Writer: Morris Averill.
On your first day, the Yangon public transport may feel confusing, but it is workable for first time travellers and so much fun. From the airport to your hotel, to exploring the city, here is your public transport guide, from a couple who’ve just arrived in this wonderful city.
You’ll have to navigate the spruikers, and it starts when arriving at Yangon International Airport, in the baggage claim area. You’ll probably be ‘assisted’ by a man to collect your bags off the baggage carousel; you may want to refuse the offer, as payment is expected for doing what you can do yourself. Stepping out of immigration at Yangon International Airport, you will be greeted by taxi touts. Again, just say no – “neg det”.
The best options to get to downtown Yangon are a taxi or the Yangon airport bus service, operated by Omni Focus.
There are two routes – Pyay Road route (Green) and Kabar Aye Pagoda Road route (Red) to downtown Yangon, terminating at the Central Railway Station. The bus stop for these air-conditioned buses is located at the front of the airport terminal, in the road beyond the taxi pick-up lanes. The cost, just 500 Kyats (MMK), which is approximately USD 33 ¢.
If a taxi is your choice, then a fixed price taxi/cab to hotels in downtown Yangon will provide certainty as to cost (USD$10 or 12,000 MMK), as fare meters in taxis in Myanmar are rarely operating. The fixed price taxi desk is the other side of the taxi pick-up lanes in front of the terminal. While drivers are likely to know the location of the 4 & 5 star hotels, using your favourite phone mapping app (such as Google Maps) will help you and the driver get to your hotel of choice. If you don’t have global roaming, then mobile phone SIM cards, can be purchased from the providers inside the airport terminal building. Grab taxi service, Oway Ride and other ride hailing mobile phone apps can be used to arrange a taxi.
The Grab taxi service app can be downloaded from the Google app store, which gives business travellers and tourists the ability to travel by taxi without having to haggle the fare, as the price is always fixed on GrabTaxi; as well your fare can be paid by credit card stored in your GrabTaxi account. There is a waiting time surcharge (after 5 minutes) and all GrabTaxi fares are subjected to surge pricing/dynamic pricing due to the demand and supply, which will be familiar to users of Uber services.
Apart from when booking using Grab taxi service, haggling the fare is the first conversation with the taxi driver. Therefore, having an idea of the distance to your destination is a good starting point. if you are in a taxi rank haggling may not be worth it as there is a clear cartel. You say no to one taxi driver, who’ll call out in Burmese to the next the price he’s quoted.
Hotel staff can also be a source of what is the usual fare to your destination. As shared taxi rides are established practice, Yangon taxi drivers seem to have a pricing model in which the same distance charged to one passenger, would be double for 2 passengers and so on – haggling the price remains the starting point if you are a couple or 3 or 4 passengers going to the same destination.
2,000 MMK to 4,000 MMK (USD$1.30-2.60) may be a standard taxi fare for a journey between downtown destinations. The Yangon Bus Service (YGS) is an even lower cost option (200 MKK (USD 13 ¢) for a single fare) and convenient mode of travelling in Yangon, although it requires some planning when there is a no bus route that takes you directly to your destination.
Main bus routes have a mixture of air-conditioned and non-airconditioned buses, so that you can often pick and choose. While, most buses are crowded and slow (because of the traffic) this is a great way to understand Yangon. Also, an opportunity to get is a conversation with other passengers, who, depending on their English language skills, seem happy give you directions.
The YBS website shows the bus routes and bus stops with links to online mapping. A bus route map is available as a PDF (12 MB file). In the street, the YBS buses usually display the bus number in the standard western numerals, as well as the Burmese numerals, and the bus stop shelters usually have the name in English.
However, the bus numbers, written on the bus stop shelters, for buses passing each stop are only written in Burmese numerals.
The bus stops are spaced well apart, including in downtown Yangon. However, bus drivers can often be persuaded to open the doors when the bus is stopped in traffic. Exact fares are needed as drivers cannot give change, so it is wise to accumulate 100 MKK & 200 MKK notes, if using the buses in Yangon. Not all buses are airconditioned – some are very old, with hard suspension, and the occasional old-school driver, chewing betel nut and braking hard, which makes it a rough journey.
There are English language apps available from the Google app store than are useful for navigating the YBS routes. ‘Yangon Bus on the Map’ is a simple app based on a mapping service, which allows you to identify the name of each bus stop and (scrolling to the bottom) the buses that passing each bus stop.
Remember: vehicles in Myanmar drive on the right hand side of the road.
In this screen-grab, the bus stop named Har Mit Tic bus is for buses driving away from downtown Yangon. The Har Mit Tic bus stop for buses going to downtown Yangon is the one with the blue dot. Usually bus stops with the same name are opposite each other.
If you can identify that your starting point, and your destination, are on the same bus route – then life is simple. However, ‘Yangon Bus on the Map’ doesn’t help you identify where you need to change buses.
You can download the “Yangon City Bus” app from the Google app store. Provided that you know the name of the bus stop from which you are starting your journey and the name of the bus stop at your destination, then the “Yangon City Bus” app will provide you with alternative routes (if available) and the name of the bus stop at which you need to change buses. However, you will have to use your favourite mapping app to identify where that intermediate bus stop is located, and to track your journey to that stop.
In this screen grab, the intermediary bus stop is Shwe Gon Daing, where you would cross the road to catch the No. 61, which is travelling away from downtown Yangon, before turning west to go to the Dagon area (Myaynigone bus stop). Tapping in the route information gives access to a map of the route. The double arrow button gives access to the return journey information.
The journey times given by the ‘Yangon City Bus’ app are optimistic; most journeys will take double the time stated by the app.
Someday, an integrated Yangon bus app will be developed, until that time, you need to juggle between different apps and insert the correct spelling of the bus stops to make the “Yangon City Bus” app work. Not every bus stop has a bus shelter, if it does then the name of the stop is usually written in English on the shelter. The “Yangon City Bus” app identifies each bus stop name by a different number. Therefore, you have to work out which direction the bus is travelling – either towards or away from downtown Yangon. In relation to the Har Mit Tic bus stop: the bus stop for buses going downtown is no. 322; and for buses leaving downtown, no 321. The routes produced by the app will be different with the selection of each numbered bus stop.
While taxis and buses are numerous, so are private cars, with the consequence that traffic during the day can be heavy, so that riding a cross-town bus in Yangon can be a slow journey.
Walking is an option, although you have the contend with the heat and navigate the perilous state of the streets – broken pavements, or no pavement at all, and drains that could be open sewers.
The adventure of riding on trains
The trains of Myanmar legendary – for the adventure of riding on a narrow-gauge train track in rolling stock that is 1960’s vintage or earlier. The best source of information on train travel in Myanmar is the website of The Man in Seat 61.
There is a circular train track from the Central Railway Station, near downtown Yangon, with a 3-hour journey through the suburbs, although not going close enough to Yangon International Airport to make the railway an efficient way to get to the airport.
The booking office, for travel 1-5 days in the future, is accessed from Bogyoke Aung San Road (opposite the Sakura Tower main entrance). The hours are 7 am to 3 pm. Passports for all passengers need to be produced to make a booking. For same day departure, including the Yangon Circle line, you can buy tickets at the office on Central Train Station.
While the Yangon buses, trains and taxis may not be a flash as where you have come from, Yangon has a cheap and cheerful public transport system, that with a mobile phone in hand, you can navigate the city.