Tag Archives: train

INDONESIA – Arrival and impressions

Da-da da-da do da-da do da-da, said I love your smile…

(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)

“What do you mean you don’t have a return ticket?” the man said with exaggerated surprise in his voice.

So I might have read that one of the Indonesian visa-on-arrival stipulations is that you must have a return flight. However, I had also read this about other countries and we hadn’t, thus far, encountered any problems.

The truth was that didn’t know where we were going to fly to next, and we also wanted to see if we liked the country before deciding exactly how long we would stay. That thing about honesty being the best policy did us no good here.

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“But you need a return flight.”

“Unfortunately we don’t have one.”

It was a game of ping pong that was likely to continue until suspended by the slip of a note being pushed across the table. A note with dollar signs on it. We had been warned by some other tourists that Indonesia was about as corrupt as it gets, only to have this confirmed by a German sat next to us in the waiting room for people pulled aside at border control.

He didn’t have a ticket, because he wanted to take a boat to Singapore – one that you had to book in Indonesia. As he had been in Indonesia before, he knew the drill and was ready with a little bribery money. Appearing from his turn in the office, he signalled we would be ok if we did the same. The thing was, we didn’t have any money on us. Absolutely nada.

As the conversation with the official progressed in a loop-de-loop, Nick started to utter something about an ATM. I stopped him with a hand on his arm, sensing a hesitation in the official.

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“Ok, I make an exception.”

As soon as he knew we had no money on our person, he obviously realised the futility in keeping us there. Sometimes having no money does pay.

So we had got through our first experience of bribery unscathed, but what would the rest of the country hold, we wondered. The three of us hopped in a taxi come mini bus for roughly 2 quid each and headed to Medan. There we would stay for the night before pressing on to Bukit Lawang in the hope of seeing orangutans.

The number 64 bus from our guesthouse in the Masjid Raya area to the Penang Baris bus station was just as cheap at about 35p each, and we marvelled at the ease of it. But nothing lasts forever, as they say…

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As we got off the local bus that took us to the bus station, we were immediately surrounded by a group trying to take our bags and load them aboard their mini van.

“How much?”

Not a popular question with these people. After we bartered them down to half what they quoted us, but still 2 and a half times the local price, they demanded that we pay the driver. It seemed that the 5 of them, though they had done nothing to get our business, wanted their commission. We had read that the 3 hour journey to Bukit Lawang should cost no more than a pound each. We also read that you should, under no circumstances, pay before you arrive. Their shifty demeanour and unfriendly demands did nothing to gain our trust. Sticking to our guns, refusal to pay upfront ended with us disembarking the bus and 5 touts and one driver with empty pockets.

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Five minutes later we boarded a different bus, and a similar debate ensued, only this time we had already been driving for 10 minutes. At this stage, Nick was getting quite irrate, determined that the driver know we knew the real price and that we had been warned to only pay on arrival. Suddenly the van stopped and our door opened. We were about to be thrown off again. But Nick was not backing down. Before I knew it, he was out of the van and squaring up to the driver. Fearing a game of fisticuffs was about to ensue, it was time to intervene.

“Right, we’ll pay you the 50,000R each (£2.50) but we will only pay when we arrive. Yes or no?”

The driver mumbled something.

“YES OR NO?!” I barked.

I got a reluctant “yes” before the two boys’ complaints subsided and we continued in silence. It wasn’t a great start to the day, but we had been warned that we might come against some hostility. Fortunately, this was our first…and last…negative experience of the place. Okay, bar the beyond basic room we stayed in, furnished only with a bed and a couple of cockroaches.

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The thing that struck us most was not these experiences, but the local people. Arriving in a Muslim country, I had done my best to be mindful of this and had covered my arms and legs, but I was still unsure how we would be received. The answer to that was in the Mexican wave of smiles that burst into life as we passed by, punctuated by the odd wave or thumbs up. Walking around the streets of Medan on our one night there, we ended up in a local cafe serving a sweet nutty sauce that you dip fruit in. We laughed and joked as we tried to converse. Everybody in that street cafe was warm and genuine.

