Fri 30 Jan 2015
Yesterday was the most exciting train ride I have ever had. We ordered a taxi for 03:30am to the train station. The station was a large, very empty, old colonial building. I approached the window to buy our tickets and was asked to step inside the office. Slightly concerning as the south has only recently been open to tourists and not all the locals know this. I sat in the office while Maja stood with the bags outside. We waited for about 30 min while the cashier served the locals.He issued our upper-class tickets last. Everything is written by hand. No electronic equipment at all. While boarding the train I had a look at the lower class seats, which were solid, wooden benches. Our upper-class seats were soft chairs that had been falling apart since 1920.
I stored my rucksack overhead. The man under my bag smiled and gestured for me to tie it down. Once we got moving it became obvious why that was most necessary. The train bounced around like a donkey cart in the Transkei. I am amazed that it stayed on the tracks. At one point, however, we heard a banging sound under our carriage. It was serious enough to stop the train and have someone crawl underneath to have a look. I jumped off the train to have a look at the surroundings and watch our make-shift mechanic hitting the undercarriage with rocks. After his professional repair he came to where Maja and I were sitting and told us, “No problems!” Despite holding a massive bolt which he removed and did not replace.
After a few hours we stopped in the town of Ye to change a smaller, more rickety train. The carriage was wooden and our seats were even more broken. We loved it! This felt like real travel. There were not enough seats and many people sat on the floor. A monk boarded the train and displaced a very fragile, old lady from her seat onto the hard wooden floor. I stood up and offered her my seat, but her husband and the other passengers smiled and waved me away. She ended up taking the seat of a younger woman. I later remembered reading that women are not permitted to sit higher than men.
Further down the tracks we picked up a family transporting the father, who was in very bad shape.They put down a mat at our feet for the poor guy to lie on until they reached their stop. He had possibly suffered from a stroke.
As we travelled further south the number of armed soldiers increased dramatically. Most were carrying automatic rifles. One soldier was armed with a grenade launcher. I can’t imagine he would use it here, but he had enough ammunition strapped around his torso to last him a good while.
The local people are so friendly and seem content with life. It is hard to imagine that the country has been through much turmoil. One would expect the people to be furious and rioting. Possibly having resentment towards westerners, who were the start of their problems. The locals stop and smile when they see us. People on the platforms see us and shout and wave. We are asked where we come from, by strangers and they say, “Welcome to Myanmar!” They do not initiate conversation in order to sell something or ask for money. They are either curious or want us to feel comfortable in their country. Alternatively, they have been instructed to do so.
At one of the stops we were joined by three soldiers and three, hand-cuffed, prisoners. They were made to sit on the floor right next to Maja and I. It would be very interesting to know how they came to be prisoners. They could have done anything from murder to promoting human rights. Rocking the boat, in all of SE Asia, is a big no no.
Further down the line Maja gave up her seat for an elderly monk. She sat on the floor, against her bag and actually found it more comfortable than the seat. There were ladies at every station, with home made food which we bought for pennies. Cooked miellies, samoosas, fried banana and other unidentifiable goods. The train stations were mainly made of a small thatch hut in the bush, with no village in sight. The larger towns would have an old colonial building at the station. I enjoyed jumping off the train to have a quick look around. Nothing but bush and a railway line. Beautiful!
During the 15 hour train journey we did not see another tourist. While sitting by the window we would be smacked in the face by branches and bamboo hanging in our path. I am tempted to jump off at one of the random little villages and stay there for a few days.