Leaving the city of Hpa-An behind us we made our way up north to the pilgrimage site of the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, also known as the “Golden Rock”. After a long ride – echoes of Buddhist praying chants from the bus still ringing in our ears – we finally arrived in Kyaikto, the closest town to the pagoda. Rumors had it that the rock was to be renovated, covered with mats and treated for at least a month and therefore not to be visible from the outside. Our hopes were high that this was just a rumor but to our disappointment it wasn’t. Great!
So here we stood, stranded in this little town, sniffing in the hot air and the dust. This red dust that has been following us ever since we entered Burma. The midday heat striking down on our heads as we pondered on what the hell to do now. Our options were rather limited. Apart from the rock there really was not much more to do in this town so we might as well directly head up to Kalaw, our planned next stop on the journey. The town of Kalaw, roughly 570 kilometers away, a former British hideaway nestled in the hills of the Shan state was to be our starting point for a trek to Inle Lake. Definitely an ambitious task but we were ready and determined to reach this town, come what may.
The next bus was to leave late, at around 9 pm. “Too late! There must be another way!”
…and there was another way. With our bags strapped on our backs and the next destination set in our minds we slowly starting walking down the road. Our plan was to hitchhike our way up, either going all the way or at least reaching the capital city of Naypyidaw half way.
We stopped at the next spot of shadow along the road and started waving down cars (sticking out your thumb just doesn’t do the job down here). As usual, we got a lot of “waving back” – nice gestures of smiling drivers who just want to be nice, and also people stopping just to make sure you are ok. Few cars passed until a smaller truck stopped.
“We need to get up towards Yangon or Naypyidaw, can you take us up the road?” We showed them again on a map and after a big smile and a nod we placed our bags in the back of the truck and joined the ride. It was a pick-up truck, featuring two rows of wooden bench seats – a very common way of transporting people and cargo for short-distance trips. These are often times extremely packed, but somehow never full enough for the driver. The team is made up of one driver and one conductor who is basically hanging on the back of the pick-up, shouting out their destination and in charge of collecting people on the way.We were fortunate enough to not have 20 other people squeezing in and joining the ride.
The conductor was a great guy and even gave us some local energy drinks and water. We made some good speed as the driver was apparently trying to break the world speed record of pick-up trucks. The truck was heading to Yangon and so we decided to head out in Bago, a town along the intersection of the main road heading up north. They dropped us off, the conductor even asking other people to bring us to the bus station so that we could continue our journey. We thanked them a lot, such lovely and kind people, and started walking towards the bus station. We were still roughly 500 kilometers away from Kalaw and needed to get a ride out of town. Once again the next bus turned out to leave in around 3 hours…
“Too late! There must be another way!”. And so our first Burmese train adventure was about to start…
We left the bus station behind and walked back towards the train station which was just down the road from where we arrived at first. We reached the station after a short walk through a small side street – an old, run-down, yellowish colonial style building. There were many people waiting and sitting on the floor in the main hall, eating and talking loudly. A man directly approached us and showed us the way to the ticket office. We asked for two tickets to Thazi, the changing station for us to our final destination of Kalaw, as one train just arrived at the platform across. Unfortunately, we still had to fill out some forms and documents so we had no chance to catch that one. Yet, the next train was to come in around 1 hour and so we decided to go for that one instead. As all the trains start in Yangon and are usually booked up in advance we were not able to get “upper class” tickets but only so-called “ordinary class” tickets. The difference being the comfort of seats but this didn’t stop us from going. “It can’t be that bad – anyhow, this will for sure be a great experience”.
We received our hand-written tickets and had some food at one of the many stalls at the station and enjoyed watching the local life in front of us. Particularly interesting was a group of barefoot men playing chinlone, a traditional Burmese sport where a rattan ball is passed around in a circle using feet, head and knees. We finished our meal and headed towards the train. Burmese trains and tracks are generally in a rather poor condition. Introduced by the British back in the 1870s not very much has changed ever since – but the charm remained. It was our first train ride of the trip and we were quite excited to experience this by our own.
Loads of people gathered around the platform and as the train arrived and stopped there was a massive commotion of people leaving and entering the train. We took our backpacks and fought our way through the crowds as eventually a conductor saw us and helped us find our reserved seats. The ordinary class is made up of large, wooden benches facing each other and we finally managed to have a seat.
