February 19th 2017
Well today has finally made me accept I am too old for the full Gonzo backpacking experience. It all started auspiciously enough with nice Mr. Pyae Yar Hotel agreeing to drive me to the local station (took about 45 minutes, cost about $10). Since our combined vocabulary may well be in the double digits, our conversation can now plumb unexpected depths. I am asking him whether the key to understanding the Burmese mentality is indeed ‘Anadeh’ that my guidebook (which considers itself culturally aware) defines as the pervasive avoidance of doing anything that would cause offence. ‘Yes and No’ says Mr P-Y H. ‘Also not tell you what you don’t want hear’. I ask for an example. ‘Example’ he says ‘Everyone say to you easy get from Thazi Yangon, no?’ ‘Not easy?’ I ask. ‘They crazy’ he says with great satisfaction. ‘Never find train, never find bus, you in Thazi for ever!’ ‘And Thazi…..’ we are at our conversational limit ‘Is hellhole?’ I intuit. ‘Exact’ he says with a self-satisfied grin.
I have plenty of time to contemplate these revelations since the renowned slow train to Thazi takes about 11 hours to cover 110 miles (but only costs about $2). The obvious calculation (about 10 miles an hour) may induce certain conclusions about Myanmar Rail, but wait! Not only are we plastered to the side of various mountains and negotiating the tricky bits uses zig zags in which one engine at each end alternate pulling the train; but our own corps of engineers (no military detachment this time) leap off at each frequent stop to attack the wheels with increasingly massive hammers. Under the circumstances 11 hours seems like a bit of a miracle, but in the event, some fancy main office inspector is making the rounds so his official ledger can be stamped by local staff in their Sunday best at each station, and we even arrive an hour early. Let it also be noted that the trip is totally worth it since the mountains encircle isolated valleys peppered with farms from time immemorial. At many points, not only the train track is breathtaking.
I am ecstatic. A whole extra hour will give me plenty time to evaluate plan A (express train to Yangon) vs. plan B (express bus to Yangon) especially since Mr P-Y H has revealed that the bus-station is located 45 minutes away from the train station. ‘But Yangon bus leave 7:15’ he said sadly, knowing the train should get in at 7. ‘You go to Yangon often?’ I had asked. ‘No, never’ said Mr. anti-Anadeh.
I haul myself over the tracks to Platform 1 (not so easy, Thazi station is crammed with people so anxious to leave town they actually appear to live on the platforms, complete with beds and full cooking and dining paraphernalia). The ticket office is appalled with my request for a sleeper ticket to Yangon. They need clearance from central office, so come back in 40 minutes. Sadly, this means abandoning plan B (because all the taxis have left for the bus station already). No so fast, I need to wait some more (not surprisingly – I have been sitting in their line of sight and there has been no intervening communication with anyone, not even themselves). Ten minutes before the train arrives they tell me there are no sleepers, but they are reluctantly prepared to sell me an upper-class seat. I can only pray that the reclining mechanism will be broken since it is now 8pm and this will be another 11-hour trip (cost $7).
As anticipated the seat is fully reclined so I can stretch out, and because it is broken the person behind can’t complain (the train is packed). There is also a full complement of food services and I can avail myself of noodles and the beer I’m going to need to get through the night. Unfortunately, seat A1 is positioned directly behind the toilet, so me and the equally over-fastidious gentleman across the aisle in seat C1 need to take turns to shut the door whenever the smell becomes too overbearing, which is constantly. At least we do until about 11pm when we both give up the ghost and fall asleep. Somewhat remarkably I sleep until about 5am, when we turn into an even more packed commuter train to Yangon. We arrive on time at 8am and within half an hour I am positioned under a hot shower for more than 15 minutes. The main artwork in my hotel room is a sign that says in English and Chinese ‘Pornography, gambling and drugs prohibited’. But that’s another story.