Myanmar Train Adventure: Yangon to Bagan
After three days in Yangon, we are ready to embark on our first Myanmar train experience. Our destination is a city in Northern Myanmar that has been at the top of our must-visit list for a long time: the temple-city of Bagan.
Buying our tickets
Our friend Justin, who is joining us on our first week in Myanmar, found out that the tickets to the Yangon-Bagan train are actually sold at a different location than where the train actually leaves. It appears to be in walking distance from our hotel, so within 20 minutes we’ve navigated the chaotic streets of Yangon to find the advance booking office. Can this possibly be the right place? There is no one here. There are empty cues as if to prepare for hundreds of people, but here we are on a Monday afternoon and there isn’t a soul in sight. I wonder what the story behind this booking office is. Was it ever a bustling hub for domestic train travel? Or was it built with the false hope that one day it might be? The railings between each line are at least 25 years old, and do not look like they have received one minute of maintenance or care since. I’ve never taken my mother’s advice of not sitting on railings more serious than I am now.
It also doesn’t help that all the signs are in Burmese script. We approach one of the few windows that is staffed with a person, and after a brief conversation, we are pointed to a different set of windows over to the side where tickets to Bagan are sold. We decide to go with the sleeper/upper class train tickets, which are $40 USD each. There is a $30 option for what they call “Ordinary Class” but it involves a wooden bench for 19 straight hours. No thank you. We also notice that our tickets are numbered #1, #2, and #3. A good sign that we might be the only ones in the upper class car.
We’ve heard the restaurant car, when it’s even in service, is not the tastiest of options, and decided to prepare for the possibility of not eating until the next morning. To do so, we’ve headed to one of Myanmar’s tea shops that we keep hearing everyone talking about. We decide on one called Lucky Seven, a short cab-ride away from our hotel.
At first, I don’t think we’re in the right place. There are no tourists here. Usually with places that are talked about in guide books and the internet as must-see places, the tourists flock. The place is packed, and we find a seat in the very middle of the outdoor cafe (we do have a roof and mist-spraying fan though). There are already three plates of finger food on our table and we are told, well more like gestured-to, that we simply pay for whatever we eat. We are also given a book with a bunch more options that we can order. Each table has it’s own waiter, and there are almost more waiters than customers.
The food and the tea are the best thing we’ve ate in months. Each item on the menu is less about 50 cents, and within no time we have stacks of plates and cups all over our table. None of the dishes get cleared because the only way to know how much we’ve ate is to count our plates and glasses at the end. My favorite item are the Samosas(they spell it Samoosas on the menu), an eggroll-type, deep-fried triangle of flaky crust stuffed with fresh vegetables. In an hour, I’ve had six of them.
We would love to sit here all day, but our train leaves at 4pm, and we reluctantly agree to order one more round of food and head for the train station. Our bill comes to a grand total of $9 USD. Not bad for a two-hour, late-afternoon lunch pig out.
Waiting to depart
We’ve stocked up on some extra water before getting on the train, and our decision on whether or not to by some extra food is being answered for us by the many food vendors (mostly children) walking up and down the side of the train. We have about 15 minutes before departure, and a small crowd has gathered around our cabins window since we are the only foreigners on the train. Still not sure if that is a good or bad thing. For now we’re enjoying being the weird ones.
We buy apples, grapes, sunflower seeds, refilled water bottles for washing, and even two beers. The children just won’t leave our window though. We are enjoying their company, but they are asking us to buy more, and once we stop buying, they begin asking us for gifts. One boy asks Alissa for her earrings. Instead of giving him the ones she’s wearing, Alissa digs into her bag and finds some old ones that she hasn’t worn and hands them over to the over-joyed recipient.
Once we have nothing more to buy, and nothing left to give, I decide to keep them busy with a few magic tricks. I amaze them a few times, until one smart-ass kid decides to ruin it by telling all the younger kids my secret. They also don’t know much English, in fact they only know the words Hello, Goodbye, How Much, and numbers in English. Every time we look away to begin doing something else, they all begin just yelling, “hello… hello… hello…”, until you finally acknowledge their presence. The experience is both enjoyable and heartbreaking. As our train pulls away from the station, I notice a boy, no older than 13(the one in the white shirt above), lighting up his cigarette.
Besides the engine, our train has one sleeper-class car, one restaurant car, and 7-8 ordinary-class cars. The three of us have one compartment all to ourselves that features two lower bunks, two upper bunks, and plenty of space to store luggage. The lower bunks double as benches during daylight hours, and we are actually quite relieved when seeing the condition of the car. The mattresses are not very thick, but after seeing the wooden benches that the ordinary class passengers have, we have no complaints. We are told the journey will take between 14 and 19 hours, and that we should prepare for a bumpy ride for 10 of the hours. Shit.
