TRAIN RIDE IN MYANMAR

Wong How Man
Lashio, Myanmar

Train crossing the famous high Goktiek bridge over 100 meters above the canyon below.“Your tickets are for upper class,” said Klai Klai my driver. With that he handed me a scrubby and coarse piece of paper, a printed form with some handwritten Burmese on it. Our names were written on it, together with our passport numbers behind.

Momentarily something flashed into mind. Is upper class like the many pick-up trucks around the country, with people sitting on the roof? Or is it like some of the Indian trains I have seen in pictures with passengers sitting on top? After all, Thirty-six US Dollars for the three of us to ride from Mandalay to Lashio, a lengthy sixteen hours ordeal on a local train, hardly promises to be an Oriental Express or Road to Mandalay experience.

Lookout view of the Goktiek Gorge.“This is the best tickets, with assigned seats,” added Klai Klai reassuringly. Tickets in hand, I went back to the hotel and rested early, before being awakened at 2:30 am to leave for the train station. As I got into the station and arrived at platform 4, I found many people were there ahead of us. They had slept the night covered with blankets at the platform. Some may even be perpetual squatters of the space, as their belongings are telltale of much more than an overnight tenancy. Our train arrived on schedule but departed ten minutes late, at 4:10 am.

We took to our seats, rather comfortable soft seats with arms, though the recliner function refused to work. There were even ceiling fans. A peek over at the regular class revealed no fans and hard straight-back bench seats. Our windows could only open partly whereas regular class had fully open windows, for goods and cargoes to pass through, and humans to climb in and out, be it out of necessity or to save time.

Head and feetof train passengers.With three long whistles, we pulled out of the station. There were only a few passengers at this Upper Class carriage, and the conductor checked our tickets. At a station on the edge of Mandalay, many more local passengers crowded in. They started taking up any and all seats left available, some three persons to two seats, some sitting on the lap of another passenger. The cabin got more rowdy and noisy as the train started going again.

The conductor sitting at the back kept a blind eye to these new passengers and never asked to see their tickets. Obviously they were non-paying hitchhikers taking a free ride to the next few towns early in the morning to work, or to play. By around 7am when it began to get bright outside, Train station enroute withmany food venders and casual passengers.these passengers gradually dissipated into one station after another, and we were left quiet again.

As the train picked up speed, the going got rough, bouncing up and down and wavering side to side, at times at ten or twenty degrees sway to each side. It was fun watching the passengers’ heads bouncing up and down from their seats, knowing all the time that mine must be performing the same act with the same rhythm. The doors of the carriage were either kept open or could be opened, allowing the passengers, or overflow of passengers, to stand by the doors to appreciate the scenery outside. Go down a couple of steps and you could swing your body outward while holding on to a long railing to take in also the fresh air flushing at your face.Transaction done in ahurry.

Just one warning, if you don’t watch out, there may be more than fresh air hitting at your face. At many locations throughout the trip, the bushes and trees brushed against the train and scraped the windows, at times with broken branches and leaves falling inside the cabin. This is winter dry season and I could not imagine what spring growing season would bring inside the train as it passes through dense forested areas.

At Pyin Oo Lwin, the famous hill station of colonial time, a group of western tourists came onboard. A couple of them were Germans, one Canadian and the rest Americans. The latter had been catching up fast on missing years when the US sanction of Myanmar stopped the globetrotters from visiting the country. They are usually the most friendly among travelers and before long you could overhear conversation covering their impression and opinion of the country, their family and even their life’s story. It added spice to the most beautiful scenery of the countryside unveiling outside the window.

At each stop, be it a real station or just a make-shift platform, venders peddle food and other knickknacks. Women usually carried their ware on baskets sitting on their heads. As the day wore on, we got more hungry but refrained from trying the local food offered for sale along the railroad. Most looked too spicy to fit our palate. Only a loaf of bread and some grapes sustained us for the entire journey. At some stations we stopped for less than five minutes and at some for up to half an hour. We never knew when the train would take off until we heard the whistle warning passengers to get back onboard.

Mother offering softlap seat to child.It was usually at the small and quick-stop stations where there would be a small crowd with merchandises, be it fruits, vegetables or hard goods like bamboo and small timber boards, being thrown onboard. As the train stopped, activities got into a frenzy. They would come through the door, the windows and any opening while someone on the receiving end in the train would organize it when the train got moving again. I could only surmise that these were contraband cargo heading to the next town when the same activities would be reversed or repeated.

At about noon, the train went through a slow climb up to somewhat of a plateau. Then there was a huge gorge in front of us as the train snaked its way closer and closer to the edge.Hard floor as bed at Mandalaytrain station. At one point, the tracks went on two long hairpin turns before crossing a very high bridge. Looking down while the train passed in snail pace was quite exhilarating. I held my breath while gingerly putting my camera outward and faced it downward to get a shot of the high bridge, all the while bracing myself to the handle of my chair.

After sixteen hours of constant massage by the chair, we arrived after 8pm in Lashio, once an important town along the Burma Road during the Second World War. Here, somewhat closer to the border with Yunnan, were many stores and restaurants owned and operated by Chinese. Many had been living here for generations. We checked into the Green Park Hotel on a hill overlooking the city. A bungalow with three spacious and clean rooms cost a modest US120.

Though late, we found a Chinese restaurant where the owner family all spoke Yunnan dialect and some Mandarin. We finally caught up with a most hearty breakfast, lunch and dinner, all blended into one, though somewhat belatedly.