Over the last few days, we've both come down with a second run (excuse the pun) of the skitters in as many weeks. We were half-dead of the norovirus as we left Berlin, and now, inevitably, we're sick again. Neil in particular has had a bad go of it, combined as it was with a cold, so to give him one more day to recover, we decided to take the train to Letpadan.
(To skip ahead and read more about the town of Letpadan, click here.)
It would take 135km out of our overall journey, save us another excruciatingly hard ride when we're not feeling up to it, and make our next day in the saddle to Gyobingauk shorter than planned.
Surprisingly, when we visited the train station again to inquire about train times, not only was there an information desk with knowledgable people, but there were official timetables for us to reference. A novelty that only exists because of the high volumes of tourism that this city sees every day.
Behold - somewhat reliable itineraries for the Yangon - Pyay and Yangon - Bagan lines:
As of April 2014, foreigners can pay for tickets in kyat, so there's no need to panic in case you don't have any U.S. dollars. In fact, so far this trip, we haven't had to pay in dollars at all. Another major change since the days of yore. Additionally, unless you specify the class you wish to sit in, they will automatically give you an upper class (read: more expensive at 1,900 kyat per person) ticket because of your "special status" as a tourist. Admittedly, the seats are a bit more comfortable (cushioned and reclining vs. hard wooden benches), but it's up to yourself whether you want to pay 40% more for it.
As with our last foray at the train station, plenty of people have come forward with a helping hand to sort us out. Our tandem (and consequently ourselves) has always garnered a lot of attention, and that's to be expected – let's face it, it's a pretty ridiculous contraption the like of which few have ever seen. That, coupled with the fact that everyone here is just plain nice, means we've just come to embrace the interest people have shown in what we're doing. All part of the fun.
Where things start to get uncomfortable is when people insist on helping despite our protestations that we can manage. With the best of intentions, they'll step in and take the bags from our hands, pack everything, and get it on the train.
And then turn to us and demand money for the service.
This happened twice in the span of an hour.
The first time was when we were tying the bike together for the journey. Jess started to bind everything together, and two men stepped in unbidden, took the ropes from her hands, and finished the job. Excellent job they did too, it must be said.
Then, the ticket official who had been sitting and observing the whole thing turned to us and said, "500 kyat."
We stood there, completely confused as to what exactly we were paying the 500 kyat for, before it dawned on us that they wanted money for something that had essentially been forced onto us. We stood there, both sides smiling awkwardly, until we finally handed the money over. In a country where saving face is everything, we didn't dare embarrass the group by refusing and making a scene.
The same thing occurred a few minutes later with a rather zealous porter who thought our bike was coolest thing since sliced bread and glued himself onto us. He scooped up our things without us asking and took us onto the platform, placing us by the carriage that we were assigned to. Again, something we would have been perfectly fine with doing ourselves and actually stated as such. But he ignored us and did it anyway.
Then, playing off what had happened earlier with our bike in the storage room, the porter had the audacity to ask us for money. Again, being mindful of the Save Face culture and understanding that this is just the done thing here, we handed over 500 kyat which he repeatedly refused to take until it turned into 1,000. Once he got what he wanted, the whining miraculously stopped and he disappeared.
Feeling the equivalent of a ton of bricks being lifted from our chests, we sighed in relief.
The money isn't what bothers us. All in all, both fees were a combined total of one euro. It's the fact that you cannot decline an offer for help because it will make that person look bad. But you also cannot decline their request for money because it will make that person look even worse, especially as they stand stubbornly until it is given. It's a Catch-22 of the worst kind.
Helping someone should mean doing so without the expectation of anything in return. This was not the same Burma that we had just ridden through - a country where people unconditionally go above and beyond the call of duty to help strangers. We hope these were isolated incidents, and not indicative of how tourists are going to be exploited as they come in ever greater numbers.
Time to get back to the countryside.