The Rattle Trap Train: Traveling In Style From Bagan to Yangon, Myanmar

When we hear the train thundering into the Bagan station we collect our backpacks and rush out to the platform to watch it approach. So far so good! Our plan is to take the train from Bagan to Yangon, but word has it that this train is very old and rickety. We note that it is not a coal fired steam engine. I am a little bit worried as I watch the train roll into the station. As we stand located about in the middle of the station the passing rail cars all look pretty dingy. I look towards the end of the train in my quest to find the upper class sleeper cars for which we have tickets.

The decision to take the train from  Bagan to Yangon was actually made in a very democratic way, as we held a vote to see who preferred JJ’s luxury bus, and who preferred the train. Now to be fair, I had done my research and I knew what to expect, or so I think. I tell everyone else that the train is really supposed to be pretty rough, and as the hotel staff in Bagan said, not very comfortable. The kids all vote for the train, which overrules David’s and my votes. To be perfectly honest, both David and I want to do the train as well, but we refrain from casting votes so we can blame the kids if it is terrible.


When the train comes to a stop the ticket master checks our tickets and leads us to our “Upper Class” cabins. However, he must be going in the wrong direction! He is bringing us towards the front of the train….all those rail cars that had looked pretty dingy as they passed by us on the platform…..I begin to protest. The ticket master dismisses me and herds us towards our berths which are on the first car. He proudly presents our places to us, switches on the lights and a fan on the ceiling, and opens up the windows.

  

We have two berths. Each has sleeping capacity for four people, but one berth seems big enough to accomodate all six of us. There is no connecting door from one to another, so we won’t be able to share our snacks or anything. This is not going to work. We ask the ticket master if we can all go in the same berth, but he gets crabby and waves his arms frantically to show us that two people must stay in the second berth.

By now the train is ready to depart from the station, so at the urging of the ticket master David and Kristoff rush off into the second berth. A sound of a whistle pierces through the air, and the train lurches slowly forward, throwing big black clouds of smoke into the sticky air. The clattering and creaking of the wheels on the track joins in unison with the boisterous engine noises. The cars rock side to side and up and down, faster and faster as the clattering train picks up speed.

I find myself laughing out loud about the hilarity of it all! As the train picks up speed it seems like a certainty that the intermittent rocking and bouncing motion will cause the train to jump off the track.

In my minds eye I can already see how it will be. We will be ejected through the open windows, and mangled rusted metal and grimy train bits and pieces will surround us as we lay motionless and bloody in the field. I tell myself to turn off my imagination and just concentrate on having fun.

I think maybe it is a good thing we are in the first car. The engine looks like it is made of the heaviest substances known to mankind, which means that the likelihood of it bouncing off the track is much less than the lighter rail cars. Since we are the first rail car and we are firmly attached to the engine, maybe we stand a better chance in the event of a derailment.

It is hard for me to have fun right now though, because I am worried about how David is doing. He gets motion sickness easily, and after just a few minutes on this rattle trap train he must be feeling awful. I feel certain that he is having a horrible time in the other berth, and is super annoyed with the situation. This train ride can take up to 16 hours!

Now so far I have only told you about the ride on this train, and nothing about the condition of the rail cars. Now bear in mind, we are traveling in an Upper Class berth. There is a little bedsheet for each bunk and a pillow, which appear reasonably clean except for one blood stained pillowcase. The floor has been swept. And that’s about where it ends.

I don’t know how old this rail car is but I am betting it is from the 1950s….or 1820’s….or something really old! The seat covers are miraculously intact and the seats are reasonably comfortable, but as we sit we feel like we are getting dirty. It’s okay, though……we go camping regularly so we can do dirt.

Aundrea and I discuss the situation and come to a conclusion. There is no way that we want to spend a night with our group in separate berths, regardless of what the ticket master says. The benches on this train are definitely wide enough to sleep two people each (so that makes four people), plus two can fit in the upper bunks. Somehow we need to get the message to the other rail car that they should come join us. 

