36 Hours on the Burmese Death Train

March 29, 2009- Welcome to the worst travel experience of my entire life. I have spent the last 36 hours in bed in a room without electricity due to rolling blackouts, consuming nothing but cans of tepid orange Sunkist from the mini fridge. Pretty sure I have malaria, even though I have been on Doxycycline since before leaving the US. I’m lethargic, having cold sweats, and feel like I have a fever. It’ll surely be hours before my driver picks me up to take me to the train station and I remembered passing a wooden shack with a “pharmacy” sign on the way into town, so I gather up all of my strength and make the two mile walk to see if I can buy a thermometer. It costs $1.00 and I tuck it into my green quilted tote bag for safe keeping during the long trudge back to my hotel.

The thermometer doesn’t work. I don’t have the time or energy to walk another four miles to take it back. I try to get online to check WebMD for early symptoms of malaria, but the Internet is down again. I try to eat breakfast but can’t keep anything down. I’m definitely dying.

I schlep to the hotel office to see if any of the employees know when my driver is picking me up. The older of the two women behind the counter tell me they expect him at 9:00 a.m. since the train leaves at 10:00. I show her my itinerary from the travel agent which shows the train leaves at 8:00. She shrugs. I panic. “Can you possibly call someone to check? I can’t miss this train.” She shrugs again.

“No phone today. It’ll be OK.”

“No, seriously, I can’t miss this train. If I miss this train I’ll miss my flight home.”

She smiles and nods. She has no idea what I’m saying.

The driver finally comes and delivers me to the train station office. After the ticket agent yells at someone for nearly 20 minutes, he hands me my ticket and says the train now leaves at 11:30. No one seems to know what to do with the strange white girl, so they finally deposit me in the empty stationmaster’s office with my suitcase for the two hour wait. I watch the platform from the grimy window and hope I know what train is mine as they don’t seem to have any numbers on them.

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On the train. Because it has worked so well in the past, I employ the “look small and helpless” technique to encourage someone to help me find my seat. Looking helpless is easy; small, not so much. At 5’4″ tall, I tower over most people in this country. A tiny monk helps me put my suitcase on the overhead shelf. I’ll be on this train for at least 20 hours- my first ever long-distance train ride. And, um, I’m pretty sure I just saw a rat run across the aisle. Suddenly I’m questioning the wisdom of everyone in this country wearing sandals all the time.

At least the windows open so I can take pictures during the day.

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Correction- it was a mouse, not a rat. I know this because he is currently rummaging around in a bag of crackers belonging to the Indian man seated facing me. I point it out to him, but he seems completely unconcerned. I don’t know if that’s because he doesn’t care or he just doesn’t understand what I’m saying. Maybe it’s his mouse.

Now there are two mice. Apparently word is out that the nice Indian man is giving away free crackers. I’m not eating anything on this train.

We haven’t pulled out of the station yet, and Indian Guy’s rodent count is up to three. Now they’re crawling up on his seat with him and he doesn’t seem to mind that, either. I wonder how many more mice can fit in his bag before they start coming over here to stretch their legs.

(Final rodent count = 6)

It’s about 8 hours into the trip that I discover the “bathroom” on this train is a plastic bucket in the corner in full view of everyone else on the train. And that’s in the first class car. I wonder what the people in the cheap seats have to do. Actually I don’t wonder too hard. I’m definitely going to hold it for 20 hours. I’m probably dying anyway.

Somewhere in the middle of the night, the train pulls into a station (let’s be clear, they’re not real train stations- just sections of track where people gather to sell things like reused water bottles and fried crickets from baskets on top of their heads) and stops. I’m dozing, not really sleeping, but I notice the stop and wait for the train to start up again as it has at a dozen other stops.

It doesn’t.

After an hour or so of anxious glancing about by the passengers, a short man in wrinkled white shirt speedwalks through the train car, shouting something in Burmese. Everyone gets up and starts grabbing their things. I stay put. The train car begins to empty out. Two young monks seated across the aisle point at me and one asks, “Where you go?”

“Yangon,” I answer.

They laugh. “Yangoooon,” they mimic in unison, mocking my accent. One grabs my suitcase from the overhead shelf while the other beckons me to follow. “Change train!” he calls over his shoulder as they hop out the open door, not waiting for me to follow. They have my stuff, so I do.

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I’m absolutely terrified that I’ve made the wrong move, but I’m also starving, battling either the flu or malaria, and covered in flea (??) bites. Maybe they’re rodent bites, I don’t know. My legs are absolutely covered in little purple marks that weren’t there when I boarded the train. I don’t know what else to do, so I curl up and go to sleep.

Monday, March 30th at 4:30 p.m.- 29 hours into what was supposed to be a 20 hour train ride. My flight from Yangon to Singapore is leaving right now and obviously, I’m not on it. I know the next flight is in two days. I’m not going to cry on the train. I’m not.

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We finally pull into the station in Yangon 16 hours late. I’ve spent 36 hours on this rodent-infested train. I’m dying of thirst because the only water options were dirty, discarded bottles I watched little kids refill from garden hoses at the “stations” along the way. With the only bathroom option being an open bucket in the corner… no. Just no. I’m covered in heat rash and flea bites and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to drink enough water to not be thirsty again.

A driver from my travel agency is waiting for me on the platform. “Hello! You miss your flight!” He’s utterly gleeful. I may kill him.

“Train from up north always very late,” he chirps as he loads my suitcase into the back of his car. “Everybody miss flight all the time.” He’s practically skipping. “No more flights to Singapore for two days- you may be stuck in the airport all that time.” He never stops smiling.