A detailed account of the very bizarre experience of shipping a package from Yangon and about taking the Circular Train.

I was welcomed like the long-lost son, or rather daughter, when I arrived this morning at the Thanlwin Guesthouse where I had started my journey six weeks ago.  It was a great feeling to have a home away from home and to know that I could relax and get ready for my 3-day journey back home.  The first thing I needed after the 14 hour night bus from Inle Lake was a shower and a nap.  And yes, it will take me about 2 1/2 travel days to arrive in Detroit on four flights, with long hours of layover.

When I spread out all the trinkets I accumulated over the last six weeks in my deluxe room (to which I had been upgraded without asking) at the Thanlwin Guesthouse, it became clear that I had blown the capacity of my suitcase and all the luggage allowances set by the various airlines.  I had to ship a package. That is nothing new; I almost always have to on these trips.  But I had been warned about the Myanmar postal system.  There is only one post office in all of Myanmar authorized for foreign shipments.  It is located at the Bogyoke market in Yangon.  I had checked out the location, the prices, and the opening hours previously and I had met the person in charge of the office, a middle-aged chatty lady who looked like she was of Indian origin.  I was pretty confident that all would be fine.  But the reality came as a surprise.

With an 8 kg box under my arm on which I had worked on all morning, I arrived at the post office in a downpour — what else, right?!  To pre-empt any questions, I had prepared a detailed shipping list, an address label, provided the value of the content, packed the box to precision and left it open for inspection — I had learned that in the past.  If there were any questions, the clerk could check and inspect any item before certifying the legitimacy of the content and sealing the box.

First, she quoted my 1.5x the price I knew it should be.  She had two lists, one for the fast service, the other for the slow one.  I had clearly specified the slow way and she had pulled the list for the fast one…  Well, I set her straight on that one.

Then she collected the money for the package and added:  Now you need to give me something, too.  I must have looked bewildered because she added:  What you gave me is for the shipping.  But I have to do the packing.  No, I countered.  I did all the packing.  And this is your job!  She shook her head.  I need something.  Reluctantly I pulled out one dollar.  She shook her head.  Then two and three.  And there I stopped and repeated:  You hardly have to do anything.  I did all the work, this is it!  It is your job.  She did not ask for more.  But she did not seem happy.  The shipping cost $100.  She must have expected more.

At that point she said her goodbyes to me.  But wait a minute!  She had not closed the package yet!  I pulled her over to the box, pointed to the shipping list and asked her to read it.  Any questions?  She slowly went through it line by line reading off one unobjectionable souvenir after another.  She just could not find anything wrong with it.  OK, let’s seal the package then, I demanded.  Reluctantly, she started to put the tape on.  I insisted that the packing list would be kept inside to verify every item in the box.  Then I left.

But about five blocks away it occupied my mind that this still did not mirror any other shipping experience I had had anywhere in the world.  What was it?!  It finally dawned on me that she had not filled out any paperwork!  I handed $100 over without any receipt and a package on top of it.  All could disappear without a trace.  Back I went.

I need a receipt.

Almost 1/2 hour had passed between my departure and my return. The postal clerk was chatting with a young girl.  I doubt she had had another customer since.  But she had not even touched my package or processed the first step in getting it ready for shipment.  She still was not willing to do that.  Everywhere in the world I get a copy of the actual shipping label; not in Yangon.  I got her to write me a flimsy receipt though.  And I asked her for her picture.  I am sure she saw right through my charming request.  This was not to remember her.  This was to have a face with the fact in case that package and its full content would not make it back to my home within a month or two.  She asked for it!  Now I am crossing my fingers.  I am not quite ready to hold my breath though…

— — —

What next?  The Gem Museum had been on my tentative plan.  But when I stood downtown with the prospect of imminent heavy, if short rain showers, I thought of another way of spending my last afternoon: I would take the Circular Train.

It is an antiquated 50-60 year old train system which was built to connect downtown with the poorest outskirts of Yangon.  A 6-10 wagon train painted bright red rattles along age-old tracks like any other train in Myanmar.  The windows are shutters that can be closed in case of rain and during the 3 hour circuit, we had to do this about three times.  Any part of the  trip (or the whole circuit for that matter) costs 20 cents.  There are no doors, but openings in every cart where people get on and off if need be with the train in motion.

If you want to know what life in Yangon is like and you only have 3 hours, the Circular Train will give you the full spectrum.  From the laborers coming and going with their tools, from the vendors carrying their heavy loads, from the woman with her sick child in her arm, to the family, from the business man, the student, the loving young couple, to the police man patrolling the train.  A look out the window will give you the full spectrum as well; from the fields the factories, from the huts to the villas.   I hardly noticed the three hours.  They flew by.  Along the way a young student named Pa-O sat next to me.  I told him how much I appreciated the opportunity to travel in his country and how impressed I was with the ever-friendly people who always had a big smile for me.  He summed up the way of life in Myanmar as good as anyone could have and so I will leave the last word about Myanmar to him:

We have learned to control our minds.  We can control our angers and we can control our wants.  That is because of Buddhism.  People in Myanmar look at the bright side of life.  That’s why we always smile.  

3 comments so far

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  1. Welcome home and many thanks for letting me “ride along” with you on your wonderful adventure.

  2. That train ride sounds like the best way to get to know the country.
    Good luck getting your big package after you get home! You should have told that post office clerk that you were staying in Myanmar for another six weeks and that if the package did not arrive at its destination in a month, you would go to the authorities. If she knows you are leaving the country tomorrow, she knows that you cannot touch her if the package does not arrive. I hope you receive it as you planned.

  3. All good wishes for the journey home. And another thank you for the blog of your 2015 travels. I had known virtually nothing about the complexities and richness of Myanmar before. Now I have had the richest possible introduction. Diane K