The train whistle blew, the clacking of tracks started and we were about to commence to what was to be the longest, most tiring, painfull, interesting and fun train ride of our lives…
The train rattled hard as it left the station in Bago, steadily creeping its way out and up towards the next stops of Taungoo and Nay Pyi Taw. It started to gain speed as it speared into the night.
We had our window open and there was not much left to see outside except for a few lights of small houses along the tracks and the golden shine of passing Pagodas and Buddha statues. The wind was beginning to turn a bit colder which was a welcome relief to the heat inside of the train. Insects were flying around and there was a constant moving of people crossing the isles. Opposite from us was a young Burmese couple and a younger man, across from us a family with two small boys. I suppose it was not that common for foreigners to be here with them. People smiled and took pictures (and videos) of us, small girls giggling away in the back of the wagon. We shared food and, despite not speaking a common language, managed to communicate in our very own way. It was a great experience and we were able to get a glimpse of Burmese life and culture.
The shaking of the train was getting intense as we reached midnight, throwing us from one side to the other, up and down those hard, wooden benches. People started sleeping, everywhere. The floor was covered with mats and bags, people sleeping beneath the benches and in the isles. A man was so passed out that people could move his head and his entire body back and forth as they tried to pass through the wagon – he just kept on dreaming! It was hilarious to see yet we also tried to get some minutes of sleep. Whatever position we tried, it was just way too uncomfortable and every possible minute of slumber was utterly crushed by the heavy shaking of the train.
We finally arrived in Thazi at around 6 in the morning. Our eyes small and puffy from the ride, our backs hurting as we packed our bags and made our way out of the train. So we made it to Thazi (in 11 hours) and now?Our final destination was Kalaw so we had to figure out how to get there. We went to the ticket office and decided to take the next train (yes, another train ride), departing in one hour, leaving us enough time for a well-deserved morning coffee break.
It was a bit chilly, a light fog covered the train station. Dogs were sleeping, still curled up and waiting for the day to start. The sun slowly peaked through the early morning haze.
This time we managed to get first-class tickets!We actually had our own, cushioned seats and were now able to relax a bit. By the time the train left it was filled with locals along with a small group of foreigners.
After roughly one hour of riding the train I began to scratch myself on my back, feeling a slight itch here and there. After a while this scratching became more vigorously until Rocio asked me to lift my shirt and have a look. “Oh my god!”, was the first thing I heard. It seemed that my back did not look to good and was completely covered with huge, red spots. After taking a picture (I will spare you with this) I saw that my entire back was infected with some sort of rash, somehow resembling of what I think the surface of the moon might look like. Eventually, Rocio had the same and we assumed that it was some sort of animal in the wooden benches from our earlier train ride that must have feasted on our backs for 11 hours! The pain and itch was getting stronger but we had no choice but to wait for us to finally reach Kalaw.
Due to the steep mountains between Thazi and Kalaw the train had to go through multiple switchbacks alongside the mountain. It would move forward, stop, and then reverse onto another track in the opposite direction. This “zig-zag” construction was incredibly interesting to watch and was a very advanced engineering feature back in the days. We had several break stops in between and were able to see many different vendors offering their products in the small stations in between or selling them directly to the train passengers. They would balance their baskets on their heads and pass along the trains. Products would range from food to flowers, making it a very interesting scene for some nice pictures.
After roughly 6 hours we then reached the train station of Kalaw. Our bodies sore with pain and our backs itching like crazy we again packed our bags and went to the next guesthouse that we found.
It was such an incredible journey and definitely a very memorable one for us. Despite the discomfort of the rides, the hot train wagons, the insects and rashes it was a very special way of getting to know the Burmese people and culture. In total it took us around 24 hours to go from Hpa-An to Kalaw and was the longest trip I have taken for a long time, if not the longest I have ever taken! We took a bus, hitchhiked a small truck and took a long train ride. We encountered some incredibly generous and kind people along the way which eventually made us forget the troubles we had to go through. When we finally reached our destination we were absolutely exhausted, but extremely happy. Experiencing Myanmar train travel is truly a great adventure that no one should miss when visiting the country.