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Moving on to find something savoury to eat, we were stopped by a group of twenty somethings, eager to practise English and tell us about their country. Kids smiled and giggled when you looked at them, and we wondered how few tourists must go through there that we were still such a novelty. Or maybe, Medan being a big and ugly city, tourists just didn’t wander about too much. Either way, we both felt strongly reminded of our beloved India and in this way, quickly connected to this new land.

Notes for tourists:

From the airport to Medan, trains are expensive (about 100,000r, which is £5 or 7.50 USD). We paid 120,000r (£6 or 9 USD) for a taxi between 3 of us, but we had to barter down from 150,000r. The journey takes about 45mins to an hour.

Accommodation is VERY basic in town. Cold Water is the norm, some rooms don’t have a shower, toilets are bucket flush, you might get a cockroach. BUT, they are super cheap. The cheapest ones are right by the mosque, which looks pretty, but believe me, it’s LOUD. At 5.30 in the morning when the call to prayer starts, you definitely know about it. We paid 700,000r for a double room (£3.50 or 4.75 USD). Get a fan – it’s HOT! The one plus was that the mattress was actually soft – a bonus after Nepal, Myanmar and Thailand! Our guesthouse was called Residence.

Turn left out of the front of the guesthouse and walk to the end of the road. When you meet the main road, cross to the other side and wait for the number 64 mini van going to Pinang Baris bus station. Give the driver money at the end (as do all the locals). We paid 7,500 each (about 35p or 50 cent).

Minivans from Pinang Baris to Bukit Lawang are privately owned, so you will need to barter. We read that you should only pay 20,000 each, but we paid 50,000r (£2.50 or 3.75 USD). It’s more than twice what the locals would pay, but we do earn more money, so I think that’s a fair price. I would reiterate what we read, which is not to pay any money upfront. Buses regularly break down (if this happens, you have to wait for the next mini van passing by to pick you up). You’ll be expected to pay for the amount you’ve travelled if so. If you’ve already paid, I doubt you’ll get a refund! Paying on arrival also ensures that you get taken to where you actually want to go. NB – the minivans stop about a couple of kms away from Bukit Lawang. From there you have to get a tuk tuk to the guesthouses.

MYANMAR – From Yangon to Dawei

Thank god we made it. Look how far we’ve come my baby…

( Written by Steph, photos by Nick)

Nick’s arms wrapped tightly around me, up and down we bounced vigorously underneath the sleeping bag.

“This is what honeymoons are made of, ” whispered Nick in my ear.

We were, of course, on a Myanmar train.

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As a westerner, you’d be excused for thinking that the train is an efficient way to get from A to B – fast and smooth, it’s the obvious choice. Not in Myanmar it ain’t. But this was no surprise to us; the reputation of the trains here had preceeded themselves. When planning our trip, we had made the decision to try and take as few planes as possible, and to see as many of the changes in landscape as we could. What better way than on a train? 

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A mastery of British engineering - the line from Mandalay to Hsipaw

Our first experience of a train in Myanmar had been on the famous line that goes from Mandalay to Hsipaw with its jawdropping viaduct. That journey had taken 11 hours, some of which lifted you a good few inches out of your seat and swayed you from side to side like a teeny bopper at a Bieber concert.

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Holding on tight - looking out at the scenery from the suspended line

At about £2.50 each, we had decided we could probably stretch to an upper class ticket for today’s journey. Lower class did look fun with the hussle and bustle of the locals innovatively transforming the carriage into a lounge and games room. However, the seats were wooden slats and today we were attempting a train marathon. It was perhaps not the best day for that. Determined to get to the very south of the country, and with our visas nearing their expiry date, we decided we would face the 26 hour journey to Dawei in one fell swoop – we had heard rumours of this place with its untouched beaches and jungle to explore…

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“No Dawei.”

We encountered our first hurdle at Yangon. As we had discovered previously, buying a train ticket here is a source of great confusion and great frustration. Every time we tried to buy a ticket the day before travel, we were told that you needed to buy it on the same day, even if your train was leaving at 3am. Apparently you should just turn up at 2am and hang around for an hour for no apparent reason. On our first train journey, we’d been lucky enough to discover an extremely helpful English speaker who had eventually got us tickets and made sure we were on the right train. Today we had no such luck.

“No Dawei,” the ticket seller insisted.

