By Patrick Norén
Yangon Central bus station is not “central” in the slightest. It is a healthy taxi ride some way north of the ubiquitous South-East Asian chaos of manic motorbikes, irrelevant traffic lights and horrendous, non-stop, soul-grinding tooting of one horn, after another horn, after yet – another – horn.
Thankfully, due to arriving at 5am in Myanmar’s former capital, the main highway into the city was largely empty. Much to my potential demise.
At the actual bus station, however, the bewildering clamour of the early morning tourist rush was a thunderclap strike to my ears as I stepped weak and weary out of the cold, air-conditioned coach into the heat and humidity of the city. Yells of “taxi! taxi! taxi!” came from everywhere.
I rose my hand and nodded at one man, who very promptly stepped forward, yanked my rucksack off my back, marched off to his car, lobbed it in the boot, and with me now inserted in the car, completely vanished.
He was gone for a long time. I can’t remember how long. But it was a long time.
Eventually, he returned as if nothing had happened.
After the ritualistic dance of skill, wit, and judgement that is bartering, a price was agreed. All taxi drivers in this part of the world will try and assure you that your destination is “very far, very far” in order to squeeze a couple extra thousand Burmese kyat out of you.
He dropped the price from 12,000 to 10,000, about £5 to be split between two passengers.
But in this case, he wasn’t lying about the distance. It was 23km. It really was “very far, very far.”
He had no control. I had no control.
We set off and, after another lengthy pit-stop during which he disappeared to go and chat to a few mates, we started charging down the road largely devoid of traffic, a rarity in a city famous for its appalling traffic jams.
The speed with which he drove was not a problem to begin with, despite demonstrating a flagrant disregard for both his and his passengers’ safety. He was an experienced taxi driver who seemed to know what he was doing.
His head twitched to the right.
Then his left leg began to shake.
Then his other leg began to shake.
The car began to stray across the motorway’s three lanes.
His right arm, the only arm he had on the wheel, began to shudder.
His whole body started spasming.
He ran his quivering left hand over his dripping forehead, through his matt black spiky hair, and down around his neck, a reservoir of sweat.
Tearing down the motorway at easily over 100km/h, the car snaked wildly, barely dodging small vans and tuk-tuks. I clenched the door handle.
He had no control.
I had no control.
What the hell was going on? I thought I was going to die.
He slowed, and left the motorway, his uncontrollable shaking worsening every minute that went by.
A monk stood waiting outside a monastery, dressed in those enchanting orange robes so cherished by Buddhists and others alike, with a little brown leather bag hanging around his neck. He reached into his satchel, pulled out a small parcel of green leaves which could fit into the palm of your hand, and gave them to the driver.
After shoving a couple into his mouth, and giving them a brief chew, his shaking subsided.
Betel leaves. An addictive stimulant and psychoactive drug, that is chewed and then spat out, with effects on the human body similar to those of tobacco and caffeine. Other, more severe effects include vomiting, gum problems, shortness of breath, and, in worse case scenarios, a coma or death.
Chewing betel leaves is as common in Myanmar as drinking a pint of cider in Somerset. The poor driver was suffering from withdrawal symptoms.
Some minutes later the car pulled over once more. The now-recovered driver pressed his hands together and reverently bowed to the monk as he opened the door and stepped out.
The driver then continued onto the hostel, tucked away down a narrow and crumbling street, with electrical wires and air conditioning units dangling precariously from the peeling sides of each colonial apartment.
Breathing a heavy sigh of relief, I too stepped out, took my big blue rucksack from the boot, paid, and set out to explore Yangon.
Photographs: Patrick Norén