'two-tone' dyed hair in the fashion currently adopted by many young men in Myanmar, was stowing passengers' luggage in the large hold of the bus under the instructions of a third member of the team, a dark-haired young man whose status was indicated by his coach company shirt with epaulettes, a name badge and a clip board with a passenger seating plan for the journey. The Doctor had arranged two adjacent seats for me, for which I was grateful. The seating pitch was certainly suited better to the oriental frame rather than my larger, European build.

To my surprise, at five p.m., the advertised departure time, the bus started to extricate itself from the loading point and enter the throng of traffic entering and leaving the bus terminal. After ten minutes of stuttering progress, we were headed east on the dual carriageway out of Yangon.

Then, we suddenly turned right onto a suburban street and the explanation was soon apparent as we turned into a yard used by our bus company with a number of similar buses (and a few less-distinguished) being prepared for future journeys. The yard area had once had a roof of green, woven-plastic matting suspended from a system of overhead cables which had long-since been shredded by the wind, leaving an erratic series of streamers looking like tattered flags. A group of about eight young men workers started carrying large plastic containers, two at a time, to our bus, stowing them in our luggage hold. We took on thirty of these containers, apparently full of diesel fuel. I noticed that a small plastic bag had been laid across the filler of each container before screwing-on the cap, apparently to 'seal' the threads and prevent loss of fuel in transit.

By Coach to Dawei: Loading plastic containers of diesel fuel.

After a few minutes, this unexpected operation was complete and the coach made its way back to the dual carriageway which then turned into a modern highway with an excellent surface towards Bago, along which we made good speed. All too soon, we were back on single carriageway roads where speed dropped but these Highway Buses are driven quite aggressively to maintain their schedules.

As we continued east and then south, darkness descended and the approaching headlights became quite blinding. Our driver didn't see any need to slacken speed, even when overtaking on the wrong side of the road.

I knew from previous trips that there was a major restaurant stop for coaches near Kyaikto and, after around three hours travelling, we stopped for 30 minutes so that passengers could answer the call of nature or take food. With everybody collected back onto the bus, we continued our long journey. We dropped a couple of passengers off at a roundabout on the approach to Mawlamyine and were well south into the mountains before we made another refreshment stop.

By coach to Dawei: Refreshment stop in the mountains.

The road became quite exciting: narrow and twisting and, of course, we met large vehicles heading north at the most inconvenient locations. Nor was this the only challenge. The route was receiving major roadworks to improve and widen the carriageway so at times we were travelling on a temporary surface of rolled stone before tarmac was applied.

I rather lost track of time on this seemingly interminable journey and managed only short periods of sleep. When we stopped again and alighted from the bus, I was initially puzzled because I could see no hint of a restaurant. Then I spotted a sign saying (in English and Myanmar language) "Welcome to Tanintharyi Division". The degree of independence some areas of Myanmar have been given means that immigration checks may be provided, as here moving from Mon State to Tanintharyi. Local people offer their Identity Card for inspection, whilst foreigners submit their passport, to have the details solemnly entered in a log book. The check seemed friendly enough but it was odd to be part of a stream of pedestrians walking across the border in the middle of the night, crossing a similar stream heading in the opposite direction. We then had to wait at the roadside until our bus caught up with us, having been let through a single lane barrier.

By Coach to Dawei: Waiting for our coach at the immigration station.

The major road works continued after the border crossing and our final stop was at a restaurant high in the mountains shrouded in mist, although it was still warm enough to walk around without a jacket.

By Coach to Dawei: Our final refreshment stop.

Then, the sky lightened and by the time we arrived at Dawei Bus Station, it was fully light after our marathon of more than thirteen hours. The expected chaos reigned but, somehow, our luggage was extracted and we were seated in a people carrier with some complete strangers on a sort of shared taxi arrangement which took us into the town.

By Coach to Dawei: Arrival at Dawei Bus Station.

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[Pictures added: 2-May-2017, 6-Jun-2017]