Kipling’s one-liner that it will “be quite unlike any land you know about” does come in handy in a description of Myanmar train journeys. Like the night train to Mandalay. As the survivor of two more, I had my share of them.
This is #4 of twelve articles describing my 2013 visit to Myanmar. In addition there are 7 videos and a large picture album.
Before I get started
I’m still confused that I was able to get more than a minute of sleep on this train. I have been riding trains in South America, Africa, Asia and Europe for decades. I have come nowhere near the experience this ride gave me. Shake, rattle and roll for 16 hours left me with a slight brain concussion. Any sane person would call that the end of the line and fall asleep for the next twenty-four hours to get one’s senses restored. For whatever reason I bought a ticket for my next train ride the very day I arrived. Clearly, something had hit me.
Let’s start with the beginning
Most people visiting Myanmar (Burma as it used to be called) start with a flight into Yangon (previously Rangoon) and depart for either Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake from there. I was doing that Big Four circuit too and had zeroed in on Mandalay as my second stop. Reading up on blogs and guidebooks before arriving here, the train ride to Mandalay did not seem the obvious choice. 16 hours is a long time, even for a night train. Most accounts were not favourable for the train option, but I was determined to try it. Trains always beat planes as a mode of transportation, when you want to get that good old travelling feeling.
Finding the place to buy a train ticket in Yangon is not very easy, even though I had studied the description on this valuable website. The ticket office is not at the train station, it’s hidden on the other side of the tracks, inside some buildings resembling cow sheds, barns or whatever else you can think of. The rain was pouring, and there were no others seeking out the place, save an elderly Burmese couple. I had asked my way the day before the departure and I was happy to meet some officials in one of the numerous client-less counters who hand-wrote me a ticket for 33 dollars (US cash only).
So getting the ticket is quite easy once you have found the office. Just remember to buy it a day in advance. Later in Myanmar I met a guy who had popped up at the station in Yangon an hour or so prior to departure. That was too late – they refused to sell him a ticket.
The night train was scheduled to depart at five in the afternoon. I was there an half hour before and was aided by an attendant to my car and cabin. The four-berth cabin gave me flashbacks to the hard-sleepers of China in the 1980s. The berth was quite hard, but not bad, and a clean sheet was handed out to cover one’s body, or put underneath. The cabin had a small table at the window and a door to the corridor outside. It was possible to lift the dirty glass window for a view of the outside world, and there was also metal shutters to pull down to let in some fresh air while keeping it dark at night.
That was quite alright, but what struck me was the weariness of everything. This train had clearly seen better days. It did not seem utterly dirty, but it was old, shabby and not at all befitting Westerners of the sensitive kind. I liked it.
I was joined by a young Australian couple. It is always nice to have someone to talk to on long journeys.
The train left on time.
Life on the train – ordering an evening meal
An hour or so after departure a young man knocked on the door and handed us a laminated coloured card. It was a menu with a dozen choices. I made a point that having food brought to us instead of looking for a restaurant car with the train bumping up and down and shaking from side to side, was a better option. We all settled for this and found something on the menu that seemed interesting. We ordered a few beers as well. This young man’s English was not the best, but we understood that food would be served at seven in our cabin. So far, so good.
Then another man came by with a menu card. Of a different colour. We explained to him that we had already ordered dinner, but he did not seem to understand – or was unwilling to understand what we were telling. The Australians made a second order, just in case. Their food would be served at 1930 hrs. Well, the clock ticked past 1900 and no food arrived. The Australian guy felt uneasy and decided to look for the restaurant car. We had all seen a car, or thought we had, but not very near our’s.
I tried to tell him that the effort of undergoing such an exercise would be fruitless, besides one has to give them some slack. He returned ten minutes later with no success, and our food arrived at the same time. As seen on the picture below (blurry because the train was shaking), we received a proper meal on a real plate. Filling.
While we were busy eating, the door to the corridor opened once again. Waiter number two entered with the plates for the Australians. They refused to accept and pay. It was clearly an embarrassing situation, but the waiter had to leave.
What else was there to do? Nothing but sit, lie and stare out of the window.
Myanmar is one of the world’s poorest countries, despite being rich on natural resources like minerals, oil and with a very fertile wide valley along the Ayeyarwady River. Along the tracks I noticed that school-children in uniforms waiting for the train to pass. Safety seemed to be high on the minds of authorities and population. Every road crossing had gates and a man with a flag guarding it.
We went early to bed, or rather tried to go to sleep.
I cannot understand how I was able to sleep that night, for the train was rolling from side to side much more than any other train I have been on. It was actually rolling in every direction possible, simultaneously. Falling asleep on a train is usually quite easy, you just get into the rhythm of the sounds and gliding movement of the carriage. Here, there was no basic rhythm. It was as if there was a bump on the tracks every now and then, a screeching of brakes, bridges to cross, slamming of doors and windows, and people walking in the corridor who would crash from wall to wall.
Sleep or no sleep, what’s the point?
Lying flat on the berth was consequently almost impossible. It felt a number of times as if my entire body would elevate from the berth, hang in free air, and slam back down after endless seconds. Sleeping sideways was impossible, and so was face down. Concentration. Meditation.
Taking a night train leaves you with large distances with no views. We had a couple of hours of daylight as we left Yangon, and several hours before arriving in Mandalay. It was fascinating to get those glimpses of life in rural Myanmar. Oxen, paddy fields, manual labour, school children with uniforms, wooden cabins, lush and green vegetation everywhere. As we were coming closer to Mandalay we would also notice the mountains of Shan State. I would be going up there just a few days later.
We arrived in Mandalay on time, roughly around nine in the morning. It had been raining when I left Yangon, it had kept raining for most of the journey, and it was raining in Mandalay as well. This was August.
Would I recommend this?
Yes. No doubt. But you will have to be prepared for a rough ride. The fact is that Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in the developing world. Every piece of machinery is run down, buildings as well. The people are poor and they have been living under harsh political conditions for decades. In spite of this, Myanmar is surprisingly easy to travel in, for a foreign visitor. The trains may be run down, but they run. Long-distance buses are emerging as a good alternative.
There are a number of airlines operating on the domestic market, just stay away from the shady ones. People are polite, friendly and eager at satisfying your needs. Buying train, plane or bus tickets was no problem at all.
The video from this train ride
My travel map of Myanmar
This article is part of a series from Myanmar, describing my travels in August 2013. My visit is presented in ten chapters, a planning document and an article with some final impressions from a country which is included on just about everyone’s bucket list. Read all chapters:
(2) The Amazing Shwedagon Pagoda
THIS CHAPTER (4) The Night Train to Mandalay
(5) The Train Across the Gokteik Viaduct
(6) The Train from Kalaw to Shwenyaung
(7) Amarapura, Sagaing Hill, Inwa and U Bein
(10) What else to see in Bagan