One of the essential experiences on a trip to Myanmar / Burma is a ride on the country’s ancient railway system. I wished to go from Mandalay to the hill country in Myanmar’s north east. Aside from experiencing the train ride itself, the journey would pass through the Gokteik Viaduct, an old, tall bridge passing over a beautiful gorge. I have told of the incident that happened just before I got in the train in The Dogs of Mandalay.
I had run into the train at 4 AM, just before it started moving and found myself in a lower class compartment. A few bemused passengers looked at me backpack, hat and all, and made some space for me on a seat. Not knowing how far it was to the next stop, I sat. The seats were made of strips of wood and rattled. I did not fancy sitting on those for the duration of the ride. Mandalay was about 200 Km from Hsi Paw; the lower class ticket cost 2000 Myanmar Kyat (US$ 1.5). The conductor checked my ticket and saw that it was for an upper class seat. Travelling lower class is indeed the best way to meet with the average local, but one has to seriously consider whether the pain is worth it.
My upper class ticket had cost MMK 4000, twice that of lower class. The train made its first stop just a few minutes after I got on. The conductor led me to the correct carriage. I stowed my backpack on the overhead rack and flopped down on my nicely-cushioned seat. My immediate neighbours were an Australian family and a number of Dutch people. One of the Dutch guys noticed that I had not secured my luggage and warned me that the ride could get bumpy. I used the backpack’s straps to tie it to the rack and could finally relax. After chatting with the Australians for a while I covered my eyes and ears and slept.
I awoke after a couple of hours. By now the train’s sounds had become part of the background. They were not entirely unfamiliar to me. I have ridden trains in India plenty of times in my childhood. The colonial-era rails are the same as Myanmar’s and the experience is similar. In my mind, the sounds repeat themselves endlessly as “cha-chak-cha-chak… cha-chak-cha-chak…” Every now and then the horn is sounded to warn people along the way of the oncoming train. I have been in situations where getting to the destination required walking on the rails and the horn is an essential warning.
The train stopped every now and then for a few minutes. We could exit to grab some food – snacks if the stop was short, rice or noodle dishes given adequate time. On the way we went through some narrow places. The train would scrape past leaves and branches and if you sat too close to an open window, your face would be grazed by the leaves.
The viaduct was the highlight of the ride. We could see it approaching fifteen minutes in advance. It was a silver-painted steel structure that stood out in a dark green sea of treetops. The train went in one direction and then the reverse on some curvy paths as it slowly changed altitude to match that of the viaduct. Finally we could see it straight ahead. As the train moved from solid earth to the bridge, the “cha-chak-cha-chak” changed to a booming echo. People had their heads and cameras out to get the perfect shot. The rail curved at the start and end of the bridge, giving us a good view of the bridge and the train. I looked down. A trickle of water flowed down the almost-dry river far below. The train curved again as we exited the bridge and the viaduct went out of sight. “That was beautiful!”, one of the Australians exclaimed. “Well, it was high up”, I said. I had seen plenty of equally beautiful views many times in Kerala to be impressed.
The train arrived at Kyaukme and stopped. It would go no further. We learned that the train coming the other way had derailed and blocked the path. Our train had nowhere to go. We heard many stories in a few minutes: that the other train would be cleared; that buses were being arranged; and so on. Someone wondered if insurance would cover the delay and alternate transportation. I said that it would, but one would need proof. I doubted very much that anyone at that station would be competent enough to write a report in English of a train journey being cancelled. Even then, at just a few dollars, it was not worth the effort. Meanwhile the locals began to respond to the emergency and started finding transportation for the tourists stuck in the town. Negotiations began in earnest. The Australian family needed to get quite far, to a town called Lashio before the curfew fell. (There could be no travelling in the hill regions after a certain hour.) They got a car and had space for one more. I jumped in.
I had come quite close to saying that the train journey was not particularly unpredictable. It turned out not to be. The train failed to get me to my destination and I arrived in Hsi Paw by car.