For Better or for Worse

We had a 28 day visa for Myanmar, now about half used -fantastically. But this would be a trip of 2 halves. There were many positives sprinkled across our remaining days, but primarily there were set backs, frustrations, and broken attempts to get to where we wanted to go.

The tone was set soon after leaving Lake Inle, on a charming but rickety old train to Kalaw, expecting to catch another train from there to Myitkyina, up north. We sat with a large bunch of Danish tourists, which pleased Jennifer to no end. But another passenger with a laptop full of up-to-date travel info, squashed our idea, and replaced it with another. So we suddenly disembarked at the small town of Heho (with a surprising, lively, musical, ceremonial scene at that small station!) and flew in a small plane to Mandalay. But the information at the Mandalay airport was again different from what we’d been previously told. Rather than fly to Myitkyina, the agent inquired about an overnight sleeper train instead. Yes, possible -but we’d have to hurry because the train station is in the heart of town, a long ways away from the remote airport. A crazy, frenetic hour’s drive later, our taxi driver dropped us off at the main train station.

But it turned out that the overnight train to Myitkyina had seats available -but never sleeper seats. Sigh. We’d both sat up all night on overnight train rides in our day, and vowed never again. Two tired young men slouching over their day packs introduced themselves and stated categorically to avoid going to Myitkyina anyway. They were extreme bikers (the peddle type) who’d just returned from there. They warned us that visitors to Myitkyina are only given access to the small town plaza, and nowhere else. They also had a harrowing story from their biking adventure, which started in Mongolia. The only trouble they’d had was in Myanmar, involving drunken military men waking them up in their tent, and confiscating their valuables. We were disappointed to let go of Myitkyina, but really glad that we hadn’t flown there or boarded that train. So from there -despite what the agent at the tourist office warned- we easily found a hotel(s) nearby and within our budget, and settled into Mandalay for a couple of days to sort through our options.

In retrospect, we wished we’d spent more time in Mandalay. Maybe some day we’ll return, and give it the time it deserves. But in the wake of Bagan, Kalaw, and Nyaungshwe, we were still hoping to find similar sorts of less-traveled-but-amazing places. We spent a lot of our time in Mandalay being whisked around on trishaws as we ran tasks and stocked up on small necessities. We also rented crummy bikes once and went on an extremely sweet and sour bike ride. The first half went through some really fantastic, interesting neighborhoods, through great markets and past unique temples. But then we stumbled upon a stretch along the putrid, smelly river that was among the most squalid and depressing we’ve seen. It was simply hard to enjoy ourselves after that, and it further bolstered our desire to move on.

Food was starting to become an issue for us too. The cuisine in Myanmar calls for using a lot of oil, and the spices and taste, and the scenery / ambiance of most restaurants was -though authentic and adventurous- starting to wear thin. We weren’t eating much, yet were not inspired to either. One exception was at the Rainbow, an interesting 3 story corner spot a few blocks from our Nylon Hotel. We preferred the second floor, which felt like a men’s club where political deals were going down, amid countless bottles of Bintang beer.

Ok, so the northern destinations in Myanmar that appealed to us were off limits. We finally gave in and decided to point ourselves south, and veer to the coast. Our train for Yangon departed at 6:00 in the morning. This had all the makings of a train adventure -and a looong one, at 13 hours. Unassigned, cushioned rows, faced each other, and shared a weathered and wobbly table jutting out from the wall. There were no other westerners in sight, and plenty of authentic Myanmar life to enjoy, starting with the train itself. We thought some other trains we’d encountered were rickety-rockety, but this one -and especially the lower class car ahead of ours- swayed and tilted so far from side to side that I couldn’t believe it could stay on the tracks -it was like a cartoon. Meanwhile -and astonishingly, food hawkers strolled the aisles all day, somehow balancing baskets of food and drinks on their erect heads, their body’s leaning and shifting with the wildly erratic train floor. They’d bend, pull out an empty cup, and somehow pour in hot tea without spilling a drop. And they’d casually contort themselves to pass one another -or to avoid passengers who seemed oblivious. A small group of police and official-looking types seemed to intimidate their way into the more desirable seats. Over the course of the day, monks came and went. All sorts did. And as the hours went by, our stuff got more and more spread out across our 2 rows, but we were left alone to hog the 4 seats that we now took up.

We made at least 25 stops on the way to Yangon (formerly Rangoon). Usually, food hawkers would come to the windows, and the scene at each station was full of activity. We handed out an apple once to a young boy, standing with his (?) mother, which seemed to make their day. The passing scenery out the window was varied, and included gorgeous mixtures of nature: flat, hilly, dry, wet, barren and lush. All types of bridges crossed all types of rivers, lakes, and wetlands. Skinny animals and skinny kids walked on the tracks, near dense villages with wooden sides and grass roofs. Uniformed men stood in the street with their arms outstretched, holding back a mounting wave of still traffic behind them, waiting for the train to pass. At about the half way point, we stopped at a curious, huge, new, and empty station. For miles and miles on both sides, there were wooden, cookie-cut homes, in perfect rows and columns. This was Nay Pyi Taw, the newly created, controversial, military headquarters, build at an obscene expense (Myanmar is Southeast Asia’s poorest country), at the apparent whim of the military generals, who -taking a cue from ancient kings- decided that the best place for the military to be, is in the middle of the country -and in the middle of nowhere.

Eventually, we pulled into Yangon -3 hours later than scheduled, and 16 hours after we’d left Mandalay. Those last few hours were loooooong and dark. It was now after 10:00 at night, and we had no room reserved. A taxi driver made many phone calls for us (on the pretense of taking us there) before we found a room that was affordable. It was an underwhelming arrival at our new place; down a gritty alley, off a wide, empty, gritty-looking street. And contrary to what the book said, it no longer served breakfast -free or otherwise. But it was very clean, had hot water, big beds, and kind staff. But our day wasn’t done yet, because Jennifer needed to eat. So the nightwatchman kindly lead us on a search for any form of food still available, and we found a small sidewalk grill several blocks away, about to close up. The pickins were slim, but enough. The night watchman waited there with us, and then walked us back home.

It felt good to finally hit the sack, and we did so expecting to leave Yangon the following day.


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