I should feel exhausted.
It has been more than 24 hours since I last showered, 30 hours since I last slept in a bed. But as the monotonous clickity-clack rings through my ears, and we slowly gain elevation amongst the lands of Myanmar, I can only feel anticipation coursing through me. We are reaching Gokteik Viaduct.
It was 5AM when I stumbled out of the bus.
“Hotel? Cheap cheap!” a Burmese lady waved her flyer at me as I tried to pick my backpack up. I shook my head regrettably, wishing I had the time to stay in Hsipaw for one day before moving on. I was tired. But I had to get to the train. The train I have heard so much about.
It was not in my plans.
My stay in Myanmar was too short to accommodate trekking from Kalaw to Inle, visiting Bagan, and opting for a detour to take the train.
Yet, it drew me in – the experience my trekking mates shared, the opportunity to slow down and take in the pure sights of Myanmar, the natural charm that comes along with train travels. I was sold. And before I knew it, hopped on a 12-hour bus to take me to the Hsipaw train station, to begin my long journey towards Mandalay.
It had been a long wait since 5AM.
We (myself and the group of foreigners on the train) have passed through countless stations, with passengers alighting, and more passengers getting on. The train seats seemed to be filling up more as we travelled towards Mandalay.
We saw the fascinating Burmese women carrying huge baskets of snacks and fruits on their heads, while making their way across the cabins, all while the train was shaking from left to right.
We hopped on and off the train as it stops at a station, and enjoyed the breeze that came through the opened windows as the train snakes through the villages, introducing to us different sides of Myanmar.
We saw the villagers waving and shouting, while trying to race the train as we pass through. Many were happy to “stop” for a photo, and beamed at us before running back home when we passed.
Save for the violent shaking of the train that sometimes had me bounding up my seat, it had been a relaxing and rewarding journey thus far.
But what a sight to behold as we reached what is arguably the draw of the Hsipaw-Mandalay train route. The Gokteik Viaduct loomed in front of us, and suddenly, the cabin comes even more alive.
Built in 1899, and considered by many as a masterpiece construction of its time, this bridge is supported by 15 seemingly narrow towers, and stands at around 250m tall.
As we slowly moved towards the bridge, everyone were on their feet, trying to edge their way towards the side of the train that was closest to the bridge. We all wanted a glimpse of the architectural feat.
There is an element of trepidation as the train climbs onto the narrow bridge, the creaking of the rails indicating the age of the bridge.
For a slight moment, I felt the train sway, but it might be all in my imagination, and perhaps nervousness at being on the bridge. I stuck my head out, trying to soak in the sight in front of me.
Then the furious camera snapping began. My seat mate and I took turns to peer through the window. The locals seemed to be equally wowed, joining our shrieks and amazement at seeing the bridge.
The ride across was probably less than 20 minutes, but for that short period of time, regardless of being a visitor or a local, we were all in awe of what we have seen. To a certain extent, I feel fortunate to be able to travel across the country on a route that have existed since the 19th century.
Some useful tips for riding the train in Myanmar:
- Online booking system does not exist. You will have to make your way to the train station to purchase the tickets in person. Do so once you have decided that you want to take the train! Tickets do run out fast during peak period
- As of May 2016, the ticket from Hsipaw to Pyin Oo Lwin is 2,750 kyats (~$3 USD)
- Be prepared for late arrivals. Trains in Myanmar are notorious for not being punctual, so do take that into consideration if you are booking back-to-back transportation.
- The train is slow. Much slower than taking a bus, so most travellers would drop off at Pyin Oo Lwin, and catch a cab or truck to Mandalay instead. Consider doing that if you are short of time