Burma – Train Journeys into the Past, Present and Future

Train journeys have always been romanticised through novels and films – evoking images of colonial nostalgia, indulgence and adventure. Though railways in Burma may not bring comfort, what they lack in luxury they make up with a truly unforgettable experience.

For us it was an experience that started the moment we set foot onto the platform as we weaved our way through the crowds of people and hawkers clambering onto the train. It was a childlike excitement – an anticipation of adventure in the journey to come. Just to be able to stick your head through the window and take funny photographs of each other was potentially fun. When pulling into a new station would bring the wonder and excitement of a new destination. We could all wave to each other as the train would roll out of the station! All this excitement summed up through the sound of a train whistle against the familiar and comforting soundtrack of clickerty clack, clickerty clack. We couldn’t wait!

Our train adventure took us from Yangon to Mandalay to Bagan and back to Yangon. Three journeys – all memorable, evocative and unique in their own way. Even buying the tickets for the trip to Mandalay directly from the ticket office in Yangon was like stepping back in time. Housed in a crumbling building, it had a faded and aged look about it. A place of peeling paint, no sign of a computer and tickets that were still handwritten.

Yangon to Mandalay Day Train – 15 hours 

Quick photo stop before boarding the Yangon to Mandalay Express
Quick photo stop before boarding the Yangon to Mandalay Express

We arrived at Yangon station at five thirty in the morning, bleary-eyed and half asleep. It was Christmas Day! No roast turkey with all the trimmings for us I guess! Any romantic notion we had of these trains was quickly dispelled as we entered the carriage. Upper class had a different meaning here. What greeted us were industrial strength seats that reclined whether you wanted them to or not!

The train started with a jolt as we eased slowly out of the station. The carriage creaked and swayed as it gradually increased speed causing the curtains to flap around us as the breeze picked up through the open windows. We passed through the outskirts of Yangon as we lurched from side to side, up and down and at times – momentarily airborne. All this rolling around was amusing to everyone and we all laughed at each other with that knowing look of “hey isn’t this fun”!

The landscape of factories, new builds and billboards were a taste of Burma’s future. After years of military rule and isolation from the rest of the world, it was clear that Burma had opened up its doors to foreign investment and of course tourism. However visible cracks and teething problems were evident as the infrastructure struggled to cope and prices for hotels were sky high and unrealistic.

As dawn broke, the sun came up in all its glory, bathing the scene in front of us in its golden radiance. The gritty landscape gave way to what we had been looking forward to – the real Myanmar. A glimpse of the rural past that still existed in the present.  The early morning mist clung to the trees that were silhouetted against the horizon. Farmers worked the land – hues of yellow, brown and green colouring the earth. Stooped figures harvested crops whilst buffalo grazed with birds perched on their backs. The train heaved itself through the countryside and over fragile bridges , hardly touched since the British left.

Sunrise as the train passed through rural countryside
Sunrise as the train passed through rural countryside
Ploughing the land
A typical rural scene in Burma
This is fun!
This is fun!

Meanwhile, we attempted to photograph all this whilst trying to balance on a floor that constantly shifted underneath us. We were trying to capture history – a moment in the past before tourism would someday take away the innocence of it all. A couple of hours into the journey and on a particularly bumpy part, the noise became relentless. Metal doors crashed and collided against the door frames – sliding open, slamming shut over and over. Metal on metal. The only respite from the noise was when the train pulled into a station and ground to a halt.  Every stop bought with it hawkers that rushed through the carriage selling hot steaming corn, coffee and savouries.  Women with thanaka painted faces and teeth stained red from chewing betel nut, carried baskets of food on their heads. We would stick our heads out of the window and grab pastries from the track side vendors and wave as our train would slowly move away. Leaving behind another town and imprinting another memory.

Thanaka is used as a sign of beautifying the face and protecting from the sun
Thanaka is used as a sign of beautifying the face and protecting from the sun
Track side vendors
Track side vendors

Mandalay to Bagan – 8 hrs overnight

Mandalay - Bagan
Mandalay – Bagan

Leaving at 9.00pm, we knew most of this journey was shrouded in darkness. Momentarily, glimpses of life appeared when lit fires illuminated faces of people living in stilt houses close to the tracks. We sat on the trademark “reclined seats” joking with the attendant who loved having his picture taken. He would smile broadly and salute when we took a picture!  He looked after us so well. Even hopping over the tracks onto the opposite platform to bring us drinks and snacks whenever the train stopped.

Our carriage attendant who kept our spirits up throughout the cold and very noisy night!
Our carriage attendant who kept our spirits up throughout the cold and very noisy night!

