As I stepped on the train, I knew that once it took off, I was leaving the tourist bubble of Myanmar. There would be no foreigners, no white people, and definitely no one that spoke English.
I had heard that taking a train ride is one of the best ways to experience Myanmar culture and now I understood why. The inside of the train was a chaotic site: The train was crowded with families and their belongings. Pots, pans and wicker baskets filled with rice were strewn all around the floor. People selling food such as quail eggs, fried noodles, crackers, and other sundries, yelled loudly to market their goods as they stepped over families’ belongings and people sleeping on the floor. The air wafted with spice.
Seating consisted of wooden benches facing each other. The back and seat of the wooden bench converged at a near 90 degree angle, making reclining impossible and slouching in bad form inevitable. All windows were open and without screens.
These trains were built during English colonial period, and renovations since then were clearly minimal, if at all. Other than half-paved roads, these trains are the vital transportation infrastructure that Myanmar people rely on, even though they experience “rail slippages”, or trains getting derailed, too frequently for comfort. The speed on these trains is also a conundrum. At times, they seem to creep along at a human walking pace. Other times, without warning, they charge forward. And then at other times, they just sit immobile, ostensibly during frequent engine repairs. As a result, it is near impossible to plan when you’ll depart or arrive. Consequently, Myanmar people and families are often found sleeping at train stations as they wait for the train.
I was on way to Katha (pronounced Kuttah), the small village on the banks of the Ayarwaddey river, where George Orwell lived and wrote his first book Burmese Days. Katah is 155 miles from Mandalay, the city where I began my train journey. Under normal travel conditions, assuming an average speed of about 50 mph, this should have taken about three hours. After what my friend Eva told me, who did this same train trip, I knew I’d be lucky if it took under 10 hours.
After sitting on the train in Mandalay station for about 20 minutes, the train finally creaked forward – we were off. Here I go, I thought, No turning back now, I’m off, into the country of Myanmar. I noticed a young boy who was sitting to my left across the aisle staring at me with curiosity. I smiled and said, Mingalabah! – “hello” in Myanmar. His blank stare changed to a big grin. He sat with his father and mother. These are the people I’ll be traveling with for the next 10+ hours I thought. While I knew I would not be speaking English to anyone, I was glad to have made a personal interaction. These small gestures of friendliness – saying hello – traverse language and culture. It’s these interactions that helped me feel less lonely. While I stood out as a tall white guy from a different land, curiosity and smiles are often what greeted me in Myanmar. It was a refreshing feeling of non-judgement, and it made me feel comfortable with the Myanmar people.
The train rode through rice paddies, farms, and stretches of uninhabited areas. It stopped every few hours at train stops, where people would shuffle on and off. Sometimes the train would stop for 10 minutes, other times - 30 minutes. I began reading Burmese Days, while snacking on some quail eggs. At times, the train would rock violently from side-to-side, like a boat riding over waves splashing at its side. After six hours, my back and neck began aching from the hard wood seats and I developed a headache and slight nausea. The novelty of this train was wearing off quickly – I was ready to get to my destination and lay down. But alas, I was still under 10 hours into the trip, so I knew I had a few hours left. I just had to bear through this train ride.
At 8 hours in, there was a beautiful sunset, and despite how miserable I was feeling, it was an uplifting site. The boy and his father were also staring at the sunset together, which I found to be a heartwarming site. I think we were all ready to get off this train, but the sunset is one thing we could all enjoy together, despite age, language, or culture.
I arrived at Katha at 11pm, 13 hours after I left. If you do the math, that's an average of 12 mph! It was dark out, my body was aching, and I was ready to crash. However, I still wasn’t sure where I was sleeping. I walked out and a tuk-tuk offered to give me a ride. I showed him three potential hotels, which I had previously saved in my maps.me app on my phone. I sat in the tuk-tuk and more people climbed in the back. We waited and waited and it must have been 20 minutes before we left.
The driver dropped everyone off and then drove me to the first hotel on my list. In Myanmar, hotels need a permit from the government to be able to host foreigners, a controlling policy left over from the harsh military government of prior years. I was more than a bit nervous that at 11:45pm, being a foreigner, and not being able to speak the language, there would be an issue getting a room.
Upon arriving at the first hotel, the tuk-tuk driver was nice and knocked on the door for me while I waited in the tuk-tuk. After a few minutes a guy came out and I saw he shook his head. There clearly weren’t any rooms available. We drove to the next location through dirt roads with barely any light, and wild dogs barking and scurrying out of the way. The streets were empty. A heavy feeling grew in my chest.