While we are contemplating our plan we enjoy the beautiful Myanmar countryside. I love the straw houses, and the carefully hand planted rows of crops. I delight in the simplicity of their lives.

  

We see no roads here, but just small dirt trails.


It isn’t long before the sun begins to set. There are dark clouds that promise rain. I hope it doesn’t rain, because our only air conditioning is the sticky air blowing in through the open windows. I find myself being glad that the berth does not seem too malodorous and isn’t moldy. We don’t get a colorful sunset, but it has its own beauty.   
    
    
    

Looks like Kristoff is riding up ahead of us with his feet sticking out the window. No, that must be the monk that is in the berth behind us.

  
    
    

It is delightful to gaze out the windows of the train and note all the people who come to watch the train pass. It seems to be a grand event to them. I wonder if they are impressed by the “modern marvel” that clatters past them with the horn loudly tooting!
  
    
    

The train slows down and makes a short stop at a station in a remote village. This is my chance to get a message to David in the berth ahead of us. I lean my head out of the window and yell loudly towards his berth, but my voice is drowned out by the thundering engine.

I call out repeatedly, and finally a head sticks out the window. I have to yell to be heard, but we come up with a plan. At the next stop David and Kristoff will grab their bags and join us in our berth. They say they are glad to come into ours because the door on their berth does not close and they are getting smoked out by the engine.

When the train stops again it is getting dark and a light rain is falling. There are doors on either side of our berth but the left side on both berths are locked from the exterior so we can’t open them. The station is on the left side. I open up the door on the other side and see two figures with backpacks jump out of the berth ahead of me and approach our door. It is Kristoff and Daddy!

We are all so excited that they made it in! This is going to be our home for the next 16 hours or so, and it is perfect to have everyone together.

It is a bit early to be excited though, because someone must have seen David and Kristoff running down the side of the track. We see the ticket master searching for a potential stowaway under the train with his flashlight. We close our windows so he can’t see into our berth. After a short delay and several flashlights searching under and around the train we are on our way.

  

When it is time to think about going to sleep we begin to spread out sheets on the top bunks. The only problem is that there are many dead bugs up there that look like small beetles. I don’t know what bedbugs look like, but I am pretty sure these are not them. We sweep them down to the floor and place down the sheets. 

After sunset the air has cooled nicely and it is actually pretty fun to sit in the rocking and bumping train with the air blowing through the open windows. The shaking and rocking and rumbling intermittently pierced by the train whistle is almost comforting in a strange way. I imagine how it may have been years ago for travelers going long distances on trains, how exciting to pop their heads out the windows and wave hello and goodbye to loved ones while they were on a journey of a lifetime. Here I am on a journey of a lifetime, and it feels as though I have stepped into a time machine that has taken me back at least 100 years. 

My mind turns to the less fortunate travelers in the lower class cars. Their benches are constructed of hard wood. With all the rocking and swaying their ride must be nothing short of awful. 

At first it is awesome having the windows wide open, but soon I discover that there are many little bugs inside  our berth, much like the small beetles that were dead up on the upper bunk. We are unsure if the bugs are coming in from the open windows, or if they are crawling out from under the mattresses and seat cushions. We debate whether to close the windows or not, but that decision is taken away from us when it suddenly begins raining and the water is coming in. We shut the windows, and I say windows loosely because you can’t actually see out of them. 

David suddenly remembers that they had left the windows open inside the other berth, which means it will get a soaking. When the train stops again he runs back to shut them and rejoins us.


And so it is time to sleep. The rain has tapered off. We decide we need to keep the lights off in order to not attract insects, and keep the windows open so we have good ventilation even if the air is thick with train engine exhaust. We set up our clothes line to put our wet swim suits out to dry, pull out our silk sleeping sheets and snuggle in for a long night.

