Crazy train

The train ride from Myitkyina to Mandalay was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. If you ever considering traveling this route and are young and healthy, I’d encourage you to go for it. If you’re less fit, or get motion sickness easily, then just read this post instead! 🙂

The train car we were on was definitely older but still comparable in many ways to what we’d gotten used to in India. We had booked in the train’s only first class sleeper car. Our cabin had two wide, relatively generously cushioned berths on either side (something we’d be really grateful for rather soon!). The two large windows were completely open when we boarded the train, which, in the afternoon heat, suited me fine.

We shared the cabin with a middle-aged Burmese woman and a younger Burmese man who were travelling with a massive bag of longyis – I guess they were bringing these to Mandalay to be sold. They didn’t speak any English, but were SO friendly. We’d barely gotten our things and selves settled into the cabin before they were sharing their food and laughter with us.

Rocky road

Soon after we pulled slowly out of Myitkyina, we discovered what Elmer had warned us about. The ride was smooth and easy at first, but once we reached a rougher patch of the ancient tracks, our car began to sway back and forth like an oversized cradle. Roman and I smiled at each other – this wasn’t so bad at all! Then the bouncing started.

The car started softly jigging up and down, building up momentum until we were literally being thrown a few inches off our seats with each bounce. This is when the thick padding of the berth started to really come in handy. I loved it, being jogged around like a small child on a parent’s lap – it was hilarious and Roman and I couldn’t help but laugh every time we hit another spot of decrepit tracks and got launched into the air.

Even when we were attempting to sleep later that night, we still got the giggles. Like on the boat, the train cars weren’t heated and as soon as the sun disappeared, things got really frigid, even with the windows closed. Unlike in India, the Burmese train didn’t provide blankets, but the sweet woman in our car loaned us one of hers. Even with her generosity and extra layers of clothing, it was still freezing, and Roman and I huddled together on one berth to try and keep warm. When the bouncing would suddenly start, we’d have to hold tight to one another to avoid knocking into each other, and together we’d be flung sometimes up to a foot off of the berth as we bounced along. This happened at least a couple times an hour. Needless to say, we didn’t manage to sleep much that night, but we did laugh a lot!

I need to say that the journey must have been a lot less fun for folks in the normal cars, where people were crowded into hard, wooden seats. The poor woman in our berth had a rough morning – she seemed to have something go out of joint in her back over night and was clearly not feeling that great. I can’t imagine how awful it would be to have this be your only travel option if you were sick or infirm – and you could only afford a lower class ticket.

Beauty all around

The train ride was also amazing for us for the incredible scenery we got to see. I savored every moment I could look out the window before the sun went down. Most of the time we were travelling through wilderness or vast farmlands. Dried out rice paddies would stretch golden in the sun till they reached purple hills on the horizon. Occasionally the track would lead us through small villages, where young children would wave enthusiastically as we rolled by. More frequently we’d pass glittering, golden pagodas, at the edge of a village or simply in the midst of the beautiful but empty landscape.

The station stops provided just as much eye candy. The people watching was great and I especially loved the longer stops at night, where the women selling food in the dark station wandered by our open windows, calling out their wares and balancing elegantly on their heads the broad, round trays of fruit, eggs or fried pastries, lit only by a candle stuck in the center. An incredible sight.

As amazing as it was, still I was happy when we pulled into Mandalay the next morning – only one hour behind schedule (which is apparently very good by Burmese standards).

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The view from our cabin; the lovely woman who shared her food and blankets with us

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Train spotting

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One of many pagodas along the route

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Crooked picture. I blame the bouncing train.

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This butterfly tagged a ride on my windowsill for nearly a quarter of an hour. 🙂

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Travel notes: Bhamo > Myitkyina > Mandalay

Our original plan had been to travel from Bhamo to Myitkyina, where we would catch a flight back south to Mandalay, spend a couple of days, and then do the more touristy boat route from Mandalay to Bagan. We had worked with a travel agent the night we arrived in Mandalay (Seven Diamonds, nice people) who had been able to help us with tickets for parts of our itinerary, but could only get us on a wait list for the flight from Myitkyina to Mandalay.

We’d called again from Bhamo and still got no guarantee. We decided to risk it and take the bus to Myitkyina anyway, figuring that we could probably secure seats on the plane more easily if we showed up in person.

The bus to Myitkyina was definitely a change from the one we took from Yangon. Ancient and overly ventilated (doors and windows didn’t shut properly, if at all), the poor thing was also packed to the gills, with passengers squeezed onto little plastic seats in the aisles. It was a short (albeit bumpy) ride (I believe about 6 hours) and the scenery was great, so we enjoyed it. Probably not something we’d like to do every day though. Most of the roads we traveled on were dirt, so by the end of the trip, we, and all our gear, were covered in a thick layer of dust.

