21st December : The overnight Train to Bagan
Last night we gathered together in the meeting room on Level 5 & perused the faces of fourteen other Intrepid group members booked as participants on the 12-day Burma Experience tour. It proves an interesting & diverse group of youngsters aged mainly in their twenties or early thirties, except for Peter, the Greek real estate agent from Pyrmont (with apparently a young Chinese wife and two young children he’s left behind visiting relatives in Taiwan), who is around fifty-ish and has similarly booked on both tours (the other is “Burma to Thailand” tour that piggy-backs onto the first); and Brian who’s been bald – & possibly surprisingly quiet-thoughtful-and-generous as an east-coast American gentleman – since he was eighteen.
For a number of the ‘Aussie kids’ it seems booze will be the focus of their days.
Still, introduced to our affable guide, Tun Tun – and his vast swatch of communication skills – I do hope he’ll be able to ‘handle’ the group, particularly the thoughtless Aussie/Kiwi couple who choose to disregard cultural practices and blatantly turn up drunk while baring too much skin including a bulging, reconstructed ‘shelf’; and even after non-specifically being handed a copy of the Dos and Donts for Tourists booklet (by Tun Tun) that rather clearly & simplistically states what’s appropriate & therefore inappropriate behaviour – & the expected tourist dress requirement – when traveling through Myanmar, especially when visiting temples.
At 7 am we venture to the first floor restaurant & share our breakfast table with Peter. We find the plain omelette, bananas on toast and 2 cups of Lipton tea is more than adequate after we hand over our ‘Breakfast Coupons,’ chat about ‘home’ as we eat, then sit on the verandah stools overlooking the goings-on in the street below, while otherwise flicking through yesterday’s captured moments on the trusty Olympus
until we regroup in the foyer for the group City Walking / Orientation Tour, breathing in fresh air rather than the recycled ‘conditioned’ variety that fills our windowless room.
Setting off as a straggle of bodies, Tun Tun leads us like the Pied Piper in his longyi while toting an umbrella though chooses to avoid all the religious & most of the historical sights, focussing instead on the people & their daily practices:
the betel-nut vendor underneath the bridge,
the ‘domain of the cheap’ manicurists
the water vendors promising affordability for all
the Hindu temple (showing our shade-preferring Tun Tun) & the thanaka-covered, sidewalk map-seller of indeterminate gender)
the extensive number of rogue pigeons too numerous & flighty to count
the Hospital where we’re informed by Tun Tun of San Suu Kyi’s promises of health affordability for all citizens of Myanmar now she’s elected to parliament
the overpass walkway with its great view towards the central Sule Pagoda
the roadside chick pea-pancake seller (though we fail to indulge)
the super commercial Chinatown area
the tragic state of the footpaths
and ongoing break-up & repair methods promising improvements down the well-beaten track
the busy, popular ‘tea-house-aka-bakery-outlet’ where Ben orders white tea & selects a simple cake from the offered plates of pastries (you pay for whatever you choose from the plate, though drink luke-warm, tea-potted Green tea for ‘free’) as we watch the others indulge in all manner of culinary treats while I settle for bottled water. Ah, get me outta here!
Back at the hotel I order another cup of Lipton Tea. When it arrives at the table there are two tea bags suspended in a very small cup of the deep-black liquid. I try to drink it but can’t get past the bitter taste of the first three sips. Nonetheless the Fried Rice & Veges is super tasty though Ben splurges on Spanish Fried Rice & Chicken seasoned with curry (though he leaves the chicken pieces untouched on his plate).
After lunch I head off to find a collection of sweet mandarins and a torch to easier negotiate the promised dark passageways through the temples of Bagan, and organise to have my Olympus camera charged up in the foyer by the desk staff since we’ve needed to check out of our room by 12 & I subsequently determine my incredibly low battery rating will diminish to nothing on the train overnight.
While we wait for the bus to take us to the railway station (for a 4 p.m. train departure) we take in the sights of Yangon from the narrow terrace,
or otherwise laze on the lounges in the foyer surrounded by the group’s deposited backpacks & disorderly assortment of luggage that quite resembles any haphazard arrangement in a teenager’s room. No need to mention our boozers have purchased a plastic carton they fill with ice and dozens of cans of beer, especially loaded up to share during the over-night train journey!
The train is waiting in all its ingloriousness & relative majesty, each compartment an independent unit. It’s obvious Burma’s British-built railways are less developed than others in Southeast Asia, but like all train travel they’re a wonderful way to get around and experience the country at ground level with the journey becoming as much of an adventure as the cruising through the countryside; regardless of the super-dusty seating & the tortuous nature of the travel we’re about to be exposed to throughout the night.
