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Monday 3rd October 2005

I awoke on Saturday morning happy to find that I was not aching as much as I'd suspected I would; then I tried to move, and realised that in actual fact I was. I quickly scoffed my breakfast of one egg, scrambled, and three small squares of toast, and hurried to catch the next pick-up leaving for Kyaikto, where the buses for Yangon leave from. Already on the pick-up were two young women, and a wizened old one, with her granddaughter. I discovered that I had not left the word fahlang (or farang) behind me, as the three women stared as they discussed me. A few more people boarded, but we were surprisingly empty when we left. We didn't travel very fast, though, as there seemed to be some serious problems with the clutch, leaving first gear as our only option. The vehicle stalled, and a man pushing a pig in a wooden cart overtook us. I had sat at the front end of the truck, and peered through the window into the cab, where the man pumped the clutch pedal repeatedly. I noticed that a toothbrush had been inserted into the driving column, in lieu of an indicator stick. After a number attempts, the man got the engine to kick in...and then inconceivably switched the ignition off, and got out to buy cigarettes. Once he'd sparked up, he got back in and managed to start the vehicle again, after much lurching and grinding, and we were slowly on our way, stalling each time we stopped for passengers to get on or off.

At the railway station in Kyaikto, which is where the pick-ups stop, a tout for one of the bus companies jumped on and sold me a ticket for the nine thirty bus to Yangon. I was pleasantly surprised that it cost only 2,000 kyat, whereas the journey there had cost me 3,000. I was moving with the speed of an octogenarian, so on this occasion put up no objection when the man grabbed my pack and carried it to where the bus would pick me up. I had wondered whether I would really have a seat on the bus, or be left standing. I was pleased to find my suspicions were unfounded - and that the bus was relatively comfortable and roomy, unlike the cramped, damp, and smelly vehicle I'd ridden in on my journey to the town. I settled into my seat, and leaned out of the open window to buy two slices of watermelon from a woman balancing the fruit on a tray on her head. I noted that the pips had been removed which, at the time, I considered to be a plus point; later I was not so sure.

Vendors at a bus stop, MyanmarThe sun was out and the journey was an enjoyable one, through towns with earthen roads, where covered horse-drawn carts were the local buses, and vendors thronged against the sides of the bus, advertising their wares in a singsong way. We passed lush green fields of rice, as ploughs pulled by bullocks worked the ground. Often at least one golden stupa could be seen, glinting in the distance. We were stopped twice by police, or maybe the army, and on each occasion around half of the passengers alighted, holding pink laminated cards in their hands. They didn't seem to be checked, and were allowed back on soon afterwards. Something similar had happened on my way there. I guessed that it was an ethnic thing, as those who got off did so automatically while the rest of the passengers did not stir, but I don't know for sure. At another stop, men in uniform performed a cursory search of the interior of the vehicle plus hatches outside, while a man in a T-shirt and longhi got on to chat to me. He assured me that there was nothing to worry about, and discussed English Premier teams and players; he did not like The Beckham, and thought him to be a showman, rather than a footballer.

Shortly after this stop, the vehicle pulled up at the side of the road, and the two attendants got out, selected a heavy boulder, and placed it in a locker. I have no idea why they did this, but it intrigued me. Was it that they wanted the rock? Did it help to stabilise the vehicle in some way? Was it some sort of weighbridge scam? I guess I'll never know. I'd wondered what the betel chewers (the majority of the passengers) did during the journey, and had visions of them leaning over me to spurt the juices out of the window, or aiming from the aisles. It was nothing so dramatic, though, one of the assistants walked around handing out plastic bags (in Laos, when someone asked for a plastic bag, it was because they were about to chunder, which was also a pretty regular even on certain routes).

