The (iron) road to Bagan

The (iron) road to Bagan

“You wan’ cold beer?” asked the girl. Further down the platform at Yangon train station the railway police glared in our direction and took a few steps closer.

Cold beer? Who wouldn’t want a cold beer when the mercury is north of 35° and you have an 18-hour train journey ahead of you.

“Beer? Yes? Large?” asked the girl, barely into her teens. We ordered four and hopped on board.

I’d only been in Yangon 18 hours, but it was already time to leave. The temples of Bagan were beckoning and I was itching to ride the rails north. As with much of Asia, Myanmar boasts a surprisingly large railway network. Its days as a British colony mean more 4000-kilometres of track run from the southern beach town of Dawei to Myitkyina in far-flung Kachin state. Even in Yangon, the rickety Circle Line has become an unlikely tourist attraction; its rattling rolling stock circling the capital a dozen times a day, transporting locals, traders and curious tourists.

But an old school friend and I were heading north. Entirely unprepared, as it turned out.

While locals tend to squeeze into the cramped benches of Ordinary Class, like most western travellers we’d booked an upper-class sleeper compartment, where folding chairs collapse into almost-big-enough beds come evening. A dubious toilet occupied one corner, alongside the remains of what was once a shower room. The rolling stock on this popular tourist route has certainly seen better days, but for the bargain price of R165 each it was hard to complain.

With a long pull on the whistle the driver eased the train into a lumbering jaunt through the outer suburbs of Yangon. Beyond the city the sprawling suburbs give way to sprawling farmland. The pea fields are barren at the end of the dry season, but occasionally an enthusiastic farmer hitches up his oxen and ploughs a Zen garden of furrows in anticipation of seeds and the rains.

Every half-hour the fields merge into small villages, where the train rumbles through without stopping. Neither does the impromptu cricket match happening on a dusty pitch alongside the track. Is a cover drive into a passing train ‘six-and-out’, I wonder, as the rumbling train leaves them to their game?

Unlike our flight home three days later, this is no sanitised journey at 35 000 feet. With each passing village the smell of fetid water, charcoal fires and roasting pork wafts through the window. As do the cries of platform hawkers: “Beer? Samosa? Water?”

While some services offer simple dining cars, ours didn’t. If you don’t want to buy snacks from the hawkers you’d best bring the makings of a picnic supper.

But we had bottles of Dagon beer to oil the conversation as the wheels rattled along. We talk of life and family and the old days, as plumes of fine dust billow through the compartment. We try closing the windows, but they’re scratched and pocked by a thousand journeys, so we opt for the dust and views and a bath in the golden light of sunset.

At a level crossing outside Wah Net Chaung, smartly dressed railwaymen with caps and epaulettes neatly in place hold the throngs of traffic at bay as we pass. Scooters and bullock-carts shall not pass until he is finished waving us through with his green flag. Here kids stop to wave hello. “Mingalabar,” we shout, and wave in return.

At Phu Gyi the blood-orange sun dips behind a pagoda as prayers echo out from the loudspeakers. A foreign tongue, perhaps but the sentiment is universal. Even as night falls we don’t stop staring out the windows. Unfamiliar stars shine brightly in the darkness of new moon skies, and passing homes are lit by the ghostly glow of flat-screen TVs playing Premiership football.

Later, with the beer long gone and the countryside empty, we turn in. The noise from the tracks is a screeching lullaby from Myanmar Railways. Forget the regular clickety-clack of modern railways; the trains here speak their own language. A metallic garble that swings from perfect regularity to a cadence of metallic confusion. Welded rails aren’t big in Myanmar, it seems.

We relish the cool night air though and settle into our dusty bunks. The relish is short-lived.

The decades of neglect are showing, and at times the pitch and roll of our carriage is laughable. More than once I clutch at my mattress to avoid ending up in a dusty pile on the carriage floor. Fresh night air turns to a freezing midnight chill and I curse my decision not to bring along warm clothes.

The morning brings an end to a restless night, and some warmth at last. Through the rising mist black drongos race the train, as flocks of sacred ibis prospect in the fields for grubs. In a few months these paddies will be awash with water as the monsoon rains bring weeks of torrential downpours. In the ‘wet’ season – a euphemism if there ever was one – the train services will be delayed and curtailed, the tracks often awash and tourists few and far between.

For now though, the station hawkers make money while the train runs.

At Indaw a breakfast buffet appears beyond the window: local women proffering rattan baskets of apples, naartjies and grapes. Another has mielies, roasted in the husk over coals. Yet another a tray of samosas and paratha.

Bagan is almost in sight now, as the landscape flattens and Palmyra palms mark out the fields ploughed and waiting. Narrow bamboo ladders weave drunkenly to the top, where tappers collect the sap for ‘toddy’ palm wine. It’s offered for sale, milky and mean-spirited, at stations on the road north. We decline the inevitable hangover.

On through dusty cuttings and our station appears suddenly from behind a stand of acacias, a grand colonial edifice fading beneath the Asian sun. Beyond the platform wait the thousand-year-old temples of Bagan. For the next three days we’ll hire scooters and discover tumbledown pagodas, eat tealeaf salad and relish ice-cold Myanmar lagers. The package tourists haven’t yet discovered Myanmar. Be sure to book your ticket before those trains get too comfortable.

TRAVEL PLANNER

Get there: Cathay Pacific flies daily from Johannesburg to Hong Kong, with easy connections on sister-carrier Cathay Dragon to Yangon. South Africans enjoy visa-free entry to Hong Kong, making it ideal for a stopover en-route. www.cathaypacific.com/za

Visas: South Africans need a visa to visit Myanmar. Applications cost US$50, and can be made online. https://evisa.moip.gov.mm.

When to visit: In monsoon season (June-October) the intense heat and heavy rains make travelling a chore. Rather aim for the dry ‘cooler’ (as in, upper-30s) months from October to March.

More info: www.myanmartourism.org. Seat 61 (www.seat61.com) has good info on rail travel in Myanmar.

Who is OnAnotherPlane...

RIchard Holmes headshot web smallRichard Holmes is a freelance travel, food and lifestyle writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. His work on African and international destinations has appeared in a wide range of consumer publications both in South Africa and abroad.