We arrived at the next place and repeated the same process as before. Also, no rooms left. Now the stakes were high. What would I do if this next and final hotel didn’t have any rooms?
Lucky enough, the hotel had one room left! And a private room at that, a rare treat for me, since I was constantly staying in dorm rooms. I couldn’t wait to lie down!
I had gotten the idea to check out Katha from my friend Eva, who I met in Bali. Eva introduced me a local named Mo through Facebook, and who spoke English. I had chatted with Mo before making the long journey to Katha, and he said we could meet up and he’d show me around. The following morning, I texted him and he told me to come meet him at the tea shop down the road. I quickly learned that the tea shop is the main social hangout in Katha and throughout many areas of Myanmar, a remnant of British culture.
When walking down the streets of Katha, it feels as if life has not changed since the 1950s. Other than some modern images on billboards, most buildings were of simple wood construction and only one level. There were many wood thatch style huts too. People of all ages were on the streets. There were vendors selling assortments of fruits, meats, and rice; children playing; and bulls following their master. The streets hummed with scooters.
I found my way to the shop and just as I was arriving, Mo was driving up in his scooter. He was tall and slim and I noticed he wore sneakers, a rare footwear for Myanmar people to wear. Most of the Myanmar people that I saw wore simple black flip flops, which I think is due to practicality, since they need to constantly take off their footwear when entering a temple.
We entered the tea shop, which was more like a sturdy hut without walls, so one can just walk under the roof. Mo introduced me to Nyo Ko, a middle-aged man who owns the tea shop. He also spoke English, and told me he was focused on preserving George Orwell landmarks in the area and trying to raise PR for them. Then he did some googling on his phone and showed me a video interview of himself being interviewed on BBC news, discussing George Orwell and Katha. Pretty cool! After a cup of Indian style tea (tea loaded with milk and sugar), Mo offered to give me a George Orwell tour. I jumped on the back of his scooter and we were off.
Our first stop was the home where George Orwell lived in the 1920s, when Myanmar was called Burma, a part of British India.
We walked around inside. There is a haphazard attempt at a museum, with some pictures of George Orwell and some literature on his novel, Burmese Days. An old police car parked outside the house is a coincidental reminder that George Orwell worked as a policeman while living there.
Next, we went to the police station, another prominent location in Burmese Days.
Mo then drove us to another tea shop, and we had some delicious rice noodle soup. At the tea shop, Mo told me about the environmental clean-up organization for which he works. The organization aims to educate the community about trash management. A huge problem in Myanmar is the disposal of trash. People often throw trash on the ground, resulting in many areas of Myanmar to be disturbingly littered. In Mo's small town of Indaw (which is right next to Katha), people rely on the lake, Lake Indaw, for bathing, doing laundry, and fishing, among other things. The trash, however, threatens the cleanliness and ecology of the lake. Mo volunteers to pick up trash around town and spread awareness about the harm trash can do. The trash situation is something I noticed before I got to Indaw. It is not considered taboo to throw things on the ground in Myanmar and there are often no trash cans to be found, because the government doesn't pay for or supply any! I remember when I was in Mandalay, I hired a driver for the day. We were on the top of Mandalay Hill, one of the biggest attractions and most sacred places in Myanmar. We were about to drive off, but I needed a place to put my water bottle. The driver picked up the empty bottle that was currently in his cup holder, tossed it on the ground, took my bottle and put it in his now-empty holder! He did it without even giving it a thought.
As we were chatting, his friend Zin Zin, who works with him, pulled up. Mo let me know that Zin Zin wanted to practice her English and would take me around Indaw, since he had to go work.
So, I hopped on the back of Zin Zin's scooter, and we were off! We first drove through a long dusty road.
Then we turned off into a neighborhood of thatched houses, where there was more trees and vegetation. The houses had small yards, where people were sitting and clothes were hanging to dry.
As we drove along, we came to a parade. Traditional music was playing, and people were dressed in fancy colorful outfits. We stopped on the side of the road to watch. Zin Zin explained that this was a novice parade. I learned that a novice is like a junior monk who is 10-12 years old. The boys with their friends and family parade around town to the monastery, where they ceremonisouly become novices. As part of the tradition, the boys are dressed up like kings.