Countryside scene of Bullock pulling a plough, MyanmarAn hour or so out of Yangon, we had a lunch stop. I waddled painfully to the toilets, then attempted to find some veggie food. I told the serving woman I was tatalo (ta-ta--lo), on a vegetarian diet, but I was out of luck. Outside the truck stop was a man selling veggie samosas, and I snacked on these. Not long before we had stopped, I noticed a man get on the bus wearing a camouflage cap with a Nazi swastika on the front - and it was definitely a Nazi one, not a Hindu one. I saw him staring at me now, along with the two men he was sat with. I nodded at them, but they just stared back. When he stood up to get back on the bus, I saw that he had a pair of handcuffs tucked into his longhi. He sat one row in front of me, but on the other side of the aisle, and turned around to stare intensely at me. I stared back, muttering obscenities under my breath, for a while, but then grew bored and went back to looking out of the window. He got off a short time later.

At the bus station in Yangon - which is a considerable distance out of town, about forty minutes by taxi - I decided to catch the local bus into the city centre. It was only around three, and I had time to kill. A man with a little English asked where I was going, and led me to the bus stop. There was a stop not far from where I had been dropped, and that was where he was going to catch the bus, but he indicated that it would be standing room only from there, and that I had a journey of an hour or so, and would be better off going to the place where the buses start from. It was obvious that I had no idea where this was, so he took me there, and we boarded an almost empty bus, him sitting separate to me. When the conductor came around, there was a little confusion (on my part) about how much to pay - I was sure it was 30 kyat, but he shook his head - I think it must have been 50 he was after - but before I had a chance to clarify and pay, the kind man who had shown me the way had reached over and paid for us both, and refused to accept reimbursement from me. Random acts of kindness from strangers do much to restore ones faith in humanity.

The bus soon became very crowded, and I was very glad to have had a seat. There were easily in excess of a hundred passengers, all squished in together. The overcrowded buses had made quite an impression on me when I'd first arrived in the city, as they trundled past crammed full of people who overflowed from the doors. When we arrived at what was in effect the terminal stop (the official end of the line was a little further, but this was where everyone got off, so I thought it wise to join them, before another hundred people got on, which I would have to fight through to get off), a number of women started shouting up through the windows, holding carrier bags aloft. First I thought they were selling things, but then I realised that they were trying to secure seats for the journey. I nodded at one, and took her bag, resting it on my seat to reserve her place.

I had an hour or so to kill, so I went to the Internet place I had used early. Somehow I found that walking with my heavy pack on almost lessened my aches and pains. Whether this was psychological or not, I do not know. Unburdened I'd struggled to walk, but now, fully laden, I think it was just a case of having to get on with it...though my pace was considerably slower than usual. Whist using the Internet I began to feel a little queasy, which I put down to an out of focus screen, so I cut my session short, and hobbled off to the train station. I was directed to the wrong platform, and spent twenty minutes there before the penny dropped, and I dragged myself up the stairs and over to the right one.

I boarded the train and found my berth, in a compartment I was sharing with three Myanmar gentlemen. The station seemed to double as a barracks for soldiers (or maybe they were just guarding it?), and a lot of them were settling down for the night. I've read it is illegal here to photograph a man in uniform...but what about a man out of it? Shortly before we were due to leave, the power went off to the sound of shouts and whistles. For a country that had power outs on a daily basis, the make a fair fuss when one happens, and I've heard cheers when it returns too. Right on time the train departed, and I felt as if I was transported through the ages as we chugged past darkened houses, silhouetted against the night's sky. Little knots of people squatted by the track, and men swinging touches walked along them.

I popped along to the dining carriage, where I misunderstood the waiter, and was served a plate of crisps - I thought he'd said, "fried potato with cheese", which sounded yummy, but I guess he'd actually said "fried potato chips". Still, at least they were cheap, which was more than could be said for the extortionate can of sunkist I had to go with them. After my sumptuous meal I returned to my compartment and read for a while. The flies were a terrible nuisance, attracted by the light and coming in through the open window. The man opposite me got me to pull down the shutter, but that was no fun, so I hoicked it up again and put up with the flies. By mutual consent, the lights when out pretty early, and I lay back looking at the stars.

