The next two hours were pretty uneventful and even relatively pain free, since my knee caps had been thoroughly liquefied by this point. We did pass a road construction site on the way and had to wait for a bit as a group of slaves broke up rocks with hammers and placed them into the roadway by hand. I know, I know–they are not slaves, they are volunteers.
You see, every Burmese citizen graciously volunteers a certain amount of his or her time per month working for the government and obviously they do so mainly out of the kindness of their hearts. Why else would people who have almost nothing and work seven days a week just to support their families give up a part of their time to do work for a government that does little to help them (pretty much nothing actually, unless you count the building of stupas or other religious sites) and much to hurt them. I suppose the threat of torture and death may also have something to do with their generosity, but mostly it’s probably just an overwhelming affection for their masters.
Once we arrived in Shwebo, we hopped on a cycle rickshaw and went to the first of three hotels in town that were allowed to accept foreign guests. The verdict: a prison cell (not a Western prison mind you—no TV, toilet, window or bed sheets here) for $17 a night. In Yangon (the largest city and former capital) we were paying $4 for a much nicer room. The second hotel: $20 a night and similar conditions. The third: $35 and the worst room of all. Obviously, the hotel owners in this town were taking full advantage of the fact that there was nowhere else for foreign visitors to stay.
Since I’m stubborn and would sleep on the street before I give people like this a single dollar, we ended up just going to the train station. We were planning on taking a train north the next day, but decided to just leave that day instead, if possible. This wasn’t an easy decision, since we had already gone one night without any sleep and we were covered in a steadily growing film of mud, sweat and dust, but it was preferable to staying in Shwebo for the night. We were wrong. Boy, were we wrong.
As foreigners, you can’t just buy a train ticket in Myanmar like you would most other places. You have to go to the station master’s office to register your passport and answer a bunch of idiotic questions. Then you pay ten times what a local would pay. You do get some perks though. Well, one perk. When the train arrived a few hours later, an over-sized railway worker grabbed us and dragged us behind him as he plowed through the mass of people, some of whom were getting on or off the train, but most of whom were amusing themselves by blocking every door. This appears to be something of a national pastime in countries like Myanmar, India and China.
Before the train even stopped, people were jumping on and off and others were tossing sacks and bags and boxes full of pretty much anything ever created in and out the windows. And scurrying about among the chaos, somehow ducking and dashing between all the people, boxes, sacks and even animals was an army of little kids flogging everything from drinking water to packaged snacks, to freshly prepared food, to fruit, to toys, to handmade cigarettes, to betel nuts (so thrilled about this one, let me tell you) to whiskey.
Just based on the confusion on the platform, we were happy to have our large friend to help us get on the train, but getting through the mass of people was actually the easy part. The train cars were marked with Burmese numbers and while it seems like you could just count down six cars from the front to find car number six, that’s not how things work here. But we didn’t have to worry about that with our personal guide.
When trying to board a train in Myanmar, the problem isn’t so much the people trying to get on and off at the same time, it’s the ones standing in the doorway trying to physically keep people off the train. I guess it makes sense in some way: the less people who get on, the more space for you. And as we would soon learn, space is easier to come by in a Mumbai slum than a Burmese train.
There was no blocking our friend though. He just grabbed one of the guys blocking our way and tossed him off the train, then dragged us through the opening he’d created. He continued chucking people aside until we reached our seats—or more accurately, we reached a mass of people underneath whom our seats were apparently located. Here is where being a foreigner and overpaying for everything finally paid off.
Had we been locals, we would have been forced to fight for a small scrap of floor where we would have spent the whole journey being stepped on by everyone who passed through the car. Instead, our giant kept pulling people out of the mass until a small sliver of hard, wooden bench became visible. He planted us in the opening and left us with a final piece of advice: don’t leave your seat until you arrive.
As soon as he was out of sight, all the people he’d moved flooded back onto us. Within seconds, we had people, sacks and boxes on top of us, under us and all around us. We couldn’t even see the floor, so we ended up just putting our feet on the people covering it. We knew before we boarded we would have to give up some luxuries like comfort and sleep. We didn’t expect to give up others, such as moving and breathing.
It took about ten minutes until we were cramped and sore and ready to get off, but as our large guide told us, leaving your seat is not a good idea. Luckily we didn’t have that far to go: just under 200km. Unfortunately, we were on a Burmese train which moves along at about the speed of a Samoan sprinter. We were stuck on that bench for the next 20 hours at least. It ended up being a few more. And the conditions only got worse.
Series continued in part 4: A Burmese Train — Seeing Myanmar in Slow Motion