YANGON — One of the most sought-after sites in Myanmar is the Old City of Bagan, an ancient conurbation of Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries. They are the result of a feverish surge of building that lasted from the 11th to 13th century, as Bagan’s kings sought to demonstrate their devotion to a then-nascent religion.
Through nine centuries of conflict, colonization, despotism, and eventual democracy, these vestiges of the past have remained tucked away in the driest region of the country, surrounded by the Rakhine Yoma mountain range in the west and arid plains in all other directions. Although many of the temples still serve as places of worship, Bagan now most prominently features as a tourism draw for travellers and backpackers looking to get off the beaten track of Southeast Asia.
Starting in Yangon, I had three options to get to Bagan: an expensive inland flight, a mind-numbing bus journey, or the notorious 18-hour journey by rail. The train departs once a day from Yangon’s central railway station at about 4 p.m. and arrives the following afternoon.
I had heard nightmarish stories from the travellers I’d encountered before my departure. The most creative and notable summaries deemed the experience unhygienic, leg-buckling, teeth-clattering, ear-bleeding, body-hurling misery.
“Memorable for all the wrong reasons,” one person remarked.
Above: Isabelle Kirkwood leans out the train window to get a batter look at Myanmar's lovely countryside.
“A deep hole of discomfort,” another opined.
More than one critic I encountered called it “the worst travel experience of my life.”
Although I read those not so sparkling reviews as a touch melodramatic, I can confirm that those expecting the Orient Express had better opt for the flight. This passage is all about the genuine experience and soaking in the gentle pace of Myanmar life as you toddle along the tracks.
The facilities, while sufficient, are nominal at best. Each cabin consists of four “sleeper” seats and a window with no pane on either side of the carriage. There is a small fan in each compartment and a toilet, which, frankly speaking, is a small hole cut into the floor which opens directly onto the tracks, only amplifying the constant metal on metal clanging.
I’m sharing the cabin with two local men — one is a heavy-eyed fellow returning home after seeking medical treatment in Yangon; the other is a tour guide named Joshua (his name anglicized so his raucous young clients in the next cabin won’t struggle over pronunciation). Joshua seems somewhat over prepared for the journey, carting rations of beer and food enough to sustain three compartments.
Within the first few minutes of the journey, Joshua picks up my backpack and moves it to the centre of the cabin with a contrite smile. I ask him why that’s necessary. He says during some of the night stops, “spiders” can scuttle into the cabin through the gaping window and steal them, but they’re easier to stop if the valuables are farther from reach.
The bustling streets of Yangon hum by before giving way to the calmer landscape surrounding the large city. The tangle of humming wires track out into parched grass and heaps of burning rubbish.
Above: Hawkers at Yangon station sell food to train passengers and at stops along the way locals line the tracks with more food.
The outer suburbs reveal a bleaker view of life in Myanmar. Families straddle the squalid sides of the tracks under blue and green tarps, squatting over large containers of harvest. Some people wave heartily, some simply stare, others go about their business.
The interior of the cabin heats quickly in the slow-moving train. With no shocks, the carriages incessantly thud and rock, which truly confines us to our seats. As we draw further into the outlands, what began as a light sway soon escalates to hurls so violent and loud that the idea of derailment seems inevitable. I find propping an arm against the rim of the window for the faintest breeze a sweet respite.
Over cans of lager, Joshua and I weave our conversation through stories. Joshua is a stout man with a clammy, red face. He is in his late thirties, but old enough to remember what Myanmar looked like before the days of self-styled democracy, when the entire country lived under brutal military rule and failed attempts at reform.
Night comes and with it, the cold. The constant thuds and sways don’t abate, but the heavy drinking makes sleeping easier. In the hardest throws of the night, I hanker for the warm splash of the sunrise but instead receive spurts of frigid night air and the smell of village fire, wafting in on the breeze through the open window.
Above: The train ride to Bagan is not easy but it's well worth it once you reach this ancient city with the golden temples.
As the morning approaches, the soil flushes a rosy colour. There is the odd road or dried up river in this expanse of palm tree-speckled plains that become brighter as the day ripens. This morning becomes much like the previous afternoon: rickety, hot, and dirty. We pass by locals tending to water hyacinths, some who are hacking at wood or razing trash in the punishing heat, others are bathing their children, and all share in the day’s tasks in the spirit of mundane duty.
Once we finally squeal to our final destination that afternoon, my cabin mates and I are spent. I glance out the window again to the overgrown bush and its green hues punctuated with shafts of sunlight. Our bags are caked in dirt.
The Old City can’t be seen from the tracks, which made the compulsion to disembark more persistent.
My legs go a little limp after my first steps off the train.
They have yet to habituate to static ground. The wobbles pass eventually, but the visions from the train window linger.
Myanmar still appears to be in a state of shock, scrambling for an identity to cling to and yearning to catch up to the rest of the world. This place is still opening up to embrace the changes its previous government had so effectively expurgated.
While the long echo of trauma endures, its way of life captivates those who can catch a glimpse.