I might well be able to run faster than the circular train in Rangoon. It's a dawdling journey for the observational traveller rather than the sightsee-er, nothing at all to do with anticipating the destination (it arrives at where it departs from) and certainly not for those who need to be wired to the rest of the world. On this trip, abide old-world train travel pursuits like looking out the window, observing the peculiarities of one's fellow travellers, speculating about their lives.
All that, once the ticket has been acquired at the station.
The original railway station, at the same location in Rangoon, was destroyed by the British in 1943 as they escaped to India, probably so as the advancing Japanese couldn't then utilise it. The current building dates from 1954 and incorporates Burmese design features into its four turrets but is essentially rather utilitarian. It's hard to know what goes on in what seems like hundreds of tiny offices on other floors but the grey concrete caves of the passenger zones are suitably drab and grimy.
For the country's main railway station, it is a sleepy quiet white elephant. Perhaps we were there at the off-peak time but I normally expect to be feeling slightly vulnerable - maybe even a little buzzed - when I'm negotiating the ticket stalls and platforms of major train stations anywhere else in the world. Here, I could have swung a skipping rope or broken a bad dance move and would not have interfered with a single person.
But I remind myself that I am in the enigma that is Burma.
Directed to platform seven at the main ticket office (staffed by one person), a ticket for what is essentially a suburban train trip is procured by producing my passport and paying US$1. On my 'foreigner ticket' my nationality and passport number are recorded as well as the departure point (Rangoon) and arrival point (Rangoon), all in long-hand and all in triplicate, carbon paper between each copy. It sounds officious but the entire process took place within the very cordial atmosphere inside platfrom seven's ticket office rather than through the little circle cut in the glass of a barred window. Everyone was smiling; the staff wondering why we want to go on a silly little train trip through their boring suburbs and us both because we're perplexed at why we're actually in their office space and because of our anticipation of the train ride.
The journey takes us from scenes of town life to scenes of rural life - all industrious - and back again. In some ways in sharp contrast to Hanoi, what I see along these tracks is a people totally immersed in endeavour, seemingly unconscious of how they might be perceived, definitely unaffected by western trends and influences. There are looks of worry or uncertainty on their faces and the scuff marks and stains of their toil on their clothes. The men, with few exceptions, wear longyi, long sarongs wrapped and knotted at the waist. The women, again with few exceptions, and indeed some of the males, apply to their faces a cosmetic paste known as thanaka, made from ground bark. I don't see any hair gel, lipstick nor any skimpy clothing on the train or off it. Local interest in me, with my foreigner ticket, is minimal.
My interest in them is maximal.
At each station there is a procession of travelling salespeople vending goods and produce. They sell on the platforms or join the journey for a stop or two. The simplest are boys dealing in drinking water, who may carry an insulated plastic cooler and a communal tin cup. Or an ingenious contraption comprising a large block of ice sitting above a plastic-bag funnel; water is poured over the ice, presumably to cool it, before rushing through the funnel into a waiting cup or recycled plastic bottle to take away.
Perhaps the most numerous kind of vendor are those peddling kun-ya (or paan) and cigarettes. In lime sloshed plastic baskets, they bear all of the ingredients for betel nut chewers and single cigarettes for smokers. And in a country where the government is trying to discourage these practices, these vendors, of all the different ones aboard the train, are the most in demand. The pavements and walls of the platform stops are testament to this, with irregular red spit marks almost a design feature of the ground upon which the people walk.
The treasure vendor boards next. Elderly and crouched, he wearily lays down his load of gold and silver- painted receptacles. Made of clay, they have some kind of ceremonial use and even though I've sworn myself off 'dust collectors', I cannot resist. I choose five gold and five silver and he has no notion of taking advantage of a foreigner. He barely looked up at my face as he took an amount of money from my hand that a westerner may not stoop to pick up if they dropped it in the street. I have cheap treasure but the sentimental value is priceless.
Rattling towards morning tea time, naturally the focus of my observations edges to vendors with edibles. A lanky boy strides aboard with a swag of snack-sized portions of rice crackers, all intricately strung together with twine. He cuts off a couple of bags as the mandarin vendor moves along the carriage. As we eat, I note that the landscape outside the train is going from town to country, with primitive huts and expanses of green replacing the more built up zones of the Rangoon suburbs. Each train station is a market garden, large bales and smaller bundles of vegetables lined up to be hauled onto the train as it bends back into the city.
And the endeavour continues. The rural folk charged with bringing the produce to city markets have their heads down the whole way into town, plucking, clipping and bundling the leafy greens ready for sale. For me, the train carriage becomes a stage for a piece of agrarian performance art. I'm riveted to my hard wooden bench.
And as the train does it's final choo-choo back into Rangoon station, I know I've had a travel experience.