2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

There’s Nothing Alcohol Can’t Solve Except Actually That Bathroom Situation Sounds Pretty Dire

There’s Nothing Alcohol Can’t Solve Except Actually That Bathroom Situation Sounds Pretty Dire

Myanmar Rum in Bagan

The magic of ancient Bagan, Myanmar, was fading slowly as the taxi driver drove away from the stupas and serene Buddha statues and towards the train station. At the entrance of the station where my husband handed him a handful of kyats, he nodded back as if to say “Good luck surviving the ride from hell.”

Except for another backpacker, there were no other tourists in sight. Only a handful of local women squatted next to their woven baskets and plastic bags by the platform. Two kids played catch, their flip-flops making clapping sounds against the concrete as they ran, and a weasley old man stared at us under his navy green wide-brimmed hat.

Back in the guesthouse, the staff had asked us of our plans. Upon hearing that we’d be taking the train instead of the bus to Yangon, his face scrunched up as he’d eaten something bad.

“Don’t. Even the locals don’t take the train anymore. Why not take the bus?” he’d smirked.

We know, we know. The overnight interstate busses running across Myanmar had undergone a massive upgrade, boasting wide-berth seats, personal screens, and a steward that walked up and down the narrow aisle, serving drinks and snacks. But these bus tickets were sold out and we had a flight to catch in two days.

Train travel was the only other alternative and according to a few blog posts, it was allegedly the craziest thing you could do to yourself. It was also the sort of thing you would do to test the mettle of your marriage. Not only the carriages looked as if they were dug right out of a train graveyard, there were also mentions of levitation, carriage derailment in the middle of the night, and unimaginable bathroom conditions. Reading all those experiences made us almost opt for third-class buses, but we didn’t. Instead, my husband gave me the ‘challenge accepted’ look. We then went on to buy, not just the 16,500 Kyat (about US$14) tickets for the Upper-class Standard Sleeper, but also a 175ml bottle of Myanmar Rum. Our experience told us that there’s nothing a little bit of local alcohol couldn’t solve.

The mustachioed train steward beamed when we climbed on board. The lack of passengers meant a full range of Sleeper cabins were available for selection and we chose one that had a filthy metal fan that worked. There were two narrow beds separated by a little cabinet in between. Apart from abundant space, there were also two wide-open windows to catch the passing scenery. The linen on our beds even seemed somewhat clean. We took that as a good sign. About a quarter after 5 p.m., the whistle blew and the train’s wheels screeched to start. That was when we took our first swig of Myanmar Rum. The liquid burned my throat for the first few seconds before it cooled down to a candy-sweet aftertaste.

When the train lurched and swayed sideways, expansively and sluggishly, we drank some more. When the sun descended and a dim moon slid through the clouds, we drank. When our bodies were slammed hard against all surfaces, and the fan stopped working, we scrambled about in the darkness for our trusty bottle and took another sip. Each time we returned from the toilet, we soaked our hands in anti-bacterial gel and gulped down more. Each sip unlocked a ray of hope and restored our faith in our journey. Were we so masochistic that we’d signed ourselves up for torture, deliberately defying all cautionary warnings about supposedly the worst train ride in the world? It was a little too late for regrets then as we hung on to our bunks for our lives. The night wore on until we passed out from heat and fatigue.

What was supposedly a 12-hour train ride stretched into a 19-hour one. By midday, we rolled into Yangon battered, zombie-like but triumphant. We toasted to our survival, our sanity, and our intact relationship with a final sip. Once the train slowed down, the train steward came around to collect our tickets. We thanked him by pressing the half-full bottle of Myanmar Rum into his hands, as if passing on a good luck charm. May this drink take care of you and your ordeals now.

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