Last train to Yuma

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 w%vWhtxiQh6WDKLGOJ%wbA_thumb_1566vocabulary 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). H0PulvqzSTS+e0hg4Q7M%A_thumb_152bThe 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.

Ngpsr9gkQxq8ObAXCkM%Ow_thumb_155fI 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.


R & R

February 17th 2017

There comes a time in every trip when the mere thought of an outing to yet another spectacular UNESCO world heritage pagoda elicits only a slight narrowing of the eyes.7rAy2M4RS+etLjj%%rNiWg_thumb_1303 Inle lake, with no historical significance other than the old ladies selling odd vegetables at the market, is perfect for a few days off, and I couldn’t ask for a better place to put my feet up than the Yar Pyae, where it feels like I’ve got the best room in the house – a corner with two big windows and a balcony, conveniently near the rooftop bar, so the nice old man who brings hot water for tea or beer is only a wave away. So, in between the tea, the beer, my book and the domestic dramas across the street I find myself so much revitalized that the next day I can commit to a desultory bike ride around the lake for a lounge in the hot springs. By the time I’ve polished off two mojitos and a fish curry I’m fully restored.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1310Just as well. My boatman has sent word to be ready and waiting at 7:15 and luckily I am because at 7:16 he’s already hoofing off to the jetty with me in hot pursuit. Considering he has organized a full 9 hours on the lake and what we’re going to see has been in full swing for hundreds of years the reason for this rush is not at all clear. UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_13b6We poke along the highways and byways of the lake (they look like nothing more than the canals of Venice) in his wooden longboat (with an outboard motor but steered by standing on the back exactly like a gondola) in and out of villages on stilts, where we see the school run being enacted in 3hi0vNT5SwiNM4k3bm6d5Q_thumb_37fddugout canoes (aggressive double parkers are found in all cultures) through floating farms (built on mats of water hyacinths and weeded from the same dugout canoes via an awkward sideways motion) and into weekly markets (more old women and even odder vegetables plus staggering amounts of exquisite indigenous crafts that leave me paralyzed with indecision as usual) as well as the rickety workshops where the crafts originate. Perfect warm hazy weather. A tour de force, and it goes without saying, also a UNESCO site.



With only one day left to figure out how to avoid that bus ride down the mountain while arriving in Yangon in time for my flight to Hanoi, plans have still not coalesced.

Plan A avoids the bus with a world-class train ride from Inle to Thazi a mere 100 km (but 11 hours) away. Thazi to Yangon – less clear. The original train does go on to Yangon but is particularly old, rickety, slow and without sleepers. It arrives in Yangon after another 17 hours – not so appealing. However, while this train is stopped in Thazi the bona-fide Mandalay-Yangon ‘express’ (with sleepers and much faster) passes through with a 5-minute stopover. Provided we have arrived in Thazi on time (most people are deeply skeptical this can happen) it should be possible to transfer to the express. However, no-one – and this includes the station master at the Inle lake station – knows whether the station master at Thazi is allowed to write a ticket for the Mandalay-Yangon express. In fact, since all tickets are handwritten, it seems highly unlikely, how on earth would he know what seats are taken already? Even the ‘Man in seat 61’ that definitive source of information for train transport worldwide asks somewhat plaintively “please let us know any updates on the Thazi-Yangon situation”.

As for a bus from Thazi to Yangon (flatter and therefore less hair-raising) the internet can only come up with helpful hints such as ‘On the train I ask an uncle and he send me to [place that is clearly lost in translation since it can’t be found on Google]. I wait on the road and at 10pm bus comes’ which doesn’t sound like a solid strategy. It should be said that the one tour office in Inle that claims to have international status does believe such a bus exists, although they can give me no concrete details of where it might stop in the middle of the night. So, in the (seemingly likely) event I am stuck overnight in Thazi, I have the option of either the ‘Moonlight’ or the ‘Amazing’ guesthouse, both of which are characterized by (usually overly optimistic) websites as ‘Rooms not up to much but very friendly’. Moreover, they will happily send their ox-carts to pick me up at the station.

Watch this space.