The train lurches and lunges, pressing onward into the sticky night air. The sounds of the night are interesting. At one train stop I hear what sounds like millions of frogs croaking.  The stations are all busy with people coming and going in all hours of the night.

As I lay there I begin to wonder about the bugs again. I recall the huge scorpion we saw the other day, and I wonder if there might be one in the train car with us. And I hear noises that sound eerily similar to the bats we heard in the temples. Are there bats in this rattle trap train?

Eventually I drift off. I think I slept pretty well, because I don’t wake up until the sun is on the horizon.

  
  

I feel super lazy when I look out the window! The countrymen have been up for a long time already tending to their crop. All I can think about is how much my back would be aching if I had to lean over like that for more than 5 minutes. I feel lazy and out of shape.

  

Of course duty calls in the morning, and there is no option but to use the non-luxurious bathroom. There is one of those butt sprayers that are common throughout southeast Asia and Europe, but it has a slow leak and has dripped water all over the floor. The floor is made of metal, which is slippery when wet. Now top that off with a bathroom that is barely big enough to stand up in, and a toilet seat that you would not put your worst enemy’s butt on, and the slippery floor …of course your doodoo goes straight onto the train track, so if the train is going fast who knows if the wind will blow it back up at you…..you know what I mean. The train is rocking back and forth so ferociously that is it almost impossible to maintain a stable footing on the slippery wet floor, nor can you bend too far forward without your head hitting the dirty wall in front of the toilet. 

   
Once that torture is over with I can relax and enjoy the sunrise. The sunrise reflects beautifully off the rice fields. 

  

Even the oxen are off to work at this early hour.  
    

There are times when the train slows down to a crawl. I look out to inspect and see that we are traversing through an area where the track is low down, and the grasses have grown up tall right next to the track. The train sways wildly in this section even at this low speed.

  

Wake up princess girls!

  

I didn’t realize that oxen get beat with sticks, too. I feel sad.

  
    
    

As we get closer to Yangon the stations are busier. When the train stops there are eager salesmen offering food and beverages for sale.

  

This man just wanted to shake my hand, and smiled a big big smile for me and my camera. You will notice his teeth are red in color. Here in Myanmar there are many people who chew betel nuts, which makes their teeth red. They spit the juice into the streets, and all the streets and sidewalks have red splotches that look like a war just happened.

  
We snap a few photos of homes along the way.


Looks like someone got flooded out last night.    
    
And the hard workers everywhere…

    
    

Do you think this is JJ’s luxury bus? I don’t.

  
    
  

These two young men take a break from their labor of carrying this load. It looks like they each had one end of the stick.
  
    
  

Our trip is over at great last. It took about 18 hours to complete the journey. We all slept reasonably well, but otherwise we feel grimy and hungry. I mean really grimy. It seems like maybe we were covered in a bit of soot, too – maybe all the smoke from the train engine wafting in through our open windows? So you may ask would I recommend the Myanmar train from  Bagan to Yangon? I would say wholeheartedly “YES”. It allows you to see the country in a different perspective, to appreciate the natural beauty of the land and the people. 
    
    

There we are……..proud Myanmar train travelers.

    

At least we didn’t have to travel ordinary class. Look at the hard wooden seat! The train was pretty full when we got to Yangon, too. I have no idea how the travelers were able to handle that intense rocking and bouncing on such hard seats!

  

It is about midday when we arrive in Yangon, so we must go to our hostel, drop off our bags, and do some touring before we leave again tomorrow morning for Thailand. All I can say is that I love Myanmar and the people here. I hope to return some day with more time on my hands.

We exit the train station, and immediately we are surrounded by at least ten taxi drivers each competing for our business. We are looking for a metered taxi, not a scam artist, so we push our way through the crowd and into the street. The taxi drivers who initially were competing for our business, now seem to be scheming with one another not to allow us to get a reasonable price for a transfer. We walk slowly away from the chaos and into the streets of the surprisingly and pleasantly beautiful city of Yangon.

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