It was exciting to see this parade, which is a unique cultural tradition! Different sections of the parade had different costumes, and the sections were mostly segregated to either men or women. There were some cars playing music, and sometimes people were even doing traditional dances on top of the cars!
Following the parade, I hopped back on Zin Zin's bike, and we were off again, this time to an old monastery. Like all Buddhist holy sites in Myanmar, we had to take our shoes and socks off, even though in this case, a large part of the monastery was outside, where there was just a hard dirt ground.
Zin Zin gave me a tour of the area, which included old stone structures, and an old monastery building that got destroyed in an earthquake in the early 1900s.
After touring the monastery, Zin Zin and I took off again - where we were going? I was not sure. But there were some cool sites along the way. Such as these cows walking along the street.
And this lovely field of sunflowers.
After riding for about thirty minutes, we came up to a serene lake - Lake Indaw. This is the lake that the community relies upon for washing and bathing. There was a dirt path to the lake, where we parked the bike. A lazy bull sat watching us as we walked towards the shore. Right by us there were families bathing and washing their clothes. It was a tranquil and beautiful scene: the slow trickle of water on the shore was complemented with family chatter and laughter in the background. Fishing boats were off in the distance and life moved at a peaceful cadence. I felt very far from home.
Mo met up with us, and suggested we drive to an overlook. We scootered around the lake a bit, and then through a little village where we parked our scooters and hiked up a hill. At the top of the hill was a small temple and an overlook of the village and lake.
In the distance we could hear traditional music coming from a loud speaker - it was the novice celebration at the monastery! Mo suggested we head over. We walked down the hill where we said good bye to Zin Zin.
I hopped on the back of Mo's scooter and we drove to the Monastery. The ceremony had already happened, and now everyone was hanging out and eating.
I got a lot of curious looks from the children. I said mingalaba and they would smile and say mingalaba back. They invited me and Mo to sit down and have dinner, which we did.
We then had a traditional Myanmar meal, which I enjoyed several times in the country. The meal consists of a variety of dishes, such as curries, pickled vegetables, and rice served in small bowls. It is a lot of food! Eating this style of Myanmar feels like having a whole buffet to yourself.
Following dinner, we drove to "downtown" Indaw. It was now dark outside and the streets had no streetlights. We were driving along a road without houses or buildings, just woods on either side of us. Driving through these dark streets on a little scooter, reminding me of just how remote this place was.
We arrived at the little downtown, which consisted of a few small tea shops and went to one to get some tea and soup. I loved the informality of this teahouse. There was no door in - it was open on three sides, without any doors. Everyone knew the owner and the "cook", a teenager, and everyone knew each other! There were no fancy decorations or furniture, and no theme. It was just a quiet and communal place to get tea and hang out with friends and family. This was a vibe that I hadn't experienced back home.
At the teahouse I met Mo's brother and friends, sitting with them at the table while they all chatted in Myanmar. Unlike Mo, most of them barely knew any English. I asked Mo why, and he told me it's because most Myanmar people do not complete school and instead drop-out at the ages of 10-12, to support their family with agrarian labor.
This place seemed like a popular hangout. There was a TV set up in one area with some chairs, where people were watching a Hollywood movie with Myanmar audio language overlays. I ordered some delicious rice noodle soup and enjoyed my remaining few hours in Indaw, becaue at 11pm I would be taking an overnight train to Indawgyi Lake.
Following the tea shop, we went back to Mo's house - a thatch house with a small yard. The house consisted of one main room, with two small bedrooms. In the main room there was a TV, and a Buddha shelf, with some pictures of Mo and his brother when they were novices.
I met Mo's mom and sister. They were lying down together on the floor in one of the rooms. I learned that most families sleep together and children don't move away until they get married. This familiar intimacy was consistent with the mother and son I saw sleeping together on the train. I think it reflects strong family bonds in Myanmar. Also, many people in SE Asia sleep on the floor or on mats.
It was time to head to the train station to catch the overnight train to Indawgyi Lake. I was not looking forward to the overnight train, especially after my uncomfortable experience on the train coming up to Indaw. Mo assured me he purchased an "upper class" seat for me, which would be much more comfortable. When I walked in the train, I saw the same scene I saw when I got on the train in Mandalay, except now people were lying everywhere. This was upper class!? I thought. I felt pretty irritated. And then I realized why it was upper class. The seats were cushioned!