Upward to Inle

February 15th 2017

Oh, Inle Lake! It’s not surprising that those who escape here from the searing heat of the plains find it difficult to leave. Legitimately in the mountains and deliciously cold at night, think lake Titicaca transplanted to northern California with bananas and bougainvillea. And even though it too is at the end of a dry and dusty winter the water flows freely and for once looks clean.



Of course, the other reason for not leaving is how one gets here in the first place. The trusty hotel guys (Bagan version) have assured me that the ‘JJ’ bus is the way to go. It certainly looks the part. Massive and thoroughly air conditioned, the staff of 5 starts the Valentine’s Day trip auspiciously with chocolates all round and for three randomly selected couples an extravagantly wrapped gift of plastic Hello Kitty bowls with odd looking spoons (at least one pair of lucky recipients do not fall into the ‘couple’ category to their intense embarrassment).

The existential crisis begins not five minutes into the nine-hour trip when we are reminded of the major difference between bus and train travel, namely the lack of on-demand bathroom opportunities. Fortunately, and in the nick of time, a gentleman further forward begins to bitterly regret the mutton curry he had for dinner last might (I personally avoid the ‘mutton curry’ for the simple reason I have never seen an actual sheep). Too bad for him, but all the over 50s are cheering en-masse for the frequent unscheduled stops that will ensue. Meanwhile the millennials sleep like babies, as they will for the entire trip, thus preserving their life expectancy.

The road up into the mountains is pretty much a single lane; luckily it is mostly paved, and in some areas even built out a bit so that oncoming traffic has at least a fighting chance of passing safely, although when the vehicle is about the same size as ours, which is often, this seems hardly assured. Our three drivers change out every hour to cope with the stress of having to navigate and lean on their horn simultaneously. Fortunately, from time to time what seems like a random guy with a cell phone halts traffic in one direction for 15 minutes or so that the other can proceed without, or more precisely, with less, anxiety. On the plus side, the total number of crazy drivers encountered somewhat unbelievably is zero. Indeed, the craziness crown must go to the pelleton (presumably French) in full fluorescent spandex spotted 2/3 of the way up, and therefore with not a hope in hell of reaching anywhere meaningful before dark.

Then, at precisely 4:45, five minutes after the young Vietnamese woman sitting in front of me suddenly realizes that her returning tardily to the bus after lunch is also going to make us arrive in the dark too, I reach the conclusion that only one thing in the world could be worse than this journey up into the mountains; at least I now have 4 days to make a plan.


Slow boat along the Irrawaddy

February 12th 2017

It is surprisingly nippy as we set sail down the Irrawaddy before dawn and I scramble to locate long-neglected fleeces and socks. There are a couple of options to reach Bagan by boat: The local boat will be more interesting but this is the dry season and it is navigated through the increasingly shallow river by a boy on the prow with a depth stick, so it will inevitably run aground. At best this means the arrival time is aspirational, at worst a night on a sandbank. My hotel guys steer me to one of the tourist boats. Not the one with teak loungers and signature cocktails, unfortunately, instead they book me on the one that sits highest in the water and has sonar even if the other passengers are French and Belgians, who would rather talk to me than each other, a mansplaining Canadian lady who has evidently not talked to anyone for a week, and my first Americans. A nice young family from Eastham of all places, doing spring break in Burma before decamping to the Canary Islands to sit out the Trump era.


The Irrawaddy is splendid in the shimmering heat that soon develops and even with necessary zigzags we make it in a mere 12 hours, cruising smugly past other boats listing sadly, stuck for who knows how long in the treacherous shallows.


Bagan, which is currently scoring at least an 8 on the hotter-than-hell index, must advertise itself as the fairy light capital of the world, but we are here to experience the 2000 plus temples scattered throughout the Bagan plain.


