I have accidentally arrived to Mandalay at 3 am. What can you do at this hour? Probably just try to get away. I grab my backpack and hop on a motorcycle taxi. We rush through the big city’s darkness towards railway station. To my surprise, even at this early hour there is a lot of turmoil going on. About 70 Burmese people are waiting in front of a ticket counter. I line up, naively believing that 15 is enough to buy a train ticket.
A young girl looks at me and at some point she grabs me and takes to another ticket counter. She wakes up a cashier and tells him something. With this luck I get my ticket in less than five minutes. The cost is 1700 kyat, which is just above one euro. In fact, a 100 km distance to travel is not the most impressive, but the time it takes – 12 hours – certainly is. In other words, in terms of price per hour of travel it is by far the cheapest train ride in my life.
Both the train and the journey itself are unique. Passengers carry massive loads, entire sets of luggage: bags, baskets and home-made “packages”. Blocking the aisle entirely, these become obstacles for ticket collectors, passengers getting on and off and those willing to use the toilet.
The train passes vast highlands and valleys reaching all the way to the horizon. The railroad tracks cut across the jungle, sometimes through a solid rock tunnel, just on the verge of a slope or via historic viaduct. The viaduct is called Goteik Viaduct. It’s is a bit over 100 meters high and 750 meters long, built in 1901, hold the title of world’s the second highest railway bridge. Despite being recently renewed, it is still a shaky structure, so for crossing the train slows down to the pace of a pedestrian.
One of the views which stuck in my memory are two boys in a tiny village rushing the train along the tracks. They hold a three liter jerry can and a cup. They sell drinking water for train passengers. The train will set out in a moment, so the boy fills one passenger’s bottle in a rush. He can’t prevent water from spilling all over the place and looses around 90% of it on the grass. He manages just in to hand it to customer to make his profit equivalent to 10 cents. There won’t be another train in 24 hours.
Having reached Hsipaw
I stay at Yee Shin Guesthouse and use the opportunity wash all my clothes.
I manage to get up before five to see early morning market. The residents of surrounding villages trade here fresh vegetables, rice, meat and spices. There are also some stands offering locusts and worms.
After breakfast I decide to rent a motorbike, allegedly the one with capacity of 1500cc. Both the engine and the brand of the machine – Hong Ga – sound interesting. I do not know if anyone have ever heard of such thing. I am exploring the surrounding villages inhabited by Shan tribes. This is a region of hardworking people, many of them engaged in traditional crafts.
A teenager sells impregnated bamboo hats. A bit further out there is an ongoing silk production using simple tools and wooden frames to dry the material in the sun. In the area there are also workshops producing longyi (a national garment), candles or rice noodles.
A visit to the bank
Until recently Myanmar was a cash only economy. Bank accounts, ATM cards and bank transfers are some sort of novelty. Those things are subject to gradual changes. If you enter a bank, you are almost guaranteed to see piles of money just behind the counter. The crowd of young workers keeps counting, checking and arranging the money. There is not a single ATM in the town – at least according to the Lonely Planet. However, last night I have witnessed the historic event. An ATM has be brought and it looks like one of these days it will be installed right next to my hotel.
Meanwhile in the bank, a seemingly easy operation of exchanging 100 euros for kyat is not as straightforward process. The first step is verification. My slightly creased bill, a bit worn-out due to tropical conditions, does not pass the verification machine test. A girl at the counter keeps trying and trying over again until at around her 150th attempt I realize that she is too polite to let me know that my bill is not good enough. I ask her to stop and hand another bill. Luckily that works, otherwise, I might have to wait till the ATM is plugged.
Lost & found
In the northern part of Hsipaw there is a place called “Little Bagan”. Not for no reason, as it resembles (of course in a micro scale) temples of Bagan, or even Angkor Wat for its trees growing all over the buildings.
I wait through downpour in the teak monastery. One of the students shows me around and at some point a senior monk takes over the initiative. He starts with some fundamentals of Buddhism. I shortly discover that his views are quite extreme. Especially the concept that all of the present evil is a consequence of the actions that have taken place in previous incarnations. Just as if our fate was already predetermined and we couldn’t do anything about it.
Just before the dusk I go out with a motorbike to enjoy muddy and dirt clay fields a little bit more. My bike finally gets bogged down and it is just good luck that I manage to turn back.
The following day Chinese minority in Hsipaw is celebrating the birthday of Buddha. The believers come to make a sacrifice. Usually this involves donation (usually quite large, such as $6). In return a person in charge hands in a colorful perforated sheets of paper, which in turn are used to make some kind of origami. A dozen or so of created paper decorations are placed on a tray and then thrown into the fire – for happiness and success in life.
The caretaker of the temple shows me the library resources. There are top-quality materials, such as books to learn Chinese or computer programs, all of those donated by the Chinese government.
In the meantime on the porch, a very social and friendly place, men sit comfortably, smoke cigars and wait for women to serve the food that is being prepared since early morning. Another day in Myanmar passes…