Saturday, March 13, 2010

Train to Mandalay - Myanmar

Destination:  Train to Mandalay
Number of days spent:  17 long and bumpy hours
Where we stayed:  On the train the whole time
Best Restaurant:  Well for train food the fried rice with chili wasn’t too bad!  I wouldn’t recommend the samosas though.
Best of:  Views of the countryside & a gorgeous sunrise
Worst of:  A bumpy ride with hard, make that really hard wooden seats
Most memorable:  The locals, young & old, came out to stare at us when we pulled out a deck of cards and started playing rummy.
Useful Tip:  As in most cases, it’s cheaper to book from the source.  A travel agent quoted us $45 per person for the journey in an upper class seat (they would not sell the ordinary class).  At the train station we bought an ordinary class ticket for $11 (the upper class was available for $30). 
Sometimes it’s all about the journey and not so much the destination.  While we had several options for getting to Mandalay – fly, take a bus, hire a driver and a car, etc. we opted for the train.  Nevermind that the train is government ran.  Forget the fact that most guide books advise against it.  Nope.  We, or make that I (Jason), wanted to experience all the different types of travel there was in Myanmar.   If locals can do it, then so can we. 
Myanmar’s railway system is compliments of the British…circa 1930’s.  Indeed, not only are nearly all the existing track from that era, but so are the stations, trains, and just about everything else associated with rail travel.  There are no highspeed mag trains here, just the old clunkers that have long since been abandoned in more developed nations.  It’s a slow way to get somewhere, but at least I thought it would be a pleasant way – watching the countryside roll by as you sit in a far more spacious seat than a cramped bus and far cheaper than the plane.
The train station in Yangon is just a short walk north of the Sule Paya, making it very easy to pick up tickets on your own.  Looking more like a livestock auction yard than a train station, the ticket windows stretch far and wide designed to handle a massive flow of customers, perhaps echoing to an era long since passed.  The couple of men working behind the windows were about as friendly as they come joking with us about the dollar bills being ‘suspect’ (yet one more rejection on a $20 bill) and how nice a country America is:  “Yes, Obama good!”.  Figuring the price difference, we opted for the ordinary class ($11) over the first class ($30) figuring how bad could it really be…
Bright and early around 5am, the train even pulled out of the station a few minutes early and we were off!  Around 6:30, the sun begins to rise, melting off the morning mist and fog that sit heavy on the Burmese landscape.  At this point I was thinking it was so much nicer than the other options.  Sure it’s a little slower, but what a view…can’t get that from a plane window!
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The magic of the sunrise was short lived and then the harsh reality started to set in.  The wooden seats were becoming more and more intolerable with each and every sway and bump on the aged tracks.  I like to equate it to riding a horse, bumping up and down and swaying back and forth, only without having to have your legs in an awkward position.  The next 15 hours or so went by slowly.  As the train approached a station, vendors jumped on and ran down the aisle with various food stuffs.  Most were either deep fried or dried varieties of vegetables.  Corn is popular option and the locals eat it as a dessert, one kernel at a time.  The man with a string full of chickens captured our attention, but I didn’t see too many takers – perhaps even the locals see some hygiene concerns with that one.
After about 10 hours, we opted to pull out the cards and start playing a game of Rummy, the rolling countryside had long since become a constant and boring scene of grass, trees, more grass and more trees.  After a couple of hands, the locals began to start to look at what we were doing, but only a couple of kids came up and attempted a conversation. 
After 17 long hours, several games of Rummy and two really sore tailbones; the train finally pulls into Mandalay just a couple of hours late.  I can’t necessarily recommend the ordinary class train travel, unless you are really pinching pennies – and in that case take the bus.  Perhaps the first class, cushioned seats would have made it more tolerable.  At any rate, we arrived and were ready for our next stop:  Mandalay!

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