The sheer vastness raises the inevitable question of access and the inevitable specter of the e-bike. In its Chinese version, which we have here, the e-bike resembles a Vespa more than a bicycle. Since the dawn chorus, dominated by Buddhist chants, begins at 4:30 in Bagan I have had plenty time to contemplate my deeply ingrained instinct to grab the accelerator handle and speed up when confronted with a crisis. After a couple of trips up and down the lane, the nice old e-bike man and I reach the mutual conclusion that this old dog is unlikely to learn the new trick in the time available, and points me to the normal bikes.  I examine every single one before finding the killer trifecta of functioning brakes, more than one gear and inflatable tires. He insists I take his phone number.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_105cThe heyday of the Buddhist Empire these monuments celebrate was in the 11th century, so some wear and tear is anticipated. It has been hastened along by a 2016 earthquake and not ameliorated by UNESCO pulling out of the renovations in a huff. So some of the temples are sheathed in bamboo scaffolding and others by piles of bricks. This will be the last season we are allowed to scramble on them willy nilly.

Still, the huge area engulfs the few tourists and most are deserted, leaving the vendors forlorn. At some remote spot, I find myself enticed into buying a sand painting which the artist assures me is washable, although not in the machine, a selling point I have never yet encountered for artwork. He also assures me it can remain folded in my suitcase for years, secure in the notion that even if I did come back to argue the point I would never be able to find him.




The death of the Raj

February 11th 2017

No one symbol confirms the absolute futility of Colonialism than the Hill Town. Desperate to escape the unwelcome heat of the sweltering plains, the British headed for the hills to fashion fake Tudor bungalows and teak paneled panels bars into a mirage of Croydon or Slough. It has been my life’s ambition to find one intact, and I have not yet succeeded. Inevitably at the very moment the Raj dissolves the populace swarms back, armed with fairy lights and the unfortunate paint color du jour, locks the regimental cemetery and throws away the key. Pyin U Lin does not disappoint. The Cotswolds have been cheerfully repurposed as bad Thai restaurants and the only remnant of the Burmese Raj is a peculiar version of Victorian municipal landscaping. I am unable to find the floral clock, but it surely exists.

g1tM3vSiScuf7XtieqNmsw_thumb_3933This backdrop invites the full spectrum of foreign tourists. In our demographic, apprehensive Germans and Dutch, firmly tethered to their Burmese guides are being herded into the bad Thai restaurants and forbidden to go into the market. Timid Brits, though usually not in tour groups, travel in pairs tethered to each other and never seem to talk in public. The French are either in loudly discordant groups arguing about which of the 2 versions of Burmese red will go best with the Thai chicken they don’t yet realize is unbearably bland, or in couples where le homme affects a no-nonsense bandana and unnecessarily complex backpack, and la femme is impeccably turned out in an insouciantly couture longyi. They have many conceptions (both pre- and mis-) and debate them endlessly. There are no shopping opportunities in Pyin U Lin, so all the Chinese are at the Botanical gardens taking selfies and ignoring the no photographs sign in the world class butterfly museum. There are no Americans.

4A6P71LEQACnH6V+B2gPvg_thumb_fb0Most of us Europeans are not here to reflect on the death of the Raj but to experience its most enduring relic – the half hour train ride across the Gokteik viaduct, engineered and constructed by the British, and since they disappeared lackadaisically maintained by the Burmese.

TOOJQim2RsikWUr41wKPkA_thumb_1028As Paul Theroux writes “A monster of silver geometry in all the ragged rocks and jungle…its presence there was bizarre, this man-made thing in so remote a place, competing with the grandeur of the enormous gorge and yet seemingly more grand than its surroundings which were hardly negligible – the water rushing through the girder legs and falling on the tops of the trees, the flight of birds through the swirling clouds and the blackness of the tunnels beyond the viaduct.”

JH%9Xk1ATcmwzEsdmtc8JA_thumb_fe7It should be pointed out the reason Burmese train travel resembles a horse ride is the disconnect between the gauge of the tracks (British) and the current trains (ancient Chinese, no doubt bought cheap). Managing this disconnect is no more crucial than 1000 feet above the rushing river below, and doing so requires the train travel so much slower than walking speed, so we have plenty of time to reflect whether guard rails didn’t make it into the maintenance budget, or the British already realized they would be futile, or it is irrelevant to the Buddhist Burmese whether life ends because of a gust of wind. Most tourists can recover as they continue onward to points north, but I must leap off the train at the first stop and join the returning train to Pyin U Lin. Seated once more in Ordinary Class, I realize the Burmese deal with near-death experiences by eating lunch and watching videos on their iphones.


