aking the train in Myanmar is a true experience, we don’t often say something is a must-do, but taking the train in Myanmar really is! You definitely do miss something if you don’t let yourself be gently rocked and rolled through the magnificent landscape past little villages and beautiful scenery.
The first train we take is one to frame, and what a frame it is. You can choose between second class and first class. In second class you are packed together on wooden benches, and in first class you have a seat with a number. The latter does sound promising and since a ticket in first class is still dirt cheap, we decide to spoil ourselves and take an upgrade. It turns out that while your chair is marginally softer in first, you are pretty lucky if it is still somewhat in one piece. Don’t bet on having much leg room as the train fills up. They can’t let all this empty space between the seats go to waste, can they.
The rickety seats are invariably very loosely attached to the old rusty body of the trains. The only ventilation is provided by the open doors and windows, but at least this gives you the feeling of being in the middle of the action, watching the countryside move by from front row seats. You are rocked through fields that are still tended by hand or with ox-ploughs, and rolled past wooden huts, where laundry is drying in the wind, waving children and straw hatted locals with all sorts of thanaka patterns on their faces.
Often you are so close to the surrounding nature, that you literally can touch it. In some places the train barely has enough room between the encroaching jungle or between the surrounding rock walls. You travel across bridges just wide enough to support the narrow gauge rails, past patches of meters high grass and bamboo. Often the foliage actually penetrates into the cabin, smacking unsuspecting passengers and leaving the interior of the train dusted with leaves and grass-seeds. At a certain point we even glide over an open fire. Apparently some local geniuses decided to burn-off the railroad bed to keep the greenery at bay… while the train was passing over it… The antique wooden latches of the windows have to be closed to keep out the hot cinders and prevent the lashing fire from burning off our hair. A tip: it might be advisable to keep all body parts inside the trains at all times, you never know what might flash up next.
Luckily with all that encroaching greenery, these Myanmarese trains don’t require a lot of space to operate, they are pretty narrow on even narrower gauge rails. However, this does lead to excessive rocking from left to right, making seasickness a definite possibility. According to a first hand account, these very local services are prone to de-rail quite regularly leading to luggage and passengers flying about. Not something we are looking forward to… We try to do our part by tying our backpacks to the luggage rack and thinking up our own emergency plan. But as soon as you are on the move, you get lulled into a mesmerising calm by looking at the verdantly green world rolling past.
Our first train leaves before dawn from Dawei’s main station to Ye, where we will change trains to continue on to Moulmein. This ride will take us approximately 16 hours for slightly more than 300 km. At every station people materialise out of the thick morning fog to board the train. Behind the horizon the sun rises gently and starts to shed some light on the hazy landscape that we are traversing, a pretty mysterious and very atmospheric experience. As soon as the sun raises itself a little higher, the white haze turns pinkish and gives way to a memorable red-orange sunrise above the Myanmarese countryside. During the daytime we see people ploughing their land, making wooden boats, ox-drawn carriages, children playing in the dirt or in the canals, laundry, cooking and every possible day-to-day occupation passes us by. By the time the sun is going down again, you see seas of little cooking fires and families having dinner by candlelight. The arrivals at the stations, where more and more people seem to jump on the train, gets a feverish glow in the poor station lighting. Our hairs literally flying in the wind, this is one hell of an experience, and the very real chance of derailment ends up only adding to the excitement.
While this first train ride was one of the best we ever took, the following railway adventures in Myanmar prove to be almost always as picturesque and atmospheric chugging through various landscapes. Once the trains start filling up, the interior becomes very interesting as well. You don’t only see that the train is barely held together by all sorts of temporary fixes and shoddy replacements, but you also get to see beautiful everyday scenes. People sitting tailor style on the floor chewing paan, smoking cheroots (Myanmar’s greenish cigars) or drinking some of the local firewater (maybe they are afraid of derailing as well).
The chairs are positioned haphazardly and in various stages of decay and in between people sit on the floor with loads of luggage, including baskets of fresh produce, bags of rice and boxes filled with merchandise. Apparently the spot in front of the door is very popular, notwithstanding the obvious risk of being tipped out of the moving train, it must be the extra fresh air… Women are cosily chatting and buy some of the fresh vegetables or some freshly steamed corn on a cob, but always after very careful inspection of the wares. When the train stops for a minute, local hawkers jump on and off the wagons, usually when they are still grinding to a halt. With a huge basket on their heads or a full box of goodies in their arms, they try to sell their wares: hot corn-on-a-cob, boiled eggs, cold beverages, the ever present coffee-mix assortment, packed lunches, greasy curries, fruit, etc… Everything to make the ride even more enjoyable.
So if you really want to zoom in on Myanmarese life and feel and taste the everyday experience, do take a seat in one of those rickety old trains at least once and feast your senses.
If you want to read more about Myanmar in general, have a look here for some of its main characteristics, here for our adventures in the south of Myanmar and here for our wanderings through the north of Myanmar. If you would like to read some tips on travelling Myanmar, have a look here.
While we are posting this blog, Myanmar was hit by heavy floods displacing hundreds of thousands and killing many. Our thoughts go out to the victims. However, do not let this deter you from visiting this beautiful country. Tourism could be an important source of revenue to get the country back on its feet.