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Soe Soe walked up to me and just started chatting, idling alongside me on his tri-shaw, the Burmese bicycle rickshaws. His English was good and he seemed amiable, so I hired his services for the day. I wanted to cover more distance than I could by walking, but without whizzing past everything by motorbike and not appreciating Mandalay’s busy streets.
He turned out to be the perfect guide to the city, having dabbled in and experienced many of the defining moments of changes in the country. He had returned to Myanmar from Thailand just a three months ago, having fled because of problems with his military service.
As a teenager, he had worked in the city’s jade market—where he insisted on taking me—buying rocks of the unpolished gems, and then with a friend, selling them in China where the buying prices were higher.
As we walked around the market, boys stuffed jade into sections of bamboo, grinding them on grind-stones, and then polishing them on bamboo. The rock and the wood seemed intertwined.
“One day”, he told me, “my friend didn’t come back from China”. He had disappeared over the border with Soe-Soe’s share of the profits, and left him without the money to buy more jade.
So he became a broker in the market, putting sellers in touch with buyers, and earning a small commission. But newly married, he needed a more regular income, so took to peddling a tri-shaw.
“At first, I didn’t understand why some people earned a lot of money” he tells me, observing other drivers who earned several times what he did. “And then I realised why.” Smiling, he revealed the secret: “because they spoke English”.
The Colonial language used to be well spoken in Burma, but banned by the military junta, the youth did not learn it in school. Soe-Soe picked up enough to begin with, and then, with increasing numbers of foreign customers—English being the regional lingua franca—he practiced and improved. His desire to learn was putting him ahead of many native speakers I know. “Could you explain to me the difference between ‘to borrow’ and ‘to lend’?” he asked me as we cycled along.
Whilst in Thailand, Soe Soe had worked as a porter, a waiter, a teacher, and a library manager, working his way up the employment ladder.
“Why did you come back?” I asked. “It’s my home. Three months ago I heard that things had improved, so I came back to see”. His family are still in Thailand, “to see what happens” he says, adding stoically that if something happened to him, his wife could still take care of their children.
He holds out hope for the upcoming elections, saying many people believe in them. “Three years ago, it was a vote by the bullet”. “We all want Aung San Suu Kyi” and feels confident that she will win.
As we walk around, he tells me another story. It wasn’t until the end that I realised that it was a joke, his dead-pan humour evident when delivering the punch-line with a huge grin.
A Thai friend asked me one day “why is the first thing you Burmese do in Thailand is find a dentist?”, so I told him: “to get our teeth fixed.”
“Don’t you have dentists in Myanmar?”, he continued.
“Sure we have dentists, lots of them”
“So are they no good?” he asked, searching for the reason.
“No, we have very good dentists in Myanmar.”
“So are they very expensive?” he persisted.
“No, not at all. They are cheaper than here” I told him.
“So why do you wait until you come to Thailand to get your teeth fixed?” he asked, very confused.
“Because in Myanmar, we cannot open our mouths freely!”
It’s not the first time I’ve entitled a post with one of Paul Theroux’s books or chapters, nor is it the first time I’ve followed in his tracks. In August of 2008, I traveled from Paris to Tehran by train, and a few months later was given the book of the original *Ghost Train to the Eastern Star * journey - The Great Railway Bazaar, chronicling Theroux’s similar journey of which I had just completed a small leg. Then, when I read it, so much of what he described seemed exactly as I had experienced, thirty years on.
I don’t have my copy of Railway Bazaar with me, so can’t compare his 1970s trip from Yangon (then Rangoon) to Mandalay. But not much has changed since he repeated his trip in 2006.
I noticed that the ticket-seller was looking at the wrong day when he said “no space” for the following evening’s night-train to Mandalay. When I pointed it out to him, “you, very lucky” came the reply. There was not only seats, but for $3 extra, the option to take a bed in a couchette, rather than the reclining seats of “Upper Class”.
At the station the next evening, the train was bathed in the orange glow of the late afternoon soon. Yangon’s station seems like a pretty quiet affair, with no shops or the usual outlets catering to those about to embark on a fifteen hour journey. Once in the train, though, all that changes. Children run alongside the other side of the train, sandwiched in-between the carriages and a wire fence, selling snacks, water, and most importantly for any long-distance, over-night journey, beer.
As the decrepit carriages of the train pulled out, the stations got smaller as the city became distant, and soon we were drifting through vast stretches of seemingly untouched countryside. Every now and then, bamboo houses on bamboo stilts rose out of the wet grassland around paddy fields.
Night drew in, and in the blackness outside ghostly shadows emerged from the fields, returning to their homes. The silhouette of an old, bamboo watchtower stood out from a woody thicket.
The influx of more pedlars announced our arrival at a pitch black station; a man with a shortwave radio, hissing in the dark, illuminated by the grilled light from the carriage.
Later, the only sign of another darkened town was the silhouetted rooftops, illuminated by a glowing, golden stupa. The Buddhist shrines seemingly the only buildings to receive artificial light in these villages.
Laying on my bunk, I bounced up and down as the train rattled along the tracks; a near feeling of sea-sickness brought back memories of a boat to a Thai island two weeks previously. These tracks were old, and badly maintained.
It was time to brave the restaurant car. Theroux had written of not risking “the fried rice being jogged and swilled in a blackened wok by the churning wooden paddle of the chef in his sweat-soaked undershirt, a cigarette dangling from his lips” and “the plates being dunked in the sludgy water of the washbasin”. The scene was no different - was this indeed the same chef, the same, stained, undershirt? Perhaps. But the rice and noodles that came out of that blackened wok were good.
My arm rest against the side of the plate as I stuck a fork into a plate of noodles. My other hand gripped a bottle of Myanmar beer. If one let go for a second, the rocking carriage would whip the meal out of the window and onto the sides of the tracks. Behind me, a man sucked on a cigarette in the near darkness.
An unfortunate policeman had seemingly been seconded to our carriage due to the presence of foreigners on the train; not many come this way it seems - all the hotels recommend taking the bus to Mandalay - it is faster and cheaper. He appeared as I sat down to eat.
His English was about as strong as my Burmese, but with the help of the waiter (who himself had less than a nominal grasp of the former colonial language) I understood what he wanted. It wasn’t tickets, and it wasn’t a spare seat (as I had first believed), but it was the security of the foreigner - and that of his bags. Having waved around copies of the train manifest showing my reservation, he disappeared off towards the now empty couchette - one of only five or six in the only sleeping coach on the train.
After a couple more wine-bottle sized Myanmars, it was time for bed, and as I stepped through the doorway of the carriage, I find him horizontal, sleeping diagonal across the floor in the corridor. He opened up the stubborn door to the couchette, pointed towards the sheets laying in a pile on one of the four beds, and motioned to lay them out, lock the door and go to sleep. These last two instructions repeated a second time to ensure there was no confusion. The sooner I lay down my head to rest, the sooner he can too.
Come morning, the paddy fields were dotted with water buffalo, mist rising off the sodden green as the sun crept up into the sky.
Three hours after the stated arrival time, the train pulled into Mandalay’s station, and the tri-shaw drivers waited outside to whip away the drowsy passengers in their bicycle side-cars.
Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar.