To be suddenly rendered illiterate is discombobulating. It is so very strange not to recognise numbers, even. It is a huge handicap, especially if you are trying to get something done.
We’d gone to the station, thinking this was where we’d be able to buy tickets – for the night train to Mandalay. The ticket office in Yangon didn’t look as if it had been functional for years. Someone official-looking wordlessly directed us over the railway line. On that side there was nothing that looked remotely like the kind of place you’d buy a ticket. Another official pointed us out of the station to a different building. I recalled the guidebook saying that the grand colonial railway offices where being converted into a hotel.
It was hot - high 30s. We negotiated cracked paving stones over odiferous storm drains, splats of red betel spit, razor wire protruding from buildings. We passed a tiny spirit house nailed to a banyan tree. Crows shouted their surprised Aggh, Agghs at us. Then down an alley I spotted a shed with corrugated iron for a roof. It looked like the kind of place cattle might be auctioned. It didn’t have many walls.
Inside there were rows of ticket counters. The place was strangely deserted. The wallessness of the building allowed the air to move a bit so it was - at least - a little cooler inside. Tree sparrows were enjoying the echoes that they could make. There was a big sign in English saying Complaint Centre; it alluded to a red post box. A couple of counters seemed to be manned. We approached one and the official asked whether we would travel Ordinary or Upper Class. We wanted Upper Class. He pointed behind us to another set of counters and told us we needed Number Two.
The counters were labelled in Myanmar only but we plumped for the second counter from the left. It was unmanned. S made the bold move of putting his head into the office to ask for help for a ticket on the night train. We needed counter six. The man there established that the night train was fully booked for the next couple of nights. I wondered whether this was the time to offer a bribe. I didn’t. We asked for a ticket to travel during the day but for that, we were assured, we needed to return to the railway station.
We doubted that was true. A brainfever bird joined the negotiations with its ou-ah call. It shouted increasingly manically so by about the eighth repetition it sounded as if the heat had completely fried its brain. It was early. We were not yet frazzled. We had time and explained we wanted to travel the day after tomorrow. We were directed to counter five. The man at counter five directed us to counter seven and someone else to counter eight.
This person needed to see our passports. We didn’t have them with us. Fortunately our hotel was close by and when we returned to counter eight with passports in hand, buying tickets suddenly became straightforward.
We procured two flimsy strips of paper costing 9500 Kyats each. The money went straight into the breast-pocket of the official’s shirt. This was less than the cost of going one stop on the London Underground but the journey was timetabled to take ten and a half hours. We noticed later that 384Ks of the ticket price was for life insurance.
Meanwhile there was lots to see in the ancient city of Yangon, first stop Shwedagon.
Go to my previous blog post for an account of the train trip. I also posted a blog on Mount Popa in May and one on Bagan in December 2015. Enjoy the vicarious journeys.