On our travels we try to be gracious and polite guests to our host country. We understand the quirks and occasional challenges of travelling in countries with less wealth and infrastructure than the one we are fortunate enough to call home, and generally this is all extra flavouring in the glorious soup of experience known as travel. I do not, therefore, use the term unmitigated shithole lightly, but this is the only fair description of Mandalay’s train station which is where we found ourselves for the train from Mandalay to Hsipaw – deep in Myanmar’s Shan state.
Thankfully, we had procured our tickets the evening before, as the ticket office queues were several metres deep – even at 3:45 in the morning. Mandalay train station is a monstrous carbuncle of a multi-storey car park where a maintenance crew and a bucket of soap and water haven’t been seen in my lifetime. The process of procuring a ticket took twenty minutes and a crack team of three people – one to handwrite our antique-looking ticket, one to take our passport details and a third to stare sullenly at us. Still, they had gleaming uniforms and diamond jewellery, so I’m glad to see the train fares aren’t being entirely squandered on pointless fripperies such as upkeep of the station.
The only way we could locate our train was to count the platforms as we tramped over fields of pigeon shit and down a dimly lit concrete stair case – signs being another thing sacrificed in favour of a donation to the diamond earring fund. Mercifully, the train left bang on time at 4am. Another traveller told of how he had been delayed – only the day before us – for five hours as there was a derailment and the same train from the day before was still blocking the track. Gulp.
We had treated ourselves to “Upper Class”, which promised a cushioned seat as opposed to a wooden bench. We were expecting to be on the train for around ten hours, and felt this would be a sound investment. The train was a grimy, ancient thing from Chinese stock circa 1950s. The ceiling fans were entirely decorative, and I suspected the thing hadn’t been cleaned in some decades.
Our travelling companions were an elegant, petite Burmese lady and her young son, a trio of elderly Burmese clad in traditional longhi and about a dozen drone sized mosquitos. The train seemed as surprised as we were to leave on time, and lurched out of the station with a lively buck. We bounced gently to the next station, where we were joined by some 200 goats. As anyone who has tried to persuade 200 nervous goats to join a train in the pitch dark would expect, chaos ensued for 20 minutes as rogue goats were rounded up from along the platform.
The journey continued, eventually – an exercise in the many different ways a train that doesn’t properly fit on on its rails can bounce. We swayed drunkenly through the suburbs; we juddered past fields in the darkness and – at times – we bunny hopped so violently it was as if the whole carriage had suddenly taken up with a pogo stick. I would conservatively estimate that around 40% of our journey was spent in mid air. Craig – who was suffering from a cold and going through tissues like a teenage boy – glared at me with a Look, which I easily read as “this journey will be named as a factor in our rapidly impending divorce”.
You may be wondering why we had opted to take the train from Mandalay to Hsipaw rather than a preferable form of transport such as a bus, or by attempting to hitch a lift from a feral and rapid dog. The answer is in the form of the Goteik viaduct, which was built in 1901 by an American firm and stood – for a time – as the highest spanning bridge within the British Empire. After about eight hours of jolting train ride we came to a stop, as if taking a deep breath before a jump. The viaduct appeared to our left. As there are no such frivolities as safety in Burma, I even got to lean out of the carriage door and take a few shots (totally safe Mum, honest)!
At walking pace, we trundled over the gorge with our hearts slightly in our mouths. There is a rumour that the Myanmar junta didn’t do any repairs on the bridge while a British insurance policy (which expired in 1990) was still in place. Not true, I’m sure, given how well maintained everything else was. I’d estimate we were about 50 metres above ground, and that ground was a river – reduced to a trickle by the dry season.
By now we’d made a couple of friends in the carriage and whiled away our final three hours of the journey playing cards and indulging in that idle, entertaining chat that comes of knowing someone for a matter of hours. We pulled into Hsipaw at 3:30pm – we’d been on the train for eleven and a half hours. Total distance travelled: 150 km. You do the maths.
Getting the train from Mandalay to Hsipaw definitely wasn’t the fastest method of travel. It certainly wasn’t the most comfortable. But it will certainly live in my memory as an epic and memorable journey.
If you want to get the train from Mandalay to Hsipaw
- Trains depart from Mandalay station at 4am. Do check the platform number when you pick up your tickets as there are no departure boards or signposts to the platform.
- We booked our seats the afternoon before, which I’d highly recommend because the carriage was nearly full. It also avoids getting up even earlier to queue for tickets on the day!
- Tickets for upper class cost us K3,950 each (about £2.50).
- Delays aren’t unknown. Although the train stops frequently for snack stops, I’d bring water and something to eat along with mosquito repellent and some hand sanitiser (the toilet is a hole in the train floor).
- Myanmar Railways are owned by the Myanmar “government” and, as our friends in the ticket office had demonstrated, have a funny way of distributing their profits. Mindful we didn’t want to line the junta’s pockets any more than we had to, this was the only journey we took by train.However, the Man in Seat 61 has some useful tips on Myanmar train travel.