Though your seats are reserved, it’s likely that someone coming on to the train at a later stop will be inclined to take any empty seat they find. That makes for awkward moments if you are trying to keep reserved seats for your partner and newfound Westerner friends.
Reading guidebooks and travel forums, the famous train from Mandalay-Pyin oo Lyin – Hsipaw – Lashio got on our short list of must-do’s within our limited 28-day Myanmar Visa.
Marvel of British engineering? Not exactly.
First, it was built by American contractors in 1901.
Yes, along the path there is a steep gorge with thick forest.
Yes, it is scenic and the slow, slow, slow crawl over the Gokteik Viaduct gives you plenty of time for photo opps.
Train and bridge fans will find much to like about it.
But even they might agree that for the foreigner taking an “ordinary train”, as they call it,
it’s more the scene on the train and in the stations that makes the 8+/--hour ride so enjoyable,
albeit bumpy to the point of sea sickness at times.
You may have paid the equivalent of US$4 for a mile or so taxi ride in a pickup truck to get to the train station. The 8-hour train ride though only costs $1200 kyet, roughly the equivalent of US$1.
When you get to the Pyin Oo Lyin station you join a long chaotic queue for foreigner tickets. (Warning: our hotelier had told us that our seats had already been reserved, which was not true.) The wait time gives you a chance to ponder how miraculous it is that much of anything gets done. Not only are the ticketers not working with computers, but they seem to have several files and pages to reference and then they need to confer again and again with their colleagues to eventually find empty seats and then need to hand write out your ticket details in carbon duplicate.
Like us, you too may be knocking knees on the train with other tourists facing you, usually European. Cameras come out to jockey for best window positions. Some go to the doors between trains for the best views. But most of the “ordinary train” goers are Burmese, not foreign, giving you a chance to see family dynamics, mingle with Buddhist nuns, and perhaps chat up a local with a good command of English.
What is the family of eight Burmese people thinking as they look at you sitting next to three empty seats while their eightsome is squeezed into four seats across the aisle? One thing you can expect in a situation like this, because you see it almost all over Myanmar, is that with the stares come warm smiles.
When the food hawkers stroll by the whole train perks up a bit.
Cooked meals, junk food snacks, juice drinks, fresh fruit, Myanmar beer and more- it’s a moving restaurant with hawkers getting on the train at one stop and getting off at the next.
But the HUGE excitement comes when the train slows to a stop at the Gokteik Viaduct and then does a slow crawl across the gorge.
The Burmese and other language chatter gets noticeably louder, as if it were an amplified stethoscope beeping extra heartbeats of excitement. Cellphones are whipped out for selfies at the train door showing the drop below into the gorge. People move from one side of the train to the other to get the best view. And this buzz continues until you reach the other side of the gorge, maybe fifteen minutes later.
Our short leg of this train ride—from Pyin Oo Lyin to Hsipaw—took eight hours.
Or, for those so inclined, you could follow the example of our young Norwegian IT specialist seat companion who is on a year-long sojourn in Southeast Asia, and start drinking your 8 Myanmar beers in mid-morning to while away the time.