A sharp vertical jolt rocks everyone inside this rickety Myanmar overnight train, just in time for us all to hear the piercing screech of metal grinding against itself.
Repositioning myself upright, I look around to make sure that everyone is okay, though I’m surprised at what I see… Complete normalcy. Glancing around the dim florescent and flickering cabin, the only look I can make out on passengers’ faces is minor annoyance – as if this train always feels as if it’s about to go careening off the rails.
The crazy thing is that the trains throughout Myanmar actually do semi-frequently experience derailments (lightly referred to by many of the locals as “slipping a wheel”). And while air travel is certainly more convenient, the domestic airlines have also had their fair share of safety issues.
So what’s a budget conscious traveler to do? Well, after determining that I’d save over $100 going by rail, the choice was pretty simple. Sure, the trip from Yangon to Mandalay would take 14 hours, but at least I’d get to see the country side! I’d have a real local experience! There was maybe even the possibility that I could get a private sleeper car if I was able to snag advanced tickets!
Not to mention, train travel in foreign countries still gives me that little bit of fantasy fulfillment I crave. It’s just kind of magical.
Now that I had figured out my mode of transportation, I actually had to do the legwork of acquiring tickets. Easier said than done, since these don’t actually go on sale until 3-days prior to departure. You can pay a little bit extra for a local travel agency like Go-Myanmar (who also happens to have an excellent up to date train schedule online) to make the purchase for you. But really, you can just as easily make the walk down to the booking offices yourself and save the $10.
Unfortunately for me, the 3-day mark fell on Burmese Independence Day, so the offices were closed. By the time I returned the next day, tickets were a bit harder to come by. And not just private sleepers on the day train to Mandalay, which were all sold out. Everything. Upper Class, with comfy wider seats? Sold out. 1st Class with cushioned wooden seats? Gone. Ordinary Class with bare wooden seats? Nope. Well how about the direct train to Bagan, where I was planning on heading to anyway? Also sold out.
To make matters worse, because the ticketing system in Myanmar is all tracked by hand, each new request takes around 5-10 minutes for the agent to confirm availability.
Luckily Mr. Phone, the driver from my previous temple exploration, was able to navigate both the language barrier and confusing signs to secure one of the last available tickets. The bad news was that I’d have to take a Myanmar overnight train, which meant that I wouldn’t get into Mandalay until 5am. The good news though was that I at least had a ticket in Upper Class, which even included life insurance!
On the day of my trip, I made a quick stop to grab some snacks for the long journey ahead. I wasn’t sure if this train would have a dining car (it didn’t), so a big bag of chips, a sleeve of Oreos, a bottle of water, and a couple of beers would have to carry me through.
By the time I arrived at the train station, I only had a few minutes to get situated before the agents unlocked the gates and the crowd of passengers flooded into their designated cars. Luckily all seats are assigned beforehand, so the extra time it took for me to find both the correct car and my individual spot wasn’t a problem.
The interior of the Upper Class cars weren’t all that shabby actually. The seats reclined, were nicely cushioned, and even had a footrest for those that wanted to kick their feet up. The tiny fans bolted to the ceilings did little to cool down our steamy tin can, but the wide open windows were sure to let in a cooling breeze once we got moving.
At this point, the only noticeable issue appeared to be that some of the metal window coverings were stuck in place. No matter how hard people tried or how many other passengers helped, the rusty sheet of slotted steel just wouldn’t budge.
Fortunately mine appeared to be in working order, so I stashed my backpack overhead and got comfortable for the long ride.
For the first few hours, our Myanmar overnight train slowly cruised through the outer areas of Yangon. Fresh cool air now streamed through the open windows and the slight side-to-side rocking that had started up was actually pretty relaxing.
I began to focus most of my attention to the scenery outside my window, where occasional construction sites were dotted throughout the landscape.
After around 2 hours at this slow but steady pace, we made a quick stop in Bago. The terrain was already beginning to change, with the urban cityscape transitioning to rural villages.
With each additional stop, vendors would briefly hop aboard, selling snacks to passengers who hadn’t come fully prepared with their own food.
It was about this time that our Myanmar overnight train started to pick up speed. What began as a comfortable crawl had now turned into an all out tumble. Frigid cold air now gushed in the open windows, complete with a healthy mouthful of soot. Even that relaxing rocking had turned sour and it now began to feel more like I was in the middle of a mild earthquake.
Yep, it was about time to start popping open those beers…
By the time I finished my second can of local brew, the train was feeling as if it was being pulled apart at the seams. The side-to-side rocking had now become more of a heavy continuous swing, and large bumps in the rails were periodically sending passengers out of their seats.
The wheels on this particular Myanmar overnight train also appeared to be having a loud conversation with the rails that didn’t sound pleasant. Over the usual clacking of the tracks, sharp metallic squeals were now beginning to erupt from below.
But at least the amazing golden-kissed view out my window was enough to temporarily take my mind off of everything else. Kind of…
As soon as that sun set though, we entered into an even deeper hole of discomfort. Not only had my distracting view been taken away, but no daylight warmth meant a heavy and unexpected drop in temperature. I put on my long sleeved shirt and windbreaker, but even that was barely enough to take the sting out of the night air.
I also needed to pee really really badly. Usually I can make it through long trips such as this without having to make a bathroom run (probably not so healthy), but the 2 beers and half bottle of water had stretched me and my bladder to the limit.
Thankfully there’s a toilet in each of the Upper Class cars, so I began to inch my way up towards the small stall in front. Opening the door, I immediately regretted going with beer as my drink of choice…
Hitting the center of this drain in my rattled state would have been hard enough. But while also in the middle of a massive turbulence simulator? Yeah, best of luck.
Doing my best to avoid backsplash, I finished things up and then stumbled back to my seat. By this point in my journey, I had just barely hit the halfway point, meaning I still had around 7 hours to go. 7 hours of kidney melting, teeth clattering, ear bleeding, travel.
So yeah, you’d better just avoid the Myanmar overnight train from Yangon…