So today I signed up for a day trip with Urban Adventures, which promises the “Best Day Ever”. I don’t think I would go as far as to say BEST day ever, but it certainly was one of the more memorable. They trip was actually a ride on the Yangon circular line, which is a 45.9 kilometer, 39 station train trip following a circular route around Yangon. The train stops at every station and it gives you a chance to see life outside Yangon in the small villages that circle the former capital.
I took a cab to a nearby hotel to meet my guide Myat. The cab ride was an adventure in itself as we dodged vendors, monks seeking alms and breakfast patrons on the side streets to avoid the morning rush hour traffic. Horns answered one another with the occasional shouting match thrown in for good measure, Typical day in Asia.
When I arrived, Myat informed me that another person would be joining us. I soon met Sara from Hong Kong by way of Britain and we were off. It was a short walk across the street through the mud puddles and down a flight of stairs to the train plat form.
By 9:00 a.m. we were on the train heading to Da Nyin Gone Station, about an hour from where we got on. There was a daily market at that train stop that we were going to visit before heading back towards Yangon and lunch at the second to last stop on the loop.
The beginning of the trip was uneventful and the train was surprisingly comfortable with padded seats, open windows and fans over head to keep us cool. The weather had brightened considerably from the day before and the sun was even peaking through clouds. By the end of the day, I would be wishing for those clouds.
Anyway, I digress. So the beginning of the trip was pretty much run of the mill train travel in an Asian country. Lots of locals getting on and off and the occasional vendor hopping on board to sell everything from betal nut (an addictive nut that the Burmese love to chew which turns their teeth a bright red) to water and candy.
We passed by station after station with people rushing to board and with the occasional loudspeaker blasting Buddhist chants as the silver bowls were passed to the riders for a daily donation. The view outside my window turned from urban to suburban and finally to farm land.
As we approached Da Nyin Gone Station the fun began. The majority of the folks on board the train with us were vendors going to the wholesale produce and meat market to purchase their daily stock to sell at the afternoon markets. They had 45 minutes until the next train so time was not on their side. It was literally a mad dash off the train, select your goods for the day, pack them up and jump back on the train for the trip back to the city.
It was mass confusion amid the mud and puddles from the day before, and the muddy conditions combined with the searing heat of the morning made it a hot, sticky morass. We waited until all the vendors were off and running before we disembarked. However, once off the train, we were soon immersed in the sights and smells of a a typical Asian market. When nothing is refrigerated, deodarant is a foreign concept, and you have every type of chili, eggplant and cabbage known to man being sold combined with the aromatic fragrance of dried fish and just killed chicken, the smell was overpowering.
Now this may sound completely gross and you may wonder, why would you go there. However, the answer is simple. You cannot learn about a country without visiting its markets. That is where everyday life plays out before your eyes. Yes the monuments and pagodas are fabulous to visit, but I find he markets are the real learning experience.
So I jumped in with both feet. I followed Myat on the wooden planks under the plastic tarps and was immediately overwhelmed by the sheer amount of produce. You name it, I saw it. And quite frankly, I saw produce that I had never seen before. Little mini eggplant, monsterous gourds, huge carrots, and on and on. Amid all this, as I walked, I was constantly dodging men and women hustling along the wooden plank walkways with baskets of greens and every other produce balanced perfectly on their heads.
We got to the end of one row and then reversed and walked up the next row. It was endless. We reached the meat section and poor Sarah was overwhelmed and had to walk ahead. Me, I started examining dead chickens with their feet still attached. These markets always fascinate me.
And our appearance at the market was a bit of a novelty so the vendors were more than happy to show us their wares and allow a picture tor two. It was 45 minutes of awesomeness.
After the visit, we walked across the tracks to wait for the “slow” train. We could see it off in the distance, but it really was slow. I swear that old diesel train took at least 5 minutes to get to the platform after I first saw it in the distance.
So as we waited, the platform became increasing crowded with men and women all rushing to pack up their purchases and get in line for the train. All around us there were other folks sitting down to lunch. Yep right in the middle of the platform with chairs and tables and little oval tins of rice.
When the train finally arrived, it was pandemonium. I felt like I was participating in musical chairs as everyone rushed to find a seat. Our job was easy …. we had no large packs of produce. However, everyone else was literally hurling bags of packed of fruits and vegetables. It was mayhem.
Now this train was far different from the train we arrived on. This train had no doors, all the windows were open and the benches were simply, blue wooden benches. I figure the railway did this by design because this train was nothing more than a supply train and passengers were secondary.
As we sat and watched all the people (mostly women) haul bag after bag on board, it seemed like there would not be enough room for everything, but within 5 minutes, everyone was on board, the precious cargo stored and we were off.
This part of the trip was fascinating because as the train slowed at each stop, women would toss bags of produce to waiting people and a parade of vendors hopped on for a stop or two before hopping off. This time we had kids selling SIM cards, women selling cut up oranges with spices, the requisite betal nut, piping hot corn, a red fruit that looked like.a cherry on steroids and has no English translation, and on and on. These vendors made the vendors from the first part of the trip look like the minor leagues.
As the train chugged towards Yangon, all of the folks on the train took out their produce and separated the produce into little bundles for sale. They did this to save time because once they got off the train it was off to their stand to sell for the day so there was no time to waste.
Eventually, we were among the last on the train and it was time to get off and go for lunch. Myat took us through a myriad of side streets towards the local restaurant that was to be our lunch stop. By now, it was absolutely steamy, sticky hot. The sun was beating down without any shade around and at that point I kept wishing for clouds. I was drenched by the time we got to the restaurant.
Lunch proved to indeed be local. We were served some chicken broth and fittingly, my broth had a chicken foot in the soup. Never one to back down from a challenge, I ate the foot, although it was as I remembered from a prior encounter in Hong Kong … bony and fatty. However, I think I won some points with the owner who gave me a thumbs up. Next course was vegetable fried rice and vegetable vermicelli, along with some cabbage dish and egg omelette with onion. It was actually a very good meal.
With lunch done, Sarah grabbed a cab back to her hotel, leaving Myat and me to hike the half hour trip back to the starting point at the Asia Plaza Hotel. I was done in by the time we arrived. I gave Myat a tip and grabbed a cab for the trek back to the Savoy. After a lengthy delay in traffic and confusion about where the cabbie was dropping me off at (turns out we were across the street from my hotel and I could not see it through the traffic) I walked into the lovely air conditioned hotel.
The plan was to rest for an hour before heading back to Shwedagon for the sunset, but as luck would have it, the clouds rolled in. So … sunset would have to wait for the weekend when I would come back to Yangon. For now, a drink in the lovely bar was in order.