Backpacking in Myanmar – Train Adventures
Sep 4 2010: The night before, I heard the loud honk of the train, as it pulled into the station. Our guesthouse is situated along the train tracks of the Myanmar local train station.
The deep loud honk brings back memories. The long cold nights spent on the sleeper train from Delhi to Gorakphur, 200km apart. The chugging, the sounds, the smells, and the people.
I remember my first time taking the train. My heart was beating fast. There was no one to tell me where to go, what to do, and which was the platform to take the train from. What if I missed the train?
When the train finally pulled into the station, I could not find the door to enter my carriage. Thank goodness, some kind and lovely Indian people shouted and pointed to the nearest door. The train nearly moved off without me.
I think, I must be a pretty brave soul then.
To sum it all up, I love trains. I love momentous rumbling and chugging sounds. It is the best way to learn about a country,and its people. Who the people travel with, and what they do on the trains is a big indicator of some of their culture.
I was pretty disappointed that we could not take the train in Myanmar. There was not enough time. But when the chance to take the local city train came up, I immediately jumped on it.
Our local friend told us not to take it though, he did not say why.
We took a taxi from the Kandawgyi Lake (a park in which I had a nice time taking pictures of couples). To be perfectly honest, it reminded me of Punggol Park near my house, with a little temple with dragons floating on the river. Please pardon my unromantic description. The most interesting thing I found about that place was the swimming pool in the clubhouse that was dark blue in colour, and I could not see the bottom.
And of course, the lovers.
Back to the trains, when we reached the station, we did not have to queue. (just like India). We were invited to enter the train station office, where we were charged USD1, for the ticket.
“This ticket is for the whole ride, it could be for either one station, two station or all the stations. A round trip takes 3 hours,” said the train inspector, wearing a white colour shirt with a longyi.
We looked at the time, it was already close to 5pm.
“What if we just buy a ticket for one station?”
The ticket collector was adamant.
“No less price, USD1 for one station, or for all.”
USD1=1000 kyat, was very expensive for a train ticket as locals pay 10 kyat.
Just imagine, one person paying for close to 100 people?
But we decided to give it a try.
Friend S wanted to ask him if the ticket covers the return journey. I wink at her not to ask.
Experience in India tells me that one ticket, is usually more than enough. Otherwise, “acting blur” helps.
We had to show them our passports where they filled up our names and details. They took some time to filled that up.
We proceeded downstairs to wait for the train. There were people sitting on the train tracks, talking to those on the platform like they were having an interview.
The tracks were not as dirty as the ones in India. No one pee-ed into the tracks.
The train arrived. It looks like the ones in India. But slower? The people all charge in, in a hurry to find a seat.(sounds familiar like in Singapore?) Thankfully, we found a seat too. Sunlight streams through the windows, lighting up the otherwise dark cabin. There are wooden benches for you to sit on but no allocated seats.
Unlike the MRT trains in Singapore, there are not many railings for you to hold on. You just have to balance.
Before we reach the second stop, I scanned my bag for the map of the place. Oh shit! I had left the map back at the train station. What made it worse was that we did not know how to pronounce the name of the station.
The map also contained the email addresses of the people we have met during our trip. For the sake of their privacy, we felt that it was only right to return to get it.
We got off the train, and just as we was about to ask some locals on which train to board, they started shouting. “Take that train!”, pointing at another train that had just pulled into the station.
How did they know where we were going, I wondered. But they seem to be very sure, and I figured their experience with foreigners probably ascertain it as a norm that foreigners take trains back and forth, hence it was the way to go.
During the journey back, we met a dried noodle snack seller, a banana seller, a nail clipper and sundries seller, a quail egg seller ( the eggs are hard-boiled, you can eat them after removing the shell), and some beggars.
I saw a teenage girl giving smiling to a baby, and giving him some quail eggs to eat.
This old lady which seems blind sat down the floor of the train, and sang an old traditional Myanmar song. It sounded quite nice. A little boy, not more than 5 years old carried a sling bag, and outstretched his hand to ask for alms.
I undo five folded brown 10 kyat notes that were stapled together, and handed him 2.
