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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Yangon, Myanmar, February 2016 part 2

  

 The sounds here remind us we are in a different place, and it sometimes feels like a different age. In the early mornings before sunrise, there is a Muslim call to prayer. It is sung by a man over a loudspeaker and it is full of haunting minor notes, otherworldly and ancient. Later in the dawn and after, vendors sing about their wares, sometimes melodious and sometimes sharp songs. A few times daily, we hear someone ringing ‘goooonnngg’ on a large bell, like when a clock rings the hour but it does not match the hour. People sing to themselves as they work in shops and out on the sidewalks. There are many crows and we hear them calling individually and in groups. Once we watched three men toss bricks to each other from truck to building; we did not hear them but their movements were like a graceful song or dance. We always know when a sugar cane juice vendor is near because there are small bells on the grinding-machine. The bells dance and jingle as the grinding-wheels turn. In the evening, again we hear the call to prayer, and after that we have heard children singing in the mosque.

Our first week here was filled with finding hotels, homeschooling, dealing with one of our party’s GI bug, and filing for documents to cross overland to India. While doing these things, we had the immense pleasure of dealing with some if the gentlest, nicest people we have ever met! Just this evening, we enjoyed a couple of hours talking with a local young woman with excellent English. July is her name, she is Muslim but not strict (she wore jeans and a t-shirt and no veil), she is 21 but looks Fiercely’s age. She was born here to a Chinese mother and Indian father. She educated us about the delicious products, mostly Indian, at her family’s ice cream store as we ordered and devoured them. She loved talking with the twins and, like most people we’ve met all over Asia, she smiles and laughs genuinely and frequently. She ordered us a custard dessert, no charge, and insisted we take her tube of mosquito repellant she had shown us from her bag (we had been discussing mosquitos) despite our protests. I suppose there are people this nice in Philadelphia, but we meet them here multiple times a day!

 I also have to describe our hotels. They are more expensive here and there are less vacancies than in Thailand, but we have landed in two really great ones. I had written a list before we left our Bangkok apartment, and we chose one to show the cab driver as we entered Yangon. It turned out to be the most comfortable and best priced (2 rooms, a bit under $50 total) of the 5 or so we looked at for comparison the next day. It had small, windowless, low-ceilinged rooms that were made wonderfully cozy with recent renovations and excellent design. The bathrooms were gorgeous, the towels and bedding were high quality, breakfast was included and it was quite good. Due to our unclear schedule, though, we could not reserve more than a day in advance and they had no vacancies after 3 nights.   

 We had to scramble for other options, so we looked at the rest of the list and any others we came across. All except one were either too expensive, had no breakfast, had no wifi, and/or had kinda shabby rooms. And so we ended up on the top floor of the 8-story, airy, mosaic-tiled quirky hotel where we stayed for several nights(above). Every level had many openings to the outside streets, and it was full of fresh air and muted street sounds. We had two rooms, one kind of ordinary and one with four levels, its own bathroom, and four beds. The staff doted on the kids, giving them presents and spending time drawing with them. Here’s the big room: 

 We did manage to see the famous Shwegadon pagoda, the National Museum (excellent), Botataung Paya, and we stayed near Sule Paya so we saw that every day. We also took the ferry across the Yangon River to Dalah, though we didn’t make it to the town of Twante as I’d hoped. These places were wonderful and I hope to add pictures here soon. But I think we will more remember the people and the sounds and the general atmosphere more than the structures.  

 An interesting note to Myanmar temples in general is that, though they may be thousands of years old, they are usually restored and do not look like ruins. It appears that they may frequently or always be under some sort of renovation. We noticed several parts of structures covered with woven grass mats, yellow primer while being painted gold, and workers actively restoring as we watched. 

