Myanmar - The train to Mandalay
A day that will be etched in our memory for a very long time.
We knew visiting some parts of Myanmar would be more challenging than others, but we couldn't have imagined being trapped in one the countries worst conflicts in years. My girlfriend Storm had caught a very serious virus called Chikungunya in Cambodia, a viral disease transmitted to humans by infected mosquitos. The disease has similar effects as malaria with the added "bonus" of severe debilitating joint pain for weeks, if not months.
The virus peeked when we were in Yangon and once Storm shook off the 5 day long high fever we decided to head north. After another four days of recovery in a beautiful lodge on Inle Lake we made the joint decision to visit a more remote part of the Shan State. We had planned to do a hiking trip from Hsipaw, but with Storm barely able to walk due to the joint pain, this would have to be postponed to another time. Never the less we decided we still wanted to see this beautiful area of Myanmar that we had heard so much about.
We found an overnight bus from Nyaungshwe to Hsipaw, which we were given no information on how long it would take or what the journey would be like. It turned out to be an excruciating 15 hour trip through winding mountain passes that tested even my sense of adventure. Arriving to our destination was met with relief more than it was excitement. We had found a Hostel online for about $15 a night, a private room and breakfast included. At the start of our 3 month journey through South East Asia our faces would have greated the room with a painful grimace, but now as seasoned backpackers, we swapped words that I believe included "nice" as we switched on the broken fan and brushed the dead mosquitos off the bed. We continued to enjoy three of the most incredible days of our trip in this beautiful and remote part of Mynamar. Eating amazing food, meeting genuinly incredible people and walking through some of the most spectacular scenery.
One of the main reasons we wanted to visit Hsipaw was to do the train journey from Hsipaw to Mandalay. A 12 hour journey across the countries most dramatic landscape. The trip has been made famous for its crossing of the Gotiek viaduct. 689m long and over 100m high, the viaduct is a jaw dropping marvel of colonial British architecture. As we jumped into a Tuk Tuk to make our way to the train station, we both said how much we wished we could have spent more time in Hsipaw, but our schedule had become tight and we had a bus booked from Mandalay to Bagan the next day that we couldn't miss. The train station mimicking an airport hanger, with a few dishevelled looking buildings on one side, was full of character. With pineapple sellers in one corner and the village's supply of scratching dogs in the other. I walked into what looked the most "ticket office" looking doorway and asked the most astute looking man if we can buy 2 tickets to Mandalay for 9am. As I was ushered out the room with flailing arms, what I now presume was the cleaner yelled out "eight forty". Obviously the ticket office wasn't open for business just yet.
8:30 came and went, and with it 9:30, then 10:30. By 10:45 the now bustling crowds of locals and tourists alike seemed to look more and more panicked and put out. After living in Botswana for 20 years, a mere 3 hour delay seemed a fair trade for a spectacular 12 hour journey through Myanmar.
Whispers of an incident on the track began to roll off the tongues of some of tourists doted across the station. As speculation grew, even the theory of a fallen tree across the track snuck it's way into conversation. Finally one of the tourist managed to accost an English speaking guide who informed us that there was an attack at a military base and that they are waiting to hear more.
At 12 the train approached the station from its starting point in the east, a city called Lashio. With no new updates the excitement grew as everyone began to bustle their way to the front of the ticket office. The excitement was soon extinguished as we were informed that the train may be cancelled and head back to its starting point. Another hour passes and the monsoon rain sets in for the afternoon. As more details filtered through of an attack by rebel forces in Pyin Oo Lwin, it became apparent that the train would be cancelled and sent back.
As the train pulled away we started to look for a plan B. In honesty we knew there wasn't one. Pyin Oo Lwin was half way between Mandalay and us, and all the roads were closed. As some tourists had flights the next day they hired local drivers, one to take people to Mandalay, and another to drive to Lashio in the hope to catch a flight from the only airport in the region. We later found they had little success, as roads leading into Lashio were also bombed by rebel forces. As we still had 10 more days in Myanmar we decide to head back to the hostel and find out more information before making a rash decision. The truth is funds were getting low and a $400 flight to Mandalay just wasn't an option. So all we could do was wait it out. The problem we had was there are very few people reporting the goings on in the Shan State, so next to no information was available, never mind in English. The next few days we asked the manager at the hostel to call the station for updates, each time we got the same answer "the train is cancelled". All buses were too. Some locals were saying that they didn't expect the train to work again for another week. At that point we realised that it must have been a serious incident. In all honesty if it wasn't for our tight schedule and the fact we would now no longer be able to visit Bagan (one of the main sights we had travelled to Myanmar to see), we would have been happy to spend another week in Hsipaw. Every day we would explore the markets, sit by the river enjoying an incredible meal, and then round off the day having some beers with locals at the pub opposite our hostel. We met some lovely people in those extra few days, we cannot express enough how at home and safe we felt. On the third day we lazily ate breakfast before going to reception to check on the train, and to our surprise we were told that the train is running. We frantically packed and for the second time that week said our thank you's and goodbyes, before taking the bumpy Tuk Tuk ride to the station. It wasn't until we actually got onto the train, and it started to head in the right direction that we began to relax again. This feeling wouldn't last long.
In every station we passed and on every road the train track crossed, the military were there. Talking to some of the locals on the train we really got the feel that this train journey was now less of an escape and more of a risk. With comments of potential mines on the track as well as an ever present show of force by the military, we nervously looked out in awe at the breath taking view from our window.
One benefit of this added tension was that it took our minds off the painfully hard plastic slabs that were apparently our seats. The hours were slowly eaten up as the death-trap of a train crashed us from side to side winding through the countryside. Our boredom broken up by the exciting array of items that may come crashing down from overhead.
From meeting so many amazing Burmese people, to hanging out of the train watching the acres of paddy fields go by, to trying to buy unidentifiable food at each passing station, without doubt the train journey was one of the best experiences of my life.
The 12 hour 200km journey turned into 14 hours. The last two tested us as the joy and excitement had all but gone as we rolled to a stop in Mandalay at 11pm. It would only be a few days after stepping off of the train that we would understand the severity of the conflicts. What was two days of inconvenience for us, was also fighting so severe that 17 civilians were killed in that week alone. The train has not run again.