Darkness blankets the city as I make my way toward Mandalay station in the pre-dawn hours. I’m alone, but there’s nothing to be afraid of. Myanmar is one of the safest tourist destinations in Asia. The locals I’ve encountered have been all smiles. Besides, I know where I’m going. I walked to the train station just yesterday to buy my ticket to the Shan State town of Hsipaw. $4 for a 1st class ticket on one of the great train routes of the world.
|Mandalay to Hsipaw
|$4 (1st class)
|4:00am (once daily)
|11 hours (estimate)
Mandalay City Streets After Dark
The first thing that struck me as I exited the hotel was how different the city appeared at 3 in the morning. It was quiet. Really quiet. The day before I was dodging buses and bicycles from every direction. Even the short walk to the restaurant across the street seemed like an extreme sport. An organized chaos rules the roads in Mandalay. It’s tough to get the hang of it as a foreigner. This was a welcome reprieve.
I walked fast. Even though I had an hour until the 4 am train departure. As experienced travelers in Southeast Asia know, things often take longer than planned. A few blocks from the hotel, I began to feel a bit uneasy. I brushed it off. I figured it was my mind playing tricks. Solo travel in strange places is always a little unnerving. So this was the normal state of being that I’d become accustomed to. “Nothing to worry about,” I thought to myself.
They Came Out of Nowhere
I never saw them coming! Never heard a sound. Not a whisper. Nor a whimper. One second the street was completely calm and the next second there were two mean-looking dogs running full speed in my direction. I’ve never been afraid of dogs, but it was clear these weren’t the cuddly type. I felt the urge to run. But years of watching Animal Planet told me that it would only make the situation worse. With only a backpack and an umbrella, in that moment I became painfully aware of how vulnerable I was. I tried to breathe slowly, to stay calm. I gripped my umbrella tight just in case I had to channel my inner Babe Ruth and swing for the fences. Maybe my calm reaction would put the dogs at ease. But that seemed less likely with each stride.
I later learned that Mandalay has a problem with stray dogs. It’s been an issue for a long time, with residents concerned about rabies and other diseases. Hindsight is 20-20, but that didn’t help me at the time. These dogs live a tough life. The local government poisons many as a way to control the population. They can become desperate and aggressive. Moral of the story: There are dog gangs in Mandalay. Don’t walk the streets alone late at night.
A loud whistle pierced through the silence. I heard a booming voice from somewhere off in the shadows. Clapping hands. And not a moment too soon, as the dogs came within striking distance. It startled me. It got the dogs’ attention too. They scurried away as fast as they had appeared. A man sitting across the street had noticed the action and scared them off just in time! The streets fell quiet once again. And so I lived to ride another train.
All Aboard to Train to Hsipaw
The Hsipaw bound train chugged out of the station at exactly 4:00 am. The reality of life in Mandalay struck me as I saw dozens of people sleeping along the tracks. The first couple hours were bumpy but uneventful. The first sign that this would be a ride to remember came at around 6:00 am with a stunning sunrise high up in the mountains. From there we climbed toward the hill town of Pyin Oo Lwin (Maymyo), elevation 1,070 meters. The view was like something out of a fairytale – jagged mountain peaks, steep cliffs, sweeping valleys. With the windows down, rubbery branches of foliage whipped in and out of the train carriage from every direction. The trains in Myanmar are a bit different than the ones back home. Broken windows, missing doors, no big deal. The toilet consisted of a hole in the floor. Just imagine.
We arrived at Pyin Oo Lwin at 8:00 am. Somewhere along the way, we stopped for 20 minutes to load what seemed like an entire army of goats into a rear carriage. Imagine the spectacle as hundreds of goats funneled in through the narrow door, jumping head over heels on top of each. Entertaining as it was, the real highlight was yet to come.
Traversing the Gokteik Viaduct
A monster of silver geometry in all the ragged rock and jungle, its presence was bizarre.
– Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar
We pulled into Gokteik station sometime after 11 am. It was there that I first saw it looming in the distance, the “monster” immortalized in Paul Theroux’s epic railway travelogue. The famous Gokteik Viaduct. The massive 689-meter single track trestle was completed in 1900 by an American company during the days of British rule. It was the largest railway trestle in the world at the time and was considered a masterpiece of engineering. Standing over 100 meters, it’s the highest bridge in the country to this day. Rumor has it that the Burmese government didn’t perform maintenance on the trestle for decades after its completion because of a British insurance policy. But not to worry, the train passes over the deep ravine at a snail’s pace. Plus, it was renovated in the 1990’s (as if that’s comforting).
We rolled into Hsipaw only a few hours behind schedule. This charming little town in northern Myanmar is surrounded by traditional Shan villages and excellent trekking opportunities. You can read about how I nearly stumbled into an armed conflict between the army and local militia in an upcoming post. But that’s for another time.
Lessons from Faraway Places
Traveling in Myanmar can be exhausting. Go slow, savor the journey, no matter how uncomfortable it might be. There’s a lesson in every experience. Our responsibility as travelers is to find that lesson and carry it with us. To grow and become better people. To change the lives of others. Myanmar is a unique country, but it won’t remain unchanged forever. Tourism is set to dramatically increase in the coming years. As of 2015, Myanma Railways has a $20 million deal in place with Mitsubishi and Hitachi to overhaul the Myanmar train network. It’s reasonable to assume that this is the beginning of many changes to come. So enjoy the ride while it lasts.
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