My Road to Mandalay

You may have heard at English class, if you were listening, of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Mandalay’ or, depending on your musical taste, sang along to Robbie Williams’ ‘Road to Mandalay’ – well this is the story of ‘My Road to Mandalay’.

So, having soaked up all that New & Old Bagan had to offer, we were moving on to our next destination, Mandalay. Now we had considered in advance the transport options; flying about 40 minutes, taking an express bus for 3 to 4 hours, or going by train, which was a tad longer at 7 hours. We weren’t in a rush so I thought the train journey would be a nice adventure; see the countryside, sit side by side with the locals, relax and enjoy while the train trundles cross country. I had done the research, and thanks to the man in Seat61 for his prior work, we had even applied for our tickets in advance from overseas (via Go-Myanmar). Sure enough, the paper hand written ticket was delivered to our hotel 24 hours before departure as promised. We were in Coach 1, Seats 9 & 10 with a 7:00 AM departure and a suggested check in time of 6:30.

So, to give ourselves some leeway, we arrived around 6:00 to be met by a wandering dog, an empty echoey station hall & a handful of people sitting out towards the platform, some of whom seem to have been there overnight. The only train in sight was a line of four grey carriages in a siding way opposite the platform. The single line track swept in from the south and, straight as a die, ran out north following the path of the Irrawaddy river. Gradually more & more passengers arrived, mainly women with baskets, flash lamps, food bags and children, along with the only other’foreigners’ like ourselves, a German couple and their young lad.


Bagan station at 6:10 AM – total gridlock!


About 6:40 there was a bit of movement and clanking over at the siding and eventually the said four carriages backed out of the siding, down the track & waited. Just before 7:00 this ‘locomotive menagerie’made its way down towards our platform and arrived gracefully at exactly 7:00, heralded by a uniformed conductor standing in the door of the carriage waving a green flag and ringing an old brass bell – as if none of us had seen it manouver into place! The train did not have a separate engine, it seemed to be built into one of the carriages.

So we gather ourselves and headed for Coach 1, only to be shunned away to the ‘other’front of the train. We then had to try get ourselves, and our two 20kg bags, up into the carriage – the step was about three feet above the platform. With the aid of a kind young man we got ourselves & the bags on board, found our seats, and loaded the bags overhead.  The carriage comprised some four seater arrangements, a couple of two seaters and a number of long bench type seats. We had a two seater, one opposite the other, knees knocking and no table. As I sat down the seat slipped off its moorings with a bit of a bang, much to the laughter of the locals on the train and indeed ourselves – it helped break the ice for the long journey ahead.

We trundled out of the station to the sound of a fantastic shrill train whistle, choo, choo down the track. We arrive at the first of what turned out to be many stops within about 20 minutes. As we pull into the station a procession of ladies appear selling all kinds of snacks from huge circular trays balanced perfectly on their heads. The colour, the drama, the almost musical voices, the smells all made for a great spectacle. All the windows in the train were open so you could just lean out and soak it up. After a short interval the train pulls out to the musical choo choo whistle again. But, as I look back, I notice two of the train crew outside, pacing along with the last carriage – they seemed to be doing the train equivalent of ‘kicking the tyres’ & perhaps a portent of things to come?


The 7:00AM train from Bagan to Mandalay arrives gracefully for boarding


The train picks up speed and we are off again, clickety clack, down the track; swish swoosh as the four carriage train bounces from side to side. Internal and external carriage doors are open wide so you can see down the train and out into the dry countryside and river beds. As we pass each open level crossing, or tiny no-stop stations the shrill whistle warns the locals and the goats to stay clear. Twenty minutes later we have an unscheduled stoppage, the train driver jumps down onto the side of the track and meanders down to the last carriage. More kicking of tyres and scratching of heads. As he walks back I look at him inquisitively – “overheating” he repeats several times – as if that was going to reassure me. But the shrill whistle announces that we are moving on again, clickety clack down the track, swish swoosh as the carriages twist and cling to the bending rail track.


Women & children selling to the passengers through the windows


Then, at about 11:30, we grind to a halt again; same routine, crew disembark, now bringing plastic bottles of water down to quench the thirst of the overheating engine. Once it’s had its fill, off we go again, but now more like clackety clack as we reach an incline on the track. The crew are out now gritting the tracks to get more traction. We slip and slide and chug along before stopping, reversing and trying again. Fortunately, we reach what looks like a man made small lake where there are other railway workers waiting for a pick up. Our crew disembark again and run down to the water’s edge to fill the litre plastic water bottles – to much laughter from the railway workers and the passengers.


