Friday, 7 March 2008

Round the World Five - Day 2 (Fri, 7 Mar)

View from the terrace outside my room at The Strand.

Itinerary: Arrive Bangkok 06:10 on 7th March, depart 08:15 on Thai flight TG303 for Yangon. At Yangon, transfer to Strand Hotel for one night. Yangon is 6.5 hours ahead of GMT.

They gave me the boarding pass for the Bangkok - Yangon leg at Heathrow, so on arrival at the new airport at Bangkok (open about one year) all I have to do is walk to the departure gate (which seems miles away, past every designer shop you've ever heard of). Then, I find the nearest Thai lounge to get a short break from the hubbub of the airport before we leave. We're bussed to our aircraft, a fairly old A300-600 and pushback five minutes late at 08:20and taxi to the end of a queue of about 10 aircraft waiting to leave. About an hour late, we take off and the cabin crew have just 75 minutes to do a pretty reasonable breakfast (my second breakfast) which they do with customary good humour.

We descend through the cloud layer and I get my first proper view of Myanmar: quite flat, dry-looking with the landscape criss-crossed with drainage ditches. When we're on finals, I glimpse a double-track railway and wayside station. I later discovered it's called Walbargi, but I didn't imagine at the time that I'd pass through it on the train a few hours later. On taxiing to the terminal, two air bridges are quickly attached so before long I've successfully negotiated both immigration and customs at Yangon (formerly Rangoon) and, an hour late, meet the 'Road to Mandalay' representative for transfer to Strand Hotel for one night.

My Bangkok Airport pictures.
My Yangon Airport pictures.

On the way to the hotel, Nan, the lady guide, describes the route, which I manage to follow on the tourist map she's given me.

The Strand was built in 1901 by the Sarkies Brothers, Aviet and Tigran, who were from Armenia. It now has 32 suites. The hotel is high-ceilinged and impressively restored and the staff are charming and very attentive.

My pictures of the Strand Hotel.

I've discovered that the railway I spotted coming in is part of a suburban circle line and that the main station is just under a mile from the hotel so, of course, I decide to travel on it, although a round train trip takes over two and a half hours. There was an amazing crush of people as I walked to the station (the population of Yangon is about 5 million) and street traders selling everything you can imagine. All the pavements have been repeatedly dug up and not repaired, so you need to be alert to avoid potentially serious injury. Outside most shopfronts, the pavements were obstructed by a variety of packaged Japanese standby power generators, some quite large, all wired in a very cavalier manner. This forewarned me that the mains electricity supply is perhaps not as reliable as in the West.

As far as my rail trip goes, I'll spare you the technical details (for now) but, suffice to say, I managed to buy the 1 US dollar 'Foreigner' ticket and made the journey on the busy train - sitting on the floor of an open doorway (the coaches have no doors) for the first half then moving to a wooden bench seat by an open window (the window frames have no glazing) for the rest of the journey. I learnt so much on the journey, whilst becoming the subject of friendly, amused curiosity amongst the locals. I did see a few other Westerners braving the circle line, but not many.

My pictures of the Circle Line.

By the time I'd walked back to the Strand, I was hot and tired but a bath and short sleep restored me sufficiently to make a foray to the nearby ferry landing stages on the river as it quickly dropped dark. After a couple of Coca Cola during the Friday 'Happy Hour' at the Strand, I tried the hotel internet, without success. In fact, I kept trying until about midnight when I finally gave up and went to sleep in my huge, comfortable bed.

My pictures of Yangon.