Afer four hours we arrived at Kalaw’s pretty little railway station that looks like a Swiss chalet. Kalaw, originally another British hill station high in cool mountains, is a popular place from which to trek into the surrounding hills.
It took fifteen hours to reach Thazi, and we arrived three and a half hours late. We wouldn’t have been so late if it had not been for the interminable stops the train made every few miles. The train ride had developed into a vegetable market. At each of the frequent stops a different vegetable specialty was on offer as well as food for the passengers. Once I was about to buy something in a small bag that looked interesting and edible but discovered that it was cut up carrots. Large amounts of vegetables were sold in commercial-sized bags and loads of them came aboard the train, and were stuffed in behind seats, in the aisle, wherever possible.
Time dragged on. The ride was wonderful but the stops became tedious and I could see no reason for them being so extended. We sat in Kalaw station for more than an hour and a half. It was half-past one in the morning when I finally climbed down from the train at Thazi. The station was a mess of people sleeping on straw mats or blankets on the cement platform floor under the tin roof. The passengers had had to dismount on the wrong side of the tracks and the rest of them nipped across the rails to the other side, but I could see the lights of an approaching train. I stood there feeling helpless. The tracks were deep and looked dangerous to cross in the dark. And my bag had to be carried.
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Eventually a station person came to ask where I wanted to go. I said I wanted to take the sleeper train to Yangon the next night but right then I wanted a taxi to a guesthouse. Another man joined us, then another and still more until there were six men standing in a half circle around me all telling me the train to Yangon left at nine in the morning and that I should wait there until then as there was no taxi. ‘No sleeper’, they shouted like a Greek chorus. I knew this was rubbish and yet one of these men was the on-duty station master. Another man told me that he was the police ‘Special, he said. Did that mean like the SS? He wore a faded T-shirt that said Ralph Lauren. I don’t think so.
Finally they all escorted me across the tracks. The station master took me to a room next to his office and, unlocking a big padlock to let me in, said I could sleep there. Inside were two small, beat-up vinyl couches and several rows of the ubiquitous train station issue red plastic chairs. Ralph Lauren sat himself down in one, cross-legged with his bare feet pointed away from me, as is polite. The rest joined him. Were they going to watch me all night? It was unnerving. But eventually they got the message and left me to it.
I slept semi-concertinaed on a short couch for an hour and then got up to answer the insistent demand of my bladder. I asked the station master where the toilet was and he pointed out the back the dark backyard of the station yard. I didn’t find the loo out there but I did find a horse and cart and its driver sleeping on the seat. Great was my joy. ‘Guesthouse? I shouted to wake him He nodded. I grabbed him and trotted him to my bag which he dutifully carried back to the cart. Collecting the rest of my things, I departed as fast as I could, thanking the station master as I went. He didn’t want me to go but nothing was going to keep me from a possible bed, not to mention a toilet.