Saturday, 11 February 2012


29th - 30th Jan 2012

Rangoon railway station.

We set off with a jolt from Rangoon Central smack on time at 1600hrs on the overnight train for the scheduled 17 hour journey to Bagan. My carriage was an ‘upper-class’ sleeper which was the second to rear of a nine carriage train on a very ancient narrow guage railway track built by the British in, I suspect, 1325 AD. 

The compartment ( left ) had four bunks and I was to share it with a Dutch/Indonesian father and son; the father being an anaesthetist in Nijmegen and the son an economist on holiday from working in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It was quite comfortable, when static, with a window, or rather a large square hole in the wall with a pull-down blind, an air-con machine which didn’t work and a fan which did, noisily. The Dutch couple were to prove amusing company.

We ground to a halt five minutes later at a station called, curiously, Athlone Road. And then again after another five minutes at another halt with an undecipherable name in squiggly lettered Burmese. If this was going to be the routine it was going to take an awfully long time to cover the 420 miles to Bagan. It then sped up and, by crikey, we soon realised that either the train wheels were scew-whiff or the track was seriously warped, or both. It didn’t just rock ‘n’ roll, it leaped up and down and tilted to the point where we were wondering how it was going to stay upright. It brought to mind those cartoon trains, the rear carriages of which left the rails on bends and hills waggling about like a dogs tail. The three of us were hanging on and giggling nervously. I was sitting next to the open space ( window ) and sat back carefully in case a sudden lurch saw me do a quick sideways exit. The noise was deafening. A ‘waiter’ entered to ask what we wanted for supper and as we didn’t really understand, or even hear, him we said we would get something to eat later. Therefore, at some point, we decided to go to the restaurant car which was two carriages in front. This turned out to be an exciting expedition. On staggering down the narrow corridor it was necessary to keep both hands on the walls to avoid spinning out of the conveniently located open ‘windows’ which ran from thigh to neck height and the even more perilous wide-open outside carriage doors through which it was eminently possible to be ejected. It was like walking on one of those ‘fun-fair’ wobbly floors with added screeching, crashing and banging sound effects plus extra dangers. Conversation at less that a scream was impossible. On reaching the joins between carriages we were confronted with a further interesting, indeed alarming, hazard. The gap was about a yard wide and open-air down to the coupling and track rushing past beneath. The edges of this gaping void added to the challenge by moving up and down about two feet in opposing directions. It was necessary to judge when both sides would be roughly approaching level before making a leap and grabbing the sides of the opposite doorway. The potential for a slip and subsequent disaster was high. We made it over two of these lethal gaps to the dimly lit restaurant car safely, laughing uproariously as one does having survived near death experiences. I then realised I had left my camera and bag of valuables in the compartment! If these were nicked I would be devastated, so back I went. Only to find the door to the compartment had been locked. Fearing that someone obviously has access and might return to borrow my stuff, if they hadn’t already, I then had to go back to the restaurant car where I found a waiter who ‘helpfully’ gave me the key to the compartment. Back I went on another life threatening journey to open the sliding compartment door ( after a violent struggle because it had jammed ), gratefully retrieved my valuables and returned again over the obstacle course to the restaurant. To be honest, I was becoming rather adept and almost blasé at leaping the bucking ‘chasms of death’. We sat and drank that beer which did not spill out of glass or bottle and shouted to one another. The food, sweet and sour chicken with rice, took a while to appear because, I suspect, the chef had to scrape most of it off floor, walls and ceiling in the mini-kitchen. It tasted pretty good. Two other foreign tourists stumbled in looking rather shell-shocked who, now I think about it, I never saw again. Maybe they are still lying out on the track somewhere. They might have overdone the beer. We passed several picturesque little villages as night drew in and then had to do the final fraught return trip in total darkness this time. Doing it in daylight without drink taken was no challenge any more. So reaching the relative safety of our compartment unscathed we congratulated ourselves ( now ‘night and day qualified’ as they say in the world of aviation ). There is something quite satisfying and invigorating about making a journey which has a certain ‘frisson’ of danger thrown in. Something which is rather lost in the sterile world of British ( and Australian ) railways with all their bloody annoying ‘elf ‘n’ safety’ announcements and unnecessarily odious and restrictive rules and regulations. It is a salutary lesson, I often think, how, given a slightly risky situation, by using common sense and being alert to the dangers, people survive very happily.
We settled down, if that expression can be used in circumstances of severe turbulence and noise, to try to sleep. I woke up at some point wanting to have a pee. This was going to be interesting. There were no lights and the first problem was that the compartment door had jammed again. It was a fight to get it open which, had the prevailing noise not been so loud, would have raised the dead. I escaped into the dark and bouncing passageway and realised I didn’t know where the bog was. I tried some doors which turned out to be locked. Being a bit bleary-eyed and alone and in my socks, I wasn’t prepared to leap across the gaps again in vain search, so just pissed onto the track while hanging on to the doorway with one hand. Problem solved.
Other than it getting rather cold, the rest of the night was spent in relative comfort and even occasionally falling asleep. One gets used to living in a salt-shaker I presume.
Breakfast, including much welcome sweet tea, was served by our waiter who is obviously entirely at home leaping from swerving and pitching carriage to carriage with both hands full.

We passed more little villages ( right ) and stations which looked remarkably neat and tidy ( anything looks neat and tidy after India ) which consisted of some beautifully built wooden ( bamboo and teak? ) houses on stilts.

People were washing at communal stand-pipes and beginning the day’s work ( left ) in the fields. The countryside had the appearance being poor but well ordered and with seemingly happy and smiling people.

Lots of people were waiting at the several little stations we stopped at the next morning; some trying to flog food and others, like these two youngsters ( right ) some kind of refreshment in bottles. Or it might have been fuel or weed-killer for all I knew.

We arrived a couple of hours late, 1100hrs, at Bagan. It had been an exhilarating 19 hour trip. Strongly recommended for those who need a bit of ‘spice’ put into their rail travel.

Our train.

1 comment:

  1. Enjoying your posts Matthew!

    Best, Amit and Rebecca