This is an email Elise wrote to describe the ride from Hsi-Paw to Mandalay. I hope you like it.
I’m still in Burma and had maybe the craziest car ride of my life, which is saying a lot because I have been in plenty of cars in China. Let me try to explain to you the mayhem that is Burma and the day I thought I was going to die (or be seriously injured).
The day started out just as any other. Had breakfast and then went to the train station to buy a ticket from this little village north of Mandalay called Hsipaw back to Mandalay.
Bought the ticket without a hitch and got on the train just fine. Got an upper class ticket for $6 which is about 500 times what locals pay, but whatever, it’s $6. The train car was probably an old used train from China or Singapore from the 70’s. It had dusty fans on the ceiling which had thick layers of cobwebs on it. My seat was broken so I was in a VERY fully reclined position the whole way. Also, Burma is maybe the dustiest place I have ever been in my life so everything was layered in this red, almost clay-like dust. Of course no air-con. No matter, as long as it ran and got me to my destination alive.
The train starts moving…no problem, all is fine. Then we move a little faster and the train starts rocking back and forth, to and fro; so much that I thought we were going to rock right off the track. Then the bumps came and I thought the train was going to jump the tracks and derail. All is fine now because we’re in the plains still and it’s relatively flat. But I there is a bridge coming up. One that goes over a gorge and is NARROW! We slow down, thankfully. This is really the only way that the train can get across without everyone dying. (I have pictures but image an old rickety train, going over a narrow, rail-less steel track that is high above this gorge.) At least 5 minutes later, we’re over and the worst of the train is over. Oh, not so bad you say? Wait til you see the pictures. Day doesn’t seem so death-defying? Well, the worst has yet to happen.
In Burma, a common mode of transportation is by pick-up. You just hail a pick up truck which has been fashioned with two benches in the back and a steel cage-like contraption over the back area which covers the benches and also provides more seating/cargo space up top. This is where the old Toyota pick-up comes in.
Simon and I decided to get a pick-up part way to Mandalay because we were in the highlands and after a town called Pyin U Lin, the train moves very slowly down the mountains. At the time, it seemed like the worst idea ever, but in hindsight (and without complications) it wasn’t so terrible. We got an old Toyota pick-up and sprung extra for seats with the driver since we had already been on a train for 7 hours and the back is BUMP-y. Well, who knew that the front just provides a clearer, more vivid picture of your death. We start along and the truck is curiously slow. Okay, no problem, that’ll be easier on the Burmese roads and coming down from the mountains. [Burmese roads are two lanes of traffic occupying 1 1/2 lanes of road. So basically, the bigger car has right of way and the smaller car or scooter pulls over til the bigger one passes. This is also while faster cars behind you are also passing you. (Sidenote: the Burmese, despite being a former British colony drive on the right side of the road. Also curiously, being a former British colony, the driver’s seat is also situated on the right side of the car. This makes for a fun time when trying to pass on the left and the driver’s view of oncoming traffic is blind.)]
Well, we soon figure out that the car is going slowly – to be more accurate, coasting down the mountain with the engine turned off – because the gears don’t really work and well, neither do the brakes. So if we go too fast, then we’ll get out of control. And down windy, mountain roads, it’s not that fun. By the way, it’s dark now and since the engine’s not on, neither are the headlights. You recall that there are only 1 1/2 lanes of traffic for both directions right?! So when a speeding truck is coming up the mountain, you PRAY that the driver sees you.
Well after two hours of this and narrowly missing many a scooter, bicyclist and pedestrian (my driver, a very nice Burmese man) turns to me after trying to jam the truck into 3rd gear and grins. He grins at me with his rows of crooked, gnarly teeth, stained red from chewing betel nut, points to the truck and says, “No good” and laughs. Quite reassuring. Especially since we’re now in Mandalay and there are no traffic lights because there is no power (again, very common to have constant power outages) and chaos everywhere.
I hope I conveyed a tenth of the fear I felt during this ride. Burma is so many things…many of which I have not yet decided how to describe. Once I figure it out, I’ll let you know.