It’s 6 am. I’m so tired that I feel like a zombie, and my body hurts. But that was one of the coolest travel experiences I’ve had.
When I was purchasing my ticket for my journey north from Yangon to Mandalay, I was a little bit unsure of it. I’ve read very mixed reviews of the trains here, most of them being horrible. And I’ve had other travelers ask me “Why would you take the train when you could just take a bus?” And I wanted to rebuttal with “Why would you take the bus when you could take the train!?!?!!” But despite what I was reading and being told, I figured that at the end of the day, good or bad, it’s part of Myanmar that I want to experience. So I headed to the advanced booking office to get myself a ticket.
As I arrive it was a super sketchy place. Quite dirty and empty, and covered in a weird roof, but also still open. It looked kind of like a junk yard. I go to the window and get directed down to someone who speaks some English and I’m asked, “Upper class?” and I say, “Ordinary class!” The guy looked at me unsure, and offered “…First class?” “Nope, ordinary please!” And he hesitantly marked me down for a window seat (as per my request) in ordinary class. My thinking behind this was: yes, okay sure, I can afford the $5 more for a first class or the $7 more for the upper class. But, just because I can, does that mean I should? I’m no better than these local people, so I don’t see why I shouldn’t travel like they do. But, as I walked away the counter with the ticket I bought for about $4.75, I thought
CRAP. What did I just do.
I mean, it was a 14 hour journey. Overnight. On wooden or plastic benches. With no cushioning. No reclining. Just literally a hard spot to sit. But hey, what the heck! It’s all part of the experience, right?
The train didn’t leave until 3pm, so I had some time during the day to explore Yangon still. I went to the Shwedagon Pagoda which is so massive that you could spend HOURS there, and I definitely stayed there longer than I should have. Which meant that when I realized I was needing to leave, I was in a bit of a hurry. My original plan was to walk the 3 km back to my guesthouse after stopping for lunch, but with my now super limited time I needed to get a taxi! But, what I didn’t count on was the traffic. It probably would have been faster if I walked. And in fact, when I was close enough to the place I wanted to get lunch from I hopped out and walked the rest of the way! And I had to be sure to eat because I didn’t know what to expect for food on the train. So I ran in, ordered immediately, and scarfed down the food. I basically ran back to my hostel, threw the last of my things in my bag and ran the heck out of there. I found a taxi (same guy who drove me to the Pagoda earlier in the day) and hopped in… and got right back into the traffic. The taxi driver asked me what time my train was, and when I told him 3 he said “3. Oh okay… OH. THAT’S in 15 minutes!!!” and laughed! I told him I know, I ran out of time and was running late! He reassured me that this couldn’t be a problem. And honestly, I have nooooo clue how I made it, but I did! Basically as soon as I got on the train (after being taken right in to the platform, ushered along by multiple men right through the place, onto the train, and into my exact seat) it started moving. WHEW.
(Side note – This is the first time this trip I’ve cut anything this close! Normally I have an hour or more to spare!!!)
I was definitely the only Caucasian in the car, and that earned myself a few stares. The people (mom, two sons, and daughter-in-law) that were in the compartment diagonal from mine, couldn’t get enough of me. They were all staring at me with huge smiles on their faces, and even taking photos of me! At one point they invited me to sit with them… and take selfies. It was hilarious! But comforting to know I had friends on the train.
The man sitting across from me on the other hand… was the grumpiest man on the planet, and I think he was kind of scared of me! He wouldn’t look me in the eye, and he would wait for me to shift my legs away before he reached to get anything from his bag!
The next 4 hours or so were absolutely incredible. It was surreal. I couldn’t believe that I was seeing what I was seeing. First, passing through the suburbs of Yangon: the piles of garbage, the kids playing in the streets, the mothers and wives taking the laundry in, passing by weathered and worn buildings, and dirty, small shacks. Second, we hit the countryside: vast amounts of fields, the rare hut popping up amongst the crops and the rarer golden pagoda (seemingly in the middle of absolutely nowhere). I was able to get a look back in time as I watched farmers with their LITERAL ox-drawn carts plowing through their land, and wade through their ponds with their water buffalo. We passed by huge fields with dogs wandering through, and small villages with soccer games being played. I watched monks walk along little paths, and children running through dirt roads – some too caught up in their games to notice their surroundings, and some so excited by the train that they were jumping up and down waving as we passed by. We passed by ponds with hundreds of ducks all preening and splashing about. We passed fields of huge cows, and rivers with children playing around. We passed by some of the biggest pigs I have ever seen, and some extremely agile goats. We stopped at train stations where food vendors passed by the windows offering hard-boiled eggs and bottles of water, while more vendors passed through the aisles with beer and tobacco. I observed everything that passed, with awe, until the sun went down. And as the fires throughout the passing villages started to light up they started to match the fire of the sunset in the sky and together, they ignited the fire in my heart.
This is what I’ve been waiting for.
This is why I travel.
The night took away the sun, and with it, the heat. The breeze that had been so refreshing in the afternoon was all of a sudden chilling me to my bones! I had heard about this happening, so I had brought along my warm sweaters, but this cold was serious. And I was not as prepared as I thought.
And as I had a seat to myself for the trip so far I figured I would be able to lay down (sort of) and get a pretty good sleep considering the circumstances. But at 11 pm, we stopped at a train station and loads of people got on. So not only was the seat next to me taken, and the seat beside the man across from me, but a huge piece of luggage was put under our feet and a lady sat on that. Okay – this was getting less fun! But it was very interesting to see how all these people managed to coexist and find comfort together. A family of four, with two young children, came and sat in the area I was in. The lady across the aisle from me was sleeping on the floor on a mat and had a blanket over her. She invited the youngest to lay with her and together they slept wrapped up in the blanket. Across from me, the older one fell asleep with his face smushed against the grumpy mans back who was sleeping with his forehead against the wall. Total strangers just coexisting to peacefully together. It was endearing for sure.
Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep. Especially combined with the 4:45 am arrival time, and the lack of available beds at my hostel! I’ve been sitting (again, in the cold!!) bundled up on the rooftop terrace waiting for someone to check out so I can crawl into bed and get some sleep.
Despite my zombie-like state and my incredibly sore body, I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. It was everything I had hoped for and more. And now that I’ve done it …. maybe next time I’ll opt for first class!