Holy Sh!+ we survived the night train to Mandalay, February 2016

  Fifteen hours on a bouncing wooden bench. Overnight. Why did we do this to ourselves? I’m still not sure!

We logistically could leave Yangon. We had our expensive land-entry Indian visas in hand. We had paid and registered, and we had contact information for the Myanmar permit to enter the restricted area at the Indian border. We had stayed an extra night due to popular demand by the 15-and-unders. We were ready to get ourselves to Mandalay in the north. We had considered and rejected going first to Bagan (unpopular with the temple-fatigued troops) and/or Inle Lake (night bus arrives between midnight and 3 am, also unacceptable to the majority )- two popular tourist destinations that sound pretty good, sigh, but such is the nature of extended family travel. 

So the decision was how to get to Mandalay. We spoke with several bus companies, and it was confusing. They seem to be run from a card table on a dusty street, sometimes just from a random guy with a cell phone, and prices varied widely. Our hotels also sold tickets, but offered fewer options. The bus station, as we knew from when we had arrived in Yangon, was 1-2 hours away through menacing traffic by $10-15 taxi one way, so going there to find prices and times would be time-consuming and expensive at best. Meanwhile, the train station was a walkable distance from our hotel, was better established, and offers the romance of antique British rail and rural views. We had enjoyed the trains in China and Thailand, and we liked what we read on seat61, so we decided to go by train. Only, hold up-the sleeper cars were sold out! We could wait 3 days, but we had been so long in Yangon and we had no hotel booked, which had proved problematic a few days prior. How about upper class, with padded reclining seats? Sold out. What’s left? ‘Ordinary class’ wooden benches, a bargain at $4 each, yes, but should we?

We did. And the troops wailed and moaned and gritted their teeth. But we had made our choice, and we figured how bad could it be?

It really wasn’t horrible, despite a detailed list created by one of my offspring to express otherwise. Our assigned car was almost full, so we did not have the option of sprawling across the whole two-person bench. We were surrounded by locals readying themselves for the same trip, and we watched and learned. We ended up, like many passengers, making a small bed on the floor between the pair of benches facing eachother. One could stretch one’s legs out a bit this way under the benches. I slept this way on the shaking wooden floor, and I may have fallen asleep once or twice. I liked the swaying, bobbing train and I liked how I could glimpse the swiftly moving tracks inches from my head as I peeked between the floorboards. It was a long night as the train cars jostled about, the fluorescent lights shone brightly, the wheels clacked in varying rhythms and occasionally shrieked or made a mighty CLANG!, and the vendors shouted about their wares even in the small hours.

Near sunrise, 6am, people started moving around and sliding open the vented aluminum windows to the fresh air. We could watch the sun rising and again see the rice fields that seemed to extend to the horizon. We had made it through the night and we congratulated ourselves. The twins actually seemed to have slept ok. We eventually pulled into the Mandalay station, caught a taxi to a hotel and decided it was fine. Next was food, naps, and showers, and we were back in the swing of things. Hello, Mandalay!

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Bangkok, November 2015

   

 “There’s a dead squirrel in the car, mama” said Cleverly.  We were traveling from Vang Vieng to the Capitol of Laos, Vietienne, in a minibus, passing rice fields in various states of harvest, rivers, towns. We were listening to a Lao version of Taylor Swift which the driver played from his cellphone attached to- covering, actually- the rear view mirror. This might have been alarming but I reasoned that he didn’t need to look back since the road was so twisted he couldn’t see far behind him anyway. Better to see in front of him- the potholes, cows, sudden drops, slow cars, and other obstacles as we went about 30 mph on a road that alternates dusty and paved. The driver had just stopped so he could buy a dead squirrel from a roadside stand. We made several stops like that, dropping off or picking up riders, getting a snack at a stand, picking up a package. 

“There are now three dead squirrels in the car, mama.”

We must not have taken the express. 

Lovely desserts in Vietienne:   

 We eventually reached Vietienne and made our way to the backpacker area and the English language bookstore where we would meet Mr. Fantastic. It was a kind of miracle that my texting app worked up until the moment I told him of our location, and hasn’t worked since! He found us at a fancy coffee shop where there was wifi and cheesecake. And it was a lively reunion!

We decided to go to Bangkok right away since he had an apartment for us. We took a bus, crossed into Thailand, then took the overnight train from the border. The train staff had a military-style inspection before we could board the train. It wasn’t overly militant, more like orderly. The participants weren’t averse to anyone taking pictures, and there were smiles and bowing passed between the guy in tan and the line of train workers.    Inside the train was our most comfortable sleeping arrangement on trains/busses yet. Large beds compared to the others we’d had, little green curtains, soft pillows. The upper beds folded down from the ceiling of the train, while the lower ones were made from seats and tables. One complaint was that they left the lights on all night! Other than that, it was a nice way to get to Bangkok.

   
We got in at around 7am. We got on the “sky train” to the Sukhamvit part of town, down some side streets and to a little one-room apartment we’d found on Airbnb. It was a unique place, full of antique hardwood and with a back porch kitchen. There were banana trees in a small backyard. 

  

  

 It was too small for us, and though we hated to leave the cozy place with its sweet kitchen, a few days later we moved two blocks away to another apartment owned by the same landlady. This one had three bedrooms, a less exciting kitchen, and a lower monthly rent- about $480/month including utilities. It will be home for a couple of months.  Below is outside and inside our apartment. We have a yellow gate and we’re the lower floor of a two-story house.

   

  

  

 Our landlady is quite a character! Nim is a Thai language teacher as well as a landlady and speaks fluent English. She collects antiques and has an affinity for worn teak shutters and panels from old country houses. It is a nice break from the modern high rises all over the city. She loves our kids and had us over right away to swim in the pool at her apartment building where she lives. Below: selfie out Nim’s balcony, the pool, Nim pouring us a sweet iced herbal tea

    
    
 One of our first days in Bangkok, I took the twins on a kids excursion by a local company. It was about Thai monks, and we went to several related places around Bangkok. We started on a long tail boat on the Chao Phraya River to a flower market. 

    
 
The flower market is open 24 hours a day and supplies people with flowers and garlands for shrines, car rear-view mirrors, temple offerings, etc. 

    
   
The organizers bought some flowers and the kids made garlands. 

    
    
We got into a tuk tuk and went to Wat Suthat, an historic temple famous for its giant swing that was used in ceremonies until the 1930’s.

 

 A monk met us at the temple and told us about his daily life. He answered questions about his schedule (up at 4am, meditation, alms collecting, studying, two meals a day, bed at 10pm), hair (buzz cut once a month for efficiency in grooming and for humility), and why he became a monk (his parents wanted him to become one). He led the kids through lighting candles and incense, offering these and garlands, bowing, and meditating. 

    
    
    
    
 The wat was so beautiful with golden Buddhas and intricate wall paintings. 

    
    
    

 We had lunch, then went to an amulet market- what an interesting place! 

    
   
By the way, the wat had this to say about images of the Buddha, which I found interesting: 

 That was our first few days in Bangkok.