Thursday, August 13, 2015

Myanmar Train Encounter: Yangon to Mandalay

Myanmar Train Yangon To Mandalay

In traveling, I don’t have the conscious effort to do it like the locals, I go and experience where my feet led me to. Sixteen hours. It should’ve been fifteen but our overnight rock 'n’ roll train ride from Yangon to Mandalay lasted for sixteen solid hours. We were the only foreigners on that particular ride; Burmese assimilation at its best.

Myanmar is generally a safe place. I should know, we succumbed to lengthy train rides not because we wanted it (well, it was a choice if we had more time, like a month instead of ten days), but because we ran out of options. With a total of twenty six hours inside two hardcore, old-school trains, we explored Myanmar and experienced how great the Burmese people were (check here for discounted tours, transportation and activities in Yangon).

Myanmar Train Yangon To Mandalay
Life is short, so go out and explore!
It was the 13th of April and we’re just starting out on the third week of our two-month long backpacking trip around Southeast Asia, which was also our very first day in Myanmar. The original plan was to conquer Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay – in that order, but because our arrival coincided with the first day of Thingyan (Water) Festival, all of our plans were scrapped.

Myanmar Thingyan Water Festival
Myanmar's Thingyan Festival
We struggled our way outside the Yangon International Airport amongst the persistent cab drivers who swarmed at us as we went out. We smoothly passed by them and waited for a cabbie to bring us to the train station; we needed to check the train schedule for the next day.

With the water festivities going around the city, Yangon felt like a ghost town. Shops and restaurants were closed for four to five days. People were on the streets with water pumps and hoses aimed at cars and people.

Yangon Central Railway Station Myanmar
Yangon Central Railway Station
We were dropped off at the Yangon Central Railway Station and were assisted by our gracious cabbie, at no extra cost. He helped us, and some other local guys, in speaking with the ticketing officer at the counter. Schedules and fares were written in Burmese and the train officials could hardly speak English, so were really pleased with their help.

We originally planned to get out of Yangon and head to Bagan the next day. All accommodations were booked beforehand, so the anxiety of not showing up was starting to conquer me.

Yangon Central Railway Station Myanmar

Yangon Central Railway Station Myanmar
Lost in translation
And our nightmares became reality. All train schedules were put off for the whole duration of the festival. The last train to Bagan that day was fully booked, and there will be no available bus or train starting the next day until the fourth day of festivities. With heavy hearts, we slumped on our backpacks and accepted the fact that we’ll be stuck in Yangon for four days and would not be able to explore Bagan.

A friendly guy approached us and suggested that train schedules in Mandalay and Bagan are not totally suspended like in Yangon. He added that we could go take the Mandalay-bound train that day and transfer to another train going to Bagan the next day which would be longer but would somehow suit our planned itinerary. With no time to react, he went to the ticketing officer right away and checked if there were still some slots on the last train going to Mandalay. With an affirmative smile, he asked us to purchase it right away to reserve our seats. Without thinking if this was a scam or what, we handed our passports (which is required for tourists) and paid 9,300 Kyats (US$ 8.77) for our tickets.

Yangon Central Railway Station Myanmar

Myanmar Train Yangon To Mandalay

We couldn’t thank that guy enough for helping us. Our plans may have changed in an instant but it was on the brighter side.

With seven hours to spare, we headed to our supposedly one-night home at Sule Shangri-La Yangon and checked in to freshen up. Afterwards, we toured around some important landmarks in Yangon and joined the culminating activities of the water festival.

At exactly 4:30 in the afternoon, we arrived at the train station and immediately asked for help with our train number, coach and seats. A random guy helped us and he immediately directed us to our Upper Class Coach. He even ushered me to my seat, Burmese are really helpful people, I must say.

Myanmar Train Yangon To Mandalay
Last goodbyes
The train looked old, but yet to my standards (coming from a third world country, that is), it was ok. Our upper class coach had an oscillating fan, usb charger (which was so amazing), and fairly comfy seats. I couldn’t complain. We were the only foreigners on that coach and everyone seemed ready for the long overnight train ride; they have food packs, blankies, pillows and stuff. Me and my buddy had bananas and candies, we’re so ready.

Myanmar Train Yangon To Mandalay
Oscillating fan and usb charger on-board
Me and my buddy had a problem though, we were assigned on different seats which saddened me for a while. The guy beside me noticed that we’re traveling together and offered his seat to my buddy, we were so happy for that kind gesture, Burmese are really nice people. It’s like, you need not ask anything from them, they’d just offer what they could to provide you with utmost convenience. Of all my Myanmar memories, those random acts of kindness truly stood out. More than the temples and amazing culture, it was the lovely people that stuck in me, till now.
We were happy settling on our seats when the loud honk started to echo around the station. Some were bidding their goodbyes to their loved ones while some were off to dreamland before we even started moving.

Myanmar Train Yangon To Mandalay
Now we're moving!
And as if we’re on a set of a film, the journey began as I was sticking out my head at the window. And then I realized that it was the first day of Thingyan Water Festival, and as advised, we shut off our windows so as to not get wet from the water-pumping paraphernalia. Positioned near the rail tracks, people were having fun squirting water while everyone inside the train was doing what they can to stay away from the water.

Myanmar Train Yangon To Mandalay
I had some apples and banana for dinner while my buddy had muffins (not that he liked it, he just didn’t have a choice). I wasn’t actually drinking much because I heard that the toilets inside the train were, well, not that pleasant. Imagine the bumpy ride plus trying not to miss that spot when you pee, ugh, I don’t like!

Myanmar Train Yangon To Mandalay
Oohhh... There's the next coach
After sunset, I dozed off like I was comfortably stretched out on a bed in a hotel. My buddy was on the opposite side though. We didn’t have dinner so he was famished, tired and dreary, like he could feel every bump from our uber slow train ride.

Myanmar Train Yangon To Mandalay
Sunset and windows
I think it was past midnight when I felt chilly from the cold winds outside. I immediately grabbed my wrap and covered myself back to sleep. I woke up at the break of dawn and heard some ladies who were selling some foodstuff, my buddy went frantic.

Myanmar Train Yangon To Mandalay
Food! At long last
We bought some fried noodles and finished it in no time (which wasn’t yummy, by the way). A monk also roamed around the coaches for his alms-giving ritual. Families were preparing their packed foodstuff for breakfast while I was glued on my window. The vast countryside grasslands bathed in the morning sun with pale shades of brown and tan.

Myanmar Train Yangon To Mandalay
Sunrise and families
Myanmar Train Yangon To Mandalay
Slow, bumpy but happy people on-board
It was nine in the morning and yawns were dominating our coach as people were starting to pack away. Everyone seemed restless as the train came to a halt. I was in the middle of nothingness when I was roused by my buddy.

We rushed to Mandalay Central Railway Station's ticket counter to check if there were trains leaving for Bagan that day. And there was none. Uh-oh.

Myanmar Train Yangon To Mandalay
I survived sixteen hours, banana is the key!

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