I decided to move on east to the small town of Hsipaw, and to go by train. The eye-catching Celica dropped me outside the station about half an hour before the train was due to leave.
The ‘Foreigner price’ fare was US$2. I slapped down a $20 bill. The station-master said he had no change. “Well, I’ll pay in kyats, then,” I said. “Only dollars,” he replied curtly. There was nowhere to leave my pack, so I had to cart it the quarter-of-a-mile into town in search of change. Eventually I found someone who could change the $20, and I ran – yes, ran – back to the station, where the station-master, smiling away, handed me my ticket.
I’d chosen the train because it went over the Gothiek Viaduct, a marvel of turn-of-the-last-century engineering and once the second-highest railway bridge in the world.
Although the bridge was built by an American company such things always make me wonder about the old Colonial types. I mean, what on earth would someone from my home village in England in the 19th Century have made of the heat, the humidity, the wildlife, the locals, whatever, in a place like Burma?
It’s not like they would have seen it on TV or something, or even, until the later part of the century, seen photographs – drawings and descriptions would be all they had.
Even in the 21st Century going over the bridge was pretty hair-raising, as it was a looooong way down. Actually, given the shoddy state of the bulk of the infrastructure I’d experienced so far, maybe going over in the 21st Century was even riskier than going over when the bridge was first built. All I could do was hope that its strategic importance – as a link between the north-east and the rest of the country – meant that the government looked after it better than it maintained everything else.
You’ll have to take my word for it about what a nerve-wracking experience going over the bridge was. I tried to take pictures as proof but I was stopped by a soldier, who watched me like a hawk until we were well past the bridge.
I did wonder whether the train itself dated from Colonial times, with its solid wooden seats and (by now) knackered windows. The track was so shoddy we had to go very slowly.
I didn’t lack for entertainment during the long journey though. For a start there were three mice playing in the sacks of vegetables, parcels of bamboo and shopping bags of the women sitting opposite. Then there was the constant stream of vendors prowling up and down the aisle, offering all sorts of things, from food to books to “medicine”.
One such vendor was selling little vials of powder that would fix anything from stomach upsets to headaches. How did I know this? He was yelling his sales patter into a megaphone at our end of the carriage, and it was being translated for me by Mr C, the local guide of an American called K. (I think the station-master in Pyin-Oo-Lwin had sat me with them because I was a woman alone and he thought they would look after me.)
Anyone who didn’t have a headache before the miracle cure man had started his spiel certainly would have one by the time he’d finished; strewth he was strident. I didn’t ask Mr C what the powder was, but it looked rather like ground black pepper and there was an awful lot of spluttering from the people who put it into their mouths or noses.
The most depressing experience of the trip was probably watching the local girl opposite me smarten herself up before getting off the train. She uncoiled her past-bottom-length hair, combed it a bit then twisted it into a rope, wrapped the ‘rope’ round her hand and made a knot with it, then wrapped the loose end round the knot and anchored the lot back on her head with a comb. Even my very best hair day wouldn’t match one of her very worst hair days!
From Burmese Daze – the book. Available directly from me (£6, including p&p in the UK); or from Lulu, Amazon, or to order from your local independent bookshop or via Hive. E-book available from Smashwords.