For anyone that knows me, you will know I love me a train and I’m also quite partial to a boat. On a recent trip to Myanmar I was fortunate to be able to take both trains and boats as a main form of transport. For me, they conjure up feelings of travel from a bygone era. A time when trains and boats were literally the only way you could travel. The great rail journeys of the Orient Express, the Trans-Siberian Railway and epic adventures spanning from Europe to Asia. Todaythey are a cheap and effective way to travel and provide a lifeline to millions, including transporting goods, gas and petrol across the world. The slower nature of a train allows you to think, appreciate and watch an entire country pass you by. You will see things you could only imagine from a plane or night bus. Sometimes it can be dusty and dirty with the windows down, but to me that’s an added bonus. I am literally covered in the land.
I took the train from Yangon to Bagan and crossed the Goktiek Viaduct on the Mandalay to Lashio line. Both journeys were unique in their viewing and experience. The thing about Burmese rail travel is that the British Empire built tracks are narrow-gauge, but the trains are built to fit a much wider gauge. This is why on the Trans Mongolian Railway the bogies are changed when it crosses the border from Mongolia to China and vice versa. In Myanmar however, the difference just makes for a more exciting ride, with swaying, bumping and an increased adventure when going to the toilet. However, it can cause the trains to de-couple, but you simply go back and get the carriages that you left behind. Too easy!
On route on the 4pm Yangon to Bagan, and there were a few people selling water at the station, but nothing like I have experienced in other Asian countries. As it departs, you slowly chug your way out of the station, getting an up close and personal look at the outskirts of Yangon, something you probably wouldn’t have seen. As it speeds up through the countryside, people make their way out from their houses, wave as the train passes by and then turn on their heels and head back in. It has become part of their daily routine, something you can set your watch by, something to get up for. No other transport, besides maybe a slow-moving boat, features in peoples’ lives the way a train does.
As we watched the sun set across the rural plains, we stopped at different stations, buying samosas through the window. Night set in and trying to write was a bit of a non-event due to the bumps and poor lighting, but it didn’t matter. My fellow cabin mates, three French men, were getting rowdy with their cheap window beer anyway. I climbed up to my bunk and went to sleep. During the night there were some wickedly lovable bumps and jolts, lifting me dead set off the bed and into the air. I smiled, chuckled to myself and went back to sleep.
The sun rose and the cabin began to brighten. I peered over my bunk to see the three French men lying like corpses, freezing,they hadn’t brought anything to keep them warm, besides the beer and whiskey that is. The Trans-Siberian and Mongolian Railways provide bedding and hot water, not in Myanmar. However, my thin summer sleeping bag and station bought bottled water was perfect.
Opening up the windows to again look out and feel the refreshing Burmese air and dust on my face was wonderful. The railway, like me, was beginning to wake. Families jumping on and off, people waving and saying hello, farmers tending to their field, ox pulling carts and temples peering out of the distance. I tried to write, but just couldn’t take my eyes off the ever-changing landscape. There was always something new to see or someone to smile and wave at.
Arriving in Bagan safely, joyfully and feeling like I had experienced a real authenticity to Myanmar, the question that was very quickly out of everyone lips was, “You caught the train, oh my gosh, haven’t you heard about Burmese trains?”. “Well yes, I have actually, and I wouldn’t want to travel any other way”.
For up to the date advice, fare and timetable information head to http://www.seat61.com
He covers Myanmar and every other train journey you could think of. Invaluable.
© The Universe’s Bike