Seventeen hours on a train is a very long time. So is 20. When I took the 24 hour trip to Lhasa a few years ago, I documented what I did during that ride. What I did not document though, was the amount of thoughts that went through my head. Ever wonder what goes through someone’s head when they are on public transport for an insane amount of hours? Well I can tell you.
The overnight train from Yangon to Bagan is supposed to be 17 hours, it ended up being 20 hours.
I knew I had to do this trip before I even finished reading this post that introduced it to me. Oh man. This looks FANTASTIC. The whole idea of your commute being this insane experience you would never forget. The second I finished reading that post, I had to email the author to tell her about the irony of stumbling across it on the same day I read a post on a Las Vegas message board where someone had cancelled a reservation for a Strip hotel because she saw photos online where you could see the toilet when you opened the bathroom door. It was right out there and not tucked behind a wall. The horror!
I booked a ticket going from Yangon to Bagan. I knew that the sleeper car is a separate car that is only attached if they sell tickets for it. I ran the risk of being trapped in here with other people. It is not internally connected to the other cars on the train. You cannot walk through to get to anywhere. How many beds had to sell to attach the car? The booking agent I used stated on their website that if you wanted to guarantee a sleeper car would be attached, you could book all four beds for yourself. I am not sure why I did not do this. But I didn’t. And then spent time wondering who would be in the car with me. I was hoping to not spend the entire 17 hours being paid attention to for being a Westerner.
I arrived at the train station and took the obligatory photo of the “Warmly Welcome & Take Care of Tourists” sign.
I got my handwritten train ticket fixed as my passport number was wrong on it.
I waited outside until it was time to board. I got approached a few times by local strangers who let me know what track I had to go to. Warmly take care of tourists indeed.
Then I got to the train. I had held out hopes that I would have the entire car to myself, even though I knew that was not likely. And I boarded. And there they were. A couple, from Florida. Who would not be gawking me during the entire ride. Yes, I would have preferred to be alone and was slightly disappointed at the sight of people. But as it turned out, they ended up improving my trip with their existence. Which coming from me, is a huge deal.
I never did find out the female half of the couple’s name. I wish I had. I also wish we had stayed in touch. She was so funny and so much like me in terms of travel. The whole “enjoy yourself without giving a fuck about anything” type of person. Being able to travel to places that most people would never see, which requires a lot of research, while using dry shampoo the entire time because she could not remember if it was Jordan or Myanmar where women with wet hair were considered easy. Labeling me “Stephanie” after her best friend, after I saw a bunch of little boys flashing their penises at me as we pulled into a station. Stephanie as it seems, has a knack for seeing penises when they travel. I loved how she used these situations as hysterical anecdotes, rather than reasons to stay away. Just like me.
For the duration of this post, I am going to call her “Bestie” as I wish she were mine. The male half of the couple, I believe was named Bryce. I could be wrong about that.
The three of us had all hoped the fourth bunk would be empty and we got our wish. A train worker came in and maybe we ordered food, maybe we didn’t. We honestly did not understand what was going on. And all three of us did not care because no matter what happened, we were so excited to be on a train trip of a lifetime.
They asked me how I came to be here. I told them about the post I had read about it that meant I just had to do this. They had decided to go after seeing Anthony Bourdain take this train ride. At that point in time, I had not seen that episode. I have since. It is a bit misleading as he spends time in the main car as well as the sleeper car.
Our car had four seats, which folded out into bottom bunks and then two top bunks. And then there was the the toilet.
There was a light in the bathroom ceiling that was dripping water. Or something wet anyway.
The train door kept opening and slamming back and forth. The train windows opened completely, without screens. So you were alive, breathing in the real life that is Myanmar.
As we began pulling out of the train station, I got so excited to be here, to be spending hours looking out a window at beautiful scenery.
Every stop we made, people would approach us trying to sell us stuff. At one stop, a young kid tried handing us something green. Me and Bestie gasped in horror as Bryce took it and put it in his mouth. “What is that?” “I don’t know, it tastes like an apple but it isn’t an apple.”
