I am often a lone traveller who goes to the edge of his comfort zone to find the unusual, the exciting or just whatever piques my curiosity. Naturally that accentuates some very real risks. Encounters with stray dogs is one that causes me serious concern.
I have always had an uncomfortable relationship with dogs. Few in my family kept them as pets. It really did not help that there were plenty of strays wandering all over the place where I grew up. I used to like going off for long walks when I was young. After being chased by dogs multiple times, I gave up walking and stuck to the much safer video games. Violence in video games does not hurt. As an adult and as a traveller, I had figured that I had to face my fears. I resolved to stand up to the dogs, to stand my ground, to bark back at them and to be prepared for a bloody fight if necessary. Strength of will and purpose in the face of fear has saved my day a number of times. It also helped to be an adult human who was much bigger than most of the dogs that I encountered. It almost did not, that one night in Mandalay.
Mandalay is the second city that one thinks of when thinking of Myanmar (Burma). It is a concrete wasteland whose most distinct feature is the gigantic moat around the grounds of the royal palace. A nearby temple sits at the top of Mandalay Hill providing the other major attraction. The city’s buildings look as though they are decaying. A festival was going on when I arrived providing for incessant chanting and singing through the night. I was glad to be the experienced backpacker who packed earplugs. They had come in use more than once during this trip.
Two days in Mandalay was really enough. I found myself tickets for a train journey to Hsi Paw in the north east. The place could be reached by bus, but I wished to ride the fabled Burmese rail, known for its unreliability and slowness. I also wished to go over the Gokteik Viaduct, the tallest rail bridge in Myanmar. The train would leave at 4 AM.
I awoke at 3 AM, my bags already packed. By 3:25 I had left the hotel and was on my way to the station. It was about 2 Km from the hotel and I had no intention of trying to find transport at that time. I quickly moved out from the small streets to the main road. This is where it got unpleasant. The dogs got rather aggressive with their barking and came closer to me. I shouted back at them and pretended to pick up stones to throw. That made them back off and bark from a distance. I then noticed that the few locals who seemed to be up at that time were being left alone. Why was I the target? I realised that I was wearing a headlamp while the locals were not. I took it off and things seemed fine.
The walk took considerably longer than I had expected. At 3:55 AM I was at the entrance to the railway station – the goods entrance. I had gone in this same way to get my ticket the day before. At this time of the night, the way was blocked: three dogs stood guard blocking my path. Many piles of wood and boxes littered the yard. The dogs stood in between and on top of them. There could easily be more behind the boxes that were just beginning to stir. The dogs stood their ground. “I can take on one dog, maybe even scare off two, but not three,” I thought. Threatening gestures and noises did not work. I did not dare to actually rush them in case they felt justified to attack. I backed off.
I rushed along the station’s wall looking for another way in. A truck idled nearby. I asked the driver if he knew any other entrances to the station. He seemed to realise that I was late for the only 4 AM train and signed me to get in. We set off and made a giant square around the train station. I counted the seconds and started having second thoughts about jumping into trucks with strangers. Then we arrived at the passenger entrance – an entrance designed for vehicles and not for pedestrians. We heard the train’s horn. The driver signed me to go. I got off, shouted my thanks, rushed down the stairs between me and the platform and jumped into the first carriage.
The train started moving five seconds later. The conductor and the locals in third class looked at the panting tourist in amusement. Someone made space for me to sit. The conductor guided me to the correct compartment when the train made its first stop.
The dogs had won that round, but we all ended the night without injury and I was on my way.
Sequel: The Dogs of Bangkok