I like train travel. It may date back to loving Thomas the Tank Engine as a small child, or be related to the fact that there aren’t many trains in the area where I grew up, so train travel has always been a novelty. But whatever the reason, I think it’s a great way to travel. You generally get more space than on a bus or plane, and bigger, clearer windows. Trains often go through scenery that you simply don’t see from a road – think the Rocky Mountains in western Canada, or the edge of Lake Baikal in Siberia. You also have much more opportunity to meet and chat to your fellow travellers, something I love doing.
So during my trip to Myanmar, I decided that despite the poor reputation of the rail system, I wanted to take a train. And all the guidebooks agreed that if you’re going to take a train in Myanmar, take it to Hsipaw.
There’s a bit of a should-you-shouldn’t-you debate with the rail system in Myanmar, as there is with all travel in that country. Unlike the long-distance buses, the rail system is absolutely government owned, and you just can’t escape the stories of pain that that government has inflicted on its people – at least half a dozen people were happy to tell me their (low) opinions of the government during my short stay, and many of them had personal direct experience of corruption. But on the other hand, there really has been a change in attitude in the last couple of years, and things do seem to be improving. The government really is the best placed body to improve the lives of everyday people in Myanmar, and I saw lots of evidence of things like roadwork that show that they are (at least kind of?) doing something about it. In the end, my ticket only cost $9, and it was an experience I was keen for, so I went ahead and took the train.
One of the fun things about travelling in Myanmar is the inability to book things ahead of schedule, or to find information online. You have to go about things old-school style, so when I arrived in Mandalay in the early evening, I jumped on a motorcycle taxi first thing and asked him to take me to the train station.
People in Myanmar are genuinely super-friendly and helpful, so not only did he take me to the station, he found out which ticket counter I needed to go to and organised someone else to go with me to help, just in case. I decided to spend the extra $5 (so $9 instead of $4) and get an upper class ticket – posh, right? The difference is cushioned seats, and for a 11+ hour trip, I’d prefer a cushion. I was (not) thrilled to learn that the train left at 4am the next morning, and I needed to be there half an hour early, but there’s only one train a day, and that’s what time it leaves.
So, bleary-eyed, I dutifully returned to the train station at 3:25am the following morning, an hour so early that it’s still late in my book. I was the first to board the upper class carriage, and right away I decided it was the worst train I’ve ever been on. I wondered if it had ever been cleaned, then took a breath and decided not to think about that. I took my allotted seat, pleased that at least the backrest stayed fully upright, and that the window opened. It was actually pretty comfy.
The carriage gradually filled up around me with a mix of locals and fellow travellers. The seats were arranged two-facing-two, and I was soon joined by Shane and James, brothers from Ireland, and June, a Malaysian backpacker. Shane actually lives in Myanmar, and works for an organisation that provides aid to people living in Kachin State, home of the world’s longest running current civil war. Unfortunately, he tells me, the supplies they’ve been trying to send to people living in the conflict zone are often stolen by armed forces on both sides. The last rice shipment went to the government, the one before that to the Kachin rebels. “So…” I suggest, “At least you’re supplying both sides equally?” He laughed. “Something like that.”
Around 7:30am, we pulled in to Pyin Oo Lwin Station for long enough for me to duck out to the market, conveniently right next to the train station. Fresh chapatti for breakfast, cooked right there in front of me? Mm, yes please. And some fresh bananas too. As ever, the locals are keen to chat, even when they don’t speak much English. This lady was especially friendly (and that’s my breakfast being cooked on the left).
Properly awake now, I’m able to start properly appreciating the landscape. Outside of the settlements, the rolling countryside is arranged in neat farms with rows of crops, little wooden houses, and haystacks that look to me like they have leapt out of a Monet painting. The whole place is a riot of colourful wildflowers. Between the fields and at the edge of the tracks there are huge bushes of big yellow flowers, smaller bushes of orange flowers, and trees dripping in red flowers. Every so often we pass a field dotted with blue, white or purple flowers. It’s absolutely gorgeous.
Those yellow flowers though… The further we got from Mandalay, the more the bushes of big yellow flowers began to encroach on the track, and with the train windows wide open, pretty soon bits of leaf, stem, petals, even whole flowers were raining in on us. At first it was just funny, but it became pretty annoying. I felt like I was drowning in bits of plant detritus. (On the plus side, I realised that if this happens every time the train makes this journey, then it must actually be cleaned regularly. Or at least swept.)
And the bumps! It was absolutely the bumpiest train ride I have ever been on, and with our spring-loaded cushioned seats, I can honestly say I have been on trampolines that were less bouncy. Again, funny at first, annoying after a while, especially while trying to nap! It certainly added to the atmosphere of the trip though.
A real highlight – and one of the reasons all the guidebooks suggest this train as the one to get – was the Gokteik Viaduct, a massive steel super-structure built in 1901 to cross a seemingly random gorge that appears out of nowhere amongst the pretty farms. As we approached, everyone in our carriage crowded to the north-facing side, trying to snap a picture as the bridge dipped in and out of view. As promised, the train crossed the bridge at a snail’s pace, and the whole time I was remembering the age of the structure. I may have breathed a sigh of relief when we reached the solid ground again.
The train finally pulled into Hsipaw station mid-afternoon, surrounded by rolling hills and fresh mountain air. I can never decide if I’m glad or disappointed when a train journey ends – it’s just something about trains.