It was – if I remember correctly – in the late 1970s. I was in Mandalay and had seen it all: I had ‘conquered’ Mandalay Hill for the umpteenth time, paid a visit to Kywe Zun, where the water buffaloes pulled heavy teak logs out of the river and enjoyed the atmosphere on the Irrawaddy levee. Then I had an idea: why not take the train to Maymyo? I had heard so much about the zigzag drive up to the Hill Station that I wasn’t put off by the more than six hours journey time for the seventy kilometers.
So I boarded the local train to Maymyo. There are a lot of run-down railroad cars in Myanmar (especially on the branch lines, but not only there …), but this one was special! The floor and roof had huge holes through which you could either look at the track bed or the cloudy sky. The train left Mandalay station two hours late and chugged up the line. The passengers were mostly countryfolk who had apparently sold their goods at the market and were now driving back to Maymyo with well-filled purses. The train stopped quite often and at one station two men got on. They heaved a huge, apparently very heavy wooden box into the car. We had hardly left the station when one of them jumped on the box and, in a loud voice, gesticulated wildly to promote his merchandise: small brown bottles with a label showing a snake and presumably containing folk medicine. Which is especially popular with ‘Jungle Burmans’, as the villagers were called earlier. Be it millipedes and scorpions preserved in alcohol or products that you can buy on the way to the Golden Rock: deer penises, pangolin scales and heaven knows what else.
Much to the chagrin of the man on the box, the interest was limited: the people were tired, they had probably been on their feet since the early morning hours. The man increased his volume and speaking speed, but nothing changed: no one was interested in his goods! Then he gave his helper a sign. He opened a flap on the box that I hadn’t noticed before, reached inside – and pulled out a fat python, a good three meters long! I could not believe my eyes! He held it up with a grin and then he laid it on the pitted ground and the snake crawled away. People panicked!
They screamed, some women began to cry and many jumped on the bench or tried to escape from the car. Some of them probably thought that their last hour had struck. I think I was the only one who stayed calm, because I really couldn’t imagine the snake attacking me. I eyed the man disapprovingly, but he didn’t give a damn about the strange foreigner who wanted to ruin his business. The people begged him, please, please put the snake back in the box! With a smile he complied with the request and then sales went like clockwork.
I still remember the squeaky ride over the tight bends to this day. The highlight were the switchbacks: the train crawled uphill for a distance and stopped with screeching brakes. Many passengers sneaked away into the bushes to relieve themselves. Meanwhile a man sauntered to the nearest switch and threw the lever. The train jerked and went uphill in the opposite direction. Chased by passengers in billowing longyis who failed to finish their business on time. And, believe it or not, at some point we had reached the Shan Plateau. The train rumbled over the worn out tracks for what seemed like an endless time, but finally we arrived in Maymyo – three hours late. It was already dark and as soon as I got down an Indian was trotting towards me on the platform. He shook his head in the way that Indians do and asked in quite reasonable English where I would be staying. I replied: ‘Candacraig – where else? ‘. We haggled a bit about the price and then we left the station building.
A surprise awaited me in the station forecourt: he led me to a horse-drawn carriage that had apparently found its way here from Laramie. I was amazed. But it wasn’t the only one! Quite a number of these ancient vehicles were waiting for passengers there. I got in and soon found myself racing through the dimly lit streets.
The carriage was terribly uncomfortable. Every time we drove through a pothole, I hit my head. After what felt like almost an hour we reached our destination: the Candacraig Hotel! The hotel legend of Burma! The former ‘chummery’ of the Bombay-Burmah-Trading Company! My hero, the great George Orwell, had stayed here and who knows who else. And wasn’t that the legendary Mr. Bernard standing over there, well known from Paul Theroux’s book The Great Railway Bazaar? The man who had hosted Field Marshal Slim, the victor of the Battle of Burma, and his wife! Not to mention other Excellencies. He kindly made sure that I got a hot meal. Unfortunately all the rooms were occupied, so I had to make do with a makeshift cubicle that was built on the gallery. After dinner I sat with a few travelers, including a pretty woman who was very popular with the male guests. Not least with me. Unfortunately, she was steadfast against all advances. So I had no choice but to retreat into my cubicle and to imagine how wonderful it could have been …