"Warmly welcome and take care of tourist" - this is the train ride of a lifetime!
Less than 12 hours after enjoying the BEST travel experience of our lives, we were off to catch the overnight train from Bagan to Yangon. An overnight train seemed to an efficient and economical way to get across the country without losing a precious day of sightseeing to transit and we were excited to try something new.
Our expectations for the train were very modest. We had done considerable research, learning a lot from The Man in Seat 61 and Lesley Leep Phoography We had watched Anthony Bourdain’s Burmese train trip on the Parts Unknown series and had taken to heart a passage from Lonely Planet, in which a local resident advises that the train is “not as bad as you think, not as good as you hope”.
We were expecting a slow and bumpy ride. We were expecting very few creature comforts and knew we were travelling on a rail line that had seen little maintenance since it was built by prisoner of war labor in World War II. But the general consensus was that conditions, while basic, were relatively comfortable and generally clean. Time and time again we read that overnight travelers would manage at least a few hours of sleep but there would be times when the train was too bumpy to really nod off.
We were about to get quite the surprise.
First, a primer on Myanmar trains. There are several classes of train travel in Myanmar. Ordinary and First Class seem to differ mostly in the placement of cushions on the First Class wooden benches. Upper Class features the padded individual seats commonly found in train compartments in North American or Europe.
There are Standard Sleeping cars, which feature small private compartments with an upper and lower berth and a common washroom down the corridor. There are also “Special Sleepers" on the Mandalay-Yangon line. Special sleepers are separate, self contained compartments with no access to the rest of the train. They contain two upper berths and two lower sections, which are seats by day, beds by night.
We arrived at the train station with our delicate, hand written tickets pressed in a book to keep them in pristine condition. The exterior of the train station is gorgeous, a real architectural stunner. Inside, we had the option of sitting in the tourist waiting room but we instead chose to join the rest of the passengers on the main exterior waiting area.
Feeling confident that our sleeper car would have access to the train dining car, we debated the merits of picking up some extra snacks for the ride. In the end, Ryan walked down the platform to a cluster of snack stands and picked up some peanut brittle and sesame snack cookies to supplement our bottled water. Little did we know this was one of the best decisions we'd make!
When the train rolled in, a station employee directed us to the rear of the train. We presented our fragile tickets, but he already knew who we were, as he had an equally fragile piece of loose leaf paper with our name, carriage, and passport information in perfect, elegant handwriting. Showing us to the door, he left us to make our way inside as he left to assist the other travellers.
There are not many things that make my jaw drop but this was surely one of those times. Ryan and I started at the compartment, and then at each other, in utter disbelief, our mouths agape with incredulity. We weren't in a sleeper car as expected, but instead in a “special sleeper” car, the kind that is only supposed to be on the Mandalay-Yangon route. Good thing we had stocked up on cookies and water – we would have absolutely no access to the restaurant on the train. We would have no access to anything.
We noticed that all the beds and berths were numbered – there were only two of us, but there were 4 numbered beds. Would we be sharing this cell for endless hours? The carriage was filthy, with the floors and tables covered in dirt. The upholstery had clearly absorbed decades of human grime. Thankfully, the provided blankets were clean and we used them to cover the seats so we had cleaner surfaces to sit on.
A smiling staff member came to check on us, knocking politely on the door before entering. He proudly showed us how the seats collapsed into flat sleeping surfaces, he showed us how to turn on the ceiling fan – which thankfully worked! – and he answered a few questions we had. No, we would not be sharing our compartment with anyone else. When we asked how long the trip would take we were told “12 hours”, several hours less than we were expecting. Hurrah!
There were two doors in our compartment. One was the entrance to the scariest looking electrical room I’ve ever seen in my life, an electrical room that had a hole in the floor! The other door was the entrance to the bathroom.
Oh, the bathroom.
