The curtains of the inexpensive guesthouse served an aesthetic purpose rather than a practical one: the first morning rays created a pastel shine in the room and gently lifted me out of bed.
Then it hit me. It was silent. Remarkably silent!
Yangon is thought to have between 5 and 6 million inhabitants, but Myanmar’s former capital was surprisingly silent in the morning. Although the largest city today, Myanmar’s capital is not Yangon. The military junta moved the capital from Yangon to the newly created city Naypyidaw in 2006. Most airlines, however, are serving Yangon and Mandalay mostly.
Yangon was formerly called Rangoon but its city center has not changed much since British colonial times. The tropical climate, however, is not particularly forgiving and most of the British colonial architecture is slowly decaying among a sea of wide avenues. The skyline is still unmarked by skyscrapers but one can spot the first billboards advertising future condos.
Burmese breakfast symbolizes the state of its economy: scrambled eggs (every nation seems to have chickens), instant coffee (imported and served with way-too-much sugar), and bananas (grows about everywhere in Southeast Asia). Two pictures decorated the guesthouse’s room: a portrait depicting General (Bogyoke) Aung San who led the independence fight against the British, and Aung San Suu Kyi who received the Nobel Peace Prize after enduring 14 years of house arrest. Today, Aung San Suu Kyi’s house is to Yangon as the Anne Frank house is to Amsterdam.
There is not that much to see in Yangon. We visited the National Museum of Myanmar which offers an interesting introduction to the country and its troubled history, walked around Kandawgyi Lake and Nature Park where young Burmese hang out during weekends, and bought fresh fruits at Aung Sang Market.
We decided to skip the Shewadagon Pagoda and the surrounding People’s Square and Park as we had seen many pagodas before and preferred to spend the $8 entry fee on something more worthwhile.
Yangon serves as a hub to connect travelers to other parts of the country. Most travelers fly or take a bus from Yangon to the main destinations: Bagan, Mandalay, and Inle Lake. However, to me the transportation is an integral part of the journey and I find flying too modern. And I also really dislike bus travel in hot emerging countries. I never really understood why buses decide to freeze their passengers with glacial AC which is cold enough to store frozen shrimps. My experience learns that the AC usually only has two settings: broken or maximum. The latter kills every chance to get a good night’s sleep as ice slowly forms on your lips and you almost need to be careful not to fall asleep as you might never wake up again. There is only one explanation I can find for this odd behavior: the AC has have become some kind of status symbol. This could also explain why you need to prepare as if you were climbing Mount Everest when going to the movies in Asia: long pants, sweater, beanie, and gloves! On a more serious note, bus drivers seem to be in some constant race with each other and accidents often occur. Respecting road rules is an unknown concept in Southeast Asia.
The train, however, is slow, but gives you the opportunity to witness Burmese villages next to the tracks and travel in colonial style. The Man in Seat 61 describes the journey as a “bumpy ride” which is beyond any doubt an understatement. Theoretically, train 61 departs from Yangon at 4 PM and arrives in Bagan at 9.30 AM the next day. This sounded like a recipe for an excellent escape and the goal was to board the Yangon to Bagan train the same day.
Burmese trains are old. So are the tracks. And so is the Yangon railroad station.
No central train ticket booking system exists which means that you cannot book in advance. You need to go to the train station in person with your passport and buy the ticket after which the clerk writes down your details in a large book. The ticket booth is dressed up with a sign “Warmly Welcome & Take Care of Tourists” to pass for a modern building.
There are some travel agents that can book your ticket in advance, but that would make the journey less exciting. And exciting it was: we eventually managed to buy the last two tickets of the “61 UP” 4 PM sleeper train the same day. The night berth ticket Yangon-Bagan costs 16,500 kyat or $16 per person which includes 3.60 kyat “life insurance”. The latter is less than 1 dollar cent and it remains unclear what it would cover.
The Yangon Central Railway Station is an explosion of smells and makes anarchy look respectable. Very respectable. The station serves multiple purposes including hotel (house?) and kitchen. Seemingly lifeless bodies cover the station’s platforms and improvised food stalls offer small snacks to hungry travelers. Hygiene standards are questionable and the station’s floors are covered with red stains. These stains are (luckily) not blood, but are caused by spitting when eating Kun-Ya. Kun-Ya is Burmese for Paan, the local “chewing gum” from Pakistan and India, and is sold from small stalls alongside the road. It is made by wrapping a betel leaf around ingredients such as lime, areca (betel) nuts, anise seeds and tobacco. Although very popular among Burmese, tooth decay and oral cancer are just some of the consequences caused by chewing Kun-Ya. The most visible, however, are red lips and red stains on the ground. In Myanmar, Hansel and Gretel would follow red stains instead of bread crumbs through the woods.
To me, the train remained in a state of pure possibility until it eventually appeared at 4 in the afternoon. Surprisingly, the train stops very shortly and one needs to be ready to board the train swiftly. As a passenger trying to board the train, you are competing with bags of rice and other goods which are simultaneously loaded into the train, too. Think of it as the Burmese version of a 747 cargo plane.
The sleeper car consisted of a side corridor and 4-berth compartments. We found our compartment and were greeted by two Londoners sharing the journey with us.
Although reasonably clean, don’t expect the luxury of the Trans-Siberian express. You are provided with a pillow and thin blanket, and can order basic dishes from the crew. One dish goes for about 2,500 kyat and we paid 16,600 kyat or $16 for 2 fried rice, 2 fried vegetables, 1 omelette, 4 slices of bread, and 1 milk tea. Multiple vendors also try to sell you beer and you can expect someone to frequently pop in his head asking “Beer, beer, beer?” Simply closing your door helps in such scenario. You can also buy food when the train slowly passes villages as an entire ecosystem seems to have been build around the tracks.
The train journey can be best described as shaken, and stirred. As if designed to resemble an out-of-control, whole body vibration machine, Burmese trains are extremely bumpy and loud. We traveled during December and found the night also surprisingly cold. Although it warms up quickly in the morning, we were shivering at night and had to put on all the clothes we had – two pants, two pair of socks and a scarf. I was literally jumping up and down on the thin mattress and, interestingly, I found out that sleeping on my left side is significantly more comfortable than on my right side. Put simply, it is an experience.
At 11 in the morning, after 19 wobbling hours, train 61 came to a screeching halt in Bagan. Still sleepy, we were harassed by taxi drivers who regarded us as walking sacks of cash. But that’s a story for the next post.
Picking up on my previous post: there is an excellent, although old, documentary on Khun Sa, the Opium King. You can find it on YouTube in 6 parts (enable auto-play). It is clear that opium touched everyone’s life in Myanmar.