Day 62: Train frames Myanmar's pastoral beauty
A rice farmer prepares to plant a paddy. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
AN OVERWHELMING panic set in as I settle into bed on my first night after the 10-day meditation retreat at the Myanmar monastery. It's late, 10pm, and there's so much to do: so much writing, so much socializing, so much interneting. However, the internet at The Breeze Guesthouse in Mawlamyine is crap and I am too tired.
I wake early in my cubbyhole of a room, which isn't big enough to properly unpack my bag. There's time for breakfast before jumping on a motorbike taxi for 3,000 Kyat to the train station. However, the breakfast at the guesthouse is light and a lingering worry of missing the train to Yangon and failing the dice is plaguing me.
The motorbike taxi driver and I manage to balance my day bag, enormous backpack and drone bag on his little scooter before putting off, horn blaring – as they do in Myanmar.
The two-story Mawlamyine train station is a big building, roughly the length of an American football field, about three kilometers from the guesthouse. The driver helps me with my bags as we waddle through a side door of the large graying building to buy a ticket.
A Burmese family stands in front of the bars of the ticket counter. Instead of lining up behind them, I'm taken around the side and into the ticket room, where the driver helps me explain to the ticket man what I need: First Class ticket to Yangon.
The man rushes past us to a rubbish bin, spitting out a thick paste of betel nut juice before returning to take my passport. He mumbles something about it costing 5,500 Kyat, roughly four dollars for the 12 hour ride.
He then mumbles something, which I don't exactly catch, about two seats.
I pay the man 11,000 Kyat and start toward the train. I'm not entirely sure what's happened. Did I get over charged? Was their a mistake in the change? Did I pay for two tickets? No matter. Though I'm supposed to be on a serious budget, allowing financial transactions to ruin an experience is rarely worth the money.
Too often I see and hear travelers getting upset, even distraught, about having paid thousands in a local currency more than the price some other traveler managed to haggle for, which usually boils down to a dollar or two.
My happiness will continue to be worth more than a few bucks, I think as I try to wash my hands of the situations.
The main hall of the station is an enormous gallery filled with natural light. Mostly empty and dusty, it has the air of past grandeur. Though in reality, the station wasn't built until 2006, when the Thanlwin Bridge, which stretches across the confluence of the Thanlwin River, the Gyaing River and the Attayan River, was opened.
Few people take the train now because buses are so much faster. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Out back, a long line of passenger cars are linked together on the far tracks of the two-track station. Vendors have set up numerous shops packed with local packaged sweets and drinks along the tiled walkway.
In my moment of hesitation – is that my train? – an elderly, Burmese man of Indian descent pulls up next to me.
“Where are you going?” he asks.
“Okay, here. That says cart three in Burmese,” the man says taking my ticket and guiding me across the tracks to the train.
The man, Maurice, shows me my seat after we get my bags stowed away. First class is nothing to brag about.; though there is leg room, one of the plastic chairs used at local restaurants would be more comfortable than the seat I find myself in. No doubt it was a comfortable cushion when it was first put in, but now, the springs have flattened on one side and appear to be nearly popping out on the other.
Maurice slides the wooden framed window next to my seat down with a clatter.
I'm early. The cart is empty except for the pair of us.
“Empty, always empty,” says Maurice. “Everyone takes the bus now; it's so much faster. Only on holidays, when the buses are booked, do people take the train.
“You should get food and water. The sell some food on the train, but it's not good.”
For a country that's supposedly opening up to tourism the English-language abilities of the people I've met so far have been exceptional.
I stand to follow Maurice back to the market area, but he stops me.
“It's not safe to leave things on the train. If someone else was here we could ask them to watch the bags, but we should take them,” he says with his strong Indian accent.
Maurice carries the drone while I manage to carry the rest of my stuff back to the other side of the tracks.
“Have you had breakfast?” he asks.
“Okay, lets do this.”
