copyright 1998, James Waldron Design, all rights reserved
I've been on the Yangon-Mandalay express train for fourteen hours and fifteen minutes. I suggest that a trip like this can, in fact, be taken with only two litres of water, seven polo mints, and a pack of Marlboro Lights as sustenance. I wouldn't suggest it as a matter of daily commuting, but when the alternatives are child-vendors selling chicken and rice that they've had in a basket for the same fourteen hours and fifteen minutes, I think a tourist could do worse than candy and cigarettes.
Welcome to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. The first thing you should know about Myanmar is that they accept only clean, crisp, recent-issue U.S. dollars as foreign currency exchange. This is a cash-business country where you are greeted at the airport by the government tourist office which immediately demands you exchange $300 into one of their official currencies, the Foreign Exchange Certificate, of FEC for short. They do this in order to get a hold of hard currency they can actually use in the rest of the world.
At least this country doesn't pretend to fool you, they want your money and they want it now. There are a couple ways to get around this requirement. Sometimes you can just saunter past the gatekeeper and pick up your luggage. I wasn't so lucky. There is, however another crafty method. If your money is not clean, crisp, or recently issued, they won't take it. Of the four one hundred dollar bills I showed them, two were faded and from 1990, and one had a tear in it. They decided I only needed to exchange one hundred.
Once you have your valued FEC's, you actually want to exchange them to the other local currency, the Kyat. All the local transactions are done in Kyat. Want some water, need a burger, can't live without that colorful backscratcher? Kyat gets you what you want. The official exchange rate from FEC to Kyat at the government office is 5.63. The street price is somewhat higher, 275. A little difference but if you want to help the government out a little, change your FEC's at the appropriate office.
Feeling happy about avoiding my $300 changeover I went about changing my not-so-crisp, and in fact a little stained one hundred dollar notes into Kyat on the street. Guess what, the locals don't like dirty money any better than the government.
See, a few weeks earlier my pal Robert and myself found ourselves deep in the middle of a cultural event called the Water Festival in Bangkok. Essentially the Water festival is an excuse to throw cups, pans, and buckets of water on anyone that moves. After a weekend involved in vehicle to vehicle speeding water fights through town, Robert loaned me all his spare U.S. currency in case I should find myself somewhere my Visa card didn't work. Like Burma. But Robert's money had not faired to well in his brown leather wallet during the weekend, having now attained rather large areas of brown leather coloring. Well, the Burmese like their money all one color: green.
Where this leaves me is riding a train in the dark, about to arrive in a strange town fifteen hours from my last known address, with only enough local currency for one night's stay. Well don't we like to live on the edge? I can't help but remember those cute American Express and Visa television commercials in the states reminding me, "don't leave home without it." Well I took their advice and I'm still screwed. Something tells me that choosing a hotel here just because it accepts Visa as payment will not get me the cheapest room in town.
Yesterday I did, in fact, pay for my rail ticket with my Visa card. It was a pleasant 56 minute transaction involving my passport, three superior managers, and, as far as I could tell, the local handwriting expert to help decide if my signature was actually my signature. Having assured themselves that it was, the Myanmar Tourist and Transit Authority gave me my $30 ticket upcountry.
The Yangon-Mandalay express train makes a straight shot north. Of course, no one explains to you that beginning about 25 miles north of Yangon in early May the desert begins. And it only takes about 90 minutes of the scheduled 15 hour trip for you to understand that for the next 13 hours, assuming of course you are on schedule, that you will be looking out your window at the desert. The desert is hot. the desert is bright, the desert is dull.
Perhaps I'm being too harsh. In fact, I don't think this is the desert year-round. There are the remnants of thousands of fields, sort of like rice paddies, with stubs of unrecognizable dead plant life in them. There are lots of Brahma cattle munching on the dead twigs, and kicking up large dust clouds in the process. Dust clouds the train passes through with great regularity.
In fact, the train creates it's own dust cloud as well. And because the favored form of air-conditioning on the train is opening the windows, I, and everyone else here, has been eating genuine Burmese late-summer desert dust for lunch. Perhaps that's why the cigarettes and Polo mints did such a great job with my hunger. They were well fortified with dust.
It could be worse. For my thirty dollars I get to sit in a pretty nice car in a roomy seat that reclines on demand, with a fine view on both sides. It looks like it was built in the 1950's. The price for Burmese for the same seat is only a little more than a dollar, but I feel happy knowing my extra fee is subsidizing the people on the rest of the fifteen cars. They are sitting on wooden benches, 90-100 people to a car, packed also with chickens, produce, luggage, and anything else they can shove in. A few of the locals like some more leg room, so they ride on the roof.
Kinda hot on the roof in the desert.
So, it looks like we will be late. Considering the only people I talked
to all day were boys and girls trying to sell me water from a jug on their
heads, I'm rather looking forward to bargaining with the touts at the station.
And I still have one last cigarette.