Trains have always excited me. I love that someone else does all the work and I can sit back with a cocktail, enjoy the scenery, read a book and use the restroom whenever I need. I even love the way they bump and jolt you along the tracks and the way the brakes squeak when stopping. I love the people and culture you see at train stations, it’s the best for people watching! The trains in Myanmar are nothing like the Amtrak’s of the United States with their blue and silver bodies shaped like futuristic time warping machines.
Myanmar’s trains are British built and are less developed than the others in SE Asia. This meter gauge rail network stretches about 3,300 miles and has over 800 different stations. It mostly spans north to south with a few branch lines east to west. It has 18 fright trains, 379 passenger trains and transports over 100,00 people per day. The quality of the infrastructure is very poor causing the trains to move at a slow pace and make them impassable during monsoon season. History and dangers aside, taking the Myanmar railway was an amazing experience of culture and a fantastic way to see the countryside from ground level.
The train left Yangon around 5pm. The coach seat that I purchased was more comfortable than a wooden bench and the leg room I did have was taken up by my two back packs. These trains are antiques so they don’t have AC and the fans that are still intact are also antiques. Seeing as it’s 100 degrees outside, the windows are all left open which is a feature I personally really enjoyed. I loved the fresh air in my face and being able to smell the villages as we slowly cruised by. While boarding the train several vendors walk the isles selling everything from SIM cards, fruits, noodles, fried food, corn on the cob, chips, waters and beers and everything in between. The train leaves the station at a painful speed of about 15 miles per hour and clicks and clacks along until it gets out of town and increases to a whopping 35 miles per hour! I was the only foreigner on board that I saw but quickly made friends with the three Burmese sitting next to me who shared their food and snacks with me while we jostled along.
In the few hours before sunset I watched as the train passed through the countryside and farmlands. Ox driven carts can be seen riding down dirt roads and farmers knee deep in soil. I love the small villages with their palm thatched cottages on stilts and children running along the train tracks waving ferociously with giant smiles especially when they see me, a foreigner. As the sun set the sky was lit up with orange, purple and pink hues. Even after darkness fell I could still see the palm silhouettes and the occasional stupa or pagoda in the distance. As we passed through the villages I could hear the villagers settling in for the night and the crisp smell of their dinner and nightly fires.
The lights are never turned off or down. I assume that’s a feature that didn’t exist when these bad boys were created. So even in the middle of the night the lights are brightly lit making sleeping nearly impossible. Not that I’m able to sleep on trains or buses anyways, but other people might struggle with this feature. I read my books, I’m currently reading three, played my game on my tablet and listened to music without moving for over 14 hours. The train frequently stops at many stations with a nice squeak of the brakes. Vendors flood through the isles at every stop again selling literally anything, even at 3am in the morning. These people apparently never sleep. Many of them, I noticed, live at the train stations. I saw children running around without clothes, people sleeping on cardboard and little settlements of blankets and trash. Seriously sad to see. Then the train jolts back to life and nearly throws me from my seat and off we go again.
In the early AM I decided I would get up and go pee. I didn’t really have to go seeing as I refuse to drink water on these long trips because it goes right through me like a small child. However, my butt hurt, I needed to stretch my legs and this was the only real option for that. I asked my kind Burmese friends sitting next to me where the toilet was (thank god everyone knows this word) and they pointed toward the back of the cart. As I proceeded to the back I was surprised to have to step over three sleeping bodies. This shocked me, I can’t even sleep on the seat and here they are passed out in the back of the cart. Anyways, I make it to the bathroom which is just a hole in the bottom of the train. Literally, you’re looking at the tracks roll under you. So, I do my thing only slightly disturbed. I mean this is Asia after all. As I bump, like a ping pong back to my seat I wonder what it would be like to be standing on the side of the tracks and watch a giant turd drop out of the bottom of the train. I don’t know why I think about things like this, but I have an actively curious mind.
The sunrise was absolutely stunning and by far my favorite part of this ride. Nothing compares to the color of the sun here. I took so many photos and videos because it was so breathtaking. We arrived almost perfectly on time in Mandalay at the bustling train station where I was quickly picked by a motor taxi driver who delivered me safely to my hostel, which mind you, had a pool. First hostel with a pool guys! I was pretty excited! Little did I know I would be spending a lot of time the next week hiding away at this pool. More to come on that later! Check out my video of my train ride here.
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