Having paid 16,500 kyats ($17 US) and with our passport numbers noted, we’re apportioned an Upper Class Night Berth ticket (though without necessarily sitting in the designated coach because we settle on our carriage companion by personal choice.
Along with one of the young couples from Mildura – the pair of lovers who’ve made the ‘lurve connection’ nearly a year ago through a dating web-site – we toss our luggage into our compartment which contains two upper berths and two lower sections, firm wooded seats with light cushion coverings that are meant to be chairs by day, beds by night. There’s no Dining Car though a basic (& relatively clean by Asian train standards) toilet in a corner section of our particular compartment.
With no access to other carriages (a factor which is somewhat of a delight really, given the esky of chilly beer that’s plonked like an invitation to a private dinner in a lonely letterbox in one of the carriages up ahead), there’s no possible way of moving – or being cajoled into moving – between compartments to grab a tinnie-purchased-with-the-intention-of-offering-around-to-the-party-makers-of-the-group, and that certainly settles us on the sideline of the anticipated fun events of the night, something that includes the illumination of the countryside by roving torchlights.
Still with the night yet not quite upon us, we settle into our seats, the windows fully opening up the view to unsuspecting, curious eyes.
The view is clear, and often quite confronting: images of filth, even overwhelming, widespread poverty & homelessness, scenes that become etched into my brain because they’re just too numerous to be photographed as unitary snapshots: of the family of three lying parallel in the dirt amongst piles of rotting garbage to achieve even the smallest degree of warmth; the problematic plethora of plastic replacing streams & lifeless waterways too huge to capture on a single lens.
‘The state of the waterways is such a sad reflection of the city’s inability to care for both the land & the people at the same time; perhaps because education- about sustainability – is limited to those who have the resources to sustain their lives with dignity, elsewise one must do whatever one can with whatever little available space there is at hand simply to survive the next hour (or-twenty-four hours) regardless of whether this improves or vastly deteriorates future matters over a day, week or month … these people are merely existing, not living … only villages seem to fare better.’
So I come to understand the power of community; to get things done & make things happen in other than an ad hoc way; when so much more can be achieved that’s of benefit to the many when the load is spread … or a volleyball is bounced over a net between mates.
As the evening approaches we sit in a compartment lit only by the twilight before discovering there is a switch & overhead lighting.
When it gets going the train develops an exaggerated back-end-forth sway, and water sloshes from possibly the reservoir on the rooftop through the open windows, drenching us like cattle, quite unexpectedly.
And then the bumps begin. The sway soon gives way to a new sensation. Not little bumps… Not occasional big bumps …. Instead … we’re thrown violently around the carriage when we dare to stand up to change position. ’
The carriage shakes violently and ‘jumps’ loudly, clattering & clanking with metal grinding against metal.
‘My goodness, the train could easily and inevitably derail if it keeps jiggling & bumping around like this!’
‘And the repetitious sounding of the warning bell as we near a crossing or a station is wearing my nerves rather thin!’’
Soon enough it’s time to put on the light pink jacket, still the cooling breezes sweeping in through the window spaces seem to require more than what I’ve planned; and when it’s time for Ben to convert seats into bedding, there is only a light sheet … and no sign of a substantial blanket.
We nibble & snack along the way. Just as well because the’ dinner ‘our guide organises becomes a shamble of ‘missed opportunities’ before foam sachets are shoved through the window at one of the stations late in the evening, too late since we’ve settled in for the night (around 7 p.m.), both sharing the lower bunk (like our carriage partners, but they’re a couple & naturally choose to sleep this way) merely to generate warmth into our super-chilled toes; though otherwise regenerating recollections of the family laying snuggled up in the dirt, trackside, just beyond Yangon.
We try lying down on our newly constructed “bed,” only to have our bodies lift up to half a foot in the air with the bumps. At some time throughout the long, loud, rugged night-time journey I do venture up the ladder to the upper bunk, though doubt I sleep very much at all, though dream of being rugged up in something more … until I climb down, scrounge through my backpack to locate my lilac beret and the fortuitous scarf I’d forgotten I’d wrapped inside it. Bliss.
I’m surprised the light in the toilet compartment reveals the hour to be merely ‘one’ when I eventually dare to venture for a little relief, vacating my seat & my bladder for the first time during the entire journey – ah, double bliss! – though I’ve counted the ‘usual’ handful of visits made by Ben, and prayed for his body warmth to return. And my son brings the promise of Triple bliss until he steals the super-thin blanket and hits me in the face with his heels!