The train is moving incredibly slow. We are putting along at about 20 MPH past run-down building after run-down building. Villagers are busy finishing up their day’s work, farming in the many railway-side fields, or killing time playing a game of takraw (a combo of volleyball and soccer). Although, no one is too busy to stop, smile, and wave to us as our train crawls by. The smiles turn to laughter and curiosity when they notice the three pale faces hanging out of the our car.
The scenery isn’t all beautiful though. The living conditions of these villages are some of the lowest I’ve seen in our travels, and reminds me a lot of the slums in Manila. The railway is also extremely littered with garbage. Every few minutes we pass another garbage dump, each with a strong stench of rotting waste. The most obvious villain in these dumps is plastic bags and plastic bottles. There are plastic bags, plastic bags full of plastic bags, as well as canvas bags full of plastic bags full of plastic bags.
The first three hours go by quickly, and the ride is slow but smooth. We are so happy that we chose the train over a bus or plane. It’s exciting to see the city slowly turn to country, the constant waving from locals makes us feel like celebraties, and the sunset view over the Myanmar countryside out the window is pristine. However, our euphoria goes down with the sun, and as darkness hits, our over-head fan breaking becomes the least of our problems.
Bagan or bust
The bumps, bangs, and rattles seem to arrive at the exact same time as the night. What was a slow, slightly bumpy ride has turned into a what seems to be a race between which car can derail first. When I take a stroll over to our car’s bathroom I can barely keep my balance, and I nearly fall out of the window on my way back down the hallway. My mind starts drifting into the physics of railway cars and what keeps them on the track as I try to convince myself we are safe, but as the train continues to gain speed, I continue to lose confidence. We decide to head to the restaurant car to try and keep ourselves occupied and relaxed.
Here is a short video I took on the train. This was taken at the beginning of the 10-hour stretch of rough tracks. Eventually it became too difficult to stand and take video without falling.
The Restaurant Car
The walk to the restaurant car, which is two cars down from us, becomes an event of its own. The jump between our car and the ordinary class car is pretty easy, but the jump between the ordinary class car and the restaurant car is terrifying. There is a much bigger gap between the two cars, and you have to time your jump so that it doesn’t occur during a large bump. Otherwise, we might miss the door and hit the side of the car, sending me and my empty stomach to the fast-moving tracks below.
The restaurant car is a disappointment, and that’s my nice version of its description. We found it hard enough to stay seated in our sleeper compartment, but now we are sitting on chairs with no backs that are not connected to the floor. The only other people in the restaurant car are two local Burmese men drinking whiskey. Who can blame them? The menu we are shown is a laminated index card that the waiter pulls out of his pocket shortly before dropping it on the floor due to a vicious bump that nearly sends me backwards over my chair. Justin decides he will just order a water, Alissa orders fried noodles, and I go with my usual fried rice with a Coke.
As we’re waiting for our food to arrive, I struggle to keep my appetite. Maybe it’s the three-inch crickets that keep flying into the car through the windows. Maybe it’s the cockroach that started climbing up my leg. Maybe it’s just the constant up and down of the car. Finally, our food arrives and it isn’t as bad looking as I expected, but it is definitely the worst meal we’ve had in Myanmar. I’m about half-way through my meal when a cockroach climbs up my glass and falls into my glass of Coke. I manage a few more bites until I’m hit directly in the chest with a cricket that came flying through the window. That about does it for my appetite.
Attempting to sleep
It is hard enough to sleep on trains when they run smoothly that rides like this make it near impossible. The train stops every hour or so for a couple of minutes and that is the only relief we get from the constant back and forth swaying and loud noises. We all manage to get about an hour of sleep, most of which comes in 10-15 minute intervals before we’re jolted awake by a large thud or shift in the railcar. There isn’t much to do in a dark train car except sleep, and since that is impossible, we end up spending most of the night staring at the ceiling coping with the shaking and the noise. We all know what the other is thinking, and the only words spoken are a few “You doin’ OK?” inquiries that are always answered with a “Yep. You?”.
The home stretch
Just as the rough stretch began when the sunset, the it leaves with the sunrise. We are now again staring out the window in amazement at the scenery of the Myanmar countryside. It is so peaceful and beautiful, and except for the small power line that runs parallel to the tracks, it appears as if we are looking at a country in 1813, not 2013. We pass golden pagodas, goat herders, animal-powered vehicles, and countless farmers using manual ox plows and hoes to prepare their fields for the upcoming rainy season.
Just like when we left Yangon 15 hours ago, the local children run from wherever they are to the tracks as soon as they hear the train coming. It is fun to watch them up in the distance sprinting towards the track in order to not miss seeing the passing train. Each smile we receive from these kids is heart warming and we later realize that we spent the last few hours of the ride in complete silence as we all just soaked in what has been the most memorable 19-hour train ride of our lives.