The bumpy way
About 1,000 kilometers north of Mandalay lies Myitkyina, the capital of the Kachin State (The Kachins are the majority minority group in the North), and home to yearly Manao festival, where the Burmese, Kachins, and others get together, wear their traditional clothes, do a lot of dancing, and even more drinking. It’s supposed to be like a uniting of the tribes type celebration. It sounded pretty cool so I wanted to be in town for that. I'd talked to some people who said it would be cancelled this year, but after researching online I found almost zero information, so I decided to head that way regardless. Of course since it’s Myanmar getting there becomes a little more complicated. The two options are an hour-long flight or a 20+ hour train trip. I opted on the journey by rail, as I’d get to see some of the countryside and make a couple side trips along the way.
I departed from the friendly little town of Schwebo, about 3 hours northwest of Mandalay. Curiously at the train stations they will only accept US dollars from foreigners, which I had brought plenty of. The whole currency situation in Myanmar has always been a bit strange. It used to be that you had to bring in a big wad of crisp, uncreased, 100 dollar bills, which you would then convert to Kyat (Myanmar’s currency, pronounced chat). But you wouldn’t take this money to the bank or currency exchange, like you would in any other country. Oh, no.(unless you wanted to get a horrific exchange rate). Instead you would take it to the black market currency exchanges in Mandalay or Yangon and exchange your dollars for Kyats there. There also used to be no ATM’s available for foreigners so you would have to exchange all your money for the trip at one time, but leave yourself with enough spare dollars for the odd hotel or train station that wouldn’t accept the local currency. Fortunately now there are ATM’s available in all the touristy areas and currency exchanges give fair rates, although they are still very picky about the condition of the dollars they’ll accept. I had many of my bills turned down because they were a little bit worn, and some in perfect condition were rejected because they were too old! It would be perfectly acceptable anywhere else in the world, except Burma. I still have no idea why they make it such a big deal, but it’s annoying as hell to be sure.
Anyway, the train came into the station and I scrambled towards the appropriate cabin. I had bought an upper class ticket, which means you get a slightly padded, reclined chair. Not reclining chair, but a permanently reclined chair, which is nice for taking a nap, but not so convenient for those of us who like to sit up and watch the scenery go by. Probably the most notable part of the journey is the frequent bumpy sections, when the train doubles as an amusement park ride. It’s kind of exciting (and hilarious) at first when you hit one of these spots because the train will be lurching up and down and you really have to hold on tight in order to not get tossed from your seat. You have to be very diligent cramming your stuff into the overhead compartment because otherwise its coming down directly on your head. Of course after a few hours of intermittently being bounced around like a super ball, it begins to lose its appeal.
Another source of amusement is watching the train transform into a temporary market as soon as it pulls into the station. Hawkers prowl the aisles with goods and food sellers rush to the windows, selling hot dishes directly to the riders. Apparently each station is known for specializing in a specific Burmese delicacy. And then when the food is finished it’s remaining contents get tossed out where they originally came in, the window! Burmans are not well known for their waste management systems. In the first few hours of the trip I had ordered a beer, and after it had been rattling around on the floor for a while I asked the server guy if he could take it or if there was a trash can. He dutifully picked up my beer can, extended his arm out the window, and let go. Problem solved! Feeling kind of stupid I sheepishly thanked him for his upstanding service and went back to my book. Good ‘ole Asian attitudes to garbage… the ground is the trash can!
The train arrived that evening at my stop, so I hopped off and found my way to the truck/bus that takes people over the pitiful dirt road to the sleepy riverside town of Katha. The only slightly interesting thing about Katha is that it was the setting of George Orwell’s book, Burmese Days, which is a popular read when you’re in the country. So you can visit a few of the places in the book. I hadn’t read it yet, and even now that I have, seeing those places would would not interest me whatsoever, so it was kind of a boring place. But what was exciting was getting back to the train station by 6 am the following day. My motorbike driver came at 4:30 am to pick me up. I hopped on back and we hurtled our way through the darkness, moving at seemingly asinine speeds considering the quality of the road. The driver cleverly weaved through rocks and found flat spots in patches of broken pavement while I clung to the back. It was obvious he knew the road like the back of his hand, but it was still scary as shit. We got to the station just in time, I paid the man, thanked him for psychotic driving, and hopped on board. At this station there was nowhere to buy tickets, and no haughty taughty upper class cabin for me to board, so it was off to the ordinary class, ya know, with the ordinary people.