The Moustache Brothers

February 10th 2017

Given I’m still not even able to say thank you consistently, I’m hardly qualified to speculate what it’s like to live under this military dictatorship. Guidebooks warn not to engage politically, but they are clearly overreacting; in any given conversation, our combined vocabulary never exceeds 5 words making ‘Where you from?’ the most probing interchange possible. Tempting, though, to blithely interpret – that loudspeaker mounted on a pickup is surely spouting military propaganda – or is it just reading off this week’s lottery winners, as the adverts plastered on it suggest? Do those folks squatting under that huge screen in the street look so grim because they’re being politically realigned – or did the recycling fines go up again?

ExQQUmqaR+aMBFc2ImBX1A_thumb_3978I consult my guys at the desk and they agree that an outing to the Moustache Brothers (the satirical vaudeville troupe strongly critical of the junta) may be just the job. My motorbike taxi is less keen; when we get there and he can’t find it he circles the block in a panic rather than ask directions, convincing me this is a truly subversive event. It certainly has potential: Only one Moustache brother is left, not because he’s so geriatric (which he is) but because brother #1 has succumbed to lead poisoning from the prison water he had to drink for 7 years, while brother #3 never even made it back. So, the remaining brother, #2, was left holding down the ‘irritate the junta’ fort until they came up with the, I must say, brilliant idea of not putting him into prison and turning him into a folk hero, but rather permitting him to perform only in English, thereby ensuring the average Burmese will never be able to understand what he’s saying.

LsKdeUwRT+KAk01Q+4266A_thumb_f71 It’s tough on the motley crew of Danes, Italians, English and Aussies in the audience too, but he helps us out by brandishing laminated placards with inflammatory comments as he tells political jokes. The best one: “My teeth were bad, so I went to dentist in Thailand. He say to me, Mr. Paw Paw Le you are from Burma. No dentists in Burma? And I say to him. Yes, there are, but we are not allowed to open our mouths”. He insists we take pictures and tells us via another placard to post them on Facebook. The rest of the troupe – his equally senior wife, sister, sister-in-law and cousin provide interludes of surprisingly energetic classical Burmese dance. They all look like they’re dying to go to bed and I feel for them. Still no answers. Has he become a clown who needs to retire his red nose, or is he still a serious provocateur, as the (ancient) photos plastered on the wall suggest he once was? His video of Aung San Suu Kyi laughing at his jokes is from 1996, so we are none the wiser.



If I bring this up with my desk guys, will I be flaunting basic Burma etiquette? Turns out they’re all ears. but when I tell night time guy the dentist joke he looks terrified, and I’m convinced I’ve gone a bridge too far. Then morning guy tells me it’s a terrible joke and night guy was only scared because we exceeded the 5-word limit. He says the motorbike taxi never asks for directions and that if I knew even one word of Burmese I could have told him off. He reassures me that Mandalay is crawling with young dissidents with better shtick than the antedeluvian Moustache, and asks me to write down the word ‘comedian’ in case it comes in useful sometime.

But he does tell me its Burma not Myanmar to those who disapprove of the junta.

Finding Mandalay

February 8th 2017

Its hideous aesthetic confirms that the Kyaung Mint hotel was conceived with the Chinese tourist in mind. Less easy to spot than in Japan, where they are notable for hauling around massive amounts of luggage to fill while shopping till they drop, they nonetheless are the major tourist bloc in northern Burma. Unfortunately, the Chinese tourist is a tough nut to crack. A relentless eye for a deal and a non-stop stream of demands pushes prices down and forces management to pile on the amenities (who heard of a $20 hotel with a king-sized bed, minibar, free coffee, full range of toiletries and bathrobes). No wonder management has turned westward, to European guests (French and Germans needy in their own way, no Americans) pathetically thankful for the opulence even as they avert their eyes from the décor. I have already wormed my way into the manager’s good books by taking the bike he provided (free of charge) for major surgery on the pedals. Now it actually works, I am allowed to reserve for my own use in a special corner.


It is said that everyone has their mind’s eye Mandalay, so the reality inevitably disappoints. I am inclined to disagree. While arriving at the Shwedagon by taxi felt like a pilgrimage, a bike ride around the neighborhood pagodas allows ample opportunity to ferret out le vrai Mandalay, alive and well in the bustling side lanes and alleys.

9VrT19nASXWpXvd84ieBzg_thumb_ecaIn the event, I find one of them from the guidebook (the whole Tipitaka inscribed onto 1794 stone tablets each in its own little house!), stumble on the second, which has been mislabeled on the map (massively carved teak, ladies not allowed into the inner chamber). Jy9Wgv0bSqubpY3kOrNW1Q_thumb_39cdI completely fail to find the third, in large part because people who have clearly been born and bred in the vicinity seem to have no idea of what the streets they live in are called. Let it be noted that the streets are labeled, 1st 2nd 3rd etc.; the pagoda in question was supposed to be on 86th, which is pronounced in Burmese as “Eighty sixth”.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_e11My final foray is to the inevitable pagodas of Mandalay Hill, which deliver superb views of the sunset over the distant Irawaddy river. Not so fast! As I am locking up the bike I am accosted by an old man in a jungle war helmet, complete with netting. ‘Mama, Mama too late!’ He tells me brandishing his iphone as proof. Evidently sunset will occur in precisely 30 minutes, while the climb up the hill will take 45. Although I find this somewhat surprising since I too checked with Google, I do tend to agree that reaching the top breathless and in the dark, would be unfortunate. His proposed solution is to ferry me up post haste on the back of his somewhat underpowered motorcycle and wait until I finish photographing all the other tourists who will be blocking the view. My experiences with Myanmar’s robust traffic have made me apprehensive to try a motorcycle taxi, but this more controlled environment seems like a perfect opportunity. I put on a (more conventional) helmet, sling my leg over the back (to general disapproval; women generally ride side saddle) grab him firmly by the right shoulder as etiquette demands, and implore him to go slowly.

We go so slowly the sun is beginning to dip into the horizon as we make it to the top.


The Road to Mandalay

vOW52dfTRm6rRYpBQLUaiw_thumb_3ad2February 6th 2017

What a perfect traveling day! I am obsessed with traveling by train. Feel free to skip this. Its long.

Given it will stop every 30 minutes and never go above 20 miles an hour the ‘Yangon-Mandalay Express’ nomenclature seemed somewhat ill-conceived. But in the end, what a train! Yes, it can fairly be said to be grimy (even very grimy) and yes the toilet is a squat (offering some challenges on a journey that has legitimately been described as like riding a horse) but the upper class seats are business class huge (unlike ordinary class which are park benches screwed to the floor), comfy and swathed in crisp clean covers. The nice young man who promised me the best seat on the train has been as good as his word; it’s a single, with full reclining capabilities AND a foot rest.  Best of all the windows are thrown wide open. This is $9 well spent – for the next 15 hours we will have a bird’s eye view into a thousand lives.

RUcSI1VXQVeKLnDYMtgJ+w_thumb_3a11The Burmese eat constantly, so keeping them fueled for a full 15 hours takes a serious masterplan. The onslaught of vendors appears the minute the whistle blows; breakfast – corn on the cob and those quail eggs no-one likes – is a bust, everyone, including me, has brought their own. But the Nescafe with sweetened condensed milk, is excellent and I am fortunate to discover in the nick of time that the teenage girl who is the hotel night manager has packed me soft boiled eggs. I avert disaster by eating them out of the window. For lunch my across the aisle family (I am the only foreigner on the train) give me permission to buy an odd looking peanut curry but with frantic arm gestures (they don’t speak English) suggest strongly I don’t eat the meat, which indeed looks like it might have been regifted a few times previously. Fruit, including a delicious dryish smoked banana with the texture of figs and dates, dinner and finally, whisky (my family don’t approve so I also shake my head primly). It should be pointed out merchandize is carried on the head, and then the horse ride analogy should be recalled. Different teams of vendors jump on when we stop and then are replaced at the next stop or so. This revolving crew can thereby provide the breadth and depth of menu options the Burmese clearly expect. Their ability to get back home after a day’s work suggests Myanmar railways may be more coordinated than it initially appears.

Nothing bad is going to happen on this journey. We have our own uniformed military detachment (6 in total) to back up the two guys in white uniforms (at the start at least) who have the only actual job of collecting tickets. The two in navy blue are chiefly concerned with making sure that no-one in Ordinary Class will seek out a quick half hour respite on an Upper Class padded seat. They are very assiduous at first, but then go off to sleep somewhere in the back. The two in dark grey, despite their military appearance are chiefly concerned with making sure each carriage stays attached when we stop, and so are very busy except when they are eating. The last two walk up and down looking dyspeptic. They ignore us and we return the compliment. Nothing bad does happen.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3a08Through rural Burma at 20 miles an hour. All of it is a plain, but not a bit boring! Every inch is cultivated. And the texture and intense detail in the landscape mesmerizes me from 6am when we set off, until 6pm, when it finally gets dark. We are going just a bit too fast to take good pictures. So I need to take an inventory instead:

Decent sized cities, one. Decent sized small towns, a handful. But the prime real estate seems to be along the railroad, so we see life being lived right by the tracks. Each house is in a compound of pristine, hard sand. It is on stilts. Some walls are wood, but others are bamboo mats, like the roof, and sometimes elaborately patterned. Few windows have glass. The cooking fire and the kitchen are in the compound, as are the bikes, and maybe one cow, but not much else. Here is an inventory of what people do:

Dads: Get to drive the ox-cart (not one tractor or other mechanized equipment in 12 hours); get to herd the cows in the morning and get to do strategic planning. Moms: From 1jRDFP3yTXCNTigGxQLb%w_thumb_39a07am to noon moms are allowed to plant and pick in the fields, depending on the crop (this is when dads watch the moms and do their strategic planning). At noon moms go home and pretend to do housework while chatting with their friends (this is most easily accomplished if your friend lives next door). At 4pm moms hike their skirts under their armpits and pour water over themselves, then they disappear. Millenials: Both male and female hop onto little tuk-tuk scooters at 7am and leave. It is not clear where they are going because of the dearth of decent sized places (see above) still, they go, and then they come roaring back at 4pm. Sometimes the boys will go and herd some cows. J4ZZStGhQeqFmVo6PmJiCw_thumb_3a0eKids: Are dressed in their uniforms and off to school at 7am. Some of them walk along the railroad tracks and some have bikes, so they can give 3 lucky friends a ride. They come back in a better mood at 4pm. Then boys play volleyball and girls go to fetch water. After, girls get together and whisper a lot. Little kids: Little boys are allowed outside the compound to kick sand with their friends all day. Sometimes they pretend to throw rocks at the train. After 4pm they harass their brothers. There are no little girls. Grandma: Pinch hits for mom in the morning but more effectively because she has a louder voice. Grandpas: Worry a lot about Myanmar Rail so they gather at the station and congratulate themselves when the train arrives. Note: Some moms and dads travel on the train, but can it be for work? there are only 2 trains a day and in any case, there is nowhere near to go.

At 6pm darkness falls. No electricity in the villages so there are no lights, except the occasional headlamp as someone picks their way home. Two cars in three hours including the towns. Then onto Mandalay, and the Kyaung Mint hotel. Backpacker prices with 5 star pretensions. What’s not to love?

A Bientôt Yangon

February 5th 2017

Somerset Maugham wrote about the ShwedagonUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3a31 Pagoda: ‘The Shwe Dagon rose superb, glistening with its gold, like a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul of which the mystics write glistening against the fog and smoke of the thriving city’. It must have been 4 o’clock in the morning in the middle of monsoon. Today, on a sunny winter Sunday afternoon, all Yangon is here with their picnics.

The Sacred Hair Wishing Well is packed, there’s a birthday party at Buddha’s Footprint and sandwiches are being shared around in the Buddha’s Tooth. Even the monks (average age 19) are in on the act, noshing on biscuits and making rude jokes sotto voce. I sit on a step overlooking the massive gold plated Stupa waiting for the specific moment as the sun goes down that it will seem to catch fire, trying to figure out the elements of a Buddhist spiritual experience, since this event, which is truly transcendental, is being roundly ignored by everyone except the foreigners.


