Our schedule was fairly tight, since we only had about 16 days to see the whole country, so we were back on the road the morning following the hike. We decided to head back towards Mandalay via Pin Oo Lwin, a hill station along the way. We were taking a train, which promised to be more scenic, less crowded, and much, much slower than taking a bus.
The train was only an hour late, which, from what we hear is pretty good. Our trekking guide, Jojo, advised us not to buy first class seats even though they are a reasonable $6 because the windows are sealed shut (for AC that sometimes works) and our photos of the highly scenic train ride would suffer. We went ahead and bought economy class seats that were alright, but left us all a little squirmy after 7 hours. Of course one of the reasons to ride the train, which is much slower than a bus, is to see local life in action: enormous bags of grain being loaded on and off, vendors selling every kind of imaginable snack, a guy selling what looked like small blocks of wood, but his pitch was all in Burmese so we missed the selling point. People got on and off, made themselves comfortable and tended to steal glances or even outright stare at us throughout the train ride. Sometimes we’d pass small villages where children would spot us in the window and practically faint from all of their waving and screamed greetings: ‘Bye!!!!!!!” (which they inexplicably say instead of ‘hello’- who is teaching these children?).
The most unexpected part of the trip came a few hours into the trip when a clean-cut 20-something year old guy boarded our car and introduced himself in spotless English. He was an English teacher in the town where the train had just pulled in and he had some students with him who would like to practice their English; would we mind if they came to talk to us for a couple of minutes? About 5 teenagers walked up the aisle and busted out the standard ‘hello-what’s-your-name-where-are-you-from-how-old-are-you-what-is-your-job?’- you know, the same stuff we all learned in high school language classes. The four of us chatted with the kids, some of whom had impressive English skills for being pretty removed from Westerners (‘I watch a lot of American movies’ said one). The funny thing was that when the train whistle blew, the whole group started up and hurried to disembark. They were only at the station in hopes of meeting tourists who sometimes ride the train between Hsipaw and Mandalay. I’m not sure how often they do this, but they were just waiting for our hour-late train purely in hopes that some Westerners might be on it and willing to speak with them. It was flattering and clever and a little bizarre, but I guess you have to give the teacher credit for taking an opportunity where he sees one. These kids might have been a select few- clearly well educated and all university-bound- but they also were getting conversational experience with native speakers (for the most part: lots of Europeans from outside Great Britain are all but native with their fluency) that most other English students in the country don’t get.
After the students filed off, more vendors filed on and we bought cheap noodles and warm beers. I’d say that the trip was more comfortable than some of the buses that we’ve had the luck to find ourselves on, but the scenery was head and shoulders above the views from the road. We passed by lots of farmland and small villages and through some short pitch-black tunnels and over a very creaky old bridge which just about sent Pavel into convulsions of joy; he had worked for a time as a train driver and took a professional interest in the quality of the cars, the tracks, and even the toilet (‘Not so bad’ was his conclusion). At times, the rocking of the train was so wild that I was justifiably convinced that the train was about to heave itself right off the tracks; looking from our car’s open door into the next car was like looking into a funhouse doorway- the cars would lurch violently in opposite directions to such angles that are not appropriate for passenger vehicles. Right around the time we were all starting to feel a little weary and stiff and the ambient dust blowing around the car was reaching fever pitch, we arrived in Pyin Oo Lwin. The station was not significantly bigger than the many others that we passed, but there was a lot of activity, loading and unloading, and some signs in English. We stepped onto the platform and into the swirl of things. People greeted us in English and in languages we didn’t understand. A brief pow-wow ensued where Pavel and Lena decided to press on to Mandalay and us into town to find a place to stay for the night.
No one offered us a taxi ride or pressed us to come to their hotel. In fact, we were a little at loose ends from the fact that we had no one to bargain prices with. We decided to take advantage of the pressure-free situation and walk into town. The air was cool and everything felt calm- totally different from almost all of our arrival experiences. Despite our bulky loads, we stopped for snacks, to chat and take photos. People looked amused and happy to see us, but there was absolutely no pressure to go somewhere or another or to pay for transport or a tour or anything. It was thrillingly civilized and friendly. We stopped in the first hotel we saw along the main drag and got a great price on a pretty basic room, went out to dinner and paid an outrageous price for some standard food, and called it a night.
R mentioned on the train that he was finally settling into Myanmar and that the place was growing on him. I agreed that the experiences we had at Bago, Inle Lake, and trekking with Jojo have been memorably delightful, but that the difficulty of getting around and the frustration of too-high prices, sub-standard facilities, and long transfers between places of interest were still wearing me down. But I’ve got to say at the end of the day that this was the first time I enjoyed the journey and arriving in a town with a friendly reception and zero pressure to buy anything from anyone was refreshing. I feel like today was a kind of benchmark for both of us in appreciating this country and maybe that is because it is the first time that our goal was just enjoying being here and experiencing the journey rather than focusing on a destination or activity. We have not not been having a good time, but something fell into place today that may well set the tone for the rest of our time here.