MYANMAR – From Yangon to Dawei

Thank god we made it. Look how far we’ve come my baby…

( Written by Steph, photos by Nick)

Nick’s arms wrapped tightly around me, up and down we bounced vigorously underneath the sleeping bag.

“This is what honeymoons are made of, ” whispered Nick in my ear.

We were, of course, on a Myanmar train.

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As a westerner, you’d be excused for thinking that the train is an efficient way to get from A to B – fast and smooth, it’s the obvious choice. Not in Myanmar it ain’t. But this was no surprise to us; the reputation of the trains here had preceeded themselves. When planning our trip, we had made the decision to try and take as few planes as possible, and to see as many of the changes in landscape as we could. What better way than on a train? 

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A mastery of British engineering - the line from Mandalay to Hsipaw

Our first experience of a train in Myanmar had been on the famous line that goes from Mandalay to Hsipaw with its jawdropping viaduct. That journey had taken 11 hours, some of which lifted you a good few inches out of your seat and swayed you from side to side like a teeny bopper at a Bieber concert.

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Holding on tight - looking out at the scenery from the suspended line

At about £2.50 each, we had decided we could probably stretch to an upper class ticket for today’s journey. Lower class did look fun with the hussle and bustle of the locals innovatively transforming the carriage into a lounge and games room. However, the seats were wooden slats and today we were attempting a train marathon. It was perhaps not the best day for that. Determined to get to the very south of the country, and with our visas nearing their expiry date, we decided we would face the 26 hour journey to Dawei in one fell swoop – we had heard rumours of this place with its untouched beaches and jungle to explore…

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“No Dawei.”

We encountered our first hurdle at Yangon. As we had discovered previously, buying a train ticket here is a source of great confusion and great frustration. Every time we tried to buy a ticket the day before travel, we were told that you needed to buy it on the same day, even if your train was leaving at 3am. Apparently you should just turn up at 2am and hang around for an hour for no apparent reason. On our first train journey, we’d been lucky enough to discover an extremely helpful English speaker who had eventually got us tickets and made sure we were on the right train. Today we had no such luck.

“No Dawei,” the ticket seller insisted.

A couple of American dudes leaned over to us from the next counter, asking where we were going. They were obviously having trouble, too, but with different destinations, we were of no help to each other. Not that where we wanted to go was even being recognised as a destination. We knew it was definitely possible – we’d read a blog about a guy who had done this exact journey, but even with our best broken English and proficiency in mime, we were still *definitely* not being sold a ticket to Dawei. We opted to go to Malaminye, 9.5 hours away, and would have to get off the train and buy another ticket there before getting back on the same train. With all the palarva of filling out passport numbers (required to buy a ticket) and with trains only going once a day, we really hoped we would have enough time to do so.

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Four am and we arrived into Malaminye. We grabbed our heavy bags and ran for the ticket office.

“Ticket. Dawei.”

“No ticket. No seat,” came the reply.

You’re kidding me.

“Ok, lower class ticket.”

“No seat.”

Now this just wasn’t true. There was no way there were no tickets in lower class left. No one could explain a thing to us, and with our evident lack of Burmese, it was tough.

“Ye?” Nick chanced. This was another main stop, 6 hours away, but still another 10 from our desired stop of Dawei. Finally we got the ticket and hurried back on to the train.

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By this time it didn’t matter, the day’s heat had started to fill the air, and after running about like headless chickens, we were sweating like chorizo in the glovebox. Still, at least we were on the train. Goodness knows if we would be able to carry on our journey from Ye, but at least we had not been before – being stuck there was certainly more appealing than Malaminye, where the guesthouse we had stayed in last time was also generously housing several rats.

About half an hour later we stopped at a station and seemed to be there longer than is usually necessary. Hearing a commotion, and wondering what it was all about, I poked my head out of the window, just in time to see at least 50 new passengers being hurded onto the carriage behind us. Goats. Well, that certainly explained a few things.

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We arrived in Ye to repeat the same pantomime, and we were bemused to find that there definitely were seats on the train from Ye to Dawei. It was the same blinking train we had just got off. Sweaty and tired, we were hurried to our seats on a different carriage of the train, no time even to grab some snacks for the day long journey. Realising we had run out of water, Nick quickly grabbed a couple of bottles off a boy selling them on the platform and launched himself onto the train as it moved off.

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Another passenger runs to catch the train as it departs from the station

“Did you already open this?” I asked Nick, as I went to have some water. The seal was already broken. What we had just been sold was not clean water: not clean enough for us to risk drinking anyway. With our carriage completely sealed off from the rest of the train, and with the only fluid for sale fizzy or energy drink, we opted for a sprite and settled into our seats. This next part was to be long. Why had we not opted for the bus, again? I asked myself.

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Last leg of the train from Ye to Dawei

Luckily, as with all trains here, there were people waiting  on the platforms with food piled up on plates that balanced on top of their heads. If you were quick, you could get a chinese bun or a polystyrene container full of rice and curry. If you were lucky, the curry wouldn’t contain intestines. By the 2nd or 3rd station, we had also got water! Hurrah! And we needed it. I made sure we bought an extra bottle and then, balancing as best I could, washed my arms and legs in the toilet. This was quite a feat, I have to say. This train jumped up and down even more than the previous ones, and I wondered if anyone had ever sued for whiplash.

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Buying food from the platforms on a brief stop

It was quickly evident we were indeed heading into the jungle, but not because of what we could see, rather because of what we couldn’t. Following the line of the tracks, a train shape had been cut out of a dense and tall jungle. Now the lush foliage, which had since started growing back, poked through the open windows as the train chugged slowly past. The only sight we were greeted with was the odd close up of a branch, whacking us in the face as we attempted to see anything outside the carriage.

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A couple of hours left of the journey and Nick got up to go to the toilet.

“Most difficult wee of my life,” he declared as he staggered back, straining to see the right seat before being thrown in it by a jolt in the train.

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If a passenger had epilepsy, they would have had trouble on this train. I say this in all seriousness. The final two hours of our journey were in pitch black, with the erractic flash of a strobe from the loose connection of the overhead lights. The train stopped, the lights were on, the train moved, disco time.

The blinding strobe added one more level to the bouncy castle carriage. It was like one of those game shows to see if you could survive and the Burmese people on the trains were definitely the champions; they had been through the mill so many times, they didn’t even blink. Well, if they did, maybe it was when the lights were off…

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