In the midst of tropical cyclone Komen, we headed to the train station to take the overnight train from Bagan to Yangon. We had heard from several fellow travelers that train travel in Myanmar is a unique experience and a must do when visiting the country.
As we entered our sleeper cabin, we were shocked to see how much room we had. Our cabin included eight seats, two beds, and our own bathroom! The only downside was that we weren’t connected to the dining car but we had already purchased snacks and water in prep for the 18 hour journey.
As the train began to roll down the tracks, we began to understand why this was going to be a “unique” experience. The train not only rocks side to side, but up and down as well. At times, the irregular motion was even violent, bucking us nearly off our seats.
As we rolled through the countryside and past small villages, small children would often run to see the train with huge smiles, waving both hands hoping for a wave back. When they would catch Dan and me waving back, they would dance with excitement.
The heavy rainfall from Cyclone Komen caused widespread damage in Myanmar. Our train past flooded rice fields and drowned villages. At times, the train track were even underwater.
In the morning, we arrived in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and its former capital. We dropped our bags at our hotel and set off to explore. Sitting atop Singuttara Hill, the 100 meter tall golden Shwedagon Pagoda is the prominent feature of the Yangon skyline. This pagoda is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar and is believed to contain relics of the four previous Buddhas, including eight strands of hair from Siddhartha Gautama.
Believed to be built between the 6th and 10th centuries, the Shwedagon Pagoda is covered in gold. In the sun, it’s almost blinding (yes, it stopped raining finally!). The crown of the pagoda is covered with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies and the very tip is topped with a 76 carat diamond. Rudyard Kipling even described the pagoda as the “a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun.”
Yangon is also is known for its colonial architecture, a stark reminder of Myanmar’s past under British Rule. In 1886, the British conquered Myanmar and made Burma (the British name for the country) a province of India with the capital at Yangon (Rangoon to the Brits). It wasn’t until 1948 that the British were expelled from the country and Myanmar became an independent country.
Since then, Myanmar has been in one of the longest running civil wars that continues till this day. Ethnic and political rebellions and repressions have ravaged the country for years and the country’s military regime is considered one of the world’s most repressive and abusive regimes.
In recent years, there has been a thaw of sorts. Many political prisoners have been released, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. While we were in Yangon 7,000 inmates (many of them political prisoners) were given amnesty and released. The country has also opened up more areas to foreign tourism, with three million visitors in 2014 and five million expected this year.
The thaw has the opportunity to accelerate this year (2015) on November 8th as Myanmar holds its first open general elections in more than 25 years. This election has the possibility to end the decades of military dictatorship. A vote towards a democratic government may mean that Myanmar will be welcomed by the international community after of decades of international isolation and punitive Western sanctions. Here’s hoping things will continue to change for the better….
For more information on the history of Myanmar, The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma by Thant Myint-U is an excellent resource and a great read.
While some travelers hate the bumpy (sometimes rough) train travel in Myanmar, we enjoyed the experience as a whole. The ride gave us a chance to see parts of Myanmar that few tourists see and we got a taste of how the locals in Myanmar live their day to day lives. With our next destination as Inle Lake, we hopped on the train again. This time the ride would take two full days with an overnight stop in Thazi.
The sights from our train ride to Thazi were reminiscent of our first train ride from Bagan to Yangon. Our “express train” passed through countryside, farmland, jungle, and several small villages. The quality of the railway infrastructure is generally poor which causes the train to not travel faster than 30 mph.
The second day we were on the aptly named slow train to Inle Lake. This train did not travel above 15 mph the entire time, but luckily the ride is amazingly scenic. From Thazi, the train enters hills the and begins to climb up the mountains between Thazi and Kalaw. Due to the steepness of the mountains , switchbacks are built into the mountainsides allowing the train to stop and then reverse down another track in the opposite direction.
Inle Lake is beautiful. Sitting in a valley between two mountain ranges, the lake is surrounded by small villages and and floating gardens. On its islands and along the shores live some 80,000 members of the Intha people.
On a marvelously sunny day (the cyclone had moved on to India), we took a boat ride around the lake. At Inle Lake, locals have a very distinctive rowing style which involves having one leg in the boat, while the other leg is used to row the long oar. Dubbed the one-legged fisherman, their rowing style evolved due to the fact that the lake is covered by reeds and other floating plants and standing provided a clearer view while paddling.
We cruised under bridges and along narrow canals on our way to visit some of the local workshops in the villages surrounding the lake. Here we watched locals weaving lotus and silk on giant looms, building teak boats, and rolling cigars called cheroots.
As we headed back to town, our boat driver took us to see the floating gardens near the lake shore. Here we saw vast amounts tomato and cucumber plants growing on mounds of soil “floating” on the lake. Farmers secure seaweed and mud together with bamboo which is then driven into the shallow lake bottom to secure it in place. The mats are around one meter thick with about a third of the mat visible above water level.
With three days of train rides under our belt, we felt that we had sufficiently experienced the railways of Myanmar and headed back to Mandalay via bus. From there we flew back to Bangkok and onward towards Europe (via Kiev and Istanbul) a few days later…..where our story will continue 🙂 .