When I was looking for a tour to go on in Burma, one of the main selling points for me of this one was the train journey. I love getting the train, especially overnight, because you get to see so much more of a country. The view from a train carriage is more detailed and closer to real life than any other form of transport; you don’t have your view blocked by highways and ugly edge-of-city industry like you do on buses, and you get a sense of the scale and variety of a country that you miss by flying.
So I was very excited on day two of the trip, when we prepared to board our 4pm overnight train to Bagan. We were warned that it would be a rather bumpy ride, and a little chilly, and that if there was a restaurant car the food would be of questionable quality, so were advised to bring our own snacks. We went to board the train, passing by the slatted benches of ‘Ordinary’ class, the face to face sleepers of second class, to the back of the train which carried the ‘Upper’ class carriages. In my head I was expecting something like you see in old films and Harry Potter; a corridor on one side of the train, and sliding doors into compartments with cushioned bench seats. What I found was rather different. The compartments were stark, with a dirty floors and wooden window frames with peeling paint. The windows could either be open to the elements, or closed letting in no light, and the electric light and fan didn’t seem to be working. By the door there was a western toilet cubicle and an empty cubicle with no door, barely any floor and an uncloseable ventilation grate.
The compartment had two fixed upper bunks on each side running parallel to the window, with two pairs of seats facing each other with a retractable table, and the seats slid down to make the lower bunk. There were no doors between compartments, so you couldn’t walk up and down the train, but it was more or less functional and comfortable (as long as it didn’t rain) and my traveling companions and I settled down to enjoy the journey. The open windows were great for taking photos and the train trundled along, first past the suburbs and slums of the city, and later through villages and flat, expansive countryside. There were no barriers keeping people away from the railway, and because the villages came right up to the railway and the train traveled very slowly, we had an excellent view of Burmese rural life.
Our warning that the journey would be ‘a bit bumpy’ was, as became very clear very quickly, a bit of an understatement. We’d be rocked side to side from window to aisle, and then just as we were getting used to that rhythm, we’d be bounced up and down like we were riding horses. Every so often there’d be a big jolt and we’d be thrown nearly out of our seats, and I wondered if we had run over something.
Much of the line was a single track, so the train stopped frequently to let other trains pass in the opposite direction. At one point the train literally screeched to a halt, nearly throwing me out of my seat, and it turned out that a bag had somehow fallen out of one of the carriages and I saw a steward running back to collect it before we carried on. Excellent customer service!
As it got dark we realised that the lights didn’t switch on, so we set up some makeshift lighting with head-torches and cable ties and sat, bumping around in the dark and the noise. It was a bit like camping except unlike any camping trip I’ve ever been on, I was having a genuinely excellent time. At our first stop, about 90 minutes after sunset, the train guards came along the platform and fixed the lighting problem, and we closed the windows and noticed just how cold it was getting. We had been advised to bring an extra layer, but it became clear that one extra layer would not be enough when we set up the berths and went to sleep. We had each been left a pillow, a sheet which was about two thirds the size of the bed, and a blanket about the size and weight of a beach towel. Although the windows were closed, there was plenty of cold air getting in, and the tin box of a compartment provided little in the way of insulation. I’d guess it was about 5 degrees, and I slept fully clothed, with the ‘blanket’ over my feet, my travel towel around my middle, and my sarong around my head and shoulders. Lucky for me I’d had about three hours sleep the night before as the jetlag got me, so I actually slept quite well!
We all woke up early the next morning, keen to open the windows and let the sunlight warm us up. Overnight we had moved from the fertile, almost swampy farm land of the Yangon area into the ‘dry zone’, with sandy yellow soil and thirsty-looking trees.
We arrived at Bagan Railway Station at about 10am, groggy and hungry, but full of stories of how we’d got on. It was an ‘experience’, that everyone agreed, with increasing confidence as the next days passed, that they had enjoyed and would recommend.