There were a few things that I had wanted to do but wasn’t able to because of lack of time and unfortunate weather. I had wanted to take the train out to Pyin Oo Lwin, a colonial summer town, and on over the Gokteik Viaduct, but my flight delay meant I had a day less in Mandalay. One piece of advice I have for travellers to Myanmar is allow more time than you think you need for travelling, and to be flexible because transport will be delayed and/or breakdown. I had also thought about getting the ferry downriver from Mandalay to Bagan, but it didn’t seem very appealing in the rain so I took a minibus from my hotel that got there in much less time, as it sped down the well-paved but extremely narrow road to Bagan, where ancient pagodas dot the landscape as far as the eye can see. Foreign tourists have to pay $10 for a ticket to the Bagan Archaeological Zone. Our bus stopped at a ticket office where you could also buy maps of the area and copies of George Orwell’s Burmese Days in various European languages.
Between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, Bagan was the capital of the surrounding kingdom, and there was a religious building frenzy as a way of earning merit for future lives. There are many large and lavish pagodas, temples and monasteries, and countless other small, crumbling structures. You could spend weeks exploring the plains. The most stunning images of the area are taken during the dry season, and you can even take hot air balloon rides at sunrise at that time of the year. Unfortunately it rained most of the time I was there, despite Bagan being located in Burma’s central ‘dry zone’ where it supposedly rains much less than in the rest of the country. Bagan is a very popular tourist area, so with the friends I made at my hostel, we rented e-bikes (electric scooters) and braved the rain and the mud to explore some pagodas. It was quite an adventure, as the following picture can attest!
Our e-bikes got stuck in the mud, ran out of battery and got flat tires. We started out as a group on five bikes, and arrived back on three, one of which had to be pedalled. My front tire went totally flat and I left it by a pagoda, taking the photo above to show the bike shop where to pick it up. They are the best (and most fun) way to get around, but I would recommend travelling in a group, especially if you’re going off the beaten (and potholed) track. The rain was relentless that day and I couldn’t take many pictures because my lens kept getting wet, but even so, I did appreciate the lushness of the greenery surrounding the red brick buildings and golden stupas. I was also grateful for the lack of crowds and for the coolness, because I’m not sure I would be able to bear the heat, dust and hecticness of the dry season. On the morning of the day I was leaving, a number of us at the hostel woke before dawn and rented e-bikes again to go to a pagoda you could climb to watch the sunrise. The rain held off, and although we couldn’t see the sun, it was very beautiful to see the the landscape change from darkness punctured by illuminated pagodas, to the green and red of day.
An experience I really wanted to have on my trip was a train ride, especially a night train. I had done my research and knew what kind of journey it would be, even this review didn’t put me off! It didn’t seem so fun to do it alone though, because even bad experiences (see the e-bikes above) can be great when you have someone to laugh about them with. But luckily, another friend I had made at the hostel wanted to do it too, so we went for it.
The Bagan train station is an elaborate building situated in the middle of nowhere. We were the only two foreigners there, and we had an audience as we bought our tickets. There were two very creepy waiting rooms – one for tourists in a long dark room, empty except for three grand but uncomfortable seats, and one for VIPs(?), which had lines of chairs facing the blank wall at the back. There was also a bathroom that would have been totally fine (it had toilet paper and soap) if it weren’t for the fact that the light didn’t work in this windowless room, so using my headlamp made it feel like I was in the bathroom in Saw. We waited out near the platform with the rest of the passengers and people were eager to make sure that we got on the right train. One small train with ordinary seat carriages pulled up while we were waiting, and our train was delayed by an hour.
I was glad I had known about the existence of ‘special’ sleeper cars, so it wasn’t a total shock when we found that our small car would have no access to the rest of the train. The train is scheduled to arrive in Yangon at 10:30 a.m., but I had read that it usually arrives at around midday. When we got into our carriage, before the train pulled off, we were told that we would probably arrive at 2 p.m. and we could order dinner and breakfast from the restaurant car that would be passed in to us through the window. I would definitely recommended getting the food – I can say it was some of the best that I ate during my whole trip!
As we pulled out of Bagan, we really were wondering what had we signed up for – 20 isolated hours riding a train that is said to be more like riding a horse. At first we crept along the tracks, swaying gently, going past palm trees and waving locals. We got ourselves accustomed to our new home. There are upper berths that are parallel to the train, and two sets of four seats by the windows that also pull out into a bed. Every surface was covered in grime (no wonder, because these trains have been in operation for decades and it’s only the occasional tourist who uses them, while the locals somehow sleep on the wooden bench seats in the ordinary class), but we did get clean sheets and a pillow. The toilet was western-style, but just over a hole in the floor, the fan didn’t work and the glass in the windows was opaque with dirt. But none of that mattered. We kept the windows open while it was light, looking out at the scenery, and in order to have our (delicious) dinner and beer passed in to us. It wasn’t too stuffy either when the windows were closed, and the pull-out seat beds were quite comfortable. I was glad we didn’t have to sleep in the upper berths because we would have definitely hit the ceiling and probably the floor during the night.
The carriages of the trains are built for wider tracks than what they run on, so that means that when the train picks up speed (relatively speaking), there is a lot of swaying from side to side and bouncing up and down. The train lurches rather than glides. We got used to it though, and I slept really well, apart from sometimes being woken up because my body had lifted completely off the bed with particularly violent lurches. We were woken up for breakfast by the restaurant man who had to wait in our carriage for the next stop to get off. I spent the rest of the morning dozing and looking out at the changed landscape of drowned rice fields and small towns. Once we had been stationary for quite a while, and when I looked out the window I could see some men tinkering with the connection between our carriage and the rest of the train. Luckily the whole train got moving again! I was so glad we had taken the train, because if I had taken the night bus to Yangon, I would have arrived at 5 a.m. which would have been miserable. I enjoyed taking the slow, scenic route, and we both agreed that it was the most unique train journey we had ever taken.