One of the first things we did upon arrival in Myitkyina was go to the airline office. It was a futile visit – we were told that there were no open seats until four or five days later. Even if we had wanted to hang out in Myitkyina that long, our limited visa and ambitious travel plans meant that we couldn’t afford to lose that much time.

We investigated other options and discovered that it was possible to get to Mandalay by train. To the train station we went then, where we booked tickets for the next day with what we understood to be a private company – difficult to verify if this was true or not however. The train was scheduled for around 2 in the afternoon and was due to take around 19 hours, overnight. (Just a side note for myself, after buying our tickets, we met the most lovely taxi driver outside the station called Duhrey (miss-spelled, I’m sure) who was eager to practice his English with us) This was even longer than our longest train journeys in India, and we’d heard the tracks were in awful shape (allegedly, they date back to the English colonial times), making for a rough ride at times, but we thought we’d be adventurous and try it. I’ll write more about the journey in another post – definitely an experience!! 🙂

One other quick note – at this point we’d left Elmer and Ohmar in Bhamo. They had a few more stops ahead of them before they planned to return to Yangon – some the same as us. The timing of our intended dates in the same places was a bit tight though, so we exchanged information and agreed to meet up again in Yangon, feeling very lucky for the insight and fun company they infused into the boat ride and time in Bhamo.

Myitkyina

After Bhamo, Myitkyina (the state’s good-sized capital city) was less than charming. After the Friendship Hotel, the YMCA we stayed at, although staffed by very friendly women, was just plain grungy. It was a transit stop for us (more on that later) and we only spent about 24 hours there. We did manage to have some fun though.

Highlights included:

Listening to live amateur singing as we ate dinner outdoors (on the menu but not what I ordered: sliced pig’s colon salad.)

Visiting a pagoda that was special for the hundreds of Buddhas (more or less) facing the rising sun and getting a personal, guided tour from our cab driver and a couple of other Burmese guys that just tagged along.

The market in Myitkyina was larger and even more incredible than the one in Bhamo. SO interesting to see!

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Buddhas welcoming the sun

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Buddha detail

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Spools of thread at a tailor’s stall at the market (Smoo, I got a small present for Martin here. 🙂 )

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Incredible greens for sale

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Dried fish

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Cuts of meat. Notice the high tech refrigeration… 😉

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Quail eggs

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Shelling beans

Enchanting Bhamo

The final destination of our boat ride was Bhamo, a small town that was a major port along the ferry’s route and the northern most stop accessible in the winter.

The boat pulled in to the town’s lower port (the waters were too shallow for the closer port) around mid morning, a day after it was due. We adjusted our itinerary so that we had that and the next day in Bhamo. The morning after an early bus ride was scheduled to our next stop, Myitkyina (pronounced something like “Micheena”, the capital of Kachin State.

I’m so very glad that we got a bit more time in Bhamo. Although Lonely Planet dedicated less than a half page to the sights, it did say of Bhamo that “For most people…(it) is just a staging post on the river journey to Myitkyina or Mandalay, but it’s an attractive town…” I totally fell in love with the peaceful but vibrant place.

Like the boat ride, I could probably write on and on about everything I loved about Bhamo, but I will try to limit myself to sharing just some of the highlights.

A note on the accommodation

If you ever happen to find yourself in Bhamo, I can highly recommend staying at the Friendship Hotel. Though a different breed from the Classique (that is, a budget hotel), it was pure luxury after the boat cabin.

The room was spacious and clean, the staff was friendly and helpful, the breakfast spread was huge and generous. The service included a lot of thoughtful touches like free news papers (fascinating!) in the lobby, soap, combs and even sewing kits in the room (a first since we’ve been on the road) and a generous take-along bagged breakfast the morning we had to catch be bus before the breakfast buffet was open. The lobby also had a crazy fountain with two beautiful gold fish that I got a real kick out of.

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Our room in the Friendship Hotel

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Fish fountain

Enchanting Bhamo

There are no official statistics on population in Myanmar, so I have no idea how big Bhamo is. It’s a good size compared to the villages we visited from the boat, but it felt relatively small and rural. There were a number of broader, paved roads, but most of the streets were at least partially or all dirt, which made the place feel a bit dusty at times, but never dirty. (Compared to Indian towns of a similar size, it felt (and smelled) really clean (although in India’s defense it was much cooler in Bhamo than the places we’d been in India).) During the day the sun washed the town with a warm light; everything seemed saturated in golden tones as was that much more beautiful for it.

Sights and experiences

In Bhamo I discovered the beauty of traditional Burmese homes. None of the photos I took did any of them justice so I won’t post any. Just know that most of the time they were gorgeous. 🙂 Often raised on wooden stilts (this serves multiple purposes – protection against flooding, keeping out (at least some) unwanted animals in the main living space, creating a storage space for tools or live stock under the house), the houses are made of walls of simple but elegant interlacing bamboo slats, with thatched or corrugated iron roofs, small windows, open doors.