It seemed like the whole cabin turned around to look when I got on board. I threw my big pack onto the overhead racks and slid into the only open seat I saw, in a compartment with three other grizzly looking dudes. Everyone was thoroughly bundled up, as the train gets freezing cold at night. When the sun came up the men around me were buying various snacks from the vendors and offering some to me to try. Nobody spoke any English and I spoke about 3 phrases in Burmese, but we all got along well. Soon they busted out the booze and cigars, but I politely declined, as it was about 8 am. I did however get some cool shots of them blowing smoke out the windows, which they seemed to find amusing as well. It was certainly a more interesting experience than being in upper class. A few hours later I had arrived my station, and set off to find a bus to my intended destination, Indawgyi Lake. I was directed to a truck that was fully loaded with cargo. On top of the cargo were a bunch people sitting, and I was instructed to join them. I climbed up and found a seemingly comfortable spot in between some cardboard boxes and rice sacks and we were on our way shortly. Of course the road was awful and all the jostling around made it extremely difficult to find a good spot as there was always some sort of cardboard box corner jabbing at you somewhere. Everyone else looked very comfortable and content, clearly not worried about getting springboarded from the back of the truck like I was. It was a bumpy, hot, and dusty 3 hour ride with lots of strange looks from the locals. Eventually the truck stopped, a man shouted "Indawgyi, Indawgyi" "You go!" I had arrived.
At Indawgyi there is one guesthouse. They get maybe 20 tourists per month. The owner hardly speaks English, there is one shared toilet, and the place only gets 2 hours of electricity a day. But its definitely a good place to unwind and observe everyday Burmese lake life. There is even ‘travel agency’ where guys rent out bikes and a couple of kyaks. They insist that you take one of them with as a guide “for your safety” but if you’re insistent enough they’ll make a handwritten waiver that must be signed by you and the police department, to say you won't blame them in case you get into a high speed kayak-fishing boat collision and die. It all seemed a bit silly, but I happy to comply with the Burmese bureaucracy. Anywho, I spent three nights there and enjoyed it a lot. The first day I met a couple, a Burmese girl and an American guy (the guy had been living in Yangon working with NGO’s for the last few years), so they were extremely helpful in answering all the questions I had about the country. I found out why no one knew what I was talking about when I told them I was going to “My-It-Ky-EEna” because its actually pronounced Ma-Chee-Na (like you’ve got a mouthful of food). And they taught me all sorts of other useful words AND the proper pronunciations. I had a bunch of phrases written down from wiki, but trying to say them without knowing the correct pronunciations had proven to be utterly useless. So I copied all this new info down in my iphone, which I then proceeded destroy the following day when I dumped myself out of my kayak and into the lake in front of a whole bunch of people :/ Not my proudest moment. But hey, it wasn't the camera!
But besides that debacle, kayaking in the lake was super cool. There’s a big pagoda in the middle of it that can only be reached by boat. And the lake is very calm and you can paddle around and watch all the fishermen do their thing. And the sunset out on the lake is, without saying, beautiful as well. Back on land everywhere around the guesthouse it is brimming with pastoral Burmese life. In the early mornings the fishing boats are all going out while the kids walk down to the little wooden planks with buckets to collect water for boiling and cooking. In the afternoons the people are back to the lake to bathe and wash clothes while another round of fishing boats goes out to collect the fish from the lines before it gets dark. There’s kids playing in the dirt streets while all sorts of cattle trundle by and buses come occasionally and kick up dust everywhere. Women walk by with their yellow painted faces carrying all sorts of things on their heads. Men in longyis ride bicycles that look to be decades old. It seemed like such a timeless and happy little place. It was one of the many highlights of my trip in Myanmar.
After a few days I caught another truck to get back to the train station and hopped on the next train into “Macheena”.