The marching grandma group brandishing matching bouquets over their heads provides a somewhat familiar religious image. Less so the grandmas wielding brooms (2 each) and making frantic sweeping gestures. Close inspection confirms they’re only pretending, so they’re not the cleaning crew. Still everyone is in a good mood and I am reluctant to tear myself away since it will involve interacting with yet another taxi driver who will be unable to explain why the trip back will cost roughly twice the trip there. Another Burmese mystery.  I must have had some enlightenment up on the Stupa, since for once I let it go.

Earlier I decided to practice for my impending 15-hour train ride (at 20 miles an hour all the way north to Mandalay) by taking a quick spin on the circle line around the Yangon suburbs (which by the UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3a69way find farmers plowing with buffalo or thigh deep in water harvesting the ubiquitous morning glory, rather than McMansions). Picturesque yes but the actual action happens inside the train. At first it’s fairly banal, (water, cookies) ramps up gradually (the lady with strawberries on her head, the guys with a pot cooking sweetcorn) a quick detour through quail eggs (are they cooked? In any event, no-one’s buying) to samosa chaat (prepared a la carte at our feet) to the full noodle café (uploaded, feeds us all and detrains within the space of half an hour). We’re half way into the trip when the mobile chefs are quickly replaced by massive sacks of morning glory destined for Yangon dinner tables tonight.

I fear the train to Mandalay will not be relaxing, but this time at least I will have an upper-class seat, with padding.

Burma Day 1: Yangon

February 3rd 2017

Yangon is easy to fall in love with, and, yes, UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3ac4in less than 24 hours I am smitten. It is a walking city, as the whole population proves by spilling onto the crumbling sidewalks as soon as the sun goes down. Yangonis are swarthier and their resting face more stoic than the twinkly Thais, but in their long skirts and flip flops (men and women) they waft rather than walk. I feel cocooned rather than confronted, unlike Delhi, which it most closely resembles in terms of urban decay and the smell.

First order of business, crossing the street. Yangonis don’t hesitate to glide into six lanes of traffic (there are no crossings and few traffic lights) but I am still at the stumbling on the sidewalk stage so my strategy becomes to identify someone waiting to launch and then attach myself to their left shoulder. I am then tactfully herded to the other side. Since expressing my gratitude in Burmese would require deconstructing gender and social distinctions I can’t begin to fathom, and the tonality of the language, makes it unlikely I will ever say what I think I’m saying, I stick to a cheery ‘Thank you!! Though I have yet to see evidence of English or even the English alphabet, I am always rewarded with a quick twitch of the lips.

Next order of business, dinner. UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3ae3The night market snakes along the riverfront and into Chinatown for over a mile, stunningly illuminated with red lanterns in honor of New Year. The thousands of food stalls are packed elbow to elbow and, like most Yangonis it seems, I am set on barbecue.

There are two versions: In number one, 6-10 people sit in a circle around a wok. Skewers of esoteric organ meats aUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_36fare lined up and inexplicably, what seem to be whole eggs are bobbing in the hot oil. The competition ends when all the skewers are finished (it is OK to leave the kidneys). This isn’t going to work. Not only can no-one take the time to tell me what I’m eating but I’d likely be plopping myself into the midst of someone’s engagement party.

Number two causes less social anxiety. A cart is loaded down with skewers some I recognize (identifiable vegetables, hard boiled egUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_36fdgs) others I don’t quite (is it morning glory or lotus root, and what do either taste like?) generic meat, seafood and fish. In one case, enormous multicolored lobsters have collected quite an audience. I figure out the drill is to fill a plastic basket with the skewers of your choice, hand it to the grill master and then grab a plastic stool even if the rest of the table is related to each other.  I randomly choose a stall where a huge number of families are eating staggering amounts of food. I choose myself broccoli, okra, two kinds of mystery fish balls, a normal looking kebab and a whole fish. The home brew seems a bridge too far and I settle for a Myanmar beer. It is simply stupendous and sets me back $8 with tip. I skip dessert and someone thankfully herds me back in the direction of the hotel.

It is pitch dark but the vegetable sellers still squatting on the street have illuminated their trays with candles.