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I did snap a shot of the bamboo walls being made at a street-side workshop (taken from the back of the horse cart so it’s not the best photo) You can see the types of walls they are making in the building in the background.

One thing I didn’t photograph but that was amazing was the night market. Apparently there is a sort of wholesalers produce market that gets going late at night till early in the morning, where shopkeepers and restaurants can pick up their goods for the next day. It takes place on one of the streets, and everything is lit by mostly candles and some flashlights – no streetlights in most of Bhamo. We went to look the first evening – amazing and gorgeous to see.

Elmer and Ohmar were in Bhamo with us. We met up both our nights for dinner, which was great because Ohmar could do the ordering for us at the restaurants we went to. 🙂 The places we ate were simple but the food was great at both. The first night we ate Burmese, the second a local version of Indian (That was great – tasting those spices again brought me right back to India. 🙂 The restaurant was quirky too – full of animals. Fish, parrots, cats, even one rabbit that hopped between the tables!).

The Burmese style of eating is to order lots of different things and then everyone at the table just eats everything. You don’t get your own plate; you just dig in with your fork or spoon to the communal dish. It was a great way for us to try all sorts of yummy things. Ohmar indulged my tastes and ordered lots of different vegetable dishes and I was in veggie heaven. 🙂

Pagodas outside of town

We got a ride in a horse drawn carriage to see a few pagodas that were outside of town. The ride itself plus the pagodas and surrounding farmlands were all just breath taking. Our cart driver was a totally friendly, slightly nuts older man who spoke only very little English but did a lot of talking and laughing with us nonetheless. Really a cool guy. 🙂

The pagodas were really incredible to see but what I couldn’t tear myself away from was the vista of rice paddies with the hills rising on the distant horizon. One of those moments when you have to work to take in that the incredible beauty you are seeing is really real and actually in front of you. I’ve attached a panorama photo – click for a larger view.

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Our horse cart driver

Details from some of the different pagodas

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This was the first silver pagoda we saw on the trip – beautiful, especially in contrast to the dark wood of the surrounding structures.

The beautiful view

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Here is my panorama shot – hope you can see it ok (you may need to click on it?)

Market

We stumbled upon an indoor market that was just a feast for the senses. Everything was so colorful and gorgeous or at least interesting to look at. Tons of vegetables and fish/fish-based products I had never seen before in my life. Lots of lovely women working at the stands who got as much amusement out of us as we did from the market.

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Various fish products

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Incredible veggies

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Traditional Longyis

Bits and pieces

Some more pics of things I just like, in no particular order. 🙂

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We saw these beautiful bamboo balls everywhere we went, but these were the first I noticed that were painted to resemble footballs (soccer balls). They were used for all sorts of sport from street soccer to volleyball.

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Children investigating a store that sold movies

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Friendly young mother and her daughter

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Girls walking home under another one of those huge, incredible trees

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Herding cattle

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Outside a large stupa in the middle of town

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Trishaw driver, trishaw. Notice the license plate. 🙂

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Bike repair/chop shop

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Back page of the official English newspaper in Myanmar. Incredible!

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Wooden monks

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A typical Burmese taxi – a bed with benches and two wheels affixed to a bike

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On the horse cart ride back from the pagodas

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Our driver let me photograph his traditional Burmese tattoos

Life on the Irrawaddy: Part one

Our boat trip up the Irrawaddy is one of the most amazing and my favorite experiences of the entire trip so far.

We were traveling like the typical Burmese person travels. The long duration of the trip meant that we had more of an opportunity to interact with locals, even with language barriers. We had the good fortune of traveling with Elmer and Ohmar, and Ohmar really took us under her wing, acting like our own native tour guide, explaining things we saw and experienced along the way and introducing us to delicious foods we wouldn’t have been brave or savvy enough to try other wise.

Life on the boat and scenery along the river was consistently fascinating and nearly always stunning (felt like I missed an amazing scene every time I left the camera in the room). And things like the boat getting stuck in shallow waters (a seasonal phenomenon) for hours at a time added an element of adventure to the whole thing.

The route

There are different ways for visitors to experience the Irrawaddy river. Apparently a pretty typical route is to start in Mandalay and go down river to Bagan. Kalya suggested that we try a route further north, where we would have the chance to see and even spend an hour or two in some small, relatively out-of-the-way river side villages where the boat would stop to drop off and take on goods.

