This story begins on a train.
A train that, after all things considered, would be deemed unsuitable for travel by American standards and promptly be shut down
A train that would be considered “okay” in 1922.
A train filled with wooden seats partially scratched to oblivion by millions of passengers from what I imagine it has gathered over its illustrious 10,000 year career.
This train is really, really old.
And yet it moves.
Up the gracefully ancient Burmese hills from Mandalay to the central Shan State which is home to the small town of Hsipaw (See-Poe).
PICTURED: Gracefully ancient hills
But back to the train.
This was maybe the 2nd train I had ever been on. The other that has had the esteemed honor of having me on it, was the Dollywood express, so needless to say, this trip was a bit more strenuous and less Dolly.
PICTURED: Gracefully ancient hills
We left the Mandalay station at 4 a.m. The station was alive with several friendly workers and numerous Burmese families and farmers abound with fruit and flowers, ready to make their way back to their small villages, escaping the unusually blockish grid that is Mandalay.
Blocks on blocks on blocks
As the train made its half-confident/half-“oh my God, let’s see how far I get” way through Mandalay, several smells entered the train car. The first that I noticed was of the car itself. It was unique to the situation, but not all together unfamiliar to my senses. It was earthy and sweet. Something akin to a smell that you find in your neighbor’s tool shed, or an attic in the fall that hasn’t seen movement in quite a long time. It wasn’t an overwhelming smell, but persistent none-the-less.
The second smell to embrace my senses was that of busy Mandalay that snuck in through the windows. Outside, people were already awake and off tending to various responsibilities. The smell of fire invaded the train sporadically as wives and workers alike were preparing to start cooking for the day. Diesel (along with the sound of screeching brakes) would also occasionally enter the cabin as giant trucks carrying anything from PVC Pipes to water jugs would make their way through Mandalay more than likely on their way to China.
So as I became more accustomed to these smells, I began to notice all of the noises of the train itself. The deep, resounding “clunks” of the train were strangely pleasing. It was so rhythmic. And ferocious! I don’t feel that I’ve ever used the word “clunk” more appropriately than I am now. I’m talking “clunks” that the Iron Giant would be making as it would be trying to get comfortable on some sort of giant train made for the Iron Giant.
Artist’s rendering of a Burmese train
The sound of this train was commanding. You couldn’t ignore it. It made itself known. As if the train was trying to say, “Like seriously, I know what I’m doing. I’ve been going up this mountain for 20,000 years, quit whining.”
Not wholly inaccurate portrayal
At this point, as my senses are trying to cope with all the weird imagery that’s popping into my head (i.e. Iron Giant and evil Thomas the Train) reality comes rushing back in the form of icy, cold water.
We are currently in Myanmar during the Burmese New Year (Thingyan). If you’re familiar with the Thai New Year (Songkran) and the way it’s celebrated than you have come to an understanding on what Thingyan basically is.
*Insert picture of cultural sensitivity*
Not even going to try to find a picture depicting this, because the asterisked command to find one, to me, is way too funny on its own.
The way that Thingyan and Songkran are celebrated is by dumping ridiculous amounts of water on other people in the hopes that they will in turn throw ridiculous amounts of water on you as well. It’s enormous fun that I will get to later.
However, it seems that the Burmese want to get started as soon as possible, because water began flying into the train through the windows at Four. In. The. Stupid. Morning.
From that point forward, our entire purposes.
Our God given rights as human beings.
The only thing we cared about.
Was making sure we were aware enough and quick enough to throw our windows down before getting soaked by devilishly smart and witty children who were waiting at EVERY SINGLE TRAIN STATION that we stopped at.
So, 3 shirts, 2 ruined books, and 12 hours later, we arrive in Hispaw.
A gorgeously succinct and small town. The tallest “skyscraper” in town is a 7 floor hotel being erected out on the edge of town. The town’s architecture is brilliant. A fantastic juxtaposition of wooden shacks held up by 2x4’s and bamboo poles and small, archaic colonial era houses that have not seen a good day the better part of a century.
These little colonial era houses were wonderfully set up. Usually always open air. No air-conditioning, just (occasionally) small fans and a breeze (occasionally) that would rush in from the street.
Hsipaw Day 2: The Man, The Truck, The Stage
*PARENTAL DISCLAIMER* If you happen to be any of the following:
1) My parents
I recommend not reading any further, but if you do, God Bless and forgive these trespasses.
The gracious and friendly staff at the guesthouse where we were staying supplied us with a map of Hsipaw on the first day; highlighting all of the popular “must-sees” of Hsipaw. One of these places was a little restaurant called Mrs. Popcorn’s out on the outskirts of the town. So, we decided to make the trek out there.
I would really love to describe the quaintness of this little hole in the wall. Describe the dirt floors and the rickety ceiling. The warm smile of Mrs. Popcorn and the indescribably amazing food.
I would love to do that, but I will be damned if Mrs. Popcorn’s even exists or ever did exist.
I can describe to you, however, how lost we got as we continued to travel north out of Hsipaw and into the countryside filled with nothing but farmland.
At this point, we had been walking for over 2 hours, and we were getting a bit disheartened, so we finally decided to turn around and head back defeated with our heads hanging low.
And then they showed up.
Like greasy, Burmese knights to not only rescue us in that moment, but to save our evening.
In Burma, there are these little things of what I think have tobacco in them called Betal Leaves. They are these tiny leaves wrapped around some sort of tobacco or plant that is bright red. You chew on them, as you do chewing gum or chewing tobacco back in the states, but the bright red centers leave your entire mouth blood red and your teeth stained permanently.
