The most charming way to get to Mandalay, though not the quickest, is by train. We departed from Yangon’s dilapidated colonial central station at 6am. There are various other departure times, but considering it’s a 16 hour trip (if it’s on time) you probably don’t want to be leaving too much later.
As the train trundled through Yangon’s suburbs the city was just starting to wake. A dusty mist hung over the ground and the sun was just beginning to stretch out its first rays. The trains are like everything else in Myanmar: home-made. As the seats starting drifting with the rhythm of the train we quickly discovered that they weren’t fixed to the floor, but instead left loose, free to slide round the carriage like fish in a bowl. Apart from a pair of tourists at the back (who didn’t leave their seats once throughout the duration of the 16 hour ride), we only shared the carriage with various rotations of military soldiers – a presence we later realised would follow us for the entirety of the trip. As foreigners we were obliged to sit in ‘upper-class’, but don’t be fooled by the name – this is far from a luxurious experience. Or so we thought, till we ventured out of our carriage in pursuit of the restaurant cart, an adventure which gave us a 3 carriages long insight into Myanmar; rickety train, lack of floor boards allowing for the tracks to be seen below, rows and rows of hard wooden benches, bare-footed monks, smiling faces of children and women covered in a yellow thanaka paste, people curled up in the foetal position on the bouncing floor. A quick nip to the loo revealed that it was little more than a circular hole down to the tracks beneath, with 2 ceramic white plaques either side to position your feet and a mysterious dripping of water from above, which would release splashes of water on your head, face, shoulders or back depending on which direction the train was jolting at the time. The train isn’t content merely jolting from side-to-side as one might suspect an old Burmese train to do, but it also has a penchant for jerking up and down.
Akin to the infamous Indian trains, Burmese trains are replete with vendors jumping on the train as it approaches each station, walking the length of the train in a desperate endeavour to sell their tempura vegetables, jasmine tea, curry with rice, or whatever other Burmese culinary delight they waft in your face, and then proceed to hop off the inevitably already moving train, which is not a high-risk manoeuvre given that the trains do not exceed 20 mph throughout the duration of the 16 hour ride.
As we slowly progressed further and further out of Yangon we passed through several bamboo villages, the early morning lines of monks in their resplendent saffron robes queuing up to receive food donations with the eldest leading the pack and the youngest bringing up the rear. A little later groups of children could be seen bounding along to school dressed in their leaf green longyis.
In the 577 kilometre stretch from Yangon to Mandalay we didn’t pass a single factory, or even piece of agricultural machinery, as all heavy work is done by hand. Women and men dot the fields in their triangular bamboo hats, threshing the straw, and others ploughing with an ox and cart.
If time is not on your side take the bus which takes 8 hours. There is a plethora of bus companies that do this route so you can choose the departure time and level of luxury. Shwe Mandalar provides a very comfortable night bus for 10,000 kyats.
We arrived in Mandalay to be greeted by a medley of taxi and trishaw drivers all vying for our business in broken English, and so the bartering began. We soon came to an agreement and were taken to a pick-up truck. As it turns out taxis in the western sense do not exist in Mandalay, they either come in the form of an open-sided truck or a motorbike. As we had all our luggage for our 10 day trip with us, we opted for the former, all crouching in the back, open to receiving chortles from nearby motorists.
Mandalay city planners don’t seem to have felt the need for street lights, road markings, or even traffic lights on most of the roads in the former capital, bar on the main arteries. The notion of a pavement hasn’t been grasped either; firstly they’re hard to come by but when you do find one they tend to have sporadic sections missing or they’ll have slabs of concrete loosely laid on top so as you step on it and the slab beneath your feet moves the exhilaration kicks in as you envisage yourself falling into the sewer that inevitably lies beneath, and of course due to the lack of street lights this venture becomes even more precarious at night. So you are faced with a choice- either you risk it on the pavement or you choose to revel in the fear and exhilaration of being run over at any point by a motorbike, more often than not travelling without headlights to add to the element of surprise. Luckily vehicles tend not to exceed 20mph at any given point so you can usually hop out the way in time to feel the whiz of air brush past you as they skim your side.