Generally we love to travel by train. However there are a lot of horror stories about train travel in Myanmar. Stories of long delays, uncomfortable conditions and frequent derailments, which had so far put us off travelling by train. We decided we couldn’t miss out on seeing the Gokteik viaduct, so we set off for what was scheduled to be a 6.5 hour trip between Hsipaw and Pyin oo Lwin.
We decide to travel in upper class, which at just under $3 is twice as expensive as ordinary class, but still a bargain. Our trip starts well enough, the train is only 20 minutes late. Our carriage only contains tourists, but it’s low season so there is plenty of room to spread out. The seats are covered in a layer of dead bugs, but they’re easy enough to brush off. The fare includes a fee of 0.87 kyats (less than one Australian cent) for insurance. It is unclear if the premium is so small because the risk of an accident is so low or if Myanmar Railways is just woefully underinsured.
Once the train starts moving it becomes clear why people think train travel in Myanmar is uncomfortable. The train rocks and rattles so much that the next carriage looks like it is on a completely different track. Not long into the journey the train rattles so much that everyone’s backpacks fall off the luggage racks and onto the passengers below. The conductor is obviously used to this and helps us all store our packs behind the seats instead. I’m not sure why he didn’t do this when we boarded, I guess he enjoys watching bags fall on tourists.
The other main impediment to our comfort is the windows. The train obviously doesn’t have air conditioning, so all the windows are open to ensure we don’t bake. However the tracks aren’t well maintained so branches and leaves fly into the carriage every few minutes. We learn to recognise the distinct sound of scratching on the side of the train which signifies incoming branches, reminding us to lean into the centre of the seats to avoid contact. Unfortunately we learnt this after Myles received a nasty scratch from a passing branch.
The train moves slowly enough that we can enjoy the scenes of village life. Even though the train passes this route twice a day, the locals seem excited to see it pass. Mothers bring their newborns out to watch, children run down to the tracks to wave at the passengers and farmers stop what they are doing to stare. We stop at one station long enough for people to buy lunch and it has a real festival atmosphere. The platform is crowded, despite the rain and puddles, and music blasts from speakers.
Finally after many hours on board we reach the Gokteik viaduct. Built between 1899-1901 by the British it was once the largest railway trestle in the world (a title stolen by Canada in 1909). At around 100 meters high and 800 meters long, it’s a pretty impressive structure. It’s still raining at this point, so the surrounding forest is shrouded in mist, giving the whole area a mysterious, eerie feel.
Once we’ve seen the viaduct we still have another scheduled 3 hours on the train. Now that we’ve seen what we came for, the trip drags on. Eventually we pull into Pyin oo Lwin station only 2 hours late. We’re not quite sure what caused the delay, but periodically our train stopped in the middle of nowhere while some employee looked underneath the train. So who knows what mechanical issues have been troubling the train throughout our journey.