And it was time to leave Yangon. We had our Indian visas, and we decided to get on a night train to Mandalay…

Yangon, Myanmar, February 2016

So there we were in Myanmar! Our 7th country since leaving the US and we still haven’t been on a plane! It was so pleasing to just watch the world go by as we rode to the capital city of Yangon. Rice paddies in several states of growing, long wooden houses on stilts with little protruding windows-some with stained glass, rubber tree farms with sheets of rubber hanging out in the sun, small towns, goats. We stopped a few times to eat noodles and vegetables. We bumped along the road. We saw wooden carts with wooden wheels pulled by oxen!    Above: rubber tree farm with sheets drying at center. Below: stilted wooden house with small stained glass window box below roof   

 Getting there was a bit arduous. We left Bangkok on an overnight 8-hour bus to the Mae Sot border. There were no beds on this bus, but the seats were fairly comfortable. Also on the plus side, we arrived nice and early to cross over the border and… get on another bus, a minivan actually.   Below: Fiercely, Really, and Cleverly with backpacks at border

 It was a little chaotic at first. We had our Myanmar visas, we packed and moved out of our apartment successfully, but in all the excitement we neglected to learn a few key things- local currency exchange rate, some Burmese phrases, how many hours to Yangon, how to get to Yangon. I had been following a blog post about crossing the border here but the writers had not gone to Yangon from the border- oops, I had failed to notice that. 

We spoke to a friendly English-speaking local at the border who contacted a minivan for us. I’m not sure this was the right way to go about this, but we felt the price was fair- $13 per person for the 8 to 10 hour trip- and we could leave right away. They told us the exchange rate was K1300 to $1, which turned out to be accurate, BTW. Was there a bus station? I’m not sure. I was a little worried since the last time I trusted an English-speaking local at a border I was scammed in Cambodia, but I think this time we did ok.  Locals in Myanmar are famously trustworthy and honest, or so we’d been told. That, and having gotten so comfortable in Bangkok, we were not acting like very savvy travelers that day.

We spent the entire day in a rather small minivan with about six other passengers, all locals. The road, contrary to what several blogs reported, had a lane in each direction. We had been prepared to stay a night in Myawaddy in case we were there the eastbound day and had to wait for the next day, when traffic went west. (Not sure how I missed it, but I just checked wiki travel and there it is, the two-direction travel started in July 2015). 

  Above: girl with thanaka on face, man with longyi (facing away) on right 

The things that immediately stood out to me that were different from Thailand were: men wearing longyi (traditional men’s skirts), people with thanaka paste on their faces (a 2,000 year old sunscreen), and red splashes on the streets and sidewalks from people chewing and spitting red betel nut juice. 

Above: some more men in longyi, I’m a little obsessed with this because I think they look so cool!

I learned at a Thai museum that the traditional clothing and betel nut chewing were outlawed there when westernization was being encouraged in the early 1900’s. Not so in Myanmar. It felt very exotic.  As time went by, I noticed more subtle things like there are no sellers of tourist paraphenalia such as t-shirts and the ubiquitous elephant-printed pants as we have seen since leaving China. There are no motorbikes like those that crowded the Bangkok streets. People noticed us and smiled as always, but it was slower and we were more likely to have a conversation. 

We arrived at the Yangon bus station and were surprised at the cost to get to Yangon- over $10. One driver told me it was 2 kms, which is not far at all, but it turned out to be a language issue and he meant two hours. Another driver was willing to take us for less, so we went with him, but decided to pay him $20 when realizing our mistake. We hope he gave some money to the first driver. The ride took well over an hour and will always make for a good story because we were regaled with no less than fourteen consecutive videos on the dashboard screen by Pitbull- a kind of torture but oh so funny, too. We were loopy after about 20 straight hours of busses.

So far, we have been in Yangon about six days. We have been working on the complicated process of going to India overland from here. We need Indian visas and a special permit from Myanmar to enter the region that contains the Myanmar-India border crossing. Hopefully I will be writing about a successful crossing in a few weeks! For now, I will note that we registered with the government organization Myanmar Tourist and Travel for the permits, and we used a small company at a storefront near the Indian embassy called EarthLink to help with the India visa process. We could not get an e-visa for India because those only work for airport entry to the country. 

Total cost for the six of us for these documents is approximately $1000- very steep but still cheaper than airfare for us ($3000), and it allows us to see less travelled parts of both countries. As always, we have more time than money and we think and hope we are making the best choice.

Internet is not terrible here but I will put off posting many photos because it really slows my ability to blog. I will add photos later. Thanks for reading! Wish us luck!