The group met last night with an age range of 22-76 it was pretty diverse. There are 13 of us 10 Aussies as I suspected, a German girl Alex, a Dutch woman Regina and moi Britannia. I’m rooming with Reece one of three Aussie boys who initially I suspect were not to excited about one of them sharing with a 50 something! I can confirm this reticence was banished quickly during our foray to 19th street. My initial reaction to the group was positive and this was not to change throughout the trip. My younger conspirators had been travelling through SE Asia and this was their final jaunt before returning to Aus, one Kyle to study veterinary stuff, the second Jack to continue his carpentry career and my room mate Reece his plumbing apprenticeship.
The morning activities started with for me a return visit to the Shwedagon Pagoda. It was fun to visit with the group as the banter had already begun; the Aussies and the Pom were good bedfellows (not literally of course). The pagoda was more active than on my first visit, many more monks and “real” worshippers rather than tourists! We returned to downtown for an orientation stroll with our Burmese guide Katy. I’d walked the streets already but the time was well spent getting to chat to all the group members. One meaningful event was Katy helping e to find a cap that actually fitted my oversized bonce! After lunch we headed out to collect supplies for our overnight train journey to Bagan before departing to Yangon Central Railway Station. Train travel can be fascinating, but slow and hard work, though the main Yangon-Mandalay line is better than most, currently with one overnight direct train daily from Yangon to Bagan. Tickets cost $35 (£23) for an upper-class seat, $40 (£26) for a sleeper, around four times the price of a coach ticket. Visit maninseat61.com/Burma for detailed information on train travel in Burma. We had the sleepers booked, 4 per cabin.
We’d already stocked up on provisions but the many smiling food vendors (mostly kids) walking up and down the side of the train tried to tell us we hadn’t enough. We had about 15 minutes before departure, and a small crowd gathered around our cabins window since we appeared to be the only foreigners on the train. I’m still not sure if that was a good or bad thing but we enjoyed being the centre of attention and piddle taking. We buy playing cards but no food, they of course had no playing cards but they miraculously appeared within three minutes of asking. Once we stopped buying, they begin asking us for gifts. We trundled slowly out of the station at 4:00pm dead on time, initially on the same route I’d encountered previously on the Circle Line.
Besides the engine, our train has one sleeper-class car, one restaurant car, and 7-8 ordinary-class cars. The four of us have one compartment all to ourselves that features two lower bunks, two upper bunks, and plenty of space to store luggage, it also has a pretty shitty (not to used unless there’s an emergency) poo palace. The lower bunks double as benches during daylight hours, and we are actually quite relieved when seeing the condition of the car. The mattresses are not very thick, but after seeing the wooden benches that the ordinary class passengers have, we have no complaints. We are told the journey will take between 14 and 19 hours, and that we should prepare for a bumpy ride for at least 10 of the hours.
We study the open-air drama, villagers are engaged in concluding their day’s work, farming in the sundry railway-side fields, or passing time playing takraw (an amalgamation of volleyball and soccer). No one is too busy to halt, smile, and wave to us as our train slinks by. The smiles turn to laughter and inquisitiveness when they notice our four pale but chortling faces hanging out of the carriage. The railway is littered with junk. Every few minutes we pass another refuse dump, most obvious villain in these dumps are plastic bags and bottles which I suspect are for re-cycling (for money). It was rousing to see the city gingerly transmute into countryside, the constant attention mimicking minor celebrity status but one suspects not for long. The sun setting over the Myanmar countryside was immaculate.
However, my personal euphoria was as short-lived as the sunset, and as darkness hits, our over-head consumed us with both noise and frigidity. During the night I had to visit the bathroom, I could scarcely keep my balance, and crack my head on the bedpost on my way back to my bunk. Finding it nye impossible to sleep my mind investigates the physics of railway carriages and what primeval force keeps then on the tracks J
The train stops every hour or so for a couple of minutes and that is the only relief we get from the constant back breaking gymnastics and ostentatious noises. I suspect that we all managed to get about an hour or two of sleep; most of which comes in 10-15 minute intervals. Often we’re jolted awake by a large thud or shift in the railcar or by irreverent passengers ascending or alighting the train. There isn’t much to do in a dark train carriage except sleep, since that was impossible, we ended up spending most of the night staring at the ceiling hacking the quaking, the cold and cacophony of noise.
The sunrise met us with bloated eyes, stiff limbs and active bowels but in return proffered views of the incredibly beautiful scenery. It was so quiet and striking the train noise now a mere backdrop to the stunning scene. If not for the small power line that runs parallel to the tracks, it appears as if we are looking at a country in the year 1814 not 2014. We sail past golden pagodas, goat herders, animal driven vehicles and innumerable farmers using manual oxen plows and hoes to prepare their turf for the impending rainy season.
Similarly as when we left Yangon 13 hours ago, the local children run from wherever they are to the tracks as soon as they hear the train coming. It is fun to watch them up in the distance sprinting towards the track in order to not miss seeing the passing train. Each smile we receive from these kids is heart warming and we later realize that we spent the last few hours of the ride in complete silence as we all just soaked in what has been the most memorable train ride of our lives! We were in Bagan!