The Myanmar I’d been waiting for: 3.11.2013

Our train to Hsipaw was due to depart at 8:30am this morning, so naturally, it arrived in Pyin Oo Lwin well after 9am. Classic “Myanmar time” – I love it.

It meant we were able to take an unexpected stroll through the little local market right next to the station where produce and street foods were being made and sold. I bought myself a little bag of sticky rice for the journey and gushed over a tiny puppy asleep in a wood pile.

The train station with its quaint single platform was dotted with just a few tourists and several locals; I enjoyed ‘people watching’ as the locals travelled both by motorbike and by foot, carrying all sorts of goods and bits and pieces slowly over and across the railway track, uncaring that the train was due in any minute. The tea stall out the back of the station was busy – packed with people filling up on noodle soups, samosas, a myriad of other deep fried things and tea served with frightening amounts of condensed milk. The occasional woman with a large plate of food balanced perfectly upon her head would wander through the crowds of waiting passengers and along the platform, occasionally setting down her goods and packing little plastic bags full of hot fried noodles, vegetables, rices, curries and a range of unidentifiable foods for customers – along with two bamboo skewers to be used as chop sticks. Myanmar’s version of take away.

Eventually our train rolled into the station and casually everyone moved about whilst people got off, people got on, more food vendors arrived and began making their way up and down the platform, goods were unpacked as well as carted onto the train – lots of bags of cabbages included – and the little portly station master tried to work out where all the tourists in our single “upper class carriage” were meant to sit, even though minutes earlier he’d assigned us all seats on hand-written tickets. He clambered aboard after yelling through the window from the platform, wrote down our seat numbers in pen in a little book, shuffled off, then came back and scribbled out the original, adjusting it so we got a “better view seat.” Nice one Mr. Train Man.

As food vendors moved about, people continued to fluff about buying and selling and eating and sitting and not really doing an awful lot too quickly; it didn’t seem like anyone was too fussed about timings so the pace was relaxed and the people mulling about were disorganised in the most organised sort of way. Somehow, it all works out and I had time to get myself a bag of take away tea for the journey.
Eventually the train blew its whistle and people finally took their seats; the train began to roll out of the station at a walking pace and we sat back in our newly assigned “upper class” seats.

We’d been told that the train journey to Hispaw would take between 4 and 11 hours for the 200km journey. Yes, that’s no typo: between 4 and 11 hours. Preparing for a long ride, we sat back and watched as some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen rolled past our open window at a walking speed. This train is known to be one of the 50 “must-do” train rides in the world. It is also known to be painstakingly slow; at times we were moving at a speed slower than what we probably could’ve walked, but it didn’t matter. It was a wonderful, beautiful and sometimes strange experience.

Most of our time on this ancient train was spent rattling around in our upholstered upper class seats; as our carriage shook and jerked along the tracks we were frequently thrown into the air. Bouncing around, we watched as our carriage jolted and shook, swaying at scary angles as we rolled noisily along the tracks. Maybe this train ride is not for the feint hearted and I tried to ignore the fact that it was only days ago that a train travelling a similar route here in Myanmar had derailed… I could understand how that may have happened as I watched people being thrown about. Still, all in good fun.

I had been momentarily disappointed in myself this morning when I chose the upper class seating option over the ordinary class seat (which was $3 cheaper), thinking I would maybe miss out on the whole “experience…” However, I was grateful to have my own cushioned seat during those moments when my ass parted from the seat and was thrown back down with each bump. Peering into ordinary class, the overcrowded wooden seats, the people sleeping on mats in the isle and the several bags of cabbage rolling about looked interesting – sure, but not for me. Not right now.

At one point I had to use the in-train lavatory and spent a good few minutes holding my breath and my balance whilst squatting over the foul smelling toilet, pissing zig zags and being violently thrown about as the train continued to roll at it’s own special pace.

At each station the train would halt and spend anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes there; the same buzz of people hopping on and off, food vendors with exceptionally good balancing skills would move up and down the platform, people would load and unload more goods and there was always something interesting to see. I liked getting down and watching the flow of people and bought myself some delicious noodle salad for lunch from one of the balancing acts. Sitting back on the train with my little take away bag of deliciousness, I tried not to stab myself in the face with my chop-stick skewers; the bounding, shaking, rattling and jerking made it difficult.

After a nap during the heat of the day, I woke to cool breeze blowing in through the open windows, along with too many little bits of foliage and the occasional strange looking insect. I had no idea where we were or how far away Hsipaw was but that was not important; we were really enjoying the journey.

Mid afternoon Mr. Train Man told us we were ten minutes away from Hsipaw; around 30 minutes or so later, we arrived. We were excited as we rolled into the platform – Hsipaw has been a place we’ve been really looking forward to; it sounds so beautiful and relaxing from what we’ve read and we’re looking forward to doing a hike and exploring in the surrounding areas, as well as checking out what this little town has to offer. When a young boy from Nam Khae Mao Guest house – the guest house we’d been intending to check out on arrival – popped his head up next to our window and offered us a room at a very cheap price, we immediately agreed and were carted into a tuk tuk with a group of other tourists and taken straight to our new home for the next few days. $12 a night (our cheapest accommodation in Myanmar by far) bought us a great room (Myanmar standards) with a shared bathroom, hot water, wifi and really friendly staff. We were in a great location too, looking out over the lovely historic clock tower – complete with a flashing electronic neon sign. Welcome to Hsipaw.

It was already after 4pm by the time we checked in and we were so excited to see the town. We considered briefly walking up the nearby hill to see the sun set but instead decided to head straight into town and explore. We have a few days here to do all the things we want to do. We were too late for the central market – it had just closed, and “Mr. Book”, the book stall guy was not around when we tried to visit his stall, but we did find a very cute toothless elderly man selling delicious chicken and sweet bean steam buns, a road side street food stall selling delicious grilled rice cake with palm sugar and sesame seeds, more little deep fried something-a-rathers and the very touristy “Mr. Shake” juice bar, where Mr. Shake and his wife served up incredibly fresh juices and lassis for a ridiculously cheap price.

We ended up sitting out the front of Mr. Shake until late – an Aussie guy showed up not long after us and we spent a couple of hours chatting and being reminded of how awesome the Australian style of speaking is. We’ve missed it and we didn’t even realise. On a recommendation from the Aussie guy, we ended up at “Mr. Food” for dinner (do you see a trend starting to appear in this town…?) where the same guy we’d met in the tuk tuk on our way to the guest house here was eating alone; we joined him for dinner and learned he was Matt from England.

Late evening we headed back to our guest house and planned a full day for tomorrow; we were trying to decide if we should do the one or the two day hike into the nearby villages and furthermore, if we should leave tomorrow or the next day… We’re still undecided about that, but one thing is for sure; Hsipaw is already a winner – it’s the Myanmar I’d been waiting for and I already adore this quaint, dusty, friendly little town.

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