From Mandalay, Nick and I headed northeast, to Kyaukme (Shan State). We boarded the local train at 4:30 am and began the journey. Within 10 minutes our seat mate, Las Ihio, handed us a large bag of small fruit (most comparable to apples). This was the beginning of unique friendship and fun journey.
Throughout the next 10 hours Las Ihio would buy us water, tea, coffee, fried vegetables and Burmese snacks. Our favorite was a plastic bag that contained raw ginger, raw garlic, a chili pepper, fermented tea leaves, roasted peas and oil.
He would point out which train station we were at, our elevation and where we could finally repay him and buy him breakfast (burmese pea chipatte). As he didn’t speak English, Nick showed him our collection of foreign currency and after, he showed us his jade collection. He ended up giving Nick a piece of his jade which was too generous. He massaged my ankle with tiger balm while trying to read Nick the news in Burmese. His facebook feed made our hearts heavy, as he showed us photos of those who have died in the civil conflict.
Las Ihio physically looked, hard. He had paint stained pants, he didn’t smile and when he wasn’t chain smoking he was chewing betel nut. But his heart was enormous. The people of Myanmar are extremely special, their curiosity and compassion are eye opeing. They give, when they don’t have the means to give. My travels have taught me to be more open, accepting, trusting and giving.
Oh, did I mention our train crossed the the Goteik viaduct? When construction in 1899, it was the largest railway trestle in the world. It was constructed by a Pennsylvania and Maryland architect and the components were made by a PA steel company. Our train ride included some beautiful views, fun people and delicious food.
After running with our bags to catch the 12:35 train to Yangon, Nick and I boarded the car covered in sweat. It took 6 hours to make the 107 mile journey topping out at 31 mph. Although it felt like we could run faster, it gave us time to soak in our surroundings. Nick and I have been constantly stared at in Myanmar, but the stares quickly turn to smiles and we befriended a handful of local passengers on the train. Men and woman walk the cars selling quail eggs, oranges, grilled fish, peanut brittle, cigarettes, powdered coffee, and betel nut until their baskets are empty. Woman balance these large baskets on their head and jump from car to car. Our new friends bought nick and I corn which was the favorite snack among the locals. The huge yellow cob of corn was sweet and juicy. We also tried white and purple corn which had hardy kernels that were extremely starchy and filling. Nick and I watched kids from every town come to the tracks to wave as the train passed. It seemed like it was their daily form of entertainment. Young boys would bike their sisters down and they would just stare as we passed by. As we approached Yangon we gazed out our windows speechless as we passed by fields of garbage and dilapidated inner city complexes.
Yangon was an interesting colonial city. Unlike Phenom Penh, there were huge side walks, parks, railways and relatively organized traffic. I could imagine a time when this city was thriving but now it felt as if there were few updates since British rule. It was undeveloped, but in a different way than Cambodia or Laos. The smell of human waste and fish oil seemed to follow us. Betel nut stations were found on every corner. Locals watered the street in front of their homes and storefronts every evening to reduce dust and vats of public drinking water could be found every hundred feet. Somehow we had amazing luck with the public bus system. Although we had no information before getting on any bus, somehow we were able to predict the routes based on major city roads. We were clearly an uncommon occurrence for the locals.
During our time in Yangon Nick and I visited Shwedagon Paya, Myanmar’s main stupa which was part of a larger complex (82 other buildings). We visited a St. Mary’s Cathedral and the large Bogyoke Aung San Market. We celebrated Myanmar’s Independence Day at People’s Park with a chocolate milkshake (powdered chocolate milk, shaken) and on what appeared to be the country’s only rollercoaster. Although this may have not been the safest decision we’ve made on our travels, we laughed at the scene. Hundreds of locals watched in fear, gasping, as the cars flipped upside. There seemed to be a line of 10 people so we patiently waited our turn. When we were next, somehow 30 people pushed and shoved in front of us and we had to wait 3 rounds. We also lost at the pushing game while riding the city trains, Nick and I will have to improve on this before India!
Favorite Yangon Eats: Indian Chief, Aung Thukha and Lucky Seven.