Maurice shows me his office, which is just a cubby underneath a set of stairs. Tall jail bars separate his space from the rest of the station. There is a dilapidated wooden desk with dusty papers on top of it and a wood and cloth lounge chair hidden directly under the stairs for him to sneak in a nap. He place my bags in here. He locks a tiny padlock on the gate and hands me the key.
Maurice explains that he's semi-retired. He starts work – helping tourists at the station – early in the morning, but finishes around 11am.
Up a grand, sweeping staircase on one side of the main hall of the station, we find ourselves in a little rundown cafe/restaurant. Further down the hallway, overlooking the passengers as they enter through the front doors, are shut-doored government offices.
Some police officers are snacking on deep-fried somas and a plate of fried rice.
“No food, just tea for me,” Maurice says, his hand sweeping forward and snapping around as if to explain that the eating has already been done.
Maurice, like Tony, the tour guide I had when I first arrived in Myanmar, talks openly about the foulness of the Army regime that manged to run the wealthiest country in Southeast Asia, Burma, into the ground in about 60 years.
“Are you Christian?” Maurice asks.
“No, no. I don't prescribe to any set doctrine,” I explain. “How about you?”
It's a common line of questioning in Myanmar. Just as the Buddhist of the nation are devote and passionate, those coming from minority religions are equally devote and interested in your religious alignments.
Of the population of 51 million, Buddhists make up 87.9%, Christians 6.2%, Muslims 4.3%, Animists 0.8%, Hindus 0.5% and Atheists 0.1%.
Along these lines, especially Muslim-Buddhist lines, a hateful friction occasionally slips into violence. Only a a couple weeks ago, an angry mob of Buddhist burned down a mosque in northern Myanmar. Conservative Buddhist in the nation have fueled the battle against Muslims by claiming that the growing population of Muslims are in the processes of over running the country, dislodging Buddhism from it's rightful place.
“The number from the census were good then,” I ask Maurice. The 2014 census breaking down the population along religious lines was feared to contain sensitive data that would disrupt the progress being made by Aung San Suu Kyi and her recently elected government. It was released while I was in the monastery.
“Yes, very good,” he says with a waggle of his head.
The numbers showed that the Muslim population had actually shrunk a little rather than grown – deflating the argument of extremists promoting violence and religious discrimination. Of course, the numbers could still be twisted, as there are more Muslims in the nation than there were ten years ago. Nonetheless, the growth is inline with other religious groups within the population.
“We should catch your train,” Maurice says as we finish up our tea, though the conversation failed to wane – he's a talkative, interesting man.
I go to pay the bill, but am stopped.
“Be my guest,” Maurice says, settling the tab of a couple thousand Kyat. I feel blessed to be in Myanmar ahead of the curve; this sort of hospitality isn't going to last.
Maurice gets me settled on the train after I stock up on fruit candies, cookies and water for the long train ride. I also pre-order some Indian food somewhere down the tracks.
“It's very good. I'm delighted you'll try it,” Maurice says. There was a time in his life that he ordered from the Indian cook, who jotted my chicken and rice request on a little white notepad, a couple times a week as he went back and forth from Mawlamyine for work.
With Maurice having bought me breakfast, I feel weird about trying to tip him for his kindness. So, I hold off and wave him goodbye.
I wait for the train to gather speed as we pull out of the station, but it never does. The beast plods forward at a speed that allows its passengers to soak up the country side that slips past the windows with the pace of cold, dripping honey.
There is a rumble of the trucks and a clack as the train rolls across the joints in the rails. Outside of some train travel in Europe more than a decade ago, I've not had the chance to travel much by train. If the dice had sent me back to Chiang Mai to get my motorcycle documents sorted out, I still wouldn't have had the chance.
The ground on either side of the tracks steeply slopes down to a mess of homes below. There is a kind of beauty to the tin-roofed slums, the chaos of junk both salvaged and discarded that clutters the haphazardly constructed houses. A woman wrapped in a sarong pours a bucket of cold water over her wet, slicked back black hair as she baths behind her shack. Mixed into the mess are the crowns of palm trees, tall and heavy with coconuts and enormous billboards advertising brands of local whiskeys and beers. A murder of crows spots one palm like chocolate chips in a Florida-style Christmas cookie.
