Horrendous travel journeys in Myanmar


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Asia » Burma » Mandalay Region » Irrawaddy River
February 26th 2009
Published: March 11th 2009
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Train from Mandalay


Sat on the dirty platform of the train station they stared, pensively at first and then excitedly: parents with children, huddles of red berobed monks, country bumpkins and the undercover police. This time at least, John and I agreed.

Outside our wooden “Upper class” train compartment - he unimaginatively and literally watched us. He had the clean look of a policeman, a smooth clean shirt, even smoother face but with a blank slyness. He was doing an awful job of being ‘undercover’ - he may as well have shouted at us to “freeze, this is the police!” So we humoured ourselves with his (and our) compulsive viewing. We winked, pulled faces and offered him some fruit. He eventually turned sullen and slipped away.

The teenage hawkers who prowled the train tracks below our windows reached up and offered us their rich bounty of tangerines, grapes and quails eggs. Our fellow passengers sitting opposite us - a mother and daughter - smiled and gesticulated that they were Catholics. As a sign of their charity through our entire twelve hour journey on that train they offered us their nuts, fruit and sweets to eat - yet never accepting a single thing in return.

Upper class is not as bad as you’d expected but not as good as you’d hoped. Most of the time it was like riding a horse, but with wooden seats, we were constantly bounced up and down and side to side which gets rather tiring after an hour or so, let alone for 12 long hours. But then it could have been worse, I peeked into ‘normal’ class later on and the scene was one of dozens of bodies piled up and asleep in the gangways. Our speed was pathetic, perhaps 30 mph, India seemed futuristic in comparison; but it meant the views of the countryside were great and the whole of the afternoon was ours to gawp and gaze upon the landscape and at each station stop. Everyone’s eyes lit up as they spotted us from the platform while others pulled a humorous double-take when we passed them from the train.

The air was hot and humid but with no fans let alone air conditioning the ¬windows were left open to capture a breeze. When night time fell I went and put on my jeans in the “toilet” to avoid an inevitable onslaught of mosquitoes. And oh, what toil. Whilst taking off my shorts over an open hole in the floor I was jolted from side to side, somehow I managed a heaven-wards grin. By the time I attempted putting my leg through a pair of jeans over the pools of urine I was gritting my teeth.

I attempted sleep on the wooden seat but in the low-speed spin cycle of the tumble dry machine it was impossible. I then gave up my seat to John and stared out into the dark night from the ghost train. Twenty minutes later somehow miraculously we were at our destination and off our train.

Orwell Country



We got off, bleary eyed and it was pretty nippy to say the least, when you’re used to high temperatures and humidity that is. We tried getting on the local bus to Katha, but it was a 1960s model and packed with goods and people, the latter literally like packed items. We ended up waking up some young lads sleeping in the back of a motorbike tuk-tuk with a trailer behind. The next hour and a half was a journey into the windy blasts of the night and the Myanmar road network, being bounced around on wooden seats avoiding pot holes and jumping over bumps. When we got to Katha finally, the first guesthouse foreigners could stay at was full so we got back into the tuk tuk with our bags and proceeded to drive three doors to the next one (?!). Anyway, we were pretty bush-wacked and as we didn’t have a choice on where to stay we took the very basic rooms. We deliberated beside the Irrawaddy River over whether to get the early 08.00 fast boat or to stay and hang around Orwell’s Katha. We decided on the former, and whilst John G went to bed I went on to watch the Manchester United versus Inter Milan. The locals and owner watched on from behind me, muttering familiar names such as “Giggs” and “Rooney”. Afterwards I crashed - it was 4 am.

The Mighty Irrawaddy



The next morning was a bit of a blur to be honest, but I do remember paying 7 dollars for the room and feeling it was a rip- off. I also remember paying for the boat ticket (the fast boat to Bhamo) and paying the foreigner price of 15 bucks. Anyway, we got on the boat and the numbered wooden seats startled me as did the lack of any luggage space, apart from dumping it on the ground in the “aisle” next to us. Was this it? The fast boat to Bhamo? More and more seats began to get filled up with locals, and as we sat on knee bashing benches and with comedic interludes from the cockerel at the back, we just stared into the water.

The Irrawaddy is Myanamar’s largest river (about 1350 miles or 2170 km long), and we would be travelling along an interesting part of it. According to Wikipedia.org there is a sharp westward swing, leaving the Bhamo alluvial basin to cut through the limestone rocks of the second defile. This defile is about 300 feet (90 metres) wide at its narrowest and is flanked by vertical cliffs about 200 to 300 feet (60 to 90 metres) high. However, we only got to this bloody stage of the river after the speedy fast boat as opposed to the slow 2 day government boat broke down. Yes, we broke down on the river. We stood around the shore, skimming stones, writing postcards, eating, taking a piss for 3. A real drag. We didn’t know when or if we would get going again until three and a half hours later another boat came from upriver to our rescue and tugged us along, till we reached those cliffs described above. It was pretty much dusk and they were not clear but it was nice to stand atop the roof of the river at dusk to see them. We were just happy to be on our way.

We struggled slowly through the shifting sand backs of the river in the darkness, using a boat headlight. We then stopped, and stopped on a side bank that is. A bloke came along pointing to follow him (we were still standing on the roof) and he showed us into this cabin with some guy in there holding a candle. Yes, unexpectedly we had stopped for the night and that was to be sleeping quarters, with no food and no blankets. We both decided pretty quickly that this would not be the case, in fact I asked around and in pigeon English and lots of hand gestures a group were about to leave and get transport to Bhamo. John G and I got our stuff and tried to follow in their direction.

Let the adventure begin



We were clearly on a sand bank island so we slowly approached two lights in the distance where we asked these two brothers in the dark for a boat ride across to the mainland. They very kindly motor-boated us across and then walked us to the Bhamo road - not much of one either. There was no traffic and going through the village, they then took us to various houses looking for a car or someone to assist. We got to one house where we sat around a family’s dinner table in the candle light looking over my Burmese language book and using their telephone to call the hotels in Bhamo. Nothing was working, substantiating Aung San Suu Kyi, the deposed and rightful leader of democratic Myanmar, to approach every phone call with a prayer. It was very frustrating and so the brothers took us for a 20 minute hike with out backpacks to a hotel that owned the one in Bhamo. Again we were left with disappointment as the hotel was full and so we trudged back again in the dark.

Along the road, a light appeared and in the distance a pick-up sped towards us. It stopped and the guys asked them to give us a lift which they gladly did, uncovering the read covers and putting seats together for us. Then we went a short distance before we stopped again, and familiar faces from the boat appeared from the side, the same group as the one that had left the boat. Apparently they had ordered the van and had waited it out, if we had been able to communicate then we would have saved ourselves some walking! Anyway, we gladly got our seat, packed ourselves in, about 16 of us in total and thus began one horrendous journey.

I was so exhausted by this time that the bumpy, shuddering bus journey was a fight to stop me from falling out the side of the van. I also began hallucinating that I could see the town and people outside but in fact nothing was there and we were hours away from Bhamo.
I gripped the bar inside the van, trying to make John G talk to me to keep me awake, but I think I just annoyed him with my false claims that we were there.

All I can say is that when we arrived 2 and a half hours later I was relieved, we paid the driver, thanked him for his speed and got ourselves the only room available in the hotel, the Friendship Hotel.

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