No, it wasn’t a hole in the floor, but that might have been preferable. There was a toilet that had seen better days. The sink in the corner contained a dish of clean water. This kind gesture would end us causing us grief when it sloshed over the bathroom floor within 10 minutes. And the walls, oh the walls. I think they may have once been a kind of faux wood paneling, one that had been dissolved into shreds through decades of heat, humidity, and dirt.
I’m a pretty tough gal, having seen my fair share of humble outhouses, squat toilets, porta potties, and mysterious holes over the world. But this is one toilet that truly scared me. I knew, given the choice between frequent bathroom trips or dehydration in the 46 degree Celsius heat, I would happily side with dehydration.
And in the midst of all of this was a brand new blue sticker, proudly adhered to the wall of our carriage that said “Warmly Welcome and Take Care of Tourists”.
Our train pulled out from the station right on time – things were looking good for our 12 hour timeline! As expected, the train moved at a slow pace, but things were off to a steady start. The slow pace wasn't as glacial as expected and, aside from an exaggerated back and forth sway, things were relatively comfortable. We looked at each other with a bit of relief. The shock of the bathroom had somewhat abated and the sway actually seemed like it would be conducive to sleep.
As dusk was settling in, we were able to catch glimpses of the countryside and village life. Kids ran alongside the tracks, laughing and shouting, with one catching Ryan’s hand for a high five. We were intrigued to see that someone was appointed to close solid swinging beams across every road to keep motorists from approaching the tracks, but the commitment to safety didn't seem to apply to children small enough to slip under the beams without ducking.
And then the bumps began.
The exaggerated back and forth sway soon gave way to a new sensation. Not little bumps, like driving your car over loose gravel. Not occasional big bumps, like going over an unexpected speed bump. Not steady deep bumps, like if you were driving over a giant washboard. Instead imagine an advanced slalom ski course, with the gravel, speed bumps, and washboard all thrown in. We were thrown violently around the carriage when we stood up to change position. We tried lying down on our newly constructed “bed”, only to have our bodies lift up to half a foot in the air with the bumps. The train shook so violently and so loudly that the idea of derailment seemed both possible and inevitable.
For hours we laid in the dark, side by side in one lower berth, our bodies slamming back and forth against the wall and the armrest, trying to keep our wits about us. Hours in, it became obvious that no rest or sleep would come. The padding on the bed was painfully thin and did nothing to help cushion the blows as our carriage danced on the tracks. The only saving graces were the working fan and open windows, keeping temperatures somewhat comfortable and motion sickness at bay.
The pitch black sky seemed oddly devoid of stars. My thoughts turned to home and to my beloved dog Chester, who had passed away 4 weeks earlier. I felt a million miles away from him and his spirit. Ryan gently cautioned me that no good would come of thinking of Chester in a time like this. We spent some time in quiet contemplation before once again resuming the manic cheerfulness that we knew was the only way we’d survive the night.
After about 7 hours of body hurling misery, my need to use the bathroom was no longer something I could ignore. My dehydration dedication was no match against the jostling of the train! And suffice it to say that Ryan and I have agreed to never share the details of exactly what happened!!!
At long last, dawn was breaking and we were eagerly approaching the 12 hour mark. But Yangon was nowhere to be seen. In fact, we couldn’t even find where we were on a map. And so we rolled on, with the same insane slalom/gravel/speed bump/washboard motion throwing us around the cabin.
We captured dozens of photos of the countryside, watching people greet the day and go about their work. It gave us an incredible window into Myanmar village life, sometimes smelling rotting garbage and animal waste, seeing brightly colored clothing flapping in the wind, hearing women laughing as they gathered to do washing around a water basin, watching men diligently harvest what we suspect was water hyacinth. Monks sold bottles of Coca-Cola, women in impossibly pressed white outfits worked in the fields, and young girls and boys both sported swirled designs on their cheeks. My thoughts flickered back to a Canadian train trip we had enjoyed just a few months earlier -train travel really does seem to provide a certain insight into the heart and soul of a country.