The train crew filling plastic bottles with water to try and cool the engine


Away we go again, clackety clack, choo choing our way for the grand distance of about two miles when again the engine bursts a gut! We are now in the middle of nowhere; we look at each other – What might’Plan B’ consist of? Was there a ‘Plan B’? Bear in mind that the toilets on the train are, let’s say rather primitive and we were managing our water & food intake for the previous 24 hours with a view to avoiding a call of nature, but these delays were beginning to extend our timeline and potentially our bladders.

Then, out of the blue some enterprising lad on the train points to the field were a lady was looking after some crops. There follows an exchange with this lady and then the amazing sight of a line of crew and several characters from the train fetching buckets of water from the field, out and down to the engine compartment. There is one watering can which is used as a funnel to get the water into the engine cooling system. Bucket after bucket gets drawn and emptied.


Time for the buckets of water – can you see the watering can?


In the meantime there is increasing chatter from our end of the train, as a colourful line of women, wearing the traditional longyi waist to ankle, arrive down the rocky and uneven terrain with water, fruit, various fried snacks, thanaka for the ladies and betel quids for the gents and all balanced on their heads. Some how they climb up from the rocky ground into the carriage – I believe I would have struggled myself to get up without any of their impediments. They are full of style and smiles at perhaps the unexpected opportunity to earn a few bob on the stalled train.

After what seemed like 50 minutes or so, stopped in the baking heat, the whistles announces our departure, much to our relief and that of our fellow tourists. The locals just smile & laugh at the confused and exasperated expressions on our faces. We are making good progress now, clickety clack down the track, the welcome breeze rushing in through the open windows and doors. After 20 minutes or so we arrive, rather gingerly, at the next station and to our disappointment come to a complete stop. All the crew disembark along with the impromptu water crew from the last stop. Here we are, in a remote tiny village called Nahtogyi, no wifi, baking heat, a dwindling drinking water supply – if there is no Plan B are we going to be here for the night? Turns out Plan B is the same as Plan A – we get there when we get there!

I walk down the carriage looking nervously for some sign that we haven’t been abandoned. Sure enough the ‘water brigade’ are in action once again. This time we have a number of hoses connected together, running about fifty feet from a tap on the platform wall over and across to the train – and what a thirsty beast it was. After an age the whistle sounds and we are off on the road again. A few miles on we slowly grind to a halt – can’t help thinking it would have been wiser to have parked up at Nahtogyi where we might have had a better chance of rescue!


Trying to kill the thirst of the beast


More grit is called for to boost wheel traction, we reverse, build up a head of steam and eventually  reach the summit – also known as an itsie bitsie hillock. We despair! We are now running several hours late, have no sense of where we are along my railroad to Mandalay and still no certainty that we will get there any time soon. But happy to report we got moving and raced along the track. At this stage I am standing at the front of the carriage, right behind the driver, encouraging him to keep up the momentum. From my vantage point I can look out the front window, like being upstairs in the front seat of a Dublin bus, I am following each curve on the one line track, much of which is overgrown with weeds. I watch as he blows the whistle at every goat, oxen or motorbike that threatens to come across our path. In the distance I see what looks like a big train station, various tracks converging – it must be Mandalay surely?


Yes – this is the main line we are riding down!


Alas it was not to be, worse, we came to a halt in the station, no water crew in action, train crew just hanging around, no announcement or even means of an announcement – have they given up? My fellow male tourist and I are now pacing up and down the carriage, nodding to each other, exhausted, and completely puzzled by our predicament. Another 45 minutes pass by. There is a sound in the distance, everyone looks up and around the bend comes a gigantic train engine dragging what seemed like 50 passenger carriages behind it. As it zips by the driver throws out the cane token ring with a message for the station master. The penny drops – given our train was running late on a single line track we had to wait for the oncoming train to come and clear our path. Hurrah, with another shrill whistle we are on our way.


One of the railway workers we picked up at the lake


The closer we get to Mandalay the number of level crossings increase dramatically. It must also be milking time for the goats as there are continuous herds crossing over and back. Farmers are also bringing in their oxen, crops, children from the fields. Each and every incidence of which requires a sharp shrill of the whistle, even the engine seems to be screaming “don’t stop, don’t stop” such is the din.

We eventually draw into Mandalay station, exhausted, weary, dusty, deafened from that damn whistle, sweaty and a tad smelly. A journey that should have taken no more than seven hours took almost eleven and a half. Next time someone you know suggests you take an adventurous train journey into the unknown look in the mirror again and tell them to take a hike.

(C) #travelwithgar @gjdeegan April

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