Taking the train - with rice and mice and green tea salad

train viaduct.jpg

The Lonely Planet guide book is a bit disparaging about trains in Myanmar, comparing taking a train to travelling by horse: bumpy, uncomfortable, long, and subject to endless delays. The most positive thing the book had to say was that train travel is very cheap, which is true. It also quoted a local saying: "It's not as bad as some people say, not as good as you hope."

Certainly trains appear to be under-resourced. The narrow-gauge network was started by the British in the late 1800s, and rebuilt after extensive damage during WWII. But since then, apart from replacing steam trains with diesel, and a modicum of weeding along the tracks, I suspect there hasn't been a huge amount of investment. Certainly the bits of track we had seen before embarking on our first train adventure didn't inspire confidence. (But did give me a new respect for British Rail and NZ Rail.)

 Look carefully and you can see this is part of the Hsipaw to Pyin Oo Lwin train track

Look carefully and you can see this is part of the Hsipaw to Pyin Oo Lwin train track

 Another stretch of track. You can see why the trains don't go very fast. In other places, the vegetation on either side is so close to the train it comes in through the windows.

Another stretch of track. You can see why the trains don't go very fast. In other places, the vegetation on either side is so close to the train it comes in through the windows.

Still, while staying in Hsipaw, we heard good things about the train to Pyin Oo Lwin (the old Burmese colonial hill station capital) from another traveller, who said the scenery was fabulous, the excessive bouncing was mitigated by the extremely slow speeds, there was plenty of legroom, a wonderful viaduct, and lots of people who came on board selling delicious food. Oh, and the mice were endearing. 

We were already tempted, and then we discovered the bus (the main alternative) left at 5.20am, which Sam wasn't going to be thrilled about, and went along a twisty, dusty road shared with queues of trucks, tuk-tuk taxi vans, cars, motorbikes etc. 

We decided to give the train a go. 

 A view of the outside of the train. Has seen better days...

A view of the outside of the train. Has seen better days...

And it was quite wonderful. Tickets go on sale at Hsipaw station 30 minutes before departure (9.30am), so you queue up with all the other foreigners for a handwritten ticket and seat allocation. There are two classes - upper (with soft seats) and lower (with wooden benches). Upper class tickets cost 2700 Kyat each (less than $NZ3 or €1.50). A bargain.

 The scenery around Hsipaw, where the rice harvest is in full swing. Once the rice is harvested, the villagers (mostly women) gather up the stalks into bundles and then make them into stacks (men's work, making haystacks). The stacks store and protect the harvested rice until the winnowing machine comes around (see images below).

The scenery around Hsipaw, where the rice harvest is in full swing. Once the rice is harvested, the villagers (mostly women) gather up the stalks into bundles and then make them into stacks (men's work, making haystacks). The stacks store and protect the harvested rice until the winnowing machine comes around (see images below).

train rice.jpg
train stack.jpg
train winnow.jpg

The carriages and seats are admittedly a bit battered and old, though your soft seat comes with a clean cover. There is (as reported) heaps of leg room, and the seats swivel round so you can face forward whichever way the train is travelling. The windows open and the views are wonderful - across paddy and vegetable fields to the hills beyond. You travel so slowly that playing Minecraft on your laptop is quite possible throughout (the 142km journey takes a little over six hours, which even discounting stops, averages out at not much more than 25km an hour. By contrast the Japanese bullet trains go around 300km/hour). There is indeed a very fine viaduct, where the train slows down even further, to avoid (apparently) putting stress on the worryingly-under-resourced infrastructure. The gorge far below is magnificent.

 The viaduct and gorge (top photo, here and below)

The viaduct and gorge (top photo, here and below)

train scenery.jpg

We saw mice on several occasions, though it was hard to tell if it was one or many. And the toilets are a definite downside, especially when you are seated at the end of a carriage, as we were. We were definitely aware of them by the end of the six-hour journey. Sam proudly lasted the distance without having to brave the stinky hole in the floor. 

 A successful haul of snacks from Kyaukme station

A successful haul of snacks from Kyaukme station

But the other highlight was the food, with stops at a couple of stations where stalls were set up on the platform, plus sellers who came onto the train and walked up and down with baskets on their heads containing a variety of tempting food and drink.

train sellers.jpg

We bought little plastic bags of green tea salad (a definite Burmese favourite), which you had to eat with undersized skewers - not easy.

train tea.jpg

We also bought quails eggs, green mango/pineapple with chilli and salt, peanuts, and little salty bean snacks. Curry was available should we have wanted it, and was reported to be excellent. 

The train left on time and arrived (we think) within the margin of error for the journey.

 Our carriage driver at Pyin Oo Lwin station proudly informed us that his conveyance dated from 1885, when the British took over central Burma and moved in a lot of infrastructure from their neighbouring colony in India. This included the driver's family and British/Indian-style carriages. Note: it's not just tourists that use them to get around town, but I suspect foreigners have given these carriages a stay of execution. Locals prefer the tuk tuk communal taxis, like the one at the back of the picture. And unlike the sprightly Cuban horses, Burmese ones go at a stately walk, so it's not a speedy means of transport.

Our carriage driver at Pyin Oo Lwin station proudly informed us that his conveyance dated from 1885, when the British took over central Burma and moved in a lot of infrastructure from their neighbouring colony in India. This included the driver's family and British/Indian-style carriages. Note: it's not just tourists that use them to get around town, but I suspect foreigners have given these carriages a stay of execution. Locals prefer the tuk tuk communal taxis, like the one at the back of the picture. And unlike the sprightly Cuban horses, Burmese ones go at a stately walk, so it's not a speedy means of transport.

And Pyin Oo Lwin has 130-year-old horse-drawn carriages waiting at the station to take tourists and locals into the old colonial town, where we stayed in a room in a former British army officer's house.

And I know I keep saying this, but it really was all very fine.

 This isn't actually where we stayed, but instead is another former British colonial officer family residence, Candacraig. It's where Geoff stayed when he visited Burma in 1982, back when you could only get a one-week visa and visit a very limited number of towns. These days the Candacraig Hotel is closed for renovation, and has been for four years, without any signs of renovation taking place. Which is a shame as it's a beautiful place.

This isn't actually where we stayed, but instead is another former British colonial officer family residence, Candacraig. It's where Geoff stayed when he visited Burma in 1982, back when you could only get a one-week visa and visit a very limited number of towns. These days the Candacraig Hotel is closed for renovation, and has been for four years, without any signs of renovation taking place. Which is a shame as it's a beautiful place.