Every train station had people waiting to sell you stuff. It wasn’t even aggressive. It was kind of nice, especially since we were trapped in our car and couldn’t purchase anything on board if need be.
We discovered shortly into the trip that Bryce and I were smokers. This was a delightful surprise. We could both smoke while hanging out the window.
At some point, at some stop, I could never tell you which stop since we didn’t have any announcements, and even if we did, I probably wouldn’t recognize the name of any stop, the train worker came and delivered us food through the open window. We didn’t get utensils. Bestie offered to share with me the fork she packed from home. You know, because we are besties now.
The sun starting to set outside my window:
One of my favorite parts of this ride is the FREEEEEEEEEEEDOM feeling I had. We were all discussing what we had read about travel to Myanmar vs. what our actual experience was. One huge misconception is that you still need to carry brand new, pristine, super perfect $100 bills with you. Nope, ATM’s are common now. We all had a stash of the world’s most perfect condition $100 bills with us just in case.
I get asked so often about safety when traveling. Safety is not the same as comfort. You are comfortable in your home setting. But in your home town, would you be safe admitting to complete strangers that you have multiple crisp $100 bills on you? In a train car that doesn’t connect to any other car? Where the stops are hours and hours apart? Where in theory, two of us could murder the third, throw the body out of the window, and no one would ever know? But here, here you are safe.
The train chugged on through the night. It was just as bumpy as we expected. We were being tossed around and it was hysterical. For the bigger bumps, the toilet seat would slam, the bathroom door would open, as would the train door. BANG. BANG. BANG. Until Bryce would go and shut it every time.
It just so happened that the supermoon was tonight. Here we are on this gorgeous train ride, trip of a lifetime, beautiful air flowing into our car, at peak hoodie-weather temperature, and a supermoon outside the window.
Once the darkness kicked in, I put my headphones on. Pearl Jam’s “Sirens” on repeat. I think most of my friends would tell you I love Pearl Jam. But what I really love is the 1992 version of Eddie Vedder. I love closing my eyes with this song on repeat and letting his voice calm me. As the train moves on, I go into deep thought mode. No block of Eddie Vedder’s voice would be complete without being paired with memories from 1992. And during this round, it hits me hard.
I begin like normal. Eddie Vedder, Seattle. The time I had an opportunity to move to Seattle and did not take it. The guy I did not move with. Meeting that guy. On a train, very unlike the one I am currently on. It was Virginia and I. We were coming home from a hardcore show, engrossed in our own little world, before we noticed the two guys in the seat across the aisle from us were playing the alphabet game. That’s OUR game. We played it countless times as we spent the bulk of our lives traveling hours to hardcore shows.
One of us commented about this to one of them, and they told us that they thought it was weird that we had been quoting Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure since they had watched that before leaving for the show. Because of course, one of them was at the same show we had been at.
We talk for the rest of the ride. Both Virginia and I silently aware that they are perfect for us. One with long hair for me, one with a shaved head for her.
When we reach the end of the line, we say goodbye without ever exchanging even names. I am sure Bestie would not be surprised had I told her this story.
Virginia and I talked about these two for awhile after, making fun of ourselves for being so socially awkward, that here we are, perfect guys. And here we are, didn’t even ask their names.
A couple of months later, we had the opportunity to do it all over again. This time they had a plan. They got us a ride home from the train station. Four 20-somethings living on Long Island, not a driver’s license to be had. Virginia got dropped off first. As soon as she was out of the car, my guy asked me if she was single. Her guy asked me for my phone number. Sigh.
We worked it out and spent some time in each others’ lives. I am now in 2017, thinking back to that night we met and becoming completely fixated on how on that one night on a train back in 1992, four people crossed paths and had the same thoughts as the others. We all had the same lives as each other. And for a brief moment in time, we shared it with each other.
