Tin Htet Paing / The Irrawaddy

Riding the Rails to Rangoon

Tin Htet Paing ...

RANGOON — A rush of cold air bathed my face as the train started.

I was beginning a 24-hour journey from Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, to Mandalay, the historic capital of the last independent Burmese kingdom. From there, it would be another 15 hours to Rangoon—previously the only place where I had been on a train.

Rail transport was introduced to Burma in the late 19th Century. The British-built Rangoon-Myitkyina route stretches over 1,163 kilometers (723 miles) and was finished in 1898. But despite the long existence of trains in Burma, travel by rail was not as popular before 2012, due in part to safety issues and unreliable schedules.

Indeed, I only decided to take the grueling ride because I figured it would be one of the only ways to get a genuine, local travel experience.

I paid 17,500 kyats (US$13) for a comfortable upper-class seat that allowed me to talk with other passengers in my carriage. The train set out from Myitkyina at 8:30 am, with a slated arrival time in Mandalay of 10:15 the following morning.

The carriage was jam-packed with locals wrapped in layers of clothing to protect against northern Burma’s chilly temperatures. My travel mates and I, clutching our cameras, came off as unmistakable foreigners until we spoke Burmese with our fellow passengers.

The train zigzagged through Kachin State and Sagaing and Mandalay divisions, where the scenery was punctuated by foggy mountains, yellow paddy fields, small cities and the old-fashioned train stations that are impossible to see when traveling by bus or plane.

We stopped for a short while at some stations and rode past others entirely. People waited at some stations to see their friends and family.

Occasionally, people equipped with a basket or tray hopped onto the train and tried to sell us some local snacks—which were sometimes quite delicious, or at least enough to tide us over.

Each of these moments, no matter how short, was a new and stirring experience for me.

Yet some sights were more disheartening. For instance, passing through ordinary class carriages revealed people crammed on uncomfortable wooden seats or on the floor, their luggage and other belongings splayed across the aisle.

As the afternoon wore on, I read through some books, listened to music, and eventually settled in to sleep. But not before peering at the sunset, of course. Nature never bores us in Burma. Once the sun went down, I climbed into another layer of clothing to ward off the cold. Despite the jolting of the train, I soon drifted off.

I woke up the next morning to Burma’s famous winter—and it had chilled me to the bone! I wished that I had packed some blankets. We stopped at Padu Village, in Sagaing Division, for about ten minutes. There, people were selling water for passengers to wash their faces.

Sunrise brought with it warmth, and the train continued rolling along the tracks as upper Burma’s beautiful landscape of palm trees and sunflowers was made visible in the growing light.

We crossed the Irrawaddy via the Inwa Bridge at Sagaing and pulled into Mandalay Central Railway Station around 9:00am—more than an hour ahead of schedule.

My train was scheduled to leave Mandalay for Rangoon at 3:00pm, so I had time to wander around the station and eat a local lunch.

Depending on the driver’s unpredictable speed, the journey to Rangoon ricocheted between relative smoothness and terror, marked by jarring movements and the hissing of the engine along the dusty tracks.

Rangoon’s familiar weather greeted me as we rolled into the city around 6:30am. My sore body signaled to me that my first priority ought to be to get more rest.

Still, despite the literal bumps along the way, snaking along the rails from Myitkyina to Rangoon introduced me to a world that was different yet in many ways the same—much like Burma itself, the experience was full of colors, and chaos.