And on we lurched, passing tiny collections of huts built on refuse heaps, by spotless little villages where homemade brooms swept the paths, and by ramshackle towns, where the tangle of humming wires gave us false hope of approaching Yangon. At one point I said that I should have asked the conductor for the Wi-Fi password and we burst into laughter which was interrupted by yet another violent lurch. Our ears were ringing from the constant sounds of metal on metal, impossibly loud bangs, and horrible crashing sounds against the sides of our carriage.
It was hour 18 and still no city was in sight. Ryan looked me and flatly said “I think I’m finished with the train.” The last surviving thread of humor had left his voice.
We. Were. Done.
But the train wasn't. We rolled on for another hour when, finally, we found our place on the map. We had finally reached the outer limits of the Yangon suburbs! Relief, utter relief!
Many guide books recommend riding the circle train that connects the Yangon suburbs as a unique travel experience and we were eager to take in the sights, thrilled that we had finally reached something that was supposed to be pleasant. The suburbs were fascinating but they certainly didn't quality as anything I’d recommend as a tourist activity. It was humbling to see how other people lived, and also saddening. This is not a tourist attraction or spectator sport.
Seeing the abject poverty of the Yangon suburbs, with no stunning landscapes to cloak their dire conditions, suddenly changed my perspective on the past 19 and half hours. It's true, we had one miserable night, one that was uncomfortable and unhygienic. But we traveled in first class, while over a hundred other people did not. We would soon be able to walk away from train, while the majority of my fellow passengers would be making a return trip. I could wash the experience away with the luxuries of a hot shower, a private room, and endless food and drink, but the majority of the population lives without comfort, security, and financial stability. The train may have been the worst travel experience I've ever had, but it was also the most eye opening.
Our friendly rail attendant made one final appearance to announce that Yangon would be the next stop, in just 10 minutes. At 12:00 pm. Ah - 12 O'CLOCK - not 12 HOURS! And just like that, after 19 hours and 45 minutes, we were out of the carriage and on firm land. My legs buckled as I started to walk, but we still found the energy to bound up a flight of stairs and out of the station.
I don’t know if a shower has ever been so welcome in my life. The suds were brown with dirt as they washed down the drain! We inhaled a plate of noodles and retired to our guest room for a short rest.
That short rest would add up to nearly 40 hours over the next three days. It would take an equal amount of time for our queasy stomachs to recover and for my balance and equilibrium to return to normal. Our plans to catch an overnight train to save on daylight travel hours and gain more time in Yangon left us feeling like – pardon the pun – an utter train wreck.
If you are looking to test the mettle of your marriage, this is the experience for you. For everyone else, may I suggest the bus?
PS - Ryan required a glass of Scotch in order to edit this post and relieve the experience!
Update! As we say from the beginning of this post, the source of our misery wasn't so much from a lack of comfort or convenience - it's that we had done our research, formed reasonable expectations, but conditions were far worse than anticipated.
Several years have passed since we took this train and, from the general consensus of readers who have weighed in, there have been no noticeable improvements. We really do urge readers to think long and hard before selecting this journey and we encourage everyone who does take it to share their comments here. (And if you disagree with our assessment, please share those thoughts too, provided it's in a respectful manner that benefits other travelers). Ultimately, we want our readers to be prepared and make informed decisions.
Does this still stand as our worst travel experience? YES. Makes the time I had giardia in Malawi look like a picnic. Vanessa, April 2016
Travel resources and train information for Myanmar.
With the exception of the train, we LOVED our time in Myanmar and would highly recommend traveling there. Read more about it here:
Kipling, Orwell, and Harry Potter: A Day in Mandalay
Getting To and From Mandalay Airport
Sailing Down the Irrawaddy: Traveling by Boat from Mandalay to Bagan
The BEST Travel Experience of my Life: Balloons Over Bagan
Besotted with Bagan: Day 10 &11 of Our Round The World Trip
At Long Last: Yangon. Day 12 &13 of Our Round The World Trip
Guest House Review: Yangon's Motherland Inn 2
Where to Stay in Bagan
Where To Eat In Bagan
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