So I arrived into Yangon early in the morning, as seemed to be the standard for Myanmar. Unsure that I’d have the same luck of pre-dawn check in that I’d had in Myeik, I wandered the streets for a little while, seeing the food stalls set up, watching an outdoor newspaper print/distributor start handing out papers to their sellers, and after realising that there really wasn’t much else going on, heading to the hotel asked if my bed was ready. At 5.30am. It was. Phew
So I got taken to a huge 4 bed dorm, with no one else in it, and told to pick any bed I wanted. I could pop up for breakfast whenever I fancied. Have a nice nap.
And so I did.
I had booked 2 nights in Yangon, with the intention of then getting a train to the ancient city of Bagan, famed for its temples and temples. The plan, therefore, was to wander round this place, see what there was to see, and then spend 17 hours travelling approximately 350 miles north, at roughly walking pace, but on a train.
There was a second part to the plan though, and this may surprise the avid readers amongst you, who know by now what a mess I am when it comes to planning more than a week in advance. So it might shock you to find out that I actually had a solid exit plan for Myanmar; I was going to north to this town called Bagan, then east and east and east to the fourth of four open border crossings into Thailand; the Mae Sai /Tachilek border.
There was one issue with this; there were rumours on the internet that the Burmese government had made it illegal for foreigners to cross through the Shan state. Tachilek was in the Shan state. This meant that the open border here seemed to be pretty useless for anyone except the Burmese people wanting to visit Thailand.
Which, I guess, is probably fair enough. Ish. Bit of a bummer though.
Still, I wanted to make sure that this was really the case. So I decided to check out the British Embassy in Yangon, to see what they thought of the matter, and whether they recommended I risk life and limb fighting through the Shan state and the ragtag band of warlords that ran it.
That’s probably not true, I don’t think there are warlords there, but it is supposed to be dangerous. Not quite as bad as the state off to the west, where the Rohingya people were being murdered, but not good either. So, medium bad.
So my plans included buying train tickets, and visiting the Embassy; a pretty full list of things to get through in 3 days, you’ll agree. I decided to add the Shwedagon temple to the docket as well, just in case I made it through the first two particularly quickly.
I went to the embassy, to get the tricky stuff out of the way first.
They didn’t let me past the front desk, telling me that I needed to make an appointment, or just send an email, because they didn’t really like meeting people. So that was a shame.
Then I went to the train station, where you could really feel the British influences from the 60s. I waited in a queue for twenty minutes to ask if I could buy a ticket to Bagan in two days. I was asked if I wanted the expensive seats or the cheap seats. I said the cheap seats, because I am a world-weary traveller who can cope with cheap seats any day of the week.
I was informed that I was in the wrong queue, and that I needed to go to the queue next door. It was just as long. But not only am I an experienced traveller, I am a well-practiced queuer, and this presented little challenge. I moved across, and waited another 20 minutes.
I was then told that, actually, I was again stood in the wrong queue, and that I must have misunderstood. Silly me. Looks like I got to have a good time in another queue.
The next one just told me he didn’t speak English, and we had a short stand off where we both expected the other person to resolve the issue. I did so, by walking off, and picking a 4th desk to queue at. By the time I got to the front, I’d spent about 1h30 waiting in queues and still didn’t have a ticket. I was told that for the train I wanted to get, you had to buy tickets on the day. At 7am. Earlier if you could. It was a popular train. Goodbye.
So it was a good day. I headed to the Shwedagon Pagoda, a 99m tall stupa set on a big hill. It’s one of the main attractions in Yangon, so I was expecting big things. And everything there was pretty big.
The entrance is a shopping mall. Or rather, it’s a long, long hall, filled with shops. Then you pay your entry. Then you pay to rent a longyi – a Burmese skirt that both men and women wear. And then you walk through into the boiling sun and fields of stupas and statues and tourists
Shwedagon is notable not just for its size, but also because it holds four super sacred relics from the Buddhist current era. These include 8 strands of hair from one of the Buddha, part of the robe from a different Buddha, the staff of another Buddha, and finally the water filter of another, separate Buddha. Who knew that Buddhas carried around water filters? Must have been more health conscious than the other three I guess.
It’s impressive. I’ll give it that. It also felt like a bit of a zoo, and while it’s not really my place to question how a religion/country runs itself, I’m going to do it anyway, because I can, and what are they going to do about it?
I felt like I paid a relatively large amount of money to go and see a big mish mash of Buddhist relics and statues, all of which looked like they cost a small fortune, and all of which would have fed a Burmese family for a year. It felt similar to walking past a church, filled with expensive organs and treasure and gilded ornaments, and seeing a homeless man asleep outside in an alcove trying to stay out of the rain.
Which actually happened to me, yesterday, in Bristol. I wasn’t too impressed with that either though.
But you do wander and wonder how you justify a temple that must have cost millions of pounds to worship men that owned as close to nothing as could be, when surrounded by people who are in that state just outside your front gate.
At least I did.
I also spent a lot of time wondering how to tie a longyi properly, as mine came off at inappropriate moments throughout the walk. I try to keep my wanderings as free of nudity as possible.
I went around the museum, saw some pictures, saw a jade Buddha tooth (not a real tooth, that’d be gross), and then left the building and walked back to my hostel.
The other highlights from Yangon include me buying a pair of sunglasses, and going to KFC. Going to be honest, Yangon wasn’t my favourite place in Myanmar; it just felt like any other city.
I did finally manage to get in touch with the British Embassy in the end, and the back and forth email exchange that can be boiled down to:
Me: Hey Embassy, is it okay for me to travel through the Shan State to Tachilek?
Embassy: We’re not sure. Let us know if you find out though, okay?
So, it was a productive chat.
I got up early on the next day and went to the train station for 7am to have some fun queuing again. Turned out the station didn’t start serving people until 8.30am, but liked to tell people to get there at 7am, I imagine because they assumed that we were about as punctual as they were. I think I had a nap.
A couple of hours later I was the proud owner of a piece of paper that might take me to Bagan. I spent the day buying supplies for the 17 hour train journey, and eating street food, before finally getting on my train.
So, the train to Bagan turns an 8 hour drive into a 17 hour rickety extravaganza. I’m unsure what the rest of the train was like, but I found myself in a single carriage with 3 other foreigners. There was no way to traverse along the train without actually getting off, so once you were on, you were basically stuck in your small compartment. The trip itself was pretty unremarkable – the people in my carriage were pretty chilled – but I’ll always remember the train to Bagan because of the incredible con that got pulled by an enterprising young man who I’m pretty sure worked at the station.
Five minutes before the train left the station, a man in a blue uniform popped onto our carriage and asked if any of us would like to order dinner. It would cost 3000 kyat, and I had the choice of chicken, lamb, or vegetable.
All I had in my bag was a mega pack of Burmese rip off jammy dodgers, so this sounded perfect. I paid 5000 kyat, and was assured that my change would be returned with the dinner.
You can probably see where this is going.
8pm came. I ate some biscuits. A chicken dinner did not appear.
9pm came. Everyone in the coach had offered me some food. I stayed strong. My dinner was on its way.
Midnight came. I started to doubt that my dinner was coming. I started to seriously doubt that I was going to get my change. I ate some more biscuits.
Approximately 50 biscuits and three hours later, I gave up, and went to sleep. I was tired, hungry, sick of biscuits, and feeling deeply betrayed. What a terrible train ride.
But at least I was now in Bagan