Monday, March 31, 2014

March 26th – An Epic Train Trip To Nowhere

Unfortunately our late night in the Vista Bar meant that our grand plans to go to the Shwedigon never materialised, so instead we got up at a reasonable hour to embark on a very different Rangoon experience – catching the circular train around Rangoon's suburbs. The journey starts at the Central Station and then goes in a giant circle taking three hours, through 37 stations taking you north of the city centre, into the countryside, and then round the other side of town, back down to Central Station.

We caught a cab to the station (no cab ride costs more than $3 in the city centre), and bought our tickets for this alternative tourist experience, for the grand sum of $1 each. For that kind of money, this certainly wasn't a luxury experience – the trains have two rows of hard seats facing each other, open sides and no doors, and crucially no toilet (which, on a hot a sweaty day when you're trying to keep yourself hydrated, can become a bit of a problem after shake, rattle and rolling along for a couple of hours) – but, I don't think it is possible to have better value in the city, because the ride provides an amazing insight into daily life in and around Rangoon.

To some people, going round in a circle for 3 hours might sound pretty boring, but here in Rangoon, there's just so much to see along the sides of the tracks. It's staggering how many people live alongside these railway lines, in basic shacks with no utilities, where the railway line is the playground of the many children, a place to dry your clothes, a place to cook your food, and a place just to sit and watch the world go by. Unfortunately, the track is also a place to dump your rubbish and god knows whatever human waste is generated by these dwellings, and it soon became apparent that Burma has a significant problem to face in dealing with its refuse situation.

It's easy to think that the people living in this poverty are living a fairly wretched existence, but we saw no signs of malnutrition or despair – just people living fairly basic lives who were happy to smile, wave, and say hello to us as we passed them by. Our fellow passengers who came and went (who else would go the whole way round, apart from us strange tourists?), were also very friendly (even if most communication had to be by sign language), and fortunately, the train wasn't too crowded, so we could spread out and keep as cool as possible.

As we left the city centre, the rubbish alongside became less, and the houses slightly better organised. At most stations, there were people walking up and down selling food to the passengers, and then, half way along, we had the most amazing spectacle of the lot – a full blown food market on the tracks all around us, absolutely packed with people and stalls selling all kinds of fruit and veg. It was like a scene from the middle ages.

We then passed into rural scenery and rice fields which felt a million miles away from the clamour of Rangoon, and slowly things got more built up again as we headed back to town. We thoroughly enjoyed the experience, even if the comfort levels were pretty basic – the whole ride really gave us an absolutely amazing slice of life along the way.

After emptying our bursting bladders, we headed to a nice restaurant where I had possibly the hottest curry of my life (I'm not looking forward to the after-effects of that!), before heading to the very disappointing National Museum. This cavernous and atmosphere-free modern building had a pretty scanty and dry collection of artefacts – only really enlivened by the royal throne that the British had stolen from Mandalay after they annexed Burma in the 1880s. It seems like the country's culture budget has been entirely channelled to its religious monuments rather than this museum.

Finally, we headed back to the Scott Market to have a brief look around and catch the shuttle back to the ship. As ever, Burma has been utterly captivating – as Rudyard Kipling said, "it's quite unlike any land you know about".

I can't wait to come back here again on the 2016 World Cruise – not only to see some more, but also to see how much it's changed. I just hope it doesn't change too much.