Planning the trip to Myanmar, I had read numerous tales of train travel with many travellers urging you to take the overnight buses instead. But I am a curious being and had to find out for myself. I believe that to experience authentic Myanmar, you have to take at least one train journey. It provides a great opportunity to look into remote village life, see Myanmar’s spectacular views and to mix with the locals. While most nomads opted for the bus, we were going to give the train a go. Different train classes: Ordinary class fares will provide you with a simple wooden seat. Which, as you can imagine, is extremely uncomfortable for long journeys and they are usually overcrowded with locals and frequently where additional deliveries are stor First class, is like a fancier ordinary class. Usually wooden seats with cushioned bottoms to protect your bottom on the bumps, and trust me there are plenty of those. Upper class provides you with a modest and comfortable seat that reclines (when functional) and a larger amount of leg room.
Standard sleeper is where you get a more luxurious ride. Either a two-berth or a four-berth lockable compartment is what you get for your money, plus the added bonus of bedclothes (designed for a short body). Special sleeper is what you target if avoiding contact with other people is your style. It is a self-contained compartment, with a separate entrance, toilet, sitting and sleeping area. You are basically seperate from the rest of the train.
The train adventure began when we tried to purchase a ticket the day before from the train station. Be warned, none of the signs are in English, except for the sign that says “Warmly welcome and take care of tourists”. And you know what...they did! While few people could speak English, they all tried their best to assist us in getting our ticket. In the end, the somewhat bored looking lady at the complaints counter was able to explain to us that we would need to purchase a ticket from the booking office on the other side of the bridge. Simple enough. We wandered over and a lovely gentleman out the front guided us to the entrance.
Then challenge number two..... When i entered the booking office, it reminded my of the betting stalls at the races. Window after window with chalkboards above that have incomprehensible writing on them. Which window do we go to? Your guess was as good as mine, so I just picked one and lined up. It turns out I wasn’t even at the correct area, so 15 minutes later, we found the right window and had purchased our overnight Upper Class ticket to Mandalay. We were committed now. With a total investment of AUD$9. I know....big spenders. Returning the next evening, with our bags on our backs we had been told that the train would leave from Platform 1. Easy enough, however, the gates were not open for Platform 1. And while our ticket clearly stated carriage 3, in English, the writing on the trains were all in Burmese...so I had no idea which one to get on. However, I forgot something. One of the best things about being 6’2”, blonde hair and in a country where there are not many tourists...you stand out! Looking lost and confused, and sweating in the Myanmar heat, a young man asked for our ticket and then proceeded to point at carriage where our seats were. Then at a closed gate nearby. In his broken English he pointed to the ground and said ‘wait’. Well at least we were in the correct spot. We dropped our bags at our feet and spent the next 15 minutes being ogled at by the locals waiting. We just smiled at them...which made them giggle and blush. I loved that about the locals here. They constantly have a smile on their face. A simple hello brings them so much joy that you can't help but want to smile at every passing individual.
As the departure time grew nearer, people started to crowd around us near the gate. Obviously the gate was about to open. We picked up our bags and prepared ourselves for what ever was about to happen. I’d seen videos in India where hoards of people push and shove their way onto trains. Other countries where people are hired to “push” people into compartments, like sardines in a can. Who knows what could happen here. I was all prepared and about to get ready to walk through the gate to the carriage, when the young man from earlier reappeared, took our tickets and guided us through the gate. He then guided us to the seat and helped us load our backpacks into the overhead luggage racks. Then said goodbye and disappeared. Another young man appeared with a menu and asked what we would like for dinner and at what time we would like to eat. It was all very civilised. Around us, families, business men and frequent travellers nestled in to their seats, seemingly shocked to see us on the train.
It hadn’t occurred to me until this moment, but we hadn’t seen any other travellers that day. So I guess seeing us on the train would have come as a surprise to some. Goodness knows that the carriage staff were excited to see us. They even asked to have photos with us like we were some kind of celebrity. A quick selfie is a small gesture for the smiles you get in return. The carriage was anything less than luxurious. Apart from the overhead rotating fans, the only form of relief from the Myanmar heat was the open windows adjacent to every seat, which would circulate the air enough when the train got some speed...which wasn’t often. But you didn’t really mind too much. You just kind of accept it that you are hot. While everyone was settling in, pulling out pillows and food, we were struggling with how to make the seat recline. Fortunately, one of the other passengers came running to our aid and gave a quick tutorial. Like the sign instructed, they were definitely ‘taking care’ of the tourists. Nestled in to our seats, and watching the world pass by through the window, the scenery changed from commercial to rural relatively quickly. Passing house after house built out of reclaimed materials, watching children play amongst the discarded waste of the community, and seeing every metre of land being utilised for agriculture, I found myself slightly disheartened. The romantic view of Myanmar that I had cherished was slightly tarnished with harsh realities of the world they exist in. Day turned to night in spectacular fashion. The train rumbled along the tracks. I was enjoying the journey, albeit being the bumpiest train ride I have ever been on, then the fluorescent lights came on. Nothing kills the romance faster than fluorescent lights. Like the lights they turn on in the club to clear the building, these lights illuminated the carriage so that it became a beacon for all insects in the province. Now while I am Australian, and we are home to some weird and wonderful animals, I HATE moths. Having them near me will inevitably result in me squealing or flapping my hands about in a vain attempt to create some force field of protection. You see moths just love me. You would think with countless years of evolution, these dust muppets would learn to not fly in my face...but they do. So there you have it...spiders I can handle but moths....no! With the train journey only a few hours into its overnight schedule, and my aforementioned phobia, this romantic train journey was quickly becoming a nightmare. A nightmare, unfortunately, that I has to endure until the sunrise the next morning. In saying that, this one glitch did not tarnish the journey. The whole experience was exciting, surprising, enlightening and a whole bunch of other adjectives. I feel I invested wisely in my Myanmar train experience!