After collecting the money. She stops singing, and waits for the train to come to a stop. When it stops, she gets out from the train at record-breaking pace, and hops on to the next one. We wonder at her agility especially being blind.
The train comes to a long stop at a station we do not recognise. After a 10 minute wait, to Friend S’s horror, the train starts to move backwards. This has not ever happen to me in India, and I was not aware.
We had to ask for help.
“Where is Pazudong?” I asked a lady.
She does not understand me.
I try many variations. “Pazundong, Pazundung, Pasudong”
She still does not understand.
“Your camera!” Said Friend S.
Yes, I had taken a picture of the station’s name. I flipped past many photos before showing her the photo. The name had Myanmar words of the train station too.
“Pazunduang!” She said.
“Next stop and change train.” She said gesturing. She didn’t really say this, but I guessed.
There were no be spectacled people to help us this time.
So we got down at the next stop and waited for the next train. The sky was slowly turning dark.
When we got on, we noticed 2 girls carrying Flower Over Boys school bags.
Friend S points to the curly hair one, and says, he is cute. The girls agree. But they are very shy when I request to take their photo.
It was supposed to be the only one stop, but when the train pulled into the station, we found it unfamiliar. We had to push through a throng of people trying to board the train. I am sure the red umbrella I was carrying had poked someone by accident.
Oh dear, where were we?
Thankfully Friend S found out we were in Yangon, a station away from the Pazunduang we were heading to. A nice man told us to board the train again.
Fortunately, the train had not left, and we squeezed on board again. This time to be sure, I asked another local, showing her my camera photo. Yes, one more stop.
We hung on together on the packed train, it was already 7pm, and the train was dark, lighted up by dim flourescent lights. People were going home from work.
The train approached the next stop. The same local lady reminds us to get down. We wonder what to expect, will it be the correct stop?
And there it was. We recognised the train station, the platforms, and the “overhead bridge”.
The map was safely retrieved from the train station, after the ticket collector hunted for it for some time.
Travelling on the train for leisure purposes, and for real purpose make things different. It may be a lot of trouble, but I am glad to have seen the nice side of the local people.
It is unique to the Burmese, that when I asked for directions, they try their best to make sure you go where you want to go. While asking for directions that led down a hill, the teashop boy followed us for 5 minutes walking downhill to show us where to go next. He had to climb up the hill again.
When asking directions from a monk, he caught up with us and point us the direction to walk at the intersection. The lady who tried her best to tell us which train to take looked very worried when she could not understand us. Another lady took a step further to remind us to get down at the train station.
It’s quite kind of spirit I seldom see when I travel overseas. The train journey may be long, but I am glad I experience this bit of kindness during my time here.
Yangon looks like any other South-East Asian country. It is not the cleanest, does not have the smoothest roads and has broken roads and pavements. The airport looks wonderful, so much like Terminal 3 in Singapore, only smaller. The tall glass panels, clean floors and spaciousness. I spot cleaners wiping the glass occasionally.
One can visit the country without even knowing that the government is a junta. I do not see people suffering, poor and hungry. I am tempted to think the government is doing just fine, and ask, why are others making such a fuss.
But then I am reminded of the past atrocities that happen. In 2007, 31 monks were killed in a protest against fuel hikes. A poor lady has to stay in her house for extended periods of time, under the watchful eye of some guards.
When I see the newspapers, I feel quite sad because it does not reflect the purpose and objectiveness newspapers should have. Internet access for certain websites is also blocked at times. Public money may not have been transparently used. I have heard stories from fellow travellers that the new capital, Nay Pyi Taw is nothing but a ghost town – a “white elephant”. There is no one around, except an ocassional construction worker working on a project. A 20 lane highway leads to the capital. In the words of our friend, it could be “wide enough to land a plane, or move a boat through.”
I am sure, some of the money I have spent has gone to the government, known for violence and violation against human rights. But I am still glad to say then I went. It is not unsafe, as what most people would make it to be, and I found a country of warm and kind people, and discovered the beauty and peace of a very much avoided country.
I like Myanmar.