They greeted me as if I were Michael Jackson instead of just Michael Clark. Their smiles were so genuine it was contagious. I asked for a ticket to Naypyidaw. “High class?” one of them asked me. “No, low class.” I said in response. He looked as if he thought I was confused so I assured him I did in fact want a seat in low class. At that point his expression told me he thought that was wrong in some way, I’ve run into this while traveling. Many people don’t understand why anyone would want to have a less comfortable seat or circumstance when they could have more comfort. “Twenty-eight thousand” he told me. That was such a low price that I asked “Twenty-eight thousand Kyat for a low class seat from Yangon to Naypyidaw?” He confirmed that I would indeed pay about two dollars and fifty cents for a ten hour train ride. I attempted to thank them in Burmese and they began laughing raucously while slapping each others backs as I walked toward the train.
I’ve had an image of one of those trains in India where all the people ride on the top if there isn’t room inside the cabin for months. It just keeps circulating in my mind, I’ve planned to get on a train in three different countries but each time something happened to make me choose the bus. As I walked up to car four where I was suppose to be seated I saw that the windows had no glass. I’m sure I was smiling like a fool as I climbed up and walked down the isle looking for seat number twenty-eight. It was a dingy, wooden floored cabin with wooden seats made of plywood painted blue. The faces were unusually straight for Myanmar as I sat down. The wooden seat was about as soft as wood usually is but I have had five months of practice sitting on terribly uncomfortable furniture.
I noticed a pair of eyes peeking just above the seat in front of me. They were staring at me and when I stared back my trained politeness made me look away. Each time I looked back they were still staring.
The train lurched, shook and there was a sound as if we had just been a part of some kind of collision. The two guys sitting on the bench facing me started laughing and I laughed with them as we pulled out of the station. I leaned my head out the window like I had been wanting to do for months but when I looked forward there were those eyes again. They were still disturbingly direct, however this time I could see who they belonged to. She was somewhere between sixteen and twenty I’d say if I had to guess. She stuck out her tongue at me, I just looked back wondering if it was an appropriate response to return the tongue pointing or if I should just smile. I decided I better just smile and pretend I wasn’t wildly confused. I’ve used this tactic many-a-time on my trip, just smile and attempt to not look as confused as I feel. She continued to catch my eye and stare for the next 6 hours.
The whole train was a terrifically old style, it was satisfying my vision better than I would have hoped. We rolled past shanty towns, garbage heaps, and apartment buildings that were being consumed by vines. The dust poured into the window anytime we passed the spot where a road crossed the tracks, my eyes soon became sore from trying to blink away the dirt. Slowly my skin got dirtier, I couldn’t see a change in color but I could feel the grit all over me. After an hour or two we were surrounded by vast fields with specks of color where it seemed a whole village of people were tending to a single field at a time. I was amazed to see huge heaps of hay being transported by wooden ox drawn carts. The vast, flat landscape was only broken up by little bamboo-hut towns full of children playing hacky-sack and adults working the fields. The trained stopped at each town long enough to take on the various sellers of train-treats. The were several distinct types, the tea or coffee guy, the cigarettes or candy lady and the rice with curry boy.
They would pour on yelling what I would assume to be their sales pitch but quite honestly they could have been yelling about what they had for breakfast or who they planned to vote for in the next election. They would walk up and down the isle. If anyone so much as let their gaze linger on their platter of merchandise for more than a second they would stop in front of you and (again I can only assume) say something like “Come on, you know you want some.” My favorite part was watching the women walking up and down the isle with a whole sliced watermelon on a platter balanced atom their heads. I could barely walk down the isle without falling over even with holding onto each seat as I moved along. They were able to walk without holding onto any of the seats, they didn’t drop a single piece of watermelon.
‘I wonder if this thing has a bathroom’ I looked around and saw that there was enough room in the back of the car. I found that it was a bathroom and to my glee it was just a hole in the floor that led straight onto the tracks. I was having the the of my life, everything was filthy, everything was loud, everything was uncomfortable. It was like heaven for me. As they say “Life’s about learning to dance in the train” Or something like that. Being shaken around like a rag doll anytime we went over a bridge probably looked something like what the kids are calling dancing these days.
Myanmar is such a crazy blend of new and old. Just on the train I watched a seventy year old man playing Tetris on his phone, we rumbled past villages made entirely of wood and at the end of it all there was Naypyidaw.
My guidebook described it as “a soulless town”. The train station was massive, mostly glass and metal. It was so unlike anything I had seen in Myanmar. The military government built Naypyidaw from scratch starting in 2002 It looked as though the train had taken me on a hundred year long journey straight into the Twilight Zone. Its been an intriguing few days but my whole journey felt like seeing five countries in the space of ten hours. Each village was another world.
I just kept thinking ‘These places exist’. In three months when I’m sitting on some couch in Seattle I will think back to the time when my train companions offered me betel nut and I hope it still feels real, I really hope I remember their faces.