 We came unprepared for the cold. There was a constant draught that came in from the carriage door which of course never shut properly. Eight hours of sitting was too much for our bodies. The locals of course came prepared with blankets to keep out the cold and assumed a cross-legged position in the seat and slept all the way through this particularly cold and torturous journey.

Meanwhile we struggled, our bones creaked as we shifted in our seats every so often, trying to find a comfortable position. We wrapped our thin clothes around us in a feeble attempt to keep the draught from making us ill. In the end, I remember Asad literally covering his whole face with a scarf and curling up in a foetal position just to get some sleep!

Bagan – Yangon

Bagan Railway Station
Bagan Railway Station

The mere thought of this journey brings a smile to our faces. It was almost emotional – as if a dream had come true and unexpectedly touched our hearts. There were so many moments of childlike joy and the experience started at Bagan station.

We arrived at Bagan with plenty of time to kill. Built in a pagoda style, Bagan is one of those stations that exudes nostalgia. From the faded peeling paint to the unused colonial trains, it was wonderful to just be there. The tracks were literally a step down from the platform which for some reason made us run around like kids! This seemed to amuse the locals who seemed intrigued by us and before we knew it, we had made some friends.

An elderly man with red stained teeth chatted to us. He seemed glad that Burma was opening up to the world. Happy that we tourists could see how beautiful his country was. He wanted us to know them as people, not how the media portrayed them. “We are people of the heart” he said to me before I was dragged away by the hand by a small boy.

“How do you do?”, said the little boy in perfect English. “I’m fine I said. “How do you do”?

“I am fine, my name is Mr M – what is your name”? He said this rather seriously which was beyond adorable and on replying, he looked at me for a second with a thoughtful expression, then suddenly jumped off the platform and teared down the tracks. I guess being grown up wasn’t that much fun for him!

The very polite but serious Mr M - deciding its better to be a kid after all
The very polite but serious Mr M – deciding its better to be a kid after all
Baby Monk with mother
Baby Monk with mother
Super cute!
Super cute!

The rest of the time was spent snapping away at some really lovely children and their mothers. There were some Chinese tourists who snapped away at some old unused trains with their expensive long lenses and chatted to us about their travels.  Then the train pulled in –  screeching to a halt – stopping with a hiss! A flurry of excited passengers clambered on, us included. We surveyed our sleeper carriage, we had it all to ourselves! Great – this was going to be a fun ride!

Sitting by the window, our heads popping out, I looked around. The chinese tourists had decided we should become part of their photo album and started taking pictures of us! People were excited for us. They were excited that we were happy to be in their country. They all kept waving and we both waved back – furiously! Smiles all around, it was a heart warming experience. There was a simple innocence to it. Like something out of an Enid Blyton children’s book. People smiling broadly, waving, wishing us well on our journey. “Come back soon”, someone yelled as the train slowly moved off. We will I thought. We most certainly will.

All smiles as we set off!
All smiles as we set off!

As the train thundered through the countryside and the sun set over the horizon casting a glorious orange and red hue over the landscape, I thought of how wonderful Burma was. I could see farmers on their bullock carts sending a haze of dust into the air as they made their way home. It was a dreamlike sight – the dust making it soft focus. Later I saw a little girl emerge from a forest of coconut trees, running with fast abandonment, brothers and sisters in tow, waving frantically at the train in the hope someone would wave back. We did and with the same excitement and enthusiasm and with the same look of anticipation and happiness. That memory is carved in my mind. At one point I wasn’t sure whether I had taken a picture of it – it was that heavily imprinted in my memory. It touched me for some reason – I don’t know why.

The train journeys in Burma were some of the most memorable times. They were a catalyst that brought us together with the local people. We shared stories, food and laughed together. All united whilst we were catapulted from our seats simultaneously. Where magnificent scenery evoked such emotion that memories of our own childhood and how we once felt before adulthood complicated everything. Thank you Burma railways for reminding me about the simple pleasures of life. Your past has reminded me of mine and your people touched our hearts.

What are your favourite train journeys around the world?

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2 thoughts on “Burma – Train Journeys into the Past, Present and Future

  1. HHmmmm……poetic memories and pictures. Now in retrospect, would you still recommend rail as a way to travel there or do buses and planes make more sense (and comfort)?

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    1. Hi Ariela, thanks for your comments and for taking the time to read the blog. I would definately recommend you to travel by train, at least for one or two journeys. I guess it depends on how long you would have in Burma. I find plane journeys great when you’re short on time but you miss out on the scenery and interaction with locals. Taking the train defined our trip to Burma whereas we wouldn’t have had this experience on a plane. We didn’t go on any buses but the roads are meant to be pretty good and the experience less bumpy! Let me know if you go – I’m sure you’ll have a great time!

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