There are different government and private ferries and boats to choose from, depending on the time of year and the water level of the river. At one point during the trip we saw two of these impressive and no doubt crazy-expensive but beautiful wood luxury liners, manned with Burmese staff and Western tourists – probably something that can be hired privately. The boat we travelled on was definitely less cushy. 🙂

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We traveled on an Inland Water Transport ferry from Mandalay to Bhamo. (Map reference: https://alongthewaytj.files.wordpress.com/2011/03/myanmar.pdf)

This was the only time we chose to travel with government-owned transportation. Although the tourist ticket cost considerably more than the price Burmese people were charged, USD 54 per ticket didn’t feel like too significant of a financial endorsement of the government, and the side of Myanmar we would be able to see through this journey would be a worthwhile personal trade off.

The boat

I didn’t take a picture of the entire boat from the outside, so let me try to describe it.

It was a large, heavily used and hard working boat. It comprised three decks, plus a cargo hold at the bottom. Here’s what was on each deck.

Bottom deck

At the back was the engine room and some other rooms for the crew that were off limits. In the middle was the “kitchen”, the cook’s storage space and a couple of long wooden tables and benches that served as cafeteria, the entrance to the storage hold with a make-shift kiosk on top and around of it that had to be re-arranged every time we stopped at a port.

I’ll talk more about the food on board later, but let me say that the ship’s cook was just incredible. Wiry (he was thin but all muscle), tattooed, with thinning hair, there was still something child-like about him. He was constantly on the move, from before the dawn till late at night, chopping, cleaning and creating amazingly delicious meals on request with the most basic implements. Despite how hard he worked, he always had a smile for us whenever we happened to catch each other’s eyes, and even with no English managed to make us feel welcome.

Here’s the kitchen he had to work with: There were three ever-burning fires on the metal floor, covered by metal cylinders with openings through which to feed the fire. These basic “ranges” were topped by one massive pot for the seemingly constant rice production, another for cooking soups, noodles and the like and a big, flat wok where anything else that needed cooking got fried. There was a big plastic container full of water with a pipe fed from the river to rinse things. A simple sink (also river fed). One chopping board, some ladles for stirring and two butcher knives.

The kiosk sold packaged snacks, drinks (water, soda and whisky), tattered books, Burmese salad (more on that later, too!) and above all, tons of betel (the Burmese equivalent of the Indian paan).

Towards the front of the 1st deck were more rooms for the crew and storage space crammed with goods like stacks of rubber tires, huge bags of rice and onions, rows of baskets, the occasional motorcycle. A few of the more privileged families camped out on the floor between the stacks of wares.

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Goods on the first deck

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The little on-board store covering the cargo hold entrance. Snacks hanging from the ceiling, books to the left, ingredients for salad and beverages to the right.

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The cook (in the hat) preparing vegetables in front of the kitchen

Middle deck

This was the general passenger deck. The front half had 10 simple, narrow cabins, five on either side of the boat, which is where we had a room. Each contained two beds, one small table attached to the wall and a doll-sized, non-functioning sink. The beds were some of the most uncomfortable I’ve experienced. About two feet wide, with an ancient two-inch mattress on a hard, wood frame, they were obviously made for one person but Roman and I ended up sharing one of the bunks. I’ve admitted before that I am a wimp – the nights got so cold and rooms were unheated so squishing together in that meager space was the only way I could keep warm enough to sleep. 🙂

Still, we had it much better than most of the other passengers. The back half of the 2nd deck was simply an open space where they spent the duration of the trip. People have to bring their own mats and blankets and simply sleep on the floor. The sides of the deck are open so any wind would blow directly through. I wouldn’t mind sleeping on the floor but I think the frigid nights would have been too much for me.

The floor also had two bathrooms (one squat, one “western” style – a raised squat toilet with a wooden box on top that had a big hole in the middle) and two rooms for showering (in cold river water. I’m not ashamed to admit my wimp-nature a second time– I decided to wait until we were on dry land, in a hotel, to shower :-)).

Outside our cabins was a narrow walkway with a couple of plastic chairs where folks liked to hang out during the daylight hours, gossiping and watching the landscape roll by.

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The corridor in front of our cabin on a very foggy morning. That’s Elmer in the striped hoodie.

Top deck

A place to soak in the scenery and warming rays of the sun by day and to enjoy a cold beer while thinking warm thoughts and watching the stars come out by night, the open top deck was a great place to hang out. There was a control room at the front and parts of it were used for goods storage, but there was plenty of space to relax. Some foreigners who were on board the first day had rented a couple of rickety wooden chairs, we used these as our make shift lounge. For some stretches of the journey, a handful of hardcore Burmese passengers actually stayed and slept up there, out in the (cold, cold!) open.

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Stairwell to the lower decks from the top deck – that’s how dark it got on the river at night. 🙂

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This is the closest I got to a picture of the entire boat from the outside. This is during one of our village stops You can see the bottom and middle decks. To the left of the middle deck is where our cabin was; the other side is the open deck where other passengers stayed and slept.