Bang, crash, slam, ow. We had just set off on a seven-hour train ride which would take us from the small hill town of Pyin Oo Lwin to the even smaller town of Hsipaw, in the Shan province in North East Myanmar. Of course the train was no luxury even though we paid $10 for all four of our seats combined in the “upper-class car”. The rail gauge was G scale, which pretty much means that every pebble the train hit would cause a tremendous boom followed commonly by tourists getting hit with their own bags from the rack above their heads.
We stopped about every forty minutes at small stations where the train would be overrun by vendors selling everything from corn, to candy, to clothes. We would walk around observing the wares and trying to ward off the more persistent vendors who came up to us with chicken skewers and shirts. We would jump onto the train just before it left. Then onto the next station, and the next, and the next.
Eventually, near the end of the train ride, we crossed over a famous bridge called the Gokteik Viaduct. The viaduct, built in 1899 by contractors from Pennsylvania and Maryland Bridge Construction, spans an awe-inspiring 2257 feet and is 318 feet high. It crosses over a huge gorge containing a river, farm, and a small forest. The view was perfect. The bridge scared all of us because of the track gauge and the constant creaking of the bridge whenever you moved a muscle, so we were relieved when the train finally touched down on the other side of the bridge.
The rest of the train ride was wonderful, with amazing views and quite interesting foods. When we finally arrived in Hsipaw, we were greeted by songtaews waiting to take us to our hotel, “Lily the Home.” We were so happy to have a place to rest that we flopped down on our beds for a midday rest.
A few days later, we went on a small walk to the “Shan Palace” — really more of a crumbling English style country house — where the niece of the last sawbwa (translated literally as Sky Prince ) of the region lives. Her name is Fern, and she showed us around the palace and shared some of Myanmar’s history with us. She told us the story of how in 1962 the military staged a coup to overthrow the government. The leader of the uprising was General Ne Win. He closed off the country. Anyone who didn’t agree with him was imprisoned, and some of them were put under house arrest for up to 20 years. Some never returned.
One of the people who didn’t return was Fern’s uncle, Sao Kya Seng, the last sawbwa. He was married to an Austrian woman, Inge Eberhard, whom he met at college in Denver. After the prince disappeared, Inge spoke out against the military so she was blacklisted and escaped back to America. Fern and her husband Donald were the last family members left, so they stayed in the palace in Hsipaw under house arrest for many years. Even though the military has now been voted out of office, Fern and her family still have not contacted Inge in fear that it would cause military retaliation. They still know nothing about the prince’s whereabouts and assume that he died in prison.
All over Myanmar we heard people talk about Aung San Suu Kyi, an important figure who was put under house arrest because she started and ran a political party called the NLD (National League for Democracy). She is extremely beloved by the people of Myanmar, who call her “The Lady.” In the first non-rigged election in recent Burmese history (which happened late last year) the NLD won by a huge number of votes and there is speculation that Aung San Suu Kyi will become president. Many things have not yet been fixed, but Myanmar is definitely on the right track to becoming a democratic country.