Archive for October, 2007
The train to Mandalay sounds like such an evocative thing. It conjures up images of empire; men in linen safari suits sipping martinis on their way to a colonial British capital for a spot of tea and buggery. For those of you who have these romantic notions of train travel, perhaps following in the footsteps of Kipling and Theroux, can I recommend the train to Mandalay. It will cure you of any such notions for a long time.
I’m not sure why I consistently labour under the misapprehension that rail travel will be romantic. I must have taken 7 or 8 train trips of over 10 hours duration in my life. Every time I think it will be some sort of fabulous orient express, with little men in neat pressed brown uniforms and pristine white gloves bringing fresh flowers and a newspaper to my clean cabin as I relax on a comfortable bunk. In reality, the whitest thing on this train was my sister’s face after seeing the state of the toilets, and the brownest thing was her underpants four hours after the same. I have pretty much hated every one of these trips.
The Mandalay train was a good example of what to expect from travel in the third world. In a masterful stroke of genius, the government decided to run two trains a day from Yangon to Mandalay. The first of these leaves, rather ridiculously, at 5am. Luckily the second train left at a far more civilized 5.30am. Incidentally, this was a peculiarity we were to experience throughout our travels in Myanmar.
We boarded the train in darkness. Total darkness, There were no lights in the station and no lights in the train. We were told where to sit by an attendant carrying a torch, but had no real idea whether they were actually our seats or not. We also disembarked in total darkness. For this reason, I have no photos of the actual trip and have instead decided to intersperse the story with pictures of other forms of Burmese transport I would rather take and their benefits over the train.
The train trip was supposed to be 14 hours, but in the end it actually took us around 18. There were no lights, no air conditioning, the train wobbled like a fat man on a mechanical bull and it periodically stopped at random intervals in order to let more mosquitoes on board. In a piece of brilliant planning, only the top of the windows opened, so it was in fact impossible to get a fresh breeze on your face. Then, to cap it all off, for the duration of the journey we were sat in front of a man who burped at precisely three minute intervals.
When he first did this, I had a bit of a chuckle and thought humorously about how social norms differ when you travel. However, after 7 hours it had stopped being funny and moved into the territory of downright disgusting. Fortunately, as a distraction we had a man opposite who was obviously suffering from an acute case of tuberculosis, and I’ll take belching over infectious lung diseases any day.
With my headphones broken, there was little else to do on the train except look out the window and watch the world go by. Unfortunately, this is when you realise just how slow the train is going, as the rest of the world seems to be going by in the wrong direction.
The biggest problem with the duration of the trip however, is that none of the stations are signed in English. This means that you have no idea where you have arrived at. Now, if the train was nanosecond perfect like the ones in Japan, this wouldn’t be too much of a problem. However, when the train is 4 hours late and arrives in darkness, it makes disembarking a little more difficult. When we arrived at a station, we had no idea what it was. It could have been Mandalay or Mingalar or, for all we knew, Madagascar.
When we finally arrived in Mandalay, hot, sweaty and probably carrying some ghastly communicable diseases, a little tout jumped on the train and asked if we wanted a taxi. We were too tired to resist and soon found ourselves in the back of a dinky, blue Mazda pickup. We were so looking forward to arriving at our hotel that we were halfway through the trip before we noticed that the car didn’t have any lights and the passenger was simply leaning out the window and shining a torch down the road.
We arrived at our hotel and settled into bed. That night I decided that we would be flying back to Yangon at the end of the trip. And that would prove to provide a whole different story in itself…..
Next week… Mandalay and Bagan
The New Light of Myanmar newspaper – 22 September, 2007
Yangon international airport is the first international flight I’ve ever taken where you actually have to dismount onto the tarmac. After disembarking, you wait 12 minutes for a bus to arrive, 5 minutes for it to fill up and then you drive the 20 metres to the terminal where you wait another 15 minutes for the luggage that was sitting next to you on the tarmac to arrive.
It became apparent very soon after our arrival in Myanmar that the people’s desire is not shared by all the people. In fact, our taxi driver from the airport was very happy to tell us about the relative merits of his government. Apparently they don’t have any. He was quite happy to tell us this as well, despite the fact that we were obviously external elements acting as stooges.
The driver also informed us that his taxi was worth $30,000 US. Looking around at the velour roof, the stripped doors and the holes in the floor or his 1973 Datsun Sunny, it is probably fair to surmise that we were a little skeptical of his claims. However, it turned out to be perfectly true. Apparently the government doesn’t let people import cars. So, what automobiles there are in the country are worth their weight in…. well, car.
