Jill’s new found love of all things train, especially small gauge, came to the fore once again. She booked us on a 17-18 hr train journey (which ended up being almost 20) from Yangon to Bagan. We have had some spectacular rail journeys in the last 12-13 months. The Maglev in Shanghai maxing at 431kph was great, the 24 hr journey to Tibet on the world’s highest railway was also good. The steam train through the Indian blue mountains to Ooty had character as the rack and pin cranked us up the mountains, as did the ones in Shimla and Darjeeling. The beachside journey down the coastline of Sri Lanka was incredible…This one was not.
The first thing that she mentioned was that they were prone to being a touch unreliable and could be running up to 12 hrs late. When we arrived we were met with a 1940’s model (about when the British left) insect and arachnid riddled train. We had the best seats in the house, which was the upper class sleeper…so god knows what the other classes were like. In its defence…it did leave dead on time.
While tourism is quite new to Myanmar it doesn’t take long for people to find an angle and try it on. Before we left the station we had beggars, hawkers, bag carriers and the usual onslaught of people trying to take money from tourists in any way they can. Those on Facebook may have seen my post where we bought 10 beers for $7.10 of course on the train this was now $3 each…ridiculous…who would pay $3 for a 640ml beer (I think I may get a reality check when I get home). Anyway we set off…at half the speed of smell.
At one point I shooed one of the many Mosquitos out the window of the moving train to get rid of it… Bugger me if the thing didn’t fly along next to us taunting me before accelerating and entering the window of the cabin 3 windows in front of us. The train had so much both vertical lateral movement that while seated on my bunk I became airborne, then flew across the cabin and nearly fell out of the window. Yes…I said vertical…somebody decided to build the railway track on sections of the local motocross tracks outside each city and town.
The train hit big sections of speed bumps every 20 minutes or so…so much so that the impact all but caused renal failure as my kidneys decided they couldn’t take it any more and buggered off. Woo hoo…only 17 more hours to go… Fair is fair… Once you leave the city, the landscape is pretty. We are here in winter, just after the end of rainy season and everything is lush and green. And it is fascinating to see just how poor Myanmar is as a nation, as you quite literally pass grass huts…not just the roofs but the whole place, thatched walls and all. Add to this the corrugated iron mansions and you really do get a feel for just how poor a nation Myanmar is.
Within 45 minutes of the sun setting (which was beautiful) the lights had attracted every bug within a 2 mile radius into our cabin. So we had a choice to make…keep the only semblance of breeze by having the windows open or be eaten alive by tiny critters. When a grasshopper the size of my forearm flew in we decided it was time to close the windows. Lathered in anti bug cream and a room fogged with bug spray we tried to sleep.
At 2:30am we stopped and a local man, who could snore professionally, joined us and then left at a local stop at 6am. In a very quick chat before the train stopped…his first words to me were “thank you for visiting my country”. He was replaced by a man we found out was the regional superintendent of the railways. This meant that everyone on the train and every station we got to was kowtowing at every opportunity…so there was a constant stream of people arriving at our door or window saluting and ensuring that all was in order. Add to this the fact that each of them brought food or drinks for the boss.
Needless to say our morning coffee (Nescafé 3 in 1) was all of a sudden free. In a chat the railway king told us that they would be opening a steam train leg that day for tourists…from Bagan for a 3 hr sunrise and sunset journey. He arranged for a personal viewing of the train and photograph session. He commented that he had been to Seoul in South Korea and that their trains were very different…we agreed. He mentioned how smooth the Korean trains were and said that his were more like riding a horse. When he found out where we were staying he offered to help with organising and negotiating our taxi etc. It was 37 degrees when we arrived but felt hotter due to the humidity…did I mention it was winter.
The scenery on the train was lovely and by morning the track had levelled out a bit and was no where near as bad as it had been for the first three hours of the journey. While the train aspect of this journey was hellish…the human interaction with the Burmese people was stunning. My initial thoughts was to recommend that nobody ever takes this journey…find another way to get to Bagan…road, air, horse cart…they all had to be better than this experience. But then you would miss the human interaction with the locals which really made the journey special. Having said that…I was bruised and battered by the time morning had come…
I remain conflicted… I can neither recommend nor dissuade such a journey.