Now I am in 2017, I am sitting here on a train in the middle of Myanmar, without any person on Earth who could win a million dollars by pinpointing my exact location. Any one of us could have been here. We all left off on that Spring night in 1992 exactly the same. But I am the one who made it here.
And as I am laying in a bed on a train in the middle of nowhere, with the cool, fresh air hitting my face, I am over aware that Virginia died ten months ago.
I don’t talk too much about Virginia. Although we were side by side approximately 3000 hours a year, those years were forever ago. This was entirely my fault. This is what is going through my head as I lay in bed on a bumpy train going through Myanmar. I am self analyzing myself in regards to my relationship with someone who will never get to see what I am seeing. I regret that my lack of maturity caused the end of our friendship. That instead of recognizing a pure heart, I mistook her kindness for weakness. All those years listening to Anthrax on my headphones, mentally finger pointing at “I’M NOT AFRAID, NOTHING TOUCHES ME, I’M A WALKING RAZOR BLADE” and it never once occurred to me that I actually was afraid. Of everything.
Years after our falling out, we became friendly again. I cannot rightfully call us friends in the end, and that is on me. It is because of me that I don’t talk about her. We had so many mutual friends who were her actual friend. I am not comfortable expressing my grief aloud as I have friends who actually stayed in her life when I chose to leave it. Those are the people who’s grief I would be disrespecting as they mourn a friendship they never wanted to lose, whereas I walked away from it.
But here? On a train in the middle of Nowhere, Myanmar? With it bumps and bruises and creaks and doors slamming, I am allowed to have any thought I wish to. I am allowed to think about my past. To criticize myself. To trace an imaginary path of what I would have done if I had been able to see the future. I am allowed to wonder why is it that every time Virginia first crosses my mind, the first memory is of us on the Long Island Railroad. Her left foot is on the ground, her right leg it straight up on a wall. Some random man asked her how she could sit like that. She answered “I am bendy.” Why is this the first thought that comes through my head every time her name is mentioned? This is always instantly followed by years of memories. But why is that always the first?
I am thrown out of my reverie by an extremely violent bump in the train. I sit up and realize I am freezing. One of my windows is stuck open. Bryce sees me struggling and tries to close it for me. He cannot get it closed either. He offers me his sleeping bag, brand new, never used. At first I refuse. But he convinces me it is okay. Him and Bestie are going to share hers. I accept it. Because on this train, in the middle of Nowhere Myanmar, no one knows I am full of self loathing upon reflection of a failed friendship with someone who deserves to be alive more than I do. No one here is aware I am undeserving of kindness from a stranger.
As the warmth hits me, I fall asleep. The next thing I know, it is morning. The sun is rising.
The train worker delivers us breakfast through the open window. This begins a story about eggs. Bestie not only has chickens, she is a degenerate chicken raffle winner. She keeps entering chicken raffles, she keeps winning chickens.
The entire world is out there doing their thing, as we are alone in this exact spot where only we know where we are. And we have no idea where we are. We all agreed that the next time we took this train, we would buy all four seats. Not together. Bestie and Bryce alone, and me all alone. While we lucked out with having each other, I feel being completely alone in that train car would cause an even deeper round of self realization and I would have plenty of hours leftover to recover before having to face the world again.
This is what train stations look like in this area of the world.
I believe this is a house and a restaurant, because of the little plastic chairs. Note the cows on the left side of the photo.
The train was supposed to reach Bagan at 9:30. It did not. But we did not know where we were how late we were running, or how we would know when we reached Bagan. So we just sat ready to go, taking photos.
Once we reached Bagan, we were hurried off the train. I got into a taxi, Bestie and Bryce got into a taxi and we never saw each other again. There are so many lessons in life that I am incapable of learning.
When I got to my hotel, the first thing I did was shower. The second thing I did was book a fancy hotel in Las Vegas for a trip the following month. The third thing i did was go see a million temples. But that’s a story for another day.
For more information on the trains in Myanmar, click here.