We had agreed to meet my friend Christine at her place of work, the Myanmar Times, where we would change money, drop off our luggage and then go out for dinner. We had been warned not to change money at the airport, where the exchange rate is literally 1/3 what it is in the rest of the country.
At her work we changed $350 US. The greatest thing about Myanmar is the currency. It’s called the Kyat (pronounced “chat”) and at the time we visited, $1 US was worth around 1350 kyat. However, the best thing about the kyat is that the highest banknote issued in the whole country is 1000 kyat. This meant that upon changing $350 US, we had a wad of cash large enough to crush a small kitten. There is a government regulation that states that you aren’t allowed to take kyat out of the country upon your exit. While many people believe this is to prevent the expense of printing more notes, the real reason is far simpler. Even taking a small amount of US dollars in kyat would probably prevent the plane from taking off.
Arriving back at my friend’s house, we discovered it was a two story colonial mansion, however she was quick to dismiss it as ordinary. Apparently some of her friends’ houses had swimming pools and tennis courts, spas, satellite dishes, moats and drawbridges etc.
So, we retired to bed and watched the lights flicker and dim, because even in Yangon they can’t maintain a steady supply of electricity, which is probably still regarded as witchcraft in certain parts of the country.
That night, the worst fate that can befall any traveller in Asia happened to me. One of my headphones stopped working! Those who think that this sounds a fairly mild occurrence have obviously never travelled for a long period of time.
Driving into town the next day, we saw an example of Myanmar ingenuity in a few people fixing the wall on the 8th floor of a building. Rather than scaffolding or one of those funky window washer things, they had simply pushed a board out the window. Two people were sitting on one end and the man fixing the roofs was standing on the other. Occupational health and safety officials would probably have a heart attack if they saw it. In fact, occupational health and safety officials would probably ban themselves from looking at it in case they had a heart attack.
Rangoon contains three worthwhile place of interest: Shwedagong pagoda, Inye lake and Scott market. Unfortunately, it is difficult to visit Aung San Suu Kyi’s house, as government spies take down the license plates of taxis that go there and the drivers get hauled in for questioning. Those of you who read my story about traveling to Thailand with my sister will realize that the one thing I would enjoy less than interrogation by a Burmese official, is visiting another market with my sister. This left two viable attractions.
Shwedagong pagoda is probably the most famous landmark in Yangon, and well worth the extra markup you pay as a foreigner to enter. We were shown around the pagoda by a chirpy little monk, who was happy to do for free what a tour guide was going to charge us $10 each for.
We also tried to book a train ticket for Mandalay. However the man a the train station didn’t speak any English, and after about 20 minutes of saying “Mandalay” in a loud voice and making train gestures with “Choo choo” noises, he eventually passed us off to one of the touts lounging out the front, who also spoke no English.
The tout immediately led us out of the train station and we walked after him. And walked. And walked. It soon became apparent that we were in fact walking the 600km to Mandalay (a fate which in hindsight may not have been so bad – see next week’s story).
Eventually we arrived at a completely different train station and spoke to a completely different man, who also didn’t speak English but presumable in a completely different way. Eventually we decided to give up and let our friend’s Burmese co-workers book the ticket for us the next day.
The next morning, we decided to visit Inye Lake. It was pretty, but nothing particularly special. It had some sort of large, golden barge which was probably pretty famous forsomething. Probably for being a large barge.
For me however, I’m afraid it shall ever be renamed “Lake Snog” because it is where all the young Burmese couples go to have a pash in private. They, rather modestly (but none too subtly), hold umbrellas in front of them to protect the privacy of their romantic trysts. It’s really rather sweet, and certainly more appealing than the romantic things that some girls do with umbrellas in neighbouring Thailand.
We were to meet my Christine for lunch, and then she would hook us up with some co-workers who’d buy our tickets for us. Stopping at a tea stand, which was one of her regular hangouts, I asked if I could take a photo of a kid eating his lunch. Christine was flabberghasted and asked why I would want to take a picture of him as he was such a freaky looking kid. However the parents agreed, but as soon as I pointed he camera at him, he burst into tears. Christine then said one of my favourite quotes of all time, “I reckon if you took a picture of that kid, he wouldn’t be in it anyway”
Going back to the station with two Burmese ladies, I was pleased to note that they had almost as much trouble booking our train tickets as we did. Still, we got there in the end and we were due to leave the next morning. We were on our way.
On our last night in Yangon, Christine told us about a group of monks who had protested about petrol prices in a remote village. Apparently the police had shot above their heads and they had run off so quickly that they left their flip-flops behind. We found the whole idea of a field of shoes with no people inexplicably hilarious. Little were we to know what it would lead to….
