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 all of Asia. The locals I’ve encountered throughout my journey have been all smiles. Besides, I know exactly where I’m going. I made this walk to the train station just yesterday to buy my ticket to the far-flung Shan State town of Hsipaw. $4 for a 1st class ticket on one of the great train routes of the world. Score!
But as I soon discovered, “1st class” doesn’t mean all that much. And danger lurks in unexpected places while traveling overseas.
|Train Route||Mandalay to Hsipaw|
|Cost||$4 (1st class)|
|Departure||4:00am (once daily)|
|Time||11 hours (estimate)|
Mandalay City Streets
The first thing that struck me as I exited the hotel lobby was how different the city appeared at 3:00am. It was quiet, almost too quiet. Just the day before I was dodging buses and bicycles from every direction. Even the short walk to the restaurant across the street seemed like a extreme sport. An organized chaos rules the roads in Mandalay, and being a foreigner I was not acquainted with the ins and outs of it all. This was a pleasant calm in the eye of the storm.
I walked fast. I had one hour until the 4:00am train departure to Hsipaw. Plenty of time, I thought to myself. But still, things often take longer than planned when traveling in Southeast Asia. A few blocks from the hotel I started to feel uneasy. I figured it was just my mind playing tricks. Of course I was uneasy. Solo travel in strange places is always unnerving. This was the normal state of being that I’d become accustomed to living in. Nothing to worry about.
Surviving the Stray Dogs of Mandalay
They burst out of nowhere it seemed! One second the street was completely calm and the next there were two menacing dogs bearing down on me. I’m not afraid of dogs, but it was clear that these were not the cuddly type. Instinctively I felt the urge to run, but years of conditioning from watching Animal Planet told me that it would only make the situation worse. Armed with only a backpack and an umbrella, in that moment I became painfully aware of how susceptible I was to unseen danger in such unfamiliar circumstances. I tried to breathe slow and stay calm, but at the same time I gripped my umbrella tight in case I needed to defend myself. I figured that by staying cool it would put the dogs at ease, but with each bound it seemed less likely that my plan would work.
I later found out that Mandalay has a serious problem with stray dogs. It’s been an issue for a long time, with residents concerned about rabies and other diseases. I guess hindsight is 20-20, but that didn’t help me at the time. The 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 stroll the streets late at night. Fortunately for me, just as the dogs came within striking distance a loud whistle pierced through the darkness. A booming voice, clapping hands. It startled me, but it also got the dogs’ attention. They scurried away just as fast as they had appeared. A man sitting out of view across the street had noticed and scared the dogs off just in time! The streets fell quiet once again. And so I lived to ride another train.
The Wild Ride to Hsipaw
The Hsipaw bound train chugged out of the station at exactly 4:00am. The harsh reality of life in Mandalay struck me hard as I saw dozens of people sleeping along the tracks. The first couple hours were were bumpy but otherwise uneventful. The first sign that this would be a Myanmar train ride to remember came at around 6:00am with a stunning sunrise high up in the mountains. For two more hours we climbed toward the scenic hill town of Pyin Oo Lwin (Maymyo), elevation 1,070 meters. The view was like something out of a fairytale with jagged mountain peaks, steep cliffs, and sweeping valleys. Flashes of green foliage exploded into the train carriage from every direction. The cool thing about trains in Myanmar is that they aren’t bound by silly safety regulations. Windows are down, doors are missing, and the toilet consists of a hole in the floor. Yes, seriously. Just use your imagination. So besides the obvious hazards, I also dodged tree branches as they whipped in and out of the open windows. Many stretches of track are so overgrown that it seems impassable, yet this route runs every day.
We arrived at Pyin Oo Lwin at 8:00am. Somewhere along the way we stopped for 20 minutes to load what seemed like an entire army of goats into a rear compartment. Imagine the spectacle as hundreds of goats funneled in through the narrow door, jumping head over heels on top of and over one another. Entertaining as this was, the real highlight of the Mandalay to Hsipaw train route was yet to come.
Gokteik Viaduct: The Best Of Myanmar
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 11:00am. 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. I thought to myself, if it looks this big from afar, what must it be like up close?! The massive 689-meter single track trestle was completed in 1900 by an American company during the British rule. It was the largest railway trestle in the world at the time and considered a masterpiece of engineering. Standing over 100 meters, it’s the highest bridge in the country to this day. This is the best of Myanmar. 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. Oh, and it was renovated in the 1990’s (if that’s of any comfort to you).
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 a violent clash between the army and local militia in an upcoming article. But that’s for another time.
Lessons from the Past
Myanmar travel is daunting at times, but remember to go slow and savor the journey no matter how uncomfortable it may seem. There’s a lesson in every experience. Our responsibility as travelers is to find that lesson and carry it with us as we move forward. Let’s find a way to apply it and become better people. Use it to change the lives of others. Myanmar is a unique country, but it won’t remain unchanged forever. Myanmar tourism is set to explode 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 suspect that this is only the beginning of many changes to come. So enjoy the ride while it lasts.
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