I thought the train was finally moving after at least an hour of waiting, but it was just my consciousness, slipping and sliding in two worlds. My reality blurred from fatigue and lack of sleep as I lean on the side of an open train window in the cart, oblivious of the passing crowd and vendors at the station. I am going to Pyin U Lwin (pyuu-lin), a cool scenic hill town, east of Mandalay, straight from an almost 8 hour overnight bus journey from Bagan. But I was awake the full day before and the bus ride didn’t offer a chance to sleep. It was already 15 minutes past 6am when the train finally rolled on the tracks. That’s already 2 hours late from its original time of departure. But I was just relieved the 4-hour train journey had started.
The bus from Bagan to Mandalay left around 8pm. It was much smaller than the one I had from Yangon to Bagan with lesser leg room. It still has good airconditioning and also had those free bottles of water and wet towels. My seatmate this time knows very little English so I decided to just go with gestures, like looking at my watch and asking when to Mandalay. The sound system was too loud as well that I ended up watching this local movie they were showing about a protagonist father in a middle class family who are having domestic problems – the mother in gambling, the daughter in bad vices that the father had a breakdown and admitted himself in a mental institute and found good friends there. Even if I couldn’t understand what they are saying, I could somehow understand what the movie is about.
The bus had stops for food and toilet breaks around 10:30pm and 12:30am. Finally it arrived in Mandalay by 3:50am. I was looking into several options on how to go to Pyin U Lwin. There are pickups which are faster, taking only 2 hours but it was way too early so I decided to take the train as I heard it departs around 4:30am. Besides, after reading Paul Theroux’s train ride to Pyin U Lwin, I wanted to try it myself even on a shorter length.
But getting to the train station proved a challenge as I was dropped on the last stop of the bus. It was dark and the details I can make out from the streets are the ones illuminated by the street lamps. There were motorbikes drivers who approached me but gave in and left when they couldn’t understand what I was saying. It was frustrating, but I composed myself and decided to look into my book and showed the picture of a train going to Pyin U Lwin. Fortunately a biker understood and took me at the train station for only 1000 kyat. I realized sooner that the bus stopped there earlier and I should have gone down then.
The Mandalay Train Station is huge and is composed of several floors and multiple train platforms on the ground. But despite its size, it was in a sordid and sorry state. It looked more like a refugee or evacuation camp with so many people sleeping on the filthy floor. For what, I’m not sure but judging from their baggage, they are also waiting for a ride somewhere.
I looked for a ticket counter. I took out my print of Pyin U Lwin written on Burmese and showed them to a security guard there. He was kind and helpful enough to lead me not only to the ticket station but inside the ticket booth office. I was a different case. I had to show my passport and pay US$3 for the first class seat. Of course there’s the question of what I would do there. I simply answered that I’ll go there for sightseeing. I’m not surprised by the treatment since all trains are owned and ran by the government. After getting my ticket, the security guy helpfully accompanied me to my platform where I would wait. He pointed me to a couple of foreigners who were also waiting there.
It took a while for the train to arrive and when it did, there were confusion and chaos. Some of the local passengers started throwing their baggage and sacks of who knows what inside the carts. We showed the conductors our ticket. The foreign couple I met,were going to Hsipaw, a province further than Pyin U Lwin was led to different cart than I. The lighting inside the cart was dim and I had to squeeze through the people inside. Another conductor looked at my ticket and told me I was in the wrong cart! Squeezing out, jumping along some baggage I found my seat by the window on another cart. I was seated with the locals. I saw the other couple going out the cart it turns out they were for the other train across us. For a first class ticket, it was like our old PNR train with wooden seats. But their windows were wide open without any grills. I put my main backpack up the open luggage compartment and tried to get some sleep while I waited for the train to go.
When the train left the station, I kept my eyes peeled to look at the scenery. Images of poverty, of broken down shanty stations and makeshift housing passed in view until the scenic open field of the country side dominated the view. There was a stop where kids as young as 8 probably were selling water by refilling containers with water from their open pails. Other passengers were brushing their teeth, some were buying the tumano delicacies and some kind of noodles for breakfast. I was too tired to buy from them and just settled on my biscuits and water.
By 8am, the train was already crawling up the mountain. Some of the foreigners in the cart were enjoying the view and taking pictures overlooking the lands. On our side, we made sure not to be hit and whipped by stray branches getting inside our window when the train moves. Past the mountain trail, the scenery changed to pleasant fields and hills with patches of colourful flowers from Purples, red, white, blue and yellow. It was a wonderful idyllic view.
It was 10am when we reached Pyin U Lwin station. The air was cool the station was filled with activity. At the station there was a signage which reads 3495ft. Finally after 14 hours of travel, I’m here and I’m loving the cool weather.
Ferdz Decena is an award-winning travel photographer, writer and blogger. His works has found print in publications such as Singapore Airlines’s Silver Kris, Philippine Airlines’ Mabuhay, Cebu Pacific’s Smile and Seair InFlight. He has also lent his expertise to various organizations like the Oceana Philippines, Lopez Group Foundation, Save the Children and World Vision, contributing quality images for their marketing materials.