When I got up to go to the loo, I realised that one of the men had closed and bolted the door. Even after I'd undone all three locks I still couldn't shift the bloody thing. The man opened it for me (with some difficulty), and I got them to agree not to bolt it again, though they managed to get it back on its runners, so it opened smoothly. By this time it was evident to me that something wasn't quite right in the stomach department, and I didn't was to have any hindrance in getting out of the compartment and along the corridor. Realistically, I thought the cause of the problem was probably the samosas, as they fitted into the normal timescale of these things...but they'd been really tasty, and I didn't want to forgo them in the future, so I have decided to blame the watermelon. I've heard that melon can be a prime candidate for housing bacteria, and visualised dirty fingernails removing the pips, that I'd been so pleased about at the time.

Sunset from the train, MyanmarToilet trips notwithstanding, I managed a fair bit of sleep during the night. The corridor filled up with sleeping bodies, which I had to gingerly step over (I've also read that you are not meant to step over someone, even if they are asleep; instead you should wake them. I just couldn't bring myself to believe that someone would prefer to be woken up than carefully stepped over, so I ignored this cultural rule). By half past five a pinky orange strip on the horizon announced dawn's arrival. Sleep recalled me, and the next I saw was at six thirty, when the sun was shining weakly through a faint morning haze. Again I returned to the land of nod for another hour, by which time the sun was too hot to continue sleeping, shining directly through the window onto me. I grabbed my camera and headed for the corridor, which afforded more photogenic views, with less squinting and sweating to pay for them. There was a certain amount of squatting involved though. Asian people are able to squat for hours with no outward signs of discomfort; even the elderly and infirm manage it.

Man jumps onto a moving train, Myanmar

As the train neared its destination, more and more people appeared alongside the tracks, and the areas either side became more crowded with housing. Impromptu markets selling fruit and veg were set up next to the tracks, amidst a plethora of rubbish, which stray dogs sniffed through. Some folks wanted the plastic water bottles - I've seen people rummaging in the bins all over SE Asia for bottles, keen to earn the pittance payable for recycling them. Men ran alongside the train, then leapt up at the door, clinging wildly on to the rails until they could pull themselves inside, and roam the corridors for bottles.

I'd already chosen my accommodation, and on my arrival in Mandalay I set off on foot in completely the opposite direction; I do this a lot. I realised my mistake before too long, and grabbed a trishaw to the guesthouse. Here I secured a small single for $3, which is thankfully right next to the bathroom. I was quite hungry by this stage, so after a shower and handing over some laundry I set off for a late brunch. Whilst eating I realised that I was feeling really rather peaky, and thought it best to return - still hobbling - to the hotel. On the way I distracted myself for half an hour taking photographs of dragonflies, that obligingly posed for me on the tips of some railings next to the moat. Photography can act like a form of meditation sometimes, I find; all external distractions melt away, and all my attention is focused. Once I'd finished, I became aware again of my aching limbs, stomach cramps, and the feverish feeling that was not totally attributable to the sun.

I returned at two, and thought I'd lie down for an hour or so, and then venture back out. I began reading, and soon fell asleep, waking at nine in the evening. The abominable abdominal pains continued and I still felt shivery and unwell. I used up the last of my codeine, and am still kicking myself for not bringing more from home - I didn't realise that you couldn't buy it in Thailand without a prescription. As for here, I've not seen a single chemist as yet. I had a look in the Lonely Planet, but it only marked the Drug Addicts Hospital. Very helpful, guys. Curiously, they list under emergencies in their language section "I've been raped", but do not have the word for toilet, which I'm sure is of a million times more use to your average traveller!

I've done little today. I'm feeling much improved, but still not 100%, and I didn't want to push it; I thought it would make more sense to take the time to recover. I did venture out this afternoon to a local pagoda, and for some food, but the rest of the day I spent in my room. Tomorrow, I plan to visit Mandalay Hill - where the city gets its name from - and some larger pagodas near there...stomach permitting!

PS Here's your word for the day:

chunder informal, chiefly Austral./NZ

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