Next Week – The Train to Mandalay
Over the next few weeks, I will be writing about my recent trip to Myanmar (Burma) with my sister. This will give me a few weeks to compile some more stories in Japan. I would like to warn my readers that not all the stories will be funny, because not everything that happens in Burma is funny.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step – Loa Tzu
Of course, what the cheeky bugger fails to mention is that after that single step, you still have 15,999,000 to go.
Our single step began with us deciding on where to go. My sister favoured Cambodia and I was leaning towards Myamnar. My resolve was heightened by the discovery that one of my friends from university was working at a newspaper in Myanmar. Despite the fact that I hadn’t seen this girl in over 12 years, I was more than willing to take advantage of the situation to score some free accommodation.
And so it was that we found ourselves in Adelaide airport, preparing to board a plane for a country that neither of us really knew anything about, one of the few situations where ignorance actually is bliss.
Despite Adelaide being the thriving metropolis that it is (and I assume most Australians are laughing at this point), the airport contains very little to do. Once you’ve read the warning signs about liquids, checked out where the three international flights are going this year and decided which passengers are married to their own sisters, it gets a little boring.
Fortunately, I decided to go to the toilet, where I spotted the gem of a sign featured last week. However, there were two doors leading into the urinals and the sign was on the inner door, presenting me with a problem.
There really is no easy way to walk into a public toilet with a camera and not look like a pervert. Especially, as the camera I was using at the time was a large SLR with a substantial zoom lens on it; hardly inconspicuous. I’m sure I did little to alleviate the suspicions of passers by, as whenever they happened past I would instinctively turn around and examine the phone box behind the toilets, or pretend to be examining my camera for scratches.
The only other incident of note during our time in Adelaide was to occur in customs. As we were only staying overnight in Singapore, we had decided to automatically transfer our luggage to the next flight and to take everything we needed for the night in day packs. Unfortunately, there are new laws saying that you can’t take more than 100ml of liquids onto the flight with you. Therefore, I was told that I couldn’t bring a 2 litre bottle of water through a security point, but I was quite welcome to empty it and then fill it up with water from the bathroom on the other side. Also, my sister had a tube of toothpaste confiscated because it was 110ml, instead of 100. And people wonder why I’m cynical.
There are no direct flights to Myanmar from Australia, so we were forced to overnight in Singapore. Now comparatively to Adelaide, Singapore airport is a veritable smorgasbord of activities. It’s kind of like the end result of a collision between Heathrow and Disneyland. The airport contains a free cinema, free internet, free x-box games, free massage chairs and loads of other stuff. All of which is rather disappointing because once you actually leave the airport, Singapore itself has nothing to offer.
Were I to keep an actual diary of our adventures in Singapore, it would run something like this:
Got train from the airport . Got off at the wrong stop. Wandered past the river and harbour on our way to the hotel. Had a shower. Wandered back to the river and harbour. Wandered around the river and harbour. Wandered past the river and harbour on the way back to the hotel. Bought toothpaste. Went to bed.
I am fully aware that I may not be doing Singapore any justice here. For all I know, there could have been at fantastic parade of dancing three legged elephants being ridden by the A – Team right around the next corner. However, there are only so many corners you can walk around in a night and we were tired.
We did, however, manage to stop off for a cocktail in Raffles hotel. For those who know me, this is rather amazing, as I am usually harder to get money out of than a Nigerian spammer. On this one occasion, I splurged and spent the equivalent of $30 Australian on one small cocktail. To put this in context, that was enough to secure a week’s meals in Myanmar. However, it did come with a complimentary bowl of peanuts, so money well spent!
Next week – Rangoon
Well ladies and gentlemen (like any ladies or gentlemen would read this site) after a two year hiatus, the Cynical Traveller website will return as of next week.
As some of you may know, I have spent the last year and a half back in Australia getting a teaching degree, which hopefully I will never have to use. In the interim, I have been to Bali, Singapore and have recently returned (just in time) from a three week holiday to Myanmar (Burma). I am now returning to Japan and will resume my important, nay vital, work once I arrive.
However, for the next few weeks I will be publishing an account of my travels (travails?) in Burma. Keep an eye out.
And just to prove that I don’t only put ridiculous stuff from other countries in, here is a sign from my local Airport.
P.S. I would like to thank all the people who commented over the break, telling me where I could buy Viagra online, enlarge my penis or obtain World of Warcraft gold. Your support during this time was invaluable!