And lo and behold these two “knights” drive up right next to us with their heads hanging out of the window smiling ear to ear with their bright red Betal Leaved mouths.
“MINGALABAR DAI WII!!!” the skinnier one yells as he throws water on us.
Bewildered and now freezing, we stand there and look at them with what I’m convinced is the purest amount of surprise that they have ever seen.
The skinnier one jumps out of the truck and asks plainly, “You go festival?” implying that we must be on our way to some New Year Party out in the country.
Dumbly we respond, “No, Hsipaw!” and the driver looks contemplatively out into the countryside, then turns his head back to us, with that blood red smile of his, points to us and says “I take you to festival, then village, then Hsipaw. 45 minutes. Okay?”
Oh dear reader, you will not believe what I did next.
The child of Jeannie Jones.
The King of Cautious.
The Sultan of Safety.
The Prince of “Eh, I don’t know, guys, I’m probably just gonna go sit over here”
I looked over to Emily and Aisha, my cohorts, and their devilish grins shot right back at me.
And, God help me, I hopped right into that truck with my two friends and these two unknown Burmese men and shot across the Burmese mountain side in the total opposite direction of where I knew a comfortable bed was and where two strange Burmese men were not.
So we try to have a conversation with these 2 guys.
I find out a few things:
1) The driver’s name is Nigaro (I’m completely convinced that is not even close to his real name)
2) The second guy’s name is Ratunadok *NOTE: I don’t know Burmese*
3) And the second guy is apparently a general in the army (at this point, I have no idea if that’s even the least bit true)
4) They’re hilarious, fun, and friendly.
So, after driving for 15 minutes we arrive at this small stage with blaring music, and about 50 people. There were middle-aged guys dancing wildly, freely, and most importantly, drunkenly in front of this stage. There were middle-aged women watching both endearingly and judgingly from the sidelines. And there were about 15 young Burmese girls in traditional Burmese dress on stage dancing to Korean and Burmese pop music. (If I’ve learned anything in my time in Southeast Asia, it’s what Korean pop music sounds like).
So, we jump out of the truck, and immediately we are rushed to the stage and they all start yelling “DISCO!! DISCO!! DISCO!!” Which is Burmese-English for, “GET ON THAT STAGE AND DANCE!!!!!!”
So all three of us awkwardly get on the stage and look out at the crowd. Roughly 20 drunk dudes are out in the audience dancing their drunk asses off.
So we dance.
It probably doesn’t take too much insight into my life to figure out that I don’t dance.
I have trouble running sometimes.
But I dance.
IMPORTANT CORRECTION: I rhythmically flail and sporadically jump around for a bit.
The crowd goes wild.
I’m a star.
Then the driver and the “general” run up on stage and start dancing with us. Then 3 or 4 more Burmese bystanders join in the fun. So now this stage is crowded with all of these people and then I feel it.
All of this American dance culture that I’ve steadily and forcibly repressed over several years and slowly making its way to my feet and hands.
I am slowly evolving into the estranged, sad dance child of Shakira, Fergie, and Snooki.
And I’m loving it.
I look out to the mob of drunken, sweaty Burmese dudes.
They’re eating it up, so I start clapping.
They clap along with me.
And start yelling victoriously and in celebration, so I run forward and they start shaking my hand and yelling “Hello!” “Thank You” and “Happy New Year” at me.
So after 500 dance minutes (I believe that converts to 8 minutes real time), I get off the stage and people crowd around me with drinks. All sorts of drinks. There’s iced coffee, fruit punch, and beer.
This also indicated an important and total shift in my understanding of what this thing really was.
My “general” friend runs over to me with a beer in hand and points to the label: “For military personnel only”.
I look around.
On the edge of the crowd there are a bunch of dudes in military uniforms and the entire stage is set up in front of a road that leads down to a military base.
Then I look at my “general” friend and start to realize that he is probably an actual general, no “” needed.
Almost. Just less mustache, less hat, and less everything else that is on this man's person.
Then it hits me: My friends and I just crashed some Burmese military party.
Of course, as this revelation comes over me, our driver and general friend have rounded us up back into the cab of the truck.
So, we race off again across the countryside to the next village over where we are to drop off the general, who by this point, I am not making this up dear reader, brings out his pistol and hands it to me.
"I'm a general!" He shouts into my ear as I hold on flimsy and awkwardly to his gun.
Thanks to the tiny amount of knowledge I know about guns, it wasn't loaded because the clip was missing, and thankfully (?) the general reminds me that guns can have bullets in the chamber, so he points the gun out the window and pulls the trigger to show that the gun was completely empty.
As soon as all of the hairs that were standing straight up on my body had decided, reluctantly, to lay back down, I regained some composure and enjoyed the rest of the drive.
We got to the village, said our goodbyes to the general, and made our way back to Hsipaw.
The three of us (kind of) had a conversation with our driver.
We talked about Burmese politics and Aung Sun Su Kyi, who is considered the mother of modern Burma, pretty much. He spoke with intense passion about her, as if she was his own mother. He loved Burma deeply. And I think Emily, Aisha, and I did too. In a quick, whirlwind of a romance, the three of us began to fall in love with Burma (particularly Hsipaw).
If you have lasted this far, God bless you. I have undoubtedly taken up too much of your time, but here are some parting words uttered by our driver concerning America that will hopefully make you laugh and might even be just summaries for your understanding of American politics as well:
"Clinton had economy,
Obama is "okay,"
but I LOVE Abraham Lincoln!"