BAGAN — Have you ever imagined riding a vintage train like the one in the Harry Potter films? If you have, well, Myanmar’s ancient city Bagan now has one.
The train was manufactured in England in 1947 and was used on the Myanmar rail system for 55 years between 1950 and 2005.
Now it is operating again from Bagan to Kyauk Padaung near Mount Popa, to cater to Myanmar’s expanding boutique tourism sector.
Running at a sedate speed of 10 miles per hour, the train allows passengers to take in bucolic, gold-tinted rural scenes. Sometimes you are so close to farmers working in their fields that you receive a smile and a wave.
The service has been introduced because the number of foreigners interested in riding the country’s trains is increasing and this heritage ride is likely to improve the tourism sector near Bagan, according to Rail Transportation Minister U Than Htay.
The train has just three carriages and can take a maximum of 120 passengers. It takes between three and four hours to boil the 3,300 gallons of water needed to power a return journey.
Train driver U Hla Win said he has worked with steam locomotives since he was young and the job fills him with nostalgic memories of days gone by.
For passengers too, the ride provides insights into a rural way of life that stretches back to far distant times.
As we rode through scenery that sometimes looked almost like a painting a cool breeze blew through the window.
From the left we could see palm trees and golden farmlands. On the right were views of mountains.
The train’s interior is not very different to that of the commercial train that runs from Yangon to Bagan. There are two seats on each side of the passageways and small fans are attached to the roof; in the summer time, it may be a little hot.
On the way to Kyauk Padaung, we stopped at Taung Zin station for about 45 minutes to get an insight into central Myanmar village life.
Huge trees provided welcome shade as we walked around and saw people at work making knives and turning palm wine into jaggery. With the help of their cows, others were at work milling beans for oil.
Blacksmith U Lu Aye said he was happy to show people how he worked and to introduce them to village culture. He said the knife-making trade was handed down to him from his forefathers and has been carried out in the Bagan area since ancient times.
Householders welcomed visitors with green tea and jaggery and were happy to talk. Guides also helped explain local history and culture.
The service began on Dec. 16 and at a whopping US$199 per return ticket will price out all but the most dedicated, or wealthy, rail fans. Included in the price is the village stop and transportation by car for a trip between Kyauk Padaung and Mount Popa.
A typical return journey from Bagan to Mount Popa by private taxi costs 35,000 kyats (US$34).
Some feel the rail trip should have been priced lower at the start of the service. “The hot-air Balloon over Bagan service started out at $75 in 2000 and they increased the cost gradually to $320. But the train service has launched at a steep rate,’’ said tour guide Ko Kyaw Myint Thu.
U Zaw Weik, director of train operator, Bright View Steam Locomotive Tours, defended the cost. “In foreign countries this kind of train runs perhaps only once a year and a ride could cost thousands of dollars.” Those who know the train market understand the pricing, he said.
His company pays the government $1,000 per return journey, he added.
U Zaw Win Cho, president of the Bagan Tourist Guide Organization, said he believed the locomotive would prove popular with wealthy travelers despite the price.
But he said that to really improve the tourism sector, the government should introduce a high speed, reliable Yangon-Bagan train service that could carry many passengers northwards at a reasonable cost.
This story originally appeared in the Jan. 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy Magazine. For more information, visit www.brightviewtravel.com.