When you’re the only foreigner in town

The lone traveler

My Burmese journey continued on a rainy late afternoon at Yangon Railway station. I was heading southeast on an overnight train to the sleepy but tropical town of Mawlamyine. First shock as I stepped onto the train: no sleeper booths! My ‘Upper Class’ tickets only got me a slighty reclinable non-AC seat. I did not look forward to the next 11 hours.

Once settled in, a group of kids came up to me to sell snacks and beverages. After declining for about 20 minutes, I gave up and bought some water from one of the girls. One of the other girls, about 10 years old, was quite disappointed by my choice of vendor and gave me a slight slap on my cheek. The other kids freezed and looked at her in shock. A local adult who had witnessed the scene ran up to us and started yelling at the girl. The following ten minutes took me by surprise. As time went by, more and more people entered our carriage to join the discussion. Several railway employees came up to me and apologized for the misbehavior. By now, the little girl was close to tears, she was forced to apologize as well and I assured her that I was fine. As the train was about to depart, the girl was carried out of the station. I can only imagine what happened to her.

This is a good example of Myanmar’s effort to shape its tourism industry. Violence or crime against foreigners are particularly frowned upon and offenders are punished harshly. Huge efforts are made to brand the country as Asia’s most innocent, safest and welcoming nation. However, I’m not sure if this strategy is appreciated by the majority of the Burmese citizens.

After the most strenous overnight journey of my life (think mosquitos, bright lights, bumpy tracks and ear-shattering noise), the train rattled into Myanmar’s fourth biggest city at around 6AM. Mawlamyine was in the middle of the rainy season and its tropical hills and golden pagodas started to appear as the sun rose.

After a few hours of sleep I decided to explore the town by foot. It didn’t take me long to realize that the people here were not yet used to spot a foreigner wandering around. Hence, finding a lunch spot with English menu was quite a challenge. By early afternoon, I had still not seen any other foreigners. I visited the local market and turned out to be the main attraction: a vendor called his whole family for a group shot with me as I purchased a can of Coke.

After three months in Asia, this was the first time I really felt off the beaten track, alone among locals…

A visit to Mawlamyine sets you back in time. You can cross livestock in narrow side alleys, hitch a ride in ancient trucks, pass by abandonned riverside warehouses and explore wild jungle temples. If you choose to go here, you will walk into the wild.

Travel Advice

Sleep: Sandalwood Hotel

Eat: Ykko

Next: A weird encounter in Bago


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