A couple of American dudes leaned over to us from the next counter, asking where we were going. They were obviously having trouble, too, but with different destinations, we were of no help to each other. Not that where we wanted to go was even being recognised as a destination. We knew it was definitely possible – we’d read a blog about a guy who had done this exact journey, but even with our best broken English and proficiency in mime, we were still *definitely* not being sold a ticket to Dawei. We opted to go to Malaminye, 9.5 hours away, and would have to get off the train and buy another ticket there before getting back on the same train. With all the palarva of filling out passport numbers (required to buy a ticket) and with trains only going once a day, we really hoped we would have enough time to do so.

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Four am and we arrived into Malaminye. We grabbed our heavy bags and ran for the ticket office.

“Ticket. Dawei.”

“No ticket. No seat,” came the reply.

You’re kidding me.

“Ok, lower class ticket.”

“No seat.”

Now this just wasn’t true. There was no way there were no tickets in lower class left. No one could explain a thing to us, and with our evident lack of Burmese, it was tough.

“Ye?” Nick chanced. This was another main stop, 6 hours away, but still another 10 from our desired stop of Dawei. Finally we got the ticket and hurried back on to the train.

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By this time it didn’t matter, the day’s heat had started to fill the air, and after running about like headless chickens, we were sweating like chorizo in the glovebox. Still, at least we were on the train. Goodness knows if we would be able to carry on our journey from Ye, but at least we had not been before – being stuck there was certainly more appealing than Malaminye, where the guesthouse we had stayed in last time was also generously housing several rats.

About half an hour later we stopped at a station and seemed to be there longer than is usually necessary. Hearing a commotion, and wondering what it was all about, I poked my head out of the window, just in time to see at least 50 new passengers being hurded onto the carriage behind us. Goats. Well, that certainly explained a few things.

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We arrived in Ye to repeat the same pantomime, and we were bemused to find that there definitely were seats on the train from Ye to Dawei. It was the same blinking train we had just got off. Sweaty and tired, we were hurried to our seats on a different carriage of the train, no time even to grab some snacks for the day long journey. Realising we had run out of water, Nick quickly grabbed a couple of bottles off a boy selling them on the platform and launched himself onto the train as it moved off.

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Another passenger runs to catch the train as it departs from the station

“Did you already open this?” I asked Nick, as I went to have some water. The seal was already broken. What we had just been sold was not clean water: not clean enough for us to risk drinking anyway. With our carriage completely sealed off from the rest of the train, and with the only fluid for sale fizzy or energy drink, we opted for a sprite and settled into our seats. This next part was to be long. Why had we not opted for the bus, again? I asked myself.

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Last leg of the train from Ye to Dawei

Luckily, as with all trains here, there were people waiting  on the platforms with food piled up on plates that balanced on top of their heads. If you were quick, you could get a chinese bun or a polystyrene container full of rice and curry. If you were lucky, the curry wouldn’t contain intestines. By the 2nd or 3rd station, we had also got water! Hurrah! And we needed it. I made sure we bought an extra bottle and then, balancing as best I could, washed my arms and legs in the toilet. This was quite a feat, I have to say. This train jumped up and down even more than the previous ones, and I wondered if anyone had ever sued for whiplash.

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Buying food from the platforms on a brief stop

It was quickly evident we were indeed heading into the jungle, but not because of what we could see, rather because of what we couldn’t. Following the line of the tracks, a train shape had been cut out of a dense and tall jungle. Now the lush foliage, which had since started growing back, poked through the open windows as the train chugged slowly past. The only sight we were greeted with was the odd close up of a branch, whacking us in the face as we attempted to see anything outside the carriage.

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A couple of hours left of the journey and Nick got up to go to the toilet.

“Most difficult wee of my life,” he declared as he staggered back, straining to see the right seat before being thrown in it by a jolt in the train.

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If a passenger had epilepsy, they would have had trouble on this train. I say this in all seriousness. The final two hours of our journey were in pitch black, with the erractic flash of a strobe from the loose connection of the overhead lights. The train stopped, the lights were on, the train moved, disco time.

The blinding strobe added one more level to the bouncy castle carriage. It was like one of those game shows to see if you could survive and the Burmese people on the trains were definitely the champions; they had been through the mill so many times, they didn’t even blink. Well, if they did, maybe it was when the lights were off…