Something surprising has happened over the past few months. For years – ever since my ill-advised 37 hour train ride from Los Angeles to Seattle in 2008 – I have hated traveling by train. With a passion. So much so that I’d only been on a single train since then. Until I got to Thailand. Somewhere on the train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai I realized something. I actually really enjoyed train travel. It’s a great way to see the countryside as you traverse it, you get a little more ‘local flavor’ than on an air-conditioned tour bus, and a little more mobility as well.
My new found preference for trains has carried over to Myanmar as well. Sure there’s the odd sunflower shell that gets boomeranged back into your face or the hose that falls through an open window and blasts you with some cool (also filthy) water. It’s all part of the experience though, and I’ll take it over one of those karaoke buses any time.
Over the past month, I’ve taken several trains in the northerly direction from Yangon towards Mandalay. The way things have worked out, I won’t make the complete journey by train… I only got as far north as Thazi before I started taking buses. Ah well.
I sat in both upper and ordinary class seats. Most times, the ticketing staff will try and sell foreigners the upper class seat, but that seems to depend on the person. The seat was comfy and surprisingly roomy (you know, I’ve got a pretty luscious badonk-a-donk) and feels nicer than the ordinary class. The ordinary class isn’t too bad, though. You’ll probably interact a little more with the locals and feel a little more scrunched in the process; especially if you’ve got long legs like me.
Just like in Thailand, food vendors jump on at random stops and walk the aisles hawking their wares. Some even manage to get on and off even if the train doesn’t stop. Yikes. Some of the food is tasty, some of it I wouldn’t feed to an enemy. Well. Maybe. The rubbery-looking chickens that look like they’ve been in the sun for a few weeks are on the ‘don’t feed to anyone’ list. Double yikes.
The railway makes its way through countless fields and tiny villages. People seemed to congregate on the sides of the tracks, especially little kids. Nothing puts a smile on your face like a ton of little kids running, waving, and shouting, “Hello!”. The moments when they broke into massive smiles when I returned their greeting were some of my favorites on the trip. On the more somber side of things, there are many children who stand along the tracks with hands outstretched for money.
Along the journey, you can also get a quick glimpse of random daily activities in the day-to-day life in Myanmar. From monks walking the tracks, to farmers driving an ox cart through their fields, to villagers flying kites from an abandoned stretch of track: these are but a few of the things to see.
There are exciting moments as well. If you’re ‘lucky’ enough to be by one of the cars with the problem of an obscenely loud metal grate that makes a horrid clanging noise every time the ride gets bumpy (often), you’ll probably be wishing you brought some earplugs if you neglected to. If you’re ‘lucky’ enough to be in the bathroom when one of these bumpy times occurs… God help you. Just hope you’re wearing dark pants and have a strong cologne. People will probably still know.
All in all, riding the train is a great way to explore Myanmar while you’re going from place to place. I sure enjoyed it!