In the foreground there is the green dome and crescent moon of a mosque. Behind it, way up on the hill is the shimmering gold of a Buddhist pagoda. Moments later, we pass a Hindu temple crawling with pastel colored mythical creatures. If I was a stone thrower, I'm sure I could hit all three places of worship from a single vantage point.
The slums give way to the country side, rice paddies painted a vibrant green, as they soak up the flood waters of the massive rivers nearby.
The train chugs across the Thanlwin Bridge and then we are again surrounded by rice fields. Woman stand in a line, Asian conical hats strapped to their heads, rubber boots caked in mud on their feet. One such line of woman is planting long bundles of rice into the thick, dark-brown muck of the paddies. Further up, a man has two white Brahman cows strapped into a wooden yoke as he tills a field.
The majestic rice paddies of Myanmar slipped by our windows. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The pastoral beauty of the Myanmar countryside slides past my window, frame by frame, interrupted only by a small town or village clustered around the tracks.
Children emerge from track-side houses as the train approaches, their faces blank as they wave. They wave to the train, not the passengers, there hands systematically going back and forth, their eyes refusing to meet mine when I try to wave back.
The train comes to a shuttering stop as we switch tracks to allow a southbound train to pass. Woman with metal and woven trays on their heads get on for a few stops, walking back and forth down the aisle, selling food. One sullen faced woman with cheeks painted with yellow thanaka powder has piles of sliced watermelon for sale, another fried shrimp, a third sells bright yellow stalks of pickled bamboo.
A man makes a 3-1 coffee with hot water from a thermos he's carrying, charging me 500 kyat for the beverage. The two plump Burmese woman on the other side of the aisle from me, both dressed in elegant, brightly patterned skirts and lacy sleeved tops, also have a cup of coffee.
We all sip the hot drink out of our little paper cups.
“Can you watch this?” I ask the women.
We've been stopped for ages and I need to pee. I suspect that peeing when the train is standing still is not ideal, not only because it makes it very easy for a vendor to snatch my camera, wallet and/or laptop and hop off the train for a quick getaway, but because the toilet probably empties straight onto the tracks. However, I can't hold it any longer – and I'm not about to repeat the pissing my pants story I had to recount from the monastery.
The woman, who had already told me to hide my wallet deeper in my bag earlier in the trip, were obliging.
Despite what Maurice said, there was plenty of yummy food to be had on the train. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The outskirts of Yangoon, once the capital of Myanmar and still the commercial center of the nation, are basked in the deep blue of early nightfall. Young teens linger near the tracks with lovers, parents pop their heads out of simple, shack-like homes as the train goes by.
I've been eyeing my watch for hours now, afraid that we'd arrive too late. With no real idea of where the train station is situated in Yangon or where that is in relation to the hostel the dice chose for me: Scott @ 31 Street, I'm concerned.
Last stop, I gather my belongings and double-checking beneath the seat in case I've misplaced my wallet or passport. The crowd is shuffling forward, up the stairs to a walkway to cross the tracks.
“Do you need help with your bag?” asks a dark skinned man with sharp features.
“No, I'm okay,” I say, pleased that he doesn't hassle me after the initial offer.
Lumbering toward the parking lot, I'm stopped.
We agree to 3,000 Kyat for the ride. He pops the hood of his taxi and connects the battery. We're off. Of course, if I knew how close I was to the hostel, I'd just huff it, despite the cumbersome luggage.
Five minutes later, after circling the block due to the maze of one-way roads that crisscross Yangon we arrive at the gentrified Scott @ 31.
A brass plaque out front identifies the swanky, hostel/cafe. I sigh... this is going to be expensive, but the dice have already decided.
Inside, I'm greeted by a devastatingly beautiful smile from the receptionist. I check in – 12 dollars a night, not nearly as bad as I feared.
And, taking the cafe area in, not a bad place to catch up on work for a couple days either.