The Train to Mandalay

If you’ve ever attempted to ride a bucking bronco, you will undoubtedly have experienced that brief smug feeling when, at about the 30-second mark – having so far survived the gentle rocking and to-ing and fro-ing – you smile and think, “Hey, this isn’t that bad at all!”

Then, seconds later, finding yourself lying in pain on the floor looking up at the ceiling, you probably wondered where it all went wrong. If this sounds at all familiar you’ll possibly be able to understand what it feels like to travel on the sleeper train from Yangon to Mandalay.

It all started so well; departing only thirty minutes late from the magnificent old colonial station in Yangon, we drank ice-cold beer as the train slowly wound its way through the outskirts of the city. We leant out of open windows to watch the day-to-day activities being conducted at the side of the tracks, returning the waves of people who had momentarily stopped and stepped aside to allow the train to pass.

As the city slowly drifted away, miles of luscious calm green paddy fields opened up before us, framed by a dramatic background of dark cloud-laden hills in the distance and punctuated occasionally by flocks of white egrets which soared gracefully above the farmers in sharp pointed conical hats who were bent low over their rice. As buffalo gazed lazily up at us from deep pools of water, we reclined, equally content, in our bunks in the upper-class sleeper carriage.

With nothing to do but drink more beer and share travel stories, we lamented the passing of the golden age of travel, a time gone by when taking a trip by train was slower, more pleasant and left one in better touch with one’s surroundings. As the sun began to set, the dining carriage began to fill with hungry local travellers and cheerful armed police. The fug of our cigarette smoke mingled with the smells of fried rice and spices wafting from the kitchen. With cold beer still in abundance, we had a chance to saviour our meal, chat with our fellow diners and watch the activity at the numerous small country stations that the train frequently stopped at.

Up and down each platform, sellers called out as they touted their wares through the windows, and groups of people sat drinking tea, smoking cheroots and discussing their day. Children waved cheerfully at the dirty white faces peering down at them, until – with whistles blown and flags waved – we set off again, all in agreement this really was a delightful way to see some of the country. Eventually, having exhausted the cold beer supplies, and with the dining car deserted, we decided to call it a night and get some sleep before arriving in Mandalay the following morning.

We smiled our goodnights, spoke the fateful words, “Hey, this isn’t that bad at all!” and drunkenly drifted off to our beds. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to us, under the cover of darkness the train had begun to slowly pick up speed. The gentle rocking that was settling us into our bunks was about to change. And unlike the uncomfortable brevity of a bucking bronco ride, we discovered, still eleven hours away from Mandalay, that there was no escape from the train, no opportunity to be thrown clear, no chance to lie still on the floor in pain and gaze at the stars. No, our delightful journey was about to take a different, distinctly aggressive turn – one that would soon wipe the beery grins from our faces.

Due to the combination of high speeds and ancient narrow-gauge tracks – built by the British in the late 19th century, and apparently having seen little maintenance since then – we discovered that lying down was a complicated option, as we found ourselves bouncing from our beds like rubber balls. Using legs and arms as anchors on the ceiling, we fought desperately the motion of the train, seeking to counteract the lack of shock absorbers below. For the remaining hours of darkness we wrestled and strained and sweated.

Our stomachs churned and our heads swam, and we cursed the evening’s excess of beer. The briefest of stops at tiny platforms – which once seemed so idyllic – now allowed just enough time to stretch our aching muscles, wipe the sweat from our eyes and wonder where it all went wrong before we were thrown right back into another battle. Standing still was not an option; walking resulted in pin-balling from wall to wall down the corridor, trying to avoid the open doors of the carriage as the pitch black of rural Myanmar raced by at high speed outside.

Making it to the toilet involved executing a brave and well-timed leap of faith between two carriages that each seemed be swaying to a different tempo; to then use the toilet involved a feat of great bravery, great balance and great aim. A couple of hours after the point when I had decided I could take no more, when I had given in and resigned myself to my fate, the sun suddenly arrived. Paddy fields appeared once more out of the dark, and a breakfast of sickeningly sweet tea and bread was served. In the cold light of early morning, things seemed more positive again.

The stilted thatched huts began to be replaced by zinc and concrete, motorbikes started to outnumber ox-carts and the train took on a more sedate speed as the outskirts of Mandalay came to life around us. About 400 miles and 15 hours after waving goodbye to Yangon, we arrived at our destination exhausted, battered and bruised, but also in surprisingly good spirits. And after a well-deserved cold shower and an even colder beer, the exertions of the night slowly drifted to the backs of our minds like a dream – an intense and brutal dream, to be carefully filed away under “incredible journeys to share with other travellers”.

I would recommend this journey to anyone with an adventurous spirit who is prepared to endure some discomfort in order to have an amazing experience, and who is also physically capable of withstanding a bucking bronco for 15 hours. It definitely isn’t for the faint-hearted, but it’s such a wonderful way to step back in time and see a tiny sliver of Myanmar you wouldn’t generally get to see. For a few dollars, some bruises and a few hours of discomfort, it’s definitely worth it.

Further information
Three trains depart daily from Yangon to Mandalay, two of which run overnight. Tickets for foreigners range from US$11 for ordinary class up to $33 for upperclass sleeper. For maximum “comfort”, go for the in-between choice of upper-class non-sleeper: The sleeper carriage wasn’t particularly upper-class and allowed no sleep whatsoever, but the cheapest option – the upright wooden benches of ordinaryclass – must be absolutely lethal. Buy your tickets a few days ahead (not more than a week) from the booking office on Bogyoke Aung San Road, Yangon. Happy travels!

Published in the  Myanmar Times – October 2013

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