“They’re very bumpy.”
“Don’t go by train. The bus is faster.”
“A waste of time.”
*shudders, says nothing*
“Better to go by bus.”
This was how people reacted when we spoke of catching the trains in Myanmar. Nobody told us, “Oh yeah! The countryside is amazing,” or, “It’s so colourful,” or, “The trains are fun in a roller coaster sort of way,” or, “Services include ladies with impossibly large amounts of stuff balanced on their heads, and men laminating files with candles inside metal boxes, and people collecting money with flashing LED lights and music.”
When we decided, against all advice, to exclusively travel around Myanmar by train, we did so under the pretense that we were making a huge mistake. But as it turned out, everybody else was wrong. And so here I am to write about our experience, which was so far from negative it became a highlight of our 28 days in the country.
Our 8-train route was as follows:
Yangon to Pyay
Pyay to Bagan
Bagan to Mandalay
Mandalay to Thazi
Thazi to Mawlamyine (exchanging in Bago)
Mawlamyine to Dawei (exchanging in Ye)
Yangon to Pyay
In The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux writes of the Yangon (then Rangoon) trains,
“There was one class, (the ticket officer) said. Wooden seats, broken windows, no berths, no bedrolls, no dining car.”
Things had changed slightly. Now we could choose either lower or upper class, with the price being either two dollars or four dollars. We chose upper, since the seats were cushy instead of wooden. Had we chosen the wooden seats, I imagine at best we’d have bruises, and at worst shattered pelvises. Unlike when Theroux traveled (the book was published in 1975), the windows were not broken, and it didn’t matter that there wasn’t a dining car, because at each station men and women would board with swags of food for sale. Women balanced impossibly large amounts of stuff on their heads. The largest ‘hat’ we saw was a huge cauldron of soupy noodles, and atop the cauldron were condiments, cutlery and bowls. The train rocked and shook furiously, and the women glided through the coaches, never stumbling.
Theroux goes on, “Five minutes from the station you are in the country, a low swampy rice-growing area beside the Pazandaung Creek, where in the courtyard of the monasteries the monks are at prayer, and crossing the fields are processions of people – schoolchildren with satchels, office workers setting out in white shirts, farmers with mattocks – the early morning march in the tropics to the tune of temple bells.”
It would be interesting to travel back to 1975 and talk to somebody in Yangon. I’m sure that they’d find it hard to believe that in the impossibly distant sounding future of 2015, there wouldn’t actually be much difference. Myanmar seemed to be paused in time.
Pyay to Bagan
The only train to Bagan departed Pyay at 11 p.m., and left from a different station to the one we’d arrived at. We got a lift to the station, which was a few too many kilometres away to walk, and paid a bit extra for a sleeper car – about $20 total. We had the entire car to ourselves – beds, seats, windows, private toilet, fans and lights. The car was undoubtedly rough, with puddles on the floor, grime on everything, and plenty of undisturbed webs containing fat little spiders who chomped on the many insects that flew in through the windows. In spite of the filth, the privacy made us happy, and the sheets were clean, so we turned out all the lights and sat staring out at the darkened paddy fields watching hundreds of fireflies blink in the shrubs.
Bagan to Mandalay
This route took us through almost desert-like scenes of sand and plains, with distant mountains barely visible. As we drew closer to Mandalay we began to see paddy fields again, and these slowly gave way to rivers and lakes. This was the least bumpy of all the rides we took, but there was still the unmistakable feel of being on an old wooden train. The trains in Thailand are smooth and almost silent from inside the air-conditioned carriages. The Myanmar trains had the old-fashioned clickity-clack of bumpy tracks, and open windows from which to get a better view.
Mandalay to Thazi
This was relatively short journey, with much of the same scenery as entering Mandalay. We entered the beautiful little village of Thazi just as the sun was setting, and only spent one night there before taking the next early morning service to Mawlamyine via Bago.
Thazi to Mawlamyine (via Bago)
One of our longest journeys, this voyage took twenty-one hours. The stopover in Bago was one-hour, leaving enough time for le pey and a few chats with interested locals. The first phase of the trip had us once again bumping through paddy fields, this time half-harvested and looking more flooded. The second late-night leg from Bago to Mawlamyine was made on seats (there were no sleepers), and ended stunningly at 4 a.m. as we passed by numerous golden pagodas on distant hills, lit by floodlights and shrouded in early morning mist. Even through sleep deprived, blurry eyes, it was gorgeous.
Mawlamyine to Dawei (via Ye)
There is no service that connects Mawlamyine to Dawei, so it was necessary to make a hectic stop in Ye to change trains, which involved running to the Ye ticket office to get our onward passes, then leaping aboard a second train just in time for it to chug away. This was another very long journey – about 15 hours total, starting at 4 a.m. The first leg took as past lakes and mountains, which we mostly slept through. We were seated right behind the engine, and so the entire ride had smoke from the coal-powered engine filtering into our carriage. It was nauseating and uncomfortable, and this was certainly our least favourite journey. The second leg to Dawei had us barreling through the thick jungle, as well as bamboo, palm and rubber plantations. It was rough, and wild, and absolutely stunning.
I will freely admit here, that by the time we hopped off our last Myanmar train, we were pleased that we wouldn’t be boarding another one any time soon. The limited amount of time on a Myanmar tourist visa (28 days) meant that we had to rush during our final week. With the luxury of time, we would have stopped at more stations, taken more trains, and probably felt a lot more refreshed. However, neither of would hesitate to do it again.
If anyone in Myanmar tells you that trains are a bad way to travel, they’re wrong. These old, wooden beasts lumber through beautiful places, are cheap, interesting, and are probably a dying breed as